Bread, Shoes, Rugs, and the Mass: What did the Bishop just say?

Purification and EnlightenmentPurification and Enlightenment.  That’s what the season of Lent is called within the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), and that’s something we’re all called to be doing.  As Holy Week approaches swiftly, and on a secular note, as our politicians continue their posturing in anticipation of future elections, I thought that the following quotes from some of our early bishops from the 4th Century would be a challenging source of reflection, purification and enlightenment.  Just as in our own day, the 4th Century was a time of political, military, social and economic upheaval.  Extreme wealth and extreme poverty existed side by side.  In their homilies during the Eucharist, these bishops took their people to task in strong, unambiguous terms.

EUCHARIST SUSTAINS BELIEVERS, SAYS POPE JOHN PAUL IINamely: the Eucharist and our understanding of charity and social justice go together.  As Christ taught and lived, we cannot love God without loving our neighbor.  It’s just that simple, and that challenging.  Here are some insights from some of the great bishops of our history.  Obviously there are many more, but these should get us all thinking!  Imagine: you have just entered into the Eucharist with your fellow parishioners in Constantinople, or Nyssa, or Caesarea, or Milan.  The deacon has finished proclaiming the Gospel, and your bishop enters the pulpit.  Listen to your bishop!

St. John Chrysostom of ConstantinopleSt. John Chrysostom, the great 4th Century Archbishop of Constantinople, preached frequently and eloquently (“Chrysostom” is a title of sorts, meaning “golden-mouthed” for his eloquence as a preacher) about the care of the needy.  “Feeding the hungry is a greater work than raising the dead,” for example.  He observed that “The Body of Christ in the Eucharist demands pure souls, not costly garments,” which naturally did not endear him to the wealthy members of the Byzantine court in Constantinople.  John was not above using graphic images to shock his listeners.  Consider how you would feel if your bishop including this line in his homily: “Do you pay such honor to your excrements as to receive them into a silver chamber-pot when another man made in the image of God is perishing in the cold?”

He didn’t mince words about our responsibilities to the poor:

“It is foolishness and a public madness to fill the cupboards with clothing and allow men who are created in God’s image and likeness to stand naked and trembling with cold, so that they can hardly hold themselves upright.”

“Yes, you say, he is cheating and he is only pretending to be weak and trembling. What! Do you not fear that lightning from Heaven will fall on you for this word? Indeed, forgive me, but I almost burst from anger.”

“Only see, you are large and fat, you hold drinking parties until late at night, and sleep in a warm, soft bed. And do you not think of how you must give an account of your misuse of the gifts of God?  On the other hand, you question very closely the poor and the miserable, who are scarcely better off in this respect than the dead: and you do not fear the dreadful and the terrible judgment seat of Christ. If the beggar lies, he lies from necessity, because your hardheartedness and merciless inhumanity force him to such cheating. . . .  If we would give our alms gladly and willingly, the poor would never have fallen to such depths.”

“Truly, I am ashamed when I see rich people riding about on horses decorated with gold and with servants clad in gold coming along behind them. They have silver beds and multitudes of other luxuries. But, if they have to give something to a poor man, suddenly they themselves are the poorest of the poor!”

If Archbishop John’s passion for the poor doesn’t convince you, consider some others.

st-basil-the-great-3

Bishop St. Basil of Caesarea

Bishop St. Gregory of Nyssa and his brother Bishop St. Basil of Caesarea were no shrinking violets either.

Bishop Gregory: “We are all of the same family; all of us are brothers. And

gregorynyssa

Bishop St. Gregory of Nyssa

among brothers it is best and most equal that all inherit equal portions.”

Bishop Basil: “The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the man who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the man who has no shoes; the money which you put in the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help, but fail to help.”

Bishop St. Ambrose

Bishop St. Ambrose

And how could we not include the great Bishop of Milan, Ambrose?  The outline of his own life is well known, but when he became the bishop of Milan, he immediately adopted an ascetic lifestyle, giving everything he had to the poor.  The only funds he retained he earmarked to care for his sister, who later became a nun herself.  So, here we are in the cathedral, listing to our Bishop Ambrose giving this homily at Mass:

“Wealth, which so often leads men the wrong way, is seen less for its qualities than for the human misery it stands for. The large rooms of which you are so proud are in fact your shame. They are big enough to hold crowds and also big enough to shut out the voice of the poor. True, even if the voice were heard, it would be ignored. . . .  The poor man cries before your house, and you pay no attention. There is your brother, naked, crying, and you stand confused over the choice of an attractive floor covering.”

As we continue our own journey of purification and enlightenment, these great bishops from our past can help us for the demands of Christian discipleship of today.  The measure of our holiness lies in how well we care for the poor and all those in need.

 

Deacons as Angels, Angels as Deacons

Following my reflection on the Annunciation, I received a large number of e-mails about my comments on Gabriel and the heraldic role of the Deacon.  I mentioned that I had been researching such themes for a while and given several presentations on the subject.  Given the apparent interest, I’ll offer a shortened form of that presentation here.  This all flows from the charge given specifically and uniquely to the deacon during the ordination: “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are: Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.”

Greek angel 3Greek angel 2First, some background.  “Angels”, of course have a venerable history in the Judaeo-Christian tradition as most people know.  But what sometimes is forgotten is that the notion of “God’s messengers” transcends ancient culture.  For example, the great philosopher Plato, writing some 300 years before Christ, referred to Hermes and Iris as “the divine angeloi” of the gods.  (Hermes, by the way, gives his name to the term hermeneutics, the study of the interpretation of scripture; as we shall see, these messengers not only proclaim a message and fly away, they are also messengers who help to explain the message.)  The “wings” of the angel are clearly visible in artistic renderings of these messengers, to signify the speed with which they carry out the gods’ commands; wings will continue to be associated with divine messengers in the Jewish and Christian traditions as well.

Raphael 1 healing

Raphael Healing

In the Hebrew tradition, angels are mentioned frequently throughout scripture (usually referred to as malakhim), and they take on a variety of roles in addition to simply being a messenger.  In addition to conveying God’s messages, they are also described as shielding, rescuing, and caring for the people.  In the apocalyptic book of Daniel, for example, we encounter named angels, angels who might easily be seen as “guardian” angels, and even an early “rank structure” for various angels.  What’s interesting here is that not all Jews believed in angels.  As we read in Acts 23:8: “For the Sadducees say there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all.”  The Sadducees were focused principally on the Torah itself, and didn’t go along with later developments in Judaism: they much preferred the purity of Torah itself.  So, no angels for them!

In the Christian tradition, we have inherited the more Pharisaic position about angels, and in Christian scripture angels continue in the same vein: they deliver messages, they protect, they explain, they serve the will of God for the good of the people.

Michael as DeaconAnd here’s where the connection comes with the deacons of the Christian Church.  Although many people mistakenly characterize Christianity as a Western church, in our roots we are Eastern.  And the Eastern traditions of Christianity have, almost from the beginning, associated deacons with the role of the angel in the community.  In particular, deacons are often associated with the angels who would later be described as archangels: Michael, the great defender of the people (Dan 12:1-13; Dan 10:31,21; Jude 9; Rev 12:7); Gabriel, who announces and explains great messages (Daniel 8:16-26; 9:21-27;Lk 1:28); Raphael, who is a healer who guides and protects his charges (Tobit 5; 6:6-11; 8:1-3; 12:15).

All of this is found explicitly throughout the Eastern liturgical traditions of Catholicism and Orthodoxy.  Father Simon Smyth has written:

The deacon as an icon of an angel finds repeated expression throughout the Liturgy. As the angels both worship God in heaven and come down to earth as messengers and helpers, ascending and descending, so the deacon comes out from the sanctuary (the symbol of  heaven) and from standing before the altar (the throne of God) to the people to teach, to proclaim the Gospel, to lead them in prayer – angelic ministries all.

Throughout the Commemoration of the Living and of the Departed, the deacon leads the singing of the people and offers up “the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand.”

Deacon using the liturgical fan

Deacon using the liturgical fan

The use of the liturgical fan at the Second Epiclesis emphasizes the deacon as an angel – the fanning (being reminiscent of the sound of wings) indicating the presence of angels around the throne of God, surrounding the altar.

The association of the deacon with this angelic symbol, the liturgical fan, is a powerful one. . . . It is a sign of his office, a sign of what he is. When there are sufficient deacons, liturgical fans are carried in the Great Entrance, which again links visually deacons and angels.

As the deacons surround the priest and the altar so angels surround the whole sanctuary and the space around the altar are filled with the heavenly powers to honor Him Who is present on the altar. By means of the deacons. . . we can follow in our understanding the invisible powers in their service of officiating at this ineffable liturgy.

deacon door

deacon angel dome

Look at the similarity with this image from the dome of a church

As I mentioned in my earlier posting, the so-called “deacon doors” or “angel doors” in the Eastern iconostasis have images of deacon saints or angels on them.  The saintly deacons (such as Stephen, for example) will be depicted in deacon vesture but also with the wings of the angel; angels will be vested as deacons as well.  I would also stress something else.  In almost all of the images I have found from the Eastern tradition, you will notice that the deacon stole is being worn as the deacon wears it for the distribution of communion; in the Eastern tradition the deacon rearranges his stole across his chest before communion, and restores it to its original configuration afterward.  There is a strong Eucharistic symbolism involved in the depiction of the angelic role of the deacon.

 

Bishop GonzalesThe angelic ministry of the deacon is no stranger in the Latin tradition either.  As I mentioned in my earlier posting, Western medieval art often depicted angels wearing the dalmatic of the deacon, even when the Latin Church had largely lost sight of the deacon in regular ministry.  Bishop Roberto Octavio Gonzales Nieves, OFM of San Juan has written:

“The Diaconate is re-instituted at this time in history. . . to act today as a herald: the angel of Evangelismos. . . . In ancient times deacons were sent by bishops with important communications to other churches; also in Eastern liturgies, the stole is seen as the deacon’s angelic wings, and in Western art many angels appear wearing dalmatics.

“Today we can see the deacon as “the new Gabriel who proclaims” – for us – the good news of salvation. Today the restored diaconate says, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you’ [Lk 1:35].”

There is so much more we could share here.  My point in doing this research, however, was this.  We deacons often look for good models in our diaconal ministry.  We turn to Stephen, Lawrence, and Francis of Assisi as our deacon “heroes” and models.  I’m suggesting that we should add to our pantheon the angels who have served throughout our Tradition: angels such as Raphael, who heals, guides and protects; Michael, who defends and advocates for the people; Gabriel, who proclaims, teaches, and guards.

We are called to be “angelic ministers”:

  • To go anywhere and to do anything God demands
  • Swiftly
  • Not only to proclaim the Word of God as God’s Herald, but to act in God’s name as well.

 

“Deacons are the angels standing at the throne of God: serving, pleading, cajoling, correcting, feeding, preaching, teaching by word and example. Deacons are the very diakonia and kenosis of the church.” (Fr. Paul Henry)

angel as deacon

The Annunciation and Ordination: Becoming Gabriel

AnnunciationToday we celebrate the great feast of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel appeared to the young woman Miryam to discuss God’s plan that she become the mother of the Christ of God.  The focus of many great homilies, such as my buddy Deacon Greg Kandra’s wonderful homily “How Can This Be”? , is justifiably on that young Jewish woman Miryam, Mary.  We watch as Mary, full of fear, courageously gives her “yes” to God, taking on whatever God has in store for her and her family in the future.

I was blessed to be ordained a deacon on the Feast of the Annunciation twenty-four years ago today, and over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the fact that we need to spend time with BOTH Mary and Gabriel.  Gabriel is so much more than God’s mouthpiece, a divine voice mail announcing a fait accompli to Mary!  Let me sort this out, a reflection on diaconal ordination in light of the Annunciation.

Deacon and Book of GospelsDuring the ordination of a deacon, the bishop places the Book of the Gospels into the new deacons hands: it’s the first task of the new deacon, and the first charge given to the deacon by his bishop: “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are: Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach!”  I heard those words directed to me on 25 March 1990 by my archbishop, Cardinal James Hickey of the Archdiocese of Washington, DC.  We had heard the Gospel of the Annunciation just moments before, and now the Cardinal was telling me that I was supposed to be a Herald of Christ!  Immediately, I sensed a kind of kinship with the herald in the Gospel: Gabriel.

archangel-gabriel-struck-zechariah-mute-1824Consider Gabriel’s role.  In the Hebrew scriptures, for example, he interprets the dreams of Daniel.  He is the messenger who goes to Zecharias, the father of John the Baptist.  Again, he not only “announces” things; he explains them and acts on them as well.  And then we have the appearance of Gabriel to Mary.  Once more, he does not simply announce God’s plan and fly away; he helps Mary, who is justifiably uncertain and questioning: “How can this be?”  And he explains to her.  The heralds of God are not merely proclaimers of the Word only; they are supposed to be ministers of the Word, helping others to understand and respond in faith.

For those of us who serve as Deacons, that’s the foundation of the charge we’re given at ordination: not simply to proclaim the Word and leave, but to proclaim the Word, believing completely the message of God, and then teaching and practicing that Word in our own lives of service.  Mary’s fiat came from her own graced relationship with God, but it was also aided through the ministry of the herald, from who she received not only the Word, but encouragement and support, an angelic model of the very relationship she was being called to herself.  To make Christ present in the world demands more than mere words; it demands real world faith, courage, and commitment.  Mary’s fiat and Gabriel’s fiat go together.

angel as deaconPerhaps this is why there is such a longstanding tradition, especially in the Eastern traditions of the Church, to associate the ministry of the Deacon with the ministry of angels: saintly angelic heroes like Gabriel are frequently depicted as angels, and angels — those heralds of God — are frequently depicted in the vestments of the deacon.

So, as we reflect on the fiat of Mary, may we also ponder the role of Gabriel, the Herald.

 

“Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.”

 

 

 

And the Beat Goes On: The Musical Theology of Pope Francis

music-of-the-moment-still-lifeJoshua McElwee over at the National Catholic Reporter reports today about a recent speech given by Jesuit Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, the current head of the Jesuits.  Read his whole article here.  In his talk, Fr. Adolfo described religious experience to be much like “a person who can appreciate the intricacies and variations of classical music,” according to McElwee.  Fr. Nicolás said “religion is first of all very much more like this musical sense than a rational system of teachings and explanations. . . .  Religion involves first of all a sensitivity to, an openness to, the dimensions of transcendence, of depth, of gratuity, of beauty that underlie our human experiences,” Nicolás said. “But of course, this is a sensitivity that is threatened today by a purely economic or materialist mindset which deadens this sensitivity to deeper dimension of reality.”

EphremPeople of faith have always found music expressive of deep meaning that far transcends our rational abilities to attempt explanations of who we are and what we hold most dear.  Lovers, poets and song-writers have always turned to music to express love and other deep emotions.  Shakespeare wrote plays to entertain, but sonnets to pour out his soul.  Ancient peoples always expressed religious experience through song and movement, and the great Doctor of the Church, St. Ephrem of Edessa (the only Deacon Doctor of the Church, by the way!) crafted his theology in hymns and songs.

Several days ago, I commented here that our Church is so much more than her teachings, despite popular misconceptions that often suggest otherwise.  Therefore, I found Fr. Nicolás’ comments particularly apt.  While anyone can be taught to “read” musical notation, truly appreciating music is something else again: spirituality, religion and religious experience are children of the marriage of both art and science.

This seems to be how Pope Francis is approaching ministry as well: he assumes that we all know the teachings of the Church.  But we are more than our teachings alone; it’s the living of our lives, of finding God in the melodies and rhythms of life, where our faith is most fully expressed.

Writing yesterday about St. Patrick’s Day, I began thinking more about our family experience growing up in the 1950’s and early 1960’s in St. Patrick’s Parish in Peoria.  At home, music was a constant!  Our Mom loved big band music and had a wonderful collection of records (remember those?) from every band, orchestra and singer from the 1940’s.  Even as a young boy I enjoyed putting on those records and enjoying the music.  And, in school at St. Patrick’s, music was a big deal, too.  Not only did we learn music in class, we could sign up for piano lessons, too.

Yesterday, I wrote about our pastor, Monsignor Patrick O’C. Culleton, but he wasn’t there alone!  Back in those days we usually had at least three priests assigned, and the School Sisters of Notre Dame ran the parish school.  Sometimes we had the same teachers that our parents and aunts and uncles had studied with when they were kids.  Other sisters were younger but no less influential.  One such sister, and her story, illustrate the kind of spiritual journey that’s best expressed through music.

Sister Danielle Dohms, SSND -- Jo Ann and Bill's teacherSister Mary Danielle Dohms, SSND was our music teacher.  In fact, my cousin and I studied piano and organ with Sister Danielle throughout our time in grade school.  She was tall and most of the guys in my class thought she looked a bit like Ingrid Bergman playing Sister Mary Benedict in the 1945 movie, “Bells of St. Mary’s”.  After leaving home after grade school to enter the seminary, I rarely saw Sister Danielle again, and then, in the early 1970’s, our school was closed and the majority of the sisters moved on to other ministries.  Many years later, following our Dad’s death, I reconnected with several of the sisters who had taught at St. Patrick’s during those years, including Sister Danielle.  It was illuminating!

Sister recalled that when she first came to our parish, just a few years before my cousin and I began studying music with her, she was still a teenager herself!  She was 19 years old, had finished two years of college and had been sent to start teaching.  Then, when she left St. Patrick’s, she was sent back to college and finished her undergraduate degree.  She moved into a residence in the inner city of a large Midwestern city, where she worked with other sisters and lay women and men to provide shelter and food to homeless people, especially young women.  While doing this, she returned to graduate school in liturgy and taught liturgy to seminarians; then, she’d go back home to the homeless shelter where she lived.  She sounded happy and fulfilled and blessed in her life.

Repairers of the BreachThe “music” of her life was so much more than saying, “She was a teacher.”  She was that, but so much more.  She found the melodies and the rhythms of life in her living with homeless women as well as in exploring those same mysteries in the classroom, helping future priests find the tune as well.  She could “teach” about Christ — and she could sing and dance with Christ as well.  How is that working in our own lives?  Do we have the music in us?  Do we resonate with the mercy and love of God for all?

Sister Danielle passed away on 25 September 2001 at the age of 68.  Rest in peace, Sister!  Thanks for the music.

 

St. Patrick: Son of a Deacon Makes Good

saint-patrickSo, we all know the things that are NOT true about St. Patrick: He wasn’t Irish by birth, he didn’t really cast out snakes from Ireland, he wasn’t the first person to bring Christianity to Ireland, and he probably didn’t use the shamrock as a sign of the Trinity in his teaching.  What we do know is that he was the son of a Deacon (Calpurnius), and the grandson of another cleric.  While myth surrounds his early life, that doesn’t mean that Patrick’s life and ministry don’t reach deep into the Christian psyche.  Nowhere is this better expressed than in Thomas Cahill’s wonderful little book, How the Irish Saved Civilization:

Patrick’s emotional grasp of Christian truth may have been greater than Augustine’s. Augustine looked into his own heart and found there the inexpressible anguish of each individual, which enabled him to articulate a theory of sin that has no equal – the dark side of Christianity. Patrick prayed, made peace with God, and then looked not only into his own heart, but into the hearts of others. What he saw convinced him of the bright side, that even slave traders can turn into liberators, even murderers can act as peacemakers, even barbarians can take their places among the nobility of heaven.

In becoming an Irishman, Patrick wedded his world to theirs, his faith to their life. For Augustine and the Roman church of the first five centuries, baptism, the mystical water ceremony in which the naked catechumen dies to sin, was the foundation of a Christian life. Patrick found a way of swimming down to the depths of the Irish psyche and warming and transforming Irish imagination – making it more humane and more noble while keeping it Irish.

St_Patricks_Church

St. Patrick Church, Peoria, Illinois

I have always thought that Cahill captured the nature of ministry well.  While specifically writing of Patrick, his words are inspirational for all in ministry, especially in light of Pope Francis and his own humble approach to relating to others.  By looking into the hearts of others, the pope has focused on the positive dimensions of human nature and the ability for all persons to be transformed in the Christ.  The celebration of the birth of Bishop Patricius (St. Patrick) into heaven (17 March is the anniversary of his death) gives us a good chance to reflect on our own approach to ministry.

Serving First Mass May 1958 with Roger Reising and Fr. Leo Bates (edited) cropped

Serving First Mass, May 1958: Roger Reising (L), Fr. Leo Bates (C), Bill Ditewig (R)

Kathleen Powers Class Picture St. Patrick Grade SchoolOn a personal note: Our own family heritage is German and Irish.  While growing up, though, it was the Irish side that had the greatest impact: we grew up in St. Patrick Parish (which had, in fact, been a largely Irish parish until the middle of the 20th Century), and our pastor was an institution: Monsignor Patrick O’Connor Culleton, of whom I’ve written before here.  Fulton Sheen spent his first couple of years of his priesthood at St. Patrick’s, under the leadership of the same Monsignor Culleton.  St. Patrick’s was the parish where our whole extended family was baptized, went to school, was confirmed, received first communion, and many of us got married there.  The nerve center of our family while growing up was our grandparents’ home just a few steps from the church and school: family, church and school were all of a piece: sometimes it was difficult to see where the spheres of each ended and where they overlapped!

But that too is a “Patrick” characteristic, isn’t it?  Christ interpenetrates all aspects of our lives in the very core of our being.  As we celebrate St. Patrick, may we all come to find Christ in all things, and in our ministry may we, like Patrick, find the positive in all we serve, “swimming down to the depths. . .warming and transforming “.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

celtic_cross_of_saint_patrick_lg

Pope Francis and Changing the Church

Pope Francis smilingOver on CatholicVote.org, John White has a piece entitled “Year in Review: Church Teachings the Pope Francis Has Changed.”  After some rather pointed (snarky?) comments, he leaves a large white space to communicate that — surprise, surprise! — the Pope has not changed any teachings at all.  It’s not particularly original: many folks who are nervous about Pope Francis try to emphasize that he has not changed any doctrines or dogmas of the Church.  They also characterize those who are excited about the Francis papacy as people who are somehow “anti-Benedict”.  Without naming names, many more “conservative” commentators seem to thrive on mocking this attitude.  I mention all of this, NOT as a way to exacerbate such polarization, simply to acknowledge that the polarization exists.  Certainly some people HAVE gone too far in their enthusiasms — on both sides.  However, it seems to me that most people find themselves rightly in the middle of things: We can love and respect previous popes while also loving and respecting the current pope.  So why bring up this particular attitude at all?

trinity_1I do so because there is a danger with articles like Mr. White’s.  With the snide, defensive tone often employed in pieces like this leading to the conclusion that “the Pope hasn’t changed any teachings,” one can easily come away with the sense that nothing significant has been going on over the last year!

But here’s the point.  The Church is so much more than her official teachings, as important as they are.  To permit an inference that “no change in teaching” means “no change in the church” is dangerously misleading.  The Church is a Trinitarian communio: the People of God, the Mystical Body of Christ, and the Temple of the Holy Spirit.  Yes, we have a body of teachings, but we are more than the doctrines themselves.  To suggest that we are the sum of our teachings is specious; to suggest that our teachings are the most fundamental of our attributes is misleading.  I am of course not minimizing the importance of church teaching, but simply acknowledging the far deeper Mystery involved.

Pope Julius II Pope Innocent IIIAnd this, I think, is precisely where Pope Francis is making a huge difference in the Church.  Each pope contributes to the life of the Church as his talents and gifts permit.  We have had warrior popes in the past, deeply spiritual popes, scoundrel popes, charismatic popes and intellectual popes.  Some have focused on teaching; others have focused on law, and still others have focused on structural matters.  At this point in our history, we happen to be blessed with a pope who has his own unique set of gifts and strengths, and he is changing the Church in ways just as substantive as prior popes, and his focus on the radical servant nature of the Church — as described by Pope Paul VI in his closing homily to the bishops of the Second Vatican Council — is serving to recast the face of the Church in the 21st Century.  He IS challenging all of us — the Church — to change.

francesco blessing

Relationships: Marriage, Theology and Law

KasperThere has been much angst recently about an interview given by retired German Cardinal Walter Kasper, a distinguished theologian who has emerged as Pope Francis’ go-to theologian and éminence grise.  He gave an opening address at the recent consistory of cardinals (read more about it here) , and was even the first theologian the pope referenced after his election a year ago.

So, what’s the buzz about this latest interview?  Why all the agita?

The interview was given on 10 March, based on Kasper’s speech to the Consistory of Cardinals entitled “The Gospel of the Family.”  You can read the CNS interview here.   Speaking on the subject of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, the German theologian called for “a middle ground that does not destroy or abandon doctrine, but offers a renewed interpretation of church teaching in order to help those whose marriages have failed.”

“I propose a path that goes beyond strictness and leniency,” he said, an such an approach “isn’t against morality, it isn’t against doctrine, but rather, (is meant) to support a realistic application of doctrine to the current situation of the great majority of people and to contribute to people’s happiness.”

Kasper 3 The Cardinal referenced the research that had been done to ascertain the relationship between church teaching on marriage and the actual experience of Catholics around the world.  He observed that the results clearly show that “there is a difficulty, an abyss” between church teaching and the actual situation of many people.  “The church has to bridge this abyss,” he said, not by surrendering our teaching, but by explaining it in new ways “in order to help people and at the same time remain faithful to the Gospel.”

“It’s not about something new as much as a renewal of church practice, which is always necessary and possible,” he said.

The backlash in some quarters against the cardinal’s suggestions has been as passionate as those who have taken comfort in his words.  Some have misinterpreted (deliberately so, perhaps, since his words seem completely clear and nuanced) his remarks as calling for a change in church teaching, and this is certainly not what he is suggesting.  He is echoing Pope St. John XXIII who reminded the bishops of the world at the opening of the Second Vatican Council that religious truth is one thing; the way that truth is expressed is quite another.  Let’s see if we can pull some of this together.

1) Matrimony is a sacrament of the Church, and considered as such by Catholics, Orthodox and some other Christian traditions.  This means that marriage is a sacred state in which people encounter Christ is a specially graced way with each other and the ecclesial community.  It is an sacrament “at the service of communion” in which salvation is worked out in communion with another.

2) Christ talked about marriage, and based on this teaching, his disciples quickly accepted the notion of the indissolubility of a sacramental marriage, a complete gift of a man and a woman for the whole of life.

3) The Church’s sacramental understanding of matrimony, however, has been reflected in a wide variety of cultural and legal systems. I readily admit that I am not any kind of a lawyer, and I will not attempt to render any kind of legal judgment, and I’m eager for qualified, competent legal expertise to continue this conversation!  My point here is simple: legal procedures within the church are built upon theological and sacramental foundations, and they can take various forms.

matrimony4) The Church has also accepted, over the centuries, that not all marriages look alike.  For example, older couples often marry, long past the time when they might have their own biological children, but even knowing this, the church welcomes and sacramentalizes their union, giving a broad and generous understanding of the procreative nature of that marriage.  In other cases, couples are simply unable to have children, and yet that does not cast doubt on the validity of their marriage.  Also the Church accepts that some marriages fail, and there have been different ways of dealing with this reality.  Why?  Because different legal systems, different cultural expressions, have resulted in a variety of approaches and processes.  Put another way: our current system of diocesan marriage tribunals, levels of courts (“first instance,” “second instance” and so on), court officials (“defender of the bond”, “procurator advocate”, etc.) is only the most recent way of structuring part of our response to those who have divorced and now wish to be free to marry again.

In short, while the teaching of the Church on marriage has not significantly changed, the external procedures on dealing with the pastoral issues involved have changed and evolved in the past and could so again.  Claims that somehow Cardinal Kasper’s theology is “flawed” or that he is “dangerous” in his attempt to recast Catholic theology of marriage and family are completely misplaced, and misunderstand and distort what he is saying.  The teaching is one thing; how that teaching is expressed and lived can and sometimes must change.

Those whose marriages fail must deal with many issues, none of them pleasant.  It is a time when, more than ever, the presence, support, pastoral care and love of pastoral ministers and parishioners is needed.  And, should love again flower in their lives and the hope of a new life, there should be a way to minister to that reality as well.  Typically, since the emergence of canon law as a field of study in the 12th Century, the Church has frequently sought the assistance of external tribunals to discern the sacramental state of a marriage.  (I’d be curious to hear how extensive this was, however, in the lives of most Christians; it would seem that this would have been something more available to the nobility perhaps, but not to the poor).  A rather complex process of tribunal procedure has developed over the centuries, involving different levels of courts, appellate procedures, and so on.  It is a formal, visible exercise of the external forum.

And then there is the internal forum: the forum at the level of individual conscience.  Appeals can be made to this forum when external situations are lacking: a lack of documentation, for example, or other reasons.  Clearly the use of the “internal forum solution” is avoided except in extreme cases.

But how about something like this?  Why wouldn’t something like this work?

Imagine a Catholic parishioner who is divorced.  She was divorced years before when she and her former husband were very young and the marriage failed for a variety of reasons, including physical and emotional violence on the part of her former husband.  Now, years later, she has met another man and they have fallen in love.  They would love to marry in the church and form a new family.  She approaches her parish deacon who interviews her about her former marriage and her current situation.  The deacon and the pastor review the case, following diocesan norms, and the pastor determines that the first marriage was null and refers the case to the diocesan tribunal for review and concurrence.  The diocesan Judicial Vicar reviews the acts of the case as submitted by the pastor and affirms the declaration of nullity and so informs the pastor and the young woman; she is free to marry.

That’s it.  The court of “first instance” would be at the level of the parish, following norms and procedures provided by the diocesan bishop as the Chief Judge of the diocese.  The court of “second instance” would be the review by the Judicial Vicar on behalf of the diocesan bishop.

Kasper 2No change of teaching, but simply a greater acceptance of the rights and obligations of the individuals under conscience, who then work with their local pastoral ministers to determine their freedom and readiness for marriage.  This approach could also work for people who have divorced and already re-married civilly.  The matters could be handled between parishioner and parish pastoral leaders.  Given what the church already teaches about the role of conscience in the life of the faithful, this approach offers, in my opinion, considerable respect for that teaching on the primacy of conscience as well as an exercise of legitimate subsidiarity in the processes involved.

Why couldn’t we start there?

As Cardinal Kasper says, “The doctrine of the church is not an ideology in the clouds, but God wants to be present, close to his people.”

Amen.