Monday, January 26, 2015

The First of All the Creeds

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.

He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name's sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
forever and ever.
Psalm 23

Reflection – The Monday Psalter comes not a moment too soon this week of rabbits and punchiness, reminding us all in Psalm 23 of what is the true focus of our life, what really is that important, and the broad and deep framework into which everything else fits—the Shepherding of God which all human shepherds from the Pope to the rawest newly ordained priest are merely imperfect servants of.

I wrote a series of blog posts on this psalm a couple of years ago, and said quite a few lovely things about it then. What strikes me about it this time around is that this psalm is a wonderful medicine against fear, anxiety, discouragement—all the emotions that swirl up in us in difficult times and make us want to flee from life or give up the struggle.

Psalm 23 perpetually comes to us with a ringing, adamant, and yet very gentle and tender, poetic and lyrical expression of faith. God is taking care of us; He is giving us what we need; He is leading us through the dark times; there is nothing to fear, with Him with us; a table awaits us; we will dwell in His house forever.

Over and over again in our life, no matter what the troubles of the day are, or the troubles in our world, or the troubles in the lives of people we care about, this basic statement of faith is our sure antidote against fear and despair. In a sense, this is our first Creed, before we flesh it out with the historical details of how God is with us, how he came to us, how He is taking care of us, feeding us, leading us—the whole proclamation of Christ that is found in the various Christian Creeds—in a sense, before all of that, we have this fundamental statement of faith.

He is with us. God is good, and He is on the job for us. Trust Him. Follow Him. Keep your eyes and hearts lifted up to Him. And everything else follows from this. There is a sort of limpid simplicity to this psalm—it is short enough that a child can memorize it, the basic concepts are simple enough that anyone can grasp them, and yet the heights and depths of it take us just about as far as we are willing to go. It is psalm a mystic can pray, and never feel that he or she has gotten to the bottom of it, and yet it is given for all of us to pray, and so set our feet on that right and sure path.


So perhaps that is enough for today—I’ve been blogging a lot this week, and rather heavily. But it is awfully important for us, especially when we are struggling with this or that dimension of life or the Church or the world or whatever it is, to return to this fundamental proclamation of faith—the Lord is my shepherd; I shall want for nothing. Amen.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

On The Other Hand, The Pope Is Pretty Important

Sunday Catechism time, and this week I want to follow up on yesterday’s post on the relative unimportance of the papacy in light of the bigger picture—our call to follow Christ, to believe and proclaim the Gospel and to become the saints God made us to be. Just in case you missed yesterday’s post (just scroll down – that’s how blogs work!), or have forgotten what I said, I pointed out that for the greater history of the Church, most of the faithful and even the clergy have barely known the name of the Pope, let alone intently followed every word he spoke (on airplanes or off them), and yet here we all are, Catholics, so somehow the faith has gotten passed down. Our modern Catholic obsession with the papacy and whoever its current occupant is, is not a sign of great spiritual maturity and health.

That being said, the Pope is important. The papacy was instituted by Christ in his commissioning of Peter as the rock on which He would build his Church, and clearly the Lord does not do things without good reason.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines it thus:

The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter's successor, is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful. For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered. (CCC 882)

The key word here is unity. This is the deep meaning and purpose of the papacy in the Church, to be the visible source of our unity. The invisible source of our unity is the Holy Spirit, of course, operating in our hearts through grace, but it is essential to our Catholic understanding of things that the invisible realities of grace always are expressed in the visible life of the Church.

The papacy has a sacramental quality to it, then. It is not itself one of the seven sacraments, of course, although the Pope is by definition the Bishop of Rome and thus derives his ministry from the Holy Order of the episcopacy. But it is a sacramental, a visible sign of invisible realities. As holy water is a sign of our baptismal seal, and our use in faith of it is efficacious in making that grace of baptism active and operative, so the papacy is a sign of our unity in Christ, in the Church, and our fidelity to that sign is efficacious is building up the unity in love of the Body of Christ, so that it be the sign of God’s presence and love in the world that it is meant to be.

In practical terms, this means constantly striving towards a unity of faith—unity of mind and heart—with Peter being the standard bearer of that unity. That which the Church, led in this matter by the Pope, defines as to be held dogmatically or definitively, we are to hold, or we must conclude that we are no longer part of the catholica, the communion of faith.

And that which the Church, led again by Peter, holds out for non-dogmatically or non-definitively we are to submit to with docility and a spirit of trust. It is the role of the Pope and the college of bishops in union with him to order all these matters; it is the role of the pastors of the Church to instruct the faithful as to that good order—catechesis. It is the role of the laity of the Church to do their best to understand the faith we have been given, according to their individual capacity and the needs of their state of life. A high school religion teacher may need to have a highly developed understanding of all of this; a subsistence farmer in central Africa may need somewhat less.

So the Pope has an important role in establishing what is, and what is not, the Catholic faith, what are the precise intellectual peripheries beyond which we cannot go without ceasing to be Catholic. He also has a governing role in establishing a proper unity-in-diversity of pastoral practice and liturgical norms, and of course of overseeing the good order of the household of the Church—a titanic administrative task in this global era, about which this poor little priest writing these words knows very little—the good Lord has spared me much exposure to that particular difficult work of service in the Church.

Besides striving for unity of faith under Peter’s leadership, I believe as Catholics we are called to safeguard the unity of charity of the Church in regard to the Pope by striving to love him, to support his work for us with our prayers, by having a basic tone of respect in how we speak of the Pope, by being very judicious and careful if we honestly feel we must criticize him, and to offer those criticisms with great caution, great solicitude to not violate the unity of the Church and the bonds of charity within it.

We have to be aware, especially in this Internet age when everyone has a megaphone capable of amplifying our words to the ends of the earth, that words have great power to sow division and doubt, to arouse anger or fear, to weaken the faith of those who are perhaps a bit shaky, to quench the flickering flame or break the bruised reed. A careful, respectful tone, a mindfulness of the central role of the Pope, in particular, as the visible sign of unity, and so a reluctance to break that unity—all of this is what is needed, and is so often lacking in these days.


The Pope is important, and so above all let us pray for that poor man and his near-impossible job, and do our part—not to run the Church with him (nobody’s asking us to do that, thank God!)—but to live the Gospel and to joyfully and generously give ourselves over to the mission of the Church according to our specific vocation and talent.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Pope Is Not That Important

Life remains fairly quiet here in Combermere, with it being another week of more or less just taking care of the ordinary things that need doing. So I thought I would skip the popular ‘This Week in Madonna House’ post that I usually write this day (you can just read last week’s post—nothing much has changed!) and write something a bit juicier.

I do confess that the title of this blog post is intentionally provocative, even a bit outrageous. All right – it’s click bait, I admit it! But I’ve got something I want to say about the subject, and what’s the point of saying it if nobody reads it, eh?

Those who are long-term readers of the blog, or who know me personally, know that I am as faithful and orthodox a Catholic as you can find, with a great love and respect for both the office of the papacy and for its current occupant. Not that my opinion counts for a great deal one way or the other, but I think Pope Francis is quite wonderful and I appreciate deeply his talks, homilies, speeches, his emphasis on mercy and evangelization, poverty and joy.

I would also maintain, and maintain quite firmly, that I have not yet read a single word from this man that does not reflect faithfully sound Catholic teaching, as it is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Is he a perfect human being? Of course not, and Peter’s sede would be permanently vacante if that was the criterion for filling it.  I will confess that I find his off-the-cuff speaking style (i.e. these mile-high press conferences he gives) a bit casual and imprecise for my taste, a bit too easily misunderstood or distorted by those who have an agenda to distort. But c’est la vie—every Pope has areas of weakness, and who am I to… well, you know the drill.

What I want to speak about here, though, is something a bit deeper that has been on my heart for awhile now, since before Pope Francis was elected, to be honest. And it is this: the Pope is, truly, not that important. He is important, that is to say, but not that important. I have been concerned for some time now that there is a papal-centrism that has come into how Catholics appropriate, express, understand their faith, and I think it is off-kilter.

One could point to the rock star charisma and personality cult that built up around Pope John Paul II to account for this, but I think it started a few popes earlier—say around that whole ‘prisoner in the Vatican’ business (was that Pius IX—must look that up before posting this entry…). When the papacy was attacked by Garibaldi and the papal states forcibly taken by him to become part of the emerging Italian nation state, there was a strong sense of personal loyalty to the pope and a fierce identification of Catholic piety with that kind of personal devotion and dedication.

All of that is commendable, of course. And with the specific instance of Pope John Paul II, there is no question that the doctrinal and moral confusion of the 1970s and 80s in the Catholic Church needed to be redressed by a strong unifying figure, someone who was both a clear teacher and a charismatic leader. And so God gave us our beloved Polish pope for all those years, and he was exactly what the Church needed at that time.

All that being said (and I realize I’ve given a very potted and partial history of things here), our balance is out of whack at this point. The information revolution has fuelled this, of course—never before has every papal utterance, every weekday homily, every tweet for crying out loud, been instantly transmitted to the four corners of the earth. And there can be a tendency to make the pope and his teaching office the whole center and focus of our Catholic faith, our Catholic life. 

And this can be very disorienting, when you have a succession of popes like we have just had, from Benedict to Francis, where the doctrinal content is (yes, I insist) the same, but the style, the personality, and the specific pastoral and theological focus, is quite different. Do we have to change our whole approach to being Catholic every time a new occupant of the Chair of Peter is elected? Do we have to change our entire spirituality, our own pastoral and apostolic priorities, our own personal way of following Christ and living the Gospel, depending on what Cardinal gets elected next? Change our whole vocabulary of the faith every few years, to match the style and mode of expression of Pope (insert name here)?

Nonsense, nonsense, nonsense. Nonsense on stilts. Nonsense on steroids. Mega-nonsense. The Pope is important. But he is not that important. We have to recall that, for much of the history of the Church, most Catholics were only vaguely aware of the name of the current Pope, and certainly had no access to anything he said or did.

And yet somehow—somehow!—they managed, eh? The monks said their prayers. The priests celebrated Mass and heard confessions. The laity carried on with their daily tasks. The faith got passed on, generation to generation, badly or well. 

And everyone sinned and messed up a lot, and hopefully most people repented and asked God for mercy, and I fervently hope most people somehow, through the unfathomable grace of God, bumbled and stumbled and fumbled their way into heaven. All while barely knowing the name of the current Pope.

The center, the focus, the fulcrum of our Catholic faith is not, not, not the Pope. It is Jesus Christ, crucified for our salvation and risen from the dead, with us always to the end of the ages and constantly gracing us with the grace we need to follow Him and be saved. Tomorrow I will talk about what the role of the Pope is in all of this, but that’s enough for today.


Let us not be upset then, if the Pope says something to a group of reporters that we don’t much like, or if his personality displeases us, or if we don’t agree with his pastoral priorities or his characteristic vocabulary or whatever. Who cares, really? Get on with being a Christian, why don’t you? Live the Gospel, and be faithful to what God is asking you to do today. Because that is what is important, now and forever.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Madonna House, The Movie II: A Trail of Light

It’s Thursday, and that means it’s movie time on the blog. I am hosting the twelve short films about Madonna House that we hired a film company to make last year.


This week we have what I consider one of the best of the lot, the film introducing Catherine De Hueck Doherty, the founder of MH. It is a fine, fine introduction to her, giving not only the basic facts of her rather thrilling life, but a real sense of the person and the impact she had on others. I could see this particular video being very useful in a classroom setting, introducing high school students to contemporary Catholics or something. 

So here it is, followed by some thoughts of mine:



Notable Quotes:

“Catherine Doherty was a prophet, still is a prophet through her writings… she was a very exciting human being.”

“The main thing is to understand somebody who was transformed by her relationship with God.”

“At first you were drawn to her, and then you were drawn to what she was showing you. You would get caught up in this personality, and then you would get caught up in this vision of God and love and renewing the earth and restoring all things to Christ. And then you would see what she would see.”

“Catherine would call the people on the streets ‘Christophers’ – Christ bearers, and we have continued that tradition, because where else are you going to find Him, but in the poorest of the poor?”

“She didn’t set out to establish a community, but at a certain point she accepted that that was what was happening – these people were coming, and they were not going away!”

“It was just an ever-expanding experience, living at Madonna House, in every way.”

“The tragic events she went through did not diminish in any way her love for Christ or make her pessimistic about the world. That’s why I trust her, because she came through all these things with her faith still very much alive and flaming until her dying day.”

“My definition of a saint is somebody who puts down a path of light for their neighbour’s feet, and she certainly put down a great path for my feet, a trail of light for me. That’s what I think a saint is, so in my opinion she’s a saint!”

The latter quote is from a woman named Mary Davis (everyone who knows MH, knows Mary), who first came here when she was 17, joined as soon as she reasonably could, and has been here ever since. She has mostly worked in the gardens, a heavy physical job which still happily does now in her 80s.

Catherine was an extraordinary woman, and I believe the Church will eventually determine her worthy of canonization, although I leave that assessment to those who have the authority to make it. So, enjoy the show, and I'll be back blogging again on Saturday.