The consistory of the marginalised – a look back

Cardinals of St. LouisAnd so the Church gains twenty new cardinals. Much has already been said about the unique nature of the group, their places of origin and pastoral and other qualities which would spell out much regarding Pope Francis’ game plan for the future of the Church, both universally and locally in the dioceses and countries of the new cardinals.

Perhaps it can be best summarised as follows: The new cardinals bring the peripheries of the world Church to Rome and Rome to the peripheries. There is much variation in Catholic life across the world, and the needs and questions of one place are not necessarily the same as the needs of another. By creating cardinals from places as different as Communist Vietnam, violent Morelia, diaspora Myanmar, refugee-struck Agrigento and distant Tonga, Pope Francis acknowledges this and wants to make good use of the variety. The creation of these cardinals also expresses the closeness of Rome to these different locations, and lends extra weight to the Church’s presence and influence there.

pimiento rodriguezThe actual ceremony of the creation of the new cardinals was nothing out of the ordinary as these things go. One cardinal, José de Jesús Pimiento Rodriguez (at right), stayed at home, but he may be excused for that, being 96 years old, and thus the third-oldest member of the College. Cardinals Rauber and De Magistris, respectively 80 and 88 and both physically incapable of kneeling before the Holy Father to receive ring and biretta, both received the signs of their title from a standing Pope Francis who came to them instead of the other way around. Of course, we saw something similar in last year’s consistory for wheelchair-bound Cardinal Jean-Pierre Kutwa.

This consistory was unique in another regard: the appointment of title churches and deaconries. While there were a fair number of vacant titles, Pope Francis chose to fill only seven of these, and created thirteen new ones. Of course, every single cardinal has a title church or deaconry in Rome, which makes 227 of them. Creating thirteen new ones would seem somewhat unnecessary as there are now still one vacant title church and nine vacant deaconries available. But who knows, maybe they will soon be filled if the rumours of Pope Francis wanting to increase the number of cardinals who vote in a conclave from 120 to 140 turn out to be true…

Manuel Macário do Nascimento ClementeOf the pre-existing titles and deaconries there were some examples of continuity. The Patriarch of Lisbon, Cardinal Manuel Macário do Nascimento Clemente (at left), was given Sant’Antonio in Campo Marzio, previously held by his immediate predecessor in Lisbon. Santissimi Nomi di Gesù e Maria in Via Lata remained with a retired and experienced worker in the Curia: previously held by Cardinal Domenico Bartolucci, it is now the deaconry of Cardinal Luigi De Magistris. Sant’Antonio di Padova a Circonvallazione Appia kept its Belgian connection: first held by Belgian Cardinal Julien Ries it is now in the possession of the former Nuncio to Belgium, Cardinal Karl-Josef Rauber.

Age-wise, this consistory not only created one of the oldest cardinals, the aforementioned de Jesús Pimiento Rodriguez, but also the two youngest: Cardinal Daniel Sturla Berhouet of Montevideo, 55, and Cardinal Soane Mafi of Tonga, 53.

hendriks mambertiThere was a Dutch delegation at the consistory, in addition to Cardinal Wim Eijk who, as a member of the College of Cardinals, attended all meetings. Bishop Frans Wiertz was in Rome with a group of pilgrims from his Diocese of Roermond, and Bishop Jan Hendriks attended because of his acquaintance with Cardinal Dominique Mamberti (pictured above). He blogged about it on his personal website, and writes about the presence of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI:

“Pope Benedict XVI […] [was] stormed by the cardinals and bishops present in order to briefly greet him.

Various members of the diplomatic corps followed. Other faithful were also able to find their way, but needed some more time to get to him.

In the photo [I took] one can discern a small white zucchetto: that is Pope emeritus Benedict!

[…]

The Pope emeritus underwent all these gestures, smiling friendly and almost shyly.”

hendriks wiertz

^Bishops Jan Hendriks and Frans Wiertz in St. Peter’s Square

Finally, in closing, the text of Pope Francis’ homily during the Mass with the new cardinals on Sunday. Some have called it a roadmap of his pontificate:

“Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean”… Jesus, moved with compassion, stretched out his hand and touched him, and said: “I do choose. Be made clean!” (Mk 1:40-41). The compassion of Jesus! That com-passion which made him draw near to every person in pain! Jesus does not hold back; instead, he gets involved in people’s pain and their need… for the simple reason that he knows and wants to show com-passion, because he has a heart unashamed to have “compassion”.

“Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed in the country; and people came to him from every quarter” (Mk 1:45). This means that Jesus not only healed the leper but also took upon himself the marginalization enjoined by the law of Moses (cf. Lev 13:1-2, 45-46). Jesus is unafraid to risk sharing in the suffering of others; he pays the price of it in full (cf. Is 53:4).

Compassion leads Jesus to concrete action: he reinstates the marginalized! These are the three key concepts that the Church proposes in today’s liturgy of the word: the compassion of Jesus in the face of marginalization and his desire to reinstate.

Marginalization: Moses, in his legislation regarding lepers, says that they are to be kept alone and apart from the community for the duration of their illness. He declares them: “unclean!” (cf. Lev 13:1-2, 45-46).

Imagine how much suffering and shame lepers must have felt: physically, socially, psychologically and spiritually! They are not only victims of disease, but they feel guilty about it, punished for their sins! Theirs is a living death; they are like someone whose father has spit in his face (cf. Num 12:14).

In addition, lepers inspire fear, contempt and loathing, and so they are abandoned by their families, shunned by other persons, cast out by society. Indeed, society rejects them and forces them to live apart from the healthy. It excludes them. So much so that if a healthy person approached a leper, he would be punished severely, and often be treated as a leper himself.

True, the purpose of this rule was “to safeguard the healthy”, “to protect the righteous”, and, in order to guard them from any risk, to eliminate “the peril” by treating the diseased person harshly. As the high priest Caiaphas exclaimed: “It is better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (Jn 11:50).

Reinstatement: Jesus revolutionizes and upsets that fearful, narrow and prejudiced mentality. He does not abolish the law of Moses, but rather brings it to fulfillment (cf. Mt 5:17). He does so by stating, for example, that the law of retaliation is counterproductive, that God is not pleased by a Sabbath observance which demeans or condemns a man. He does so by refusing to condemn the sinful woman, but saves her from the blind zeal of those prepared to stone her ruthlessly in the belief that they were applying the law of Moses. Jesus also revolutionizes consciences in the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Mt 5), opening new horizons for humanity and fully revealing God’s “logic”. The logic of love, based not on fear but on freedom and charity, on healthy zeal and the saving will of God. For “God our Saviour desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:3-4). “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (Mt 12:7; Hos 6:6).

Jesus, the new Moses, wanted to heal the leper. He wanted to touch him and restore him to the community without being “hemmed in” by prejudice, conformity to the prevailing mindset or worry about becoming infected. Jesus responds immediately to the leper’s plea, without waiting to study the situation and all its possible consequences! For Jesus, what matters above all is reaching out to save those far off, healing the wounds of the sick, restoring everyone to God’s family! And this is scandalous to some people!

Jesus is not afraid of this kind of scandal! He does not think of the closed-minded who are scandalized even by a work of healing, scandalized before any kind of openness, by any action outside of their mental and spiritual boxes, by any caress or sign of tenderness which does not fit into their usual thinking and their ritual purity. He wanted to reinstate the outcast, to save those outside the camp (cf. Jn 10).

There are two ways of thinking and of having faith: we can fear to lose the saved and we can want to save the lost. Even today it can happen that we stand at the crossroads of these two ways of thinking. The thinking of the doctors of the law, which would remove the danger by casting out the diseased person, and the thinking of God, who in his mercy embraces and accepts by reinstating him and turning evil into good, condemnation into salvation and exclusion into proclamation.

These two ways of thinking are present throughout the Church’s history: casting off and reinstating. Saint Paul, following the Lord’s command to bring the Gospel message to the ends of the earth (cf. Mt 28:19), caused scandal and met powerful resistance and great hostility, especially from those who demanded unconditional obedience to the Mosaic law, even on the part of converted pagans. Saint Peter, too, was bitterly criticized by the community when he entered the house of the pagan centurion Cornelius (cf. Acts 10).

The Church’s way, from the time of the Council of Jerusalem, has always always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement. This does not mean underestimating the dangers of letting wolves into the fold, but welcoming the repentant prodigal son; healing the wounds of sin with courage and determination; rolling up our sleeves and not standing by and watching passively the suffering of the world. The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for eternity; to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it with a sincere heart. The way of the Church is precisely to leave her four walls behind and to go out in search of those who are distant, those essentially on the “outskirts” of life. It is to adopt fully God’s own approach, to follow the Master who said: “Those who are well have no need of the physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call, not the righteous but sinners” (Lk 5:31-32).

In healing the leper, Jesus does not harm the healthy. Rather, he frees them from fear. He does not endanger them, but gives them a brother. He does not devalue the law but instead values those for whom God gave the law. Indeed, Jesus frees the healthy from the temptation of the “older brother” (cf. Lk 15:11-32), the burden of envy and the grumbling of the labourers who bore “the burden of the day and the heat” (cf. Mt 20:1-16).

In a word: charity cannot be neutral, antiseptic, indifferent, lukewarm or impartial! Charity is infectious, it excites, it risks and it engages! For true charity is always unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous! (cf. 1 Cor 13). Charity is creative in finding the right words to speak to all those considered incurable and hence untouchable. Finding the right words… Contact is the language of genuine communication, the same endearing language which brought healing to the leper. How many healings can we perform if only we learn this language of contact! The leper, once cured, became a messenger of God’s love. The Gospel tells us that “he went out and began to proclaim it freely and to spread the word” (cf. Mk 1:45).

Dear new Cardinals, this is the “logic”, the mind of Jesus, and this is the way of the Church. Not only to welcome and reinstate with evangelical courage all those who knock at our door, but to go out and seek, fearlessly and without prejudice, those who are distant, freely sharing what we ourselves freely received. “Whoever says: ‘I abide in [Christ]’, ought to walk just as he walked” (1 Jn 2:6). Total openness to serving others is our hallmark, it alone is our title of honour!

Consider carefully that, in these days when you have become Cardinals, we have asked Mary, Mother of the Church, who herself experienced marginalization as a result of slander (cf. Jn 8:41) and exile (cf. Mt 2:13-23), to intercede for us so that we can be God’s faithful servants. May she – our Mother – teach us to be unafraid of tenderly welcoming the outcast; not to be afraid of tenderness. How often we fear tenderness! May Mary teach us not to be afraid of tenderness and compassion. May she clothe us in patience as we seek to accompany them on their journey, without seeking the benefits of worldly success. May she show us Jesus and help us to walk in his footsteps.

Dear new Cardinals, my brothers, as we look to Jesus and our Mother, I urge you to serve the Church in such a way that Christians – edified by our witness – will not be tempted to turn to Jesus without turning to the outcast, to become a closed caste with nothing authentically ecclesial about it. I urge you to serve Jesus crucified in every person who is emarginated, for whatever reason; to see the Lord in every excluded person who is hungry, thirsty, naked; to see the Lord present even in those who have lost their faith, or turned away from the practice of their faith, or say that they are atheists; to see the Lord who is imprisoned, sick, unemployed, persecuted; to see the Lord in the leper – whether in body or soul – who encounters discrimination! We will not find the Lord unless we truly accept the marginalized! May we always have before us the image of Saint Francis, who was unafraid to embrace the leper and to accept every kind of outcast. Truly, dear brothers, the Gospel of the marginalized is where our credibility is at stake, is discovered and is revealed!

The impossibilities of Bishop Bonny

Johan-BonnyIt’s no secret that Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp is a voice of the more ‘progressive’ side of the Church, if such categories can be applied to the Catholic Church (which I think they can’t to any satisfactory extent). He is a bishop able to relate easily to the faithful, addressing them effectively about the practicalities of the faith (as we have seen in, for example, his recent letter for Advent). At the same time, he is less concerned or interested in adhering to the legalities, the rules, the doctrine of the Church, although these are one of the two legs the Church stands on: mercy and the law, which support and feed each other. The one must not exist without the other.

The fact that Bishop Bonny emphasises mercy is not a problem in itself. Pope Francis does so as well. But the Holy Father does not distort or deny the teachings of the Church. Bishop Bonny, sadly, does.

In an interview with Belgian newspaper De Morgen, published on Saturday, Bishop Bonny made several statements regarding the recognition of same-sex relationships by the Church. He said that there should be a “range of forms of recognition”.

“In the Church we should look for a formal recognition of the ‘relationality’ which is also present in same-sex couples. Just like a diversity of legal frameworks for couples which exist in society, a range of forms of recognition should also be introduced in the Church.”

It is hard to understand what Bishop Bonny means here. Recognising the existence of a relation between two persons is something factual. We can all see a relation, in whichever form, between two people, whoever they are. The Church will also acknowledge this, as she is not in the business of denying reality. But we may well assume that recognition goes a bit further in this case.

“The substantive values are more important to me than the institutional question. Christian ethics assume durable relationships in which exclusivity, loyalty and care for the other are at the centre.”

Bishop Bonny makes a sharp distinction here between the substance and the institution, which is, in essence, a division between the two legs of pastoral care I mentioned above, mercy and law. Of course the content or substance of a relationship is extremely important, be the relationship a heterosexual or homosexual one, or even a friendship of family bond. But the fact, the institutional question does not go away and can not be ignored. These continue to exist, and must be recognised and understood, in addition to the substance of the relationship.

“Additionally, there is the openness to new life, or at least the responsibility assumed by partners to be generous in what is being passed on to children.”

This is pure watering-down of what the Church teaches about the nature of marriage. The sacrament of marriage is open to life, which means that the spouses are open to welcoming new life flowing forth from their sacramental bond, both mentally, spiritually and physically. Simple sharing a responsibility is quite simply not the same thing, even though it is, in itself, laudable.

In the last quote featured in the article linked to above, Bishop Bonny finally hits the mark.

“In their lives, everyone is confronted with relationships, friendships, family and the education of children. We must not deny that there are wounds and traumas in the Church about this. Too many people have felt excluded for too long.”

This is true, and not only for homosexual people, and this is a serious problem that must be addressed. The care offered by the Church must be effective, ever-present and open. There is much to win in this field, since many people are indeed excluded because the Church gives the impression that they are. But the big question is how to remedy that.

There are two options, as I see it:

  • We open our doors and listen to everyone who comes to us, share the truth with them and help them in their need, or
  • We tell these people lies and promise them impossibilities to make the pain stop.

What is the right option? It should not be hard to see.

I am not saying that the right option is the easy one. It isn’t in the least, because here too we find the two legs of pastoral care in the form of emotion on the one hand, and facts on the other.

As I have hinted at above, care and concern for homosexual people, including those in relationships, is a good thing, and it must be expressed. The pain and lack of understanding they feel is real. As Catholics we are people of mercy and this means we can not be deaf to these feelings. But that is not the complete picture of our duty as Catholics. We also represent a truth beyond ourselves, after all, the truth of Jesus Christ. In my opinion, He offers the best guidance in such situations through this passage from the Gospel of John: after He has been confronted by the scribes and Pharisees with the adulterous woman, and tells them that he is who is without sin cast the first stone, and after they have silently left, He addresses the woman: “Has no one condemned you?” She replies that no one has. “Neither do I condemn you,” said Jesus. “Go away, and from this moment sin no more.” (John 8:10-11)

There are several lessons to draw from this: first, Jesus does not condemn the woman who has objectively sinned, but He does tell her to stop sinning. That is our example. Not to condemn or exclude anyone and to be honest to the truth, the truth of Christ.

So, in the end, while Bishop Bonny is most certainly right in emphasising the need for proper pastoral care for people in homosexual relationships (as well as anyone else, really), his chosen solution ultimately does more harm than good as it dilutes the truth and present impossibilities as attainable and desirable.

Witness of life – remember Blessed Karl Leisner

leisnerA unique remembrance in Munich today, of the only priestly ordination that took place in a Nazi concentration camp, today exactly 70 years ago. Karl Leisner, a deacon arrested in 1939, was ordained in Dachau by the bishop of Clermont, who also happened to be imprisoned there. From the website of the Archdiocese of München und Freising comes this bio:

“Karl Leisner, born on 28 February 1915 in Rees am Niederrhein, was already a deacon when he was arrested in 1939 for critical comments against the National Socialists, and sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in 1940, and later to Dachau. In 1942, because of the hardships in the camp, Leisner’s pulmonary disease arose again and in 1944 he was seriously ill. Josefa Mack, a 20-year-old nurse in training and postulant with the School Sisters of Notre Dame, visited the archbishop of Munich and Freising, Cardinal Michael Faulhaber, on 7 december 1944 and received from him the holy oils and other items required for the ordination. Via an imprisoned priest who had to sell produce from his herb garden in a concentration camp store, Mack brought the objects into the camp. Other detainees had made the staff, ring and mitre for Bishop Piguet in the workshops where they were made to work.

In the chapel in Block 26, Leisner was ordained in secret on 17 December 1944 and on 26 December 1944 he celebrated his first and only Holy Mass. After the liberation of Dachau in 1945, Leisner was brought to the sanatorium of the Sisters of Mercy near Planegg, where he died on 12 August 1945. Pope John Paul II beatified him on 23 June 1996.”

The bishop who ordained Blessed Karl Leisner was the bishop of Clermont, France; Msgr. Gabriel Piguet, who would survive Dachau and is now honoured as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem. He saved Jewish families by issuing false Baptism certificates. He died in 1952.

Karl Leisner was beatified together with Fr. Bernhard Lichtenberg, also a victim of the Nazis, who died en route to Dachau in 1943. In his homily for the beatification, Pope St. John Paul II said:

“Christ is life: that was the conviction that Karl Leisner lived and ultimately died for. His entire life he had sought the closeness of Christ in prayer, in daily Scripture readings and in meditation. And he ultimately found this closeness in a special way in the Eucharistic encounter with the Lord, the Eucharistic sacrifice, which Karl Leisner was able to celebrate as a priest after his ordination in the Dachau concentration camp, which was for him not only an encounter with the Lord and source of strength for his life. Karl Leisner also knew: he who lives with Christ, enters into the community of fate with the Lord. Karl Leisner and Bernhard Lichtenberg are not witnesses of death, but witnesses of life: a life that transcends death. They are witnesses for Christ, who is life and who came so that we may have life and have it to the full (cf. John 10:10). In a culture of death both gave testimony of life.”

Today’s memorial service brings together the archbishop of München und Freising, Cardinal Reinhard Marx with the current archbishop of Clermont, Msgr. Hippolyte Simon and the bishop of Münster, Msgr. Felix Genn, who is the protector of the Internationalen Karl-Leisner-Kreises and whose predecessor, Blessed Bishop Clemens von Galen, ordained Blessed Karl to the diaconate.

God wants to break through our loneliness – Bishop de Korte’s letter for Advent

Like previous years, Bishop Gerard de Korte is among the first to publish his Advent letter to the faithful of his diocese. Below my translation. In the letter, the bishop tackles the issue of loneliness, and thus creates a coincidental link with Pope Francis’ speech at the European Parliament today, in which he identified loneliness as “one of the most common diseases in Europe today”. More about that speech later. First, the bishop:

mgr_de_Korte3“Late last year the media reported a macabre find in a house in Rotterdam. The remains of a woman were found. She had been dead for more than ten years and no one had missed her. Her daughter had rung the doorbell once or twice on Mother’s Day. But no one opened the door, and the daughter concluded that the closed door meant that she was still not welcome. Ten years dead in a house and no one notices. Symbol of groundless loneliness.

Of course, this is an extreme example. But we all know that loneliness is a major problem in our society. Many elderly people lead a lonely existence. When I was a parish priest in Utrecht, I visited elderly people who received visitors twice a week. They were home alone for the rest of the time. In Nestor, the magazine for the Catholic Union of the Elderly, I read last year that 200,000 elderly spent the Christmas days alone.

But loneliness is not only an issue for elderly people in our society. More than a few young people also struggle with loneliness. And there are plenty of couples who are physically together but spiritually lonely because they can no longer share the most essential things of life. In the end, many a philosopher states, every person is lonely to a certain extent. At heart, everyone remains hidden for the other. At the same time people try to break through that existential loneliness by searching mutual commitment, friendship and love.

God looks for us

In the coming weeks of Advent we prepare for the feast of Christmas. Christmas is a feast of connection; of light and desire for peace. The Christmas tree is decorated and good food is purchased. Family and friends are invited, perhaps also to chase away our loneliness. Because as human beings we realise that we can only be happy in connection with others.

Many Catholic families also have a nativity scene. Christmas is, after all, about the birth of Christ. Christmas makes clear that God wants to break through our loneliness. That is told clearly in Luke’s Gospel of Christmas, with singing angels and worshipping shepherds. The Gospel of John is a bit more abstract and theological: the Word has become flesh and has lived among us. But both evangelists say the same thing with different words: In Jesus, God comes looking for us. In Jesus, God reveals His love for us and He shows us that that love is the meaning of our lives.

Is Christ welcome?

The big question for each of us is: do I accept God’s offer? Can Christ really come into my life? Is there room for Jesus in my inn? Do I really want to life in friendship with Jesus? Several Christian thinkers have been said to have made this remark: “If Christ had been born a Thousand times in the stable in Bethlehem, but not in our heart, His birth was pointless”. In these words I hear the statement of John the Baptist: “He (=Christ) must increase; I must decrease”. And I also think of the nearly mystical words of the Apostle Paul: “I do not live, but Christ lives in me”.

Here we touch upon the core of our Christian existence. Christian life requires conversion, a transformation. My own “I” must become increasingly like Christ. In other words: I must become more like a Christophorus, a Christ-bearer. When we truly follow Christ, we will be praying people who place God in the heart of our lives. We will not remain imprisoned in self-interest but manifest charity. In the case of an argument, we will not harden ourselves, but really choose forgiveness and reconciliation. We will be mild and merciful for each other and thus reflect God’s mildness and mercy. I wish you a fruitful time of Advent on the road to Christmas.

Groningen, 25 November 2014

+ Msgr. Gerard de Korte”

Mercy and doctrine, following the example of Christ

“Jesus did not condemn the adulterous woman who was threatened with death by stoning, but he did not tell her to keep up her good work, to continue unchanged in her ways. He told her to sin no more.”

Cardinal George PellWords from Cardinal George Pell, until recently the archbishop of Sydney and today the Secretary for the Economy of the Holy See and a member of Pope Francis’ Council of Cardinals. He writes these words in the foreword to a book that will be publishes in the runup to the Synod of Bishops which is set to begin on 5 October. Like so many before (and undoubtedly after) him, Cardinal Pell is speaking about one of the topics of the Synod: the question of whether or not divorced and remarried Catholics should be allowed to receive Communion.

The quote above refers to the first part of chapter 8 of the Gospel of John, which relates the meeting of Jesus with a woman accused of adultery. While the Pharisees are intent on stoning her for he misdeed, Jesus offers no accusation, but looks at the scribes and Pharisees instead, turning their eagerness for condemnation against them. If there is one among them without sin, He says, let him throw the first stone. None does, and they leave. Left alone with the woman, Jesus does not condemn her, but sends her on her way with a simple command: “Go away, and from this moment sin no more”.

In the discussions about the Synod and the questions about doctrine and pastoral practice it is expected to tackle, it often seems as if there is a division between mercy on the one hand and doctrine on the other. This is an unnatural division and one that does not reflect the Catholic faith and should not be expected to be honoured by the Synod. Cardinal Pell also writes that “doctrine and pastoral practice cannot be contradictory”.

The example of Jesus given above is, I think, a very important one. For here we have a situation in which someone has sinned and is subject to God’s judgement. Jesus’ way of acting here offers a blueprint of how we must act in similar situations. Approach with mercy: Jesus does not speak unnecessarily, He does not expound on the whys and wherefores of law and condemnation. He expects all involved to know enough about that anyway. Only in the end does He refer to the relevant teachings when He tells the woman to go and change her ways. So He does want her to stop doing hat she has done, and reorder her life to the teachings that He offers and the law He has come to fulfill.

Mercy and doctrine are not mutually exclusive, but strengthen and enrich each other. Those who pretend that we must between one and the other are, quite simply, wrong. We must be merciful like Jesus, and we must fulfill His law. That is why I do not think that the Synod will change the rules in any significant way. What it will look at is how mercy can help in upholding the law, how the pastoral side of the equation can be improved to better allow us and others to follow Christ. A legalistic culture will not achieve that, and neither will a culture that allows everything for the sake of mercy.

The distraction of peace – Congregation asks for proper observation of the sign of peace

sign f peaceIn a recent circular letter, the text of which I have only come across in Spanish, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments announces some measures to ensure greater dignity and less distraction when it comes to the sign of peace in the Mass.

Although I have personally rarely experienced this moment in the Mass a overly distracting, its place in the liturgy may be considered odd, coming as it does at a moment when we are focussed on Christ among us in the bread and wine that have just been consecrated. We have prayed the Our Father and will soon come forward to receive Him in the communion. The sign of peace asks us to look to the people around us and exchange our wishes for peace with them. This can be distracting, as the question arises how many people to greet (just those immediately around you, the pews in front and behind you, people across the aisle?) and how long and in what manner to do so. In more enthusiastic societies, this may be fairly distracting and even disruptive in the atmosphere and focus of the liturgy. More subdued communities will, clearly, have less of a problem here.

sign of peace

In order to lessen this distraction and increase awareness of the actual meaning of the sign of peace, the Congregation proposes four things:

  • It first emphasises that the gesture is not obligatory. The priest is free to decide when it is and is not suitable to invite the faithful to exchange the sign of peace. In my own parish I have seen this happen in weekday Masses, where there is no sign of peace, as opposed to the Masses on Sunday.
  • Bishops’ conferences should think about making changes in how the sign of peace is made. Familiar and worldly greeting should be substituted with more appropriate ones. So, no high-fives, backslaps, bearhugs and such, but, for example, a short handshake, kiss, bow or other gesture.
  • Clear abuses of the rite, like other liturgical abuses, are right out. No song of peace in place of a gesture between individual faithful, no roaming about the church looking for friends to greet, and during wedding or funeral Masses it should not be an occasion for congratulations or condolences.
  • Lastly the Congregation urges the bishops’conferences to prepare catechesis on the sign of peace and how it should be observed.

In the end, the final point is the most important one: catechesis for both clergy and faithful. Without knowledge or awareness, there is no proper use or benefit. The sign of peace is never strictly horizontal, between people alone. It first has to be vertical, between God and man, before it can use its horizontal dimension. The sign of peace in the Mass is not like a regular greeting in the streets. In it we pass on the peace that Christ gives us (John 14:27), we must first receive before we can give. Let’s hope this letter will bear fruit.

And, dear Congregation, get some other official translations out…

Photo credit: [2] Jennifer Willems

Honest Thomas – some thoughts about today’s saint

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, best known as Doubting Thomas. The passage from John 20, in which Jesus appears after His death on the cross, but Thomas happens to be absent is well known. Thomas refuses to believe what he didn’t see for himself, only to be corrected by the Lord when He appears again and shows His wounds to Thomas, even inviting him to place his hand in the wound in His side.

“You believe because you can see me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29).

thomasRich as this passage from the Gospels is, and it teaches us much about the nature of faith, there is more to St. Thomas than this. In the Bible, he appears in all four Gospels, as well as in the Acts of the Apostles. Matthew (10:3), Mark (3:18) and Luke (6:15) first list him among the Apostles called by Jesus, while John first mentions him in the story of the death of Lazarus, where Thomas seems a bit defeatist. Upon hearing Jesus’ decision to go to Bethany, in the land of the Jews who had earlier tried to kill Jesus, he says, “Let us also go to die with him”  (John 11:16). Still, it indicates a willingness on Thomas’ part to follow Jesus whatever the consequences, even if death is one. Not exactly the sign of a doubting follower.

Later in the Gospel of John, we see another side to Thomas: the questioning follower, the man trying to understand. As Jesus announces His return to the Father, telling the apostles that they know where He is going and how to get there, Thomas replies, “Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14:5). This prompts Jesus to teach him – and us – that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Thomas comes across as honest and straightforward, not afraid to ask about what he doesn’t understand. The next time we come across him is in the aforementioned passage of the Lord’s appearance in his absence. Thomas doubts, is still as honest and straightforward as ever, but not stubborn: he accepts what the Lord teaches him and professes his faith in his Lord and God.

Thomas appears once more among the disciples to whom Jesus appears at the Sea of Tiberias (John 21;2), but the Evangelist does not tell us any details about what Thomas may have said or done. But he did witness Jesus giving Peter the task to look after His sheep. After the Lord’s Ascension, Thomas remains with the other disciples, as Acts 1:13 tells us, part of the young and rapidly growing Church.

That’s all the Bible tells us about St. Thomas, but it’s enough to slightly correct the image we have of him as a doubter. It would be more accurate to see him as a very honest man, to himself and to others. He is not afraid to ask questions, or even to ask others to be more clear, but also does not hesitate to recognise his own errors and correct them.

Several post-Biblical sources tell of Thomas travelling to India to preach the Gospel there. Indeed, south India is home to the St. Thomas Christians, who can be traced back to the 2nd or 3rd century. The trip from the Holy Land to India would at least have been possible in the first century, as trade relations existed between the subcontinent and the Roman Empire. It is hard to tell what is true and what is apocryphal in this, but the fact remains that Thomas is strongly connected to Southern Asia, and Christian communities appeared very early in India. A strong-willed follower of Jesus may well have taken it upon himself to undertake such a perilous and uncertain mission to remote parts, all to spread the Gospel and enkindle the faith, serving the Lord as he did from the moment he was first called.