Church must move closer to Gospel, not to worldly values, pope says

FREIBURG, Germany - The church must change to respond to the Gospel call and the needs of real people, but that change must be dictated by Christian values and not by greater adaptation to the values of the modern world, Pope Benedict XVI said.

Meeting Sept. 25 with about 1,500 Catholics involved in church ministries, lay movements and civic, political or social activities, the pope said he knows Germany is experiencing a decline in religious practice and is seeing many of its members drift away from church life.

The audience, which included German President Christian Wulff, gave the pope a standing ovation when he finished his speech.

Sharing some personal mini-creeds

We are all familiar with the Nicene and the Apostles’ creeds, the two great faith summaries that anchor our faith. Without them, eventually we would drift off the path and lose our way. Creeds anchor us.

But the great creeds are like huge rivers that need smaller tributaries to bring their waters into various places. Thus, we also need mini-creeds, short, pithy truth statements that anchor us morally and spiritually. We all, no doubt, have our own favourite mini-creeds. Here are some of mine:

o “Love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic.” Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada, in a letter to the people of Canada, just before dying of cancer.

Justice, compassion make a better world

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Oct. 2 (Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80; Philippians 4:6-9; Matthew 21:33-43)

The prophets of Israel were never easy on the nation — especially the political and religious authorities. Using parables, metaphors, violent language and strange symbolic behaviour they attempted to shock the nation out of its self-delusion and back onto the path of God. They rarely softened or tailored their message and they had a harsh but on-target expression for those who did: false prophets. Today we might call such prophecy “tough love” — there are times when nothing else will suffice.

In this parable Isaiah sings to the beloved, God, of a treasured vineyard and its loving owner. He details the loving care that the owner took for the vineyard and the many ways he provided for it, sparing nothing. He asked only that the vineyard produce a good harvest of grapes. Imagine his shock and anger when the vineyard only produced wild grapes. Wild grapes are rather destructive, unruly and bitter. In the Bible they often symbolize wickedness. The parable then delivers the terrible news: the owner intends to withdraw all the care and protection that had been provided. The vineyard will be destroyed and laid waste. Isaiah then explains that the vineyard is the house of Israel and the plantings the people of Judah. And the reason for the destruction? The owner only expected justice but all he received was bloodshed and injustice.

Despite challenges, Catholics in India must evangelize

CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy - Despite challenges, hardship and trials, Catholics in India must continue to evangelize, Pope Benedict XVI said.

"You must always be prepared to spread the Kingdom of God and to walk in the footsteps of Christ, who was himself misunderstood, despised, falsely accused and who suffered for the sake of truth," the pope told a group of bishops from India.

India has seen a steady rise in anti-Christian violence since the 1990s and the passage of anti-conversion laws in some states. Without specifying "the challenges that the missionary nature of the church entails," the pope told the bishops to "not be deterred when such trials arise."

Christ as cosmic

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, in one of his dialogues with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, was once asked: “What are you trying to do?” His answer was something to this effect: I’m trying to write a Christology that is large enough to include the full Christ because Christ isn’t just a divine Saviour sent to save people; Christ is also a structure within the physical universe, a path of salvation for the Earth itself.

Perhaps the most neglected part of our understanding of Christ, though clearly taught in Scripture, is the concept that the mystery of Christ is larger than what we see visibly in the life of Jesus and in the life of the historical Christian churches. Christ is already part of physical creation itself and is integral to that creation. We see this expressed in the Epistle to the Colossians. The author writes: “He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation, for in Him all things were created in heaven and on Earth; everything visible and everything invisible ... all things were created through Him and for Him. He exists before all things and in Him all things hold together ...”   

Our actions speak louder than words

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Sept. 25 (Ezekiel 18:25-28; Psalm 25; Philippians 2:1-11; Matthew 21:28-32)

I’m not responsible. The devil made me do it. Society, my background and upbringing or my genetic makeup is responsible. And besides, it’s unfair. God is unfair — and maybe God doesn’t even exist.

People have always had a barrage of excuses to explain their lapses, errors and failures, but accepting responsibility is especially difficult in our own time. We have dreamed up new and creative ways of evading responsibility. Ezekiel prophesied in a time of great turmoil and suffering — the exile of the Israelites during the sixth century BC. People were asking themselves the usual question after a great catastrophe: why? This passage is embedded in a long chapter (well worth reading) that discusses a change in Israel’s theological understanding precipitated by the experience of exile in Babylon. The traditional understanding of sin and punishment held that Israel was judged collectively — the sin of one was the sin of all. Punishment could be transmitted from generation to generation. But it was made clear that from now on everyone would be responsible for his or her own sin — no collective or transmitted punishment. Those who live an upright life will be blessed while those who turn away from God’s ways for a life of injustice and sin will suffer accordingly.

Rejoice at God’s generosity, kindness

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Sept. 18 (Isaiah 55:6-9; Psalm 145; Philippians 1:20-24, 27; Matthew 20:1-16)

An ancient Greek philosopher once observed wryly that if horses could draw they would draw gods that looked like horses. Or put another way — God created humans in God’s image and humans returned the favour.

The God that we believe we worship is often something of our own creation or projection, looking and acting suspiciously like us. But through the prophets God reminds us very forcefully that God is utterly unlike humans. God’s “ways of thinking” and God’s ways are not merely an extension of our own but of a completely different order. How often we hear from people what God wants, thinks, likes or will do in the immediate future. This is more often than not a projection of the speaker’s prejudices and opinions and those of the group to which he or she belongs. Isaiah urges people to seek God while He is still near so that they can encounter this totally other God.

Feeding off sacred fire

“See the wise and wicked ones, who feed upon life’s sacred fire.” That’s a lyric from a song by Gordon Lightfoot that tries to interpret the struggle going on in the heart of the  mythical hero, Don Quixote. Goodness separates him from the world, even as he understands that wickedness has the same source.

And there’s perplexing irony in this, both the wise and wicked, saints and sinners, feed off the same, sacred source. The same energy that fuels the dedicated selflessness of the saint who dies for the poor fires the irresponsible acting-out of the movie star who proudly boasts of thousands of sexual conquests. Both feed off the same energy which, in the end, is sacred. But it’s easy to misinterpret this.

For example, one of the major criticisms made of religion is that it too frequently uses God to justify war and violence. We commonly see terrible violence being fueled by faith and religion, as is the case with extreme Islam today. But Christianity is hardly exempt. In the Crusades and the Inquisition we have our own history of violence in God’s name and there is more violence than we have the courage to admit still being done today by Christians who draw both their motivation and their energy from their faith. We can protest that, in these cases, the energy is misguided, perverted or usurped for self-interest, but the point remains the same. It’s still sacred energy, even if perverted.

Embraced by a fast-food angel

We wanted late-night refreshment. A lengthy search uncovered one place open, a fast-food restaurant with golden arches. We thought we’d just be getting beverages; we also got a glimpse of the eternal. Serving customers was a young woman and man. As we imbibed our tea, she said loudly enough that we could hear clearly: “It’s not that God doesn’t talk to people. It’s that we’re always feeding the flesh. So the flesh gets big, and the spirit gets small and can’t hear God speaking.”   

Why doesn’t God speak to people? Or if He does, why so obscurely? Has God been speaking in ways I haven’t been hearing? Perhaps the young woman knew that the opposition between flesh and spirit is not dualistic. It’s not that body is bad and soul is good; this idea has always been considered heretical. Rather, it’s “spirit” in the sense of all that belongs to God and leads us to God; “flesh” in the sense of what drags us down, away from God.

Forgiveness a way of life

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Sept. 11 (Sirach 27:30-28:7; Psalm 103; Romans 14:7-9; Matthew 18:21-35)

Forgiveness is what we hope for and expect when we have done wrong but are often reluctant to grant to others. But today’s readings are definitely in the “hard sayings” categories for they lay down the law: forgiveness is not optional or something that would be nice but fundamental. Unwillingness to forgive is responsible for much of the world’s fear and violence. It imprisons us with those we hate.

Many people naively believe that all of the teachings of Jesus were utterly new and never before heard. Actually, most of His teachings are either paralleled in or derived from Jewish tradition. Forgiveness is a case in point — much of what we see in the reading from Sirach is reflected in the Gospel of Matthew. Sirach insists that forgiveness is a package deal — if we expect forgiveness from God we must be willing to extend forgiveness to others. Harboring grudges and desiring revenge is not dignified with psycho-babble but called what it is: sin. A constant remembrance of the shortness of our life, as well as the commandments and the covenant with God, should be enough to dampen anger. We all stand before God — we all have fallen short of His glory — and we all need and hope for mercy and forgiveness. Hatred, anger and the desire for revenge never accomplish anything positive but merely sow the seeds of further conflict and violence. With wonderful divine irony the readings for this Sunday, all having to do with forgiveness, fall on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 horror.

We are the agents of our own destiny

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Sept. 4 (Ezekiel 33:7-9; Psalm 95; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20)

Mind your own business! That is our usual reaction to someone who scolds, nags or reproves us for our behaviour — and in most cases it is the proper response. There are many people who enjoy their self-appointed role as executive director of other people’s lives but are rather lax in managing their own.

But this passage from Ezekiel refers to something entirely different. Ezekiel has been appointed by God as a sentinel or watchman for all of Israel. His job is to warn of potential danger or disaster and to turn people back to God’s ways. He is the conscience of the nation. Ezekiel writes this in exile — the temple had been destroyed in 587 BC and the people were doing a lot of soul-searching. The language seems jarring and violent but it represents the worldview and religious mindset of a culture 2,500 years ago. The people would have seen God’s actions in everything, even the nation’s destruction. And the cause of disaster was always human sin and the divine sanction that followed.

Today we would be very reluctant to speak of someone dying for their sins, especially when it is implied that this death is at the hand of God. And we would not blame a nation for being the victim of aggression — the nations that were invaded by the Axis powers in the Second World War were not being “punished” for their sins. But God still raises up men and women to act as sentinels — to warn us when we stray from the path of divine principles and enter the spiritual wilderness of selfishness, violence and fear. The warning is not to avert divine punishment but the consequences of our actions — and let there be no doubt, there are always consequences. We are certainly responsible for our own lives and actions but let us not harden our hearts to the advice and warnings of men and women of principle and integrity or the loving guidance of trusted family and friends. The life we save may be our own or that of our community or nation.