Saturday, March 31, 2007


The Times of London carried a story online this past week describing how authorities in Germany are trying to deal with an increasing number of mothers who kill and abandon their babies.

Desperate mothers are being urged to drop their unwanted babies through hatches at hospitals in an effort to halt a spate of infanticides that has shocked Germany. At least 23 babies have been killed so far this year, many of them beaten to death or strangled by their mothers before being dumped on wasteland and in dustbins. Police investigating the murders are at a loss to explain the sudden surge in such cases, which have involved mothers of all ages all over the country.

Infanticide continues to fascinate and horrify our modern society. Just recently the media in my area dwelt at great length on the case of a dead baby found in an alley in a small town. The mother, when found, was a woman in her late teens and there was much speculation regarding the circumstances that led the mother to kill and abandon her child. Case such as this are widely reported in the media (and rightly so).

On another level though, it is hardly surprising that such tragic events could happen given the willingness of our society to consider the widespread abortion of babies at all stages of development. One writer correctly pointed out the absurdity of the present state of affairs by pointing out that if a woman procures the death of her child while it is still inside her womb she is merely exercising her right to reproductive choice. If however, she procures the death of a child at the same stage of development after it has emerged from the womb, then she is guilty of a crime.

It is difficult to speculate what motivates a mother to murder her newly born child. One obvious possibility is that the present state of social thinking elevates the subjective state of mind of the mother over the objective reality of the taking of another human life. In other words, the mother might feel too embarrassed, or ashamed or shy about her condition to even think about procuring an abortion and so given the ambiguities of our culture she finds the taking of the child's life after birth to be equivalent to the taking of life before birth.

It is interesting to note that in the Times story some people were opposed to the plan encouraging mothers to drop off unwanted babies at convenient spots on the grounds that this plan would encourage mothers to abandon their babies. (Would killing the babies be preferable?) Also interesting was the controversy generated when a legislator in Texas proposed paying pregnant mothers a sum of money to give birth instead of procuring an abortion.

It seems to me that our society has to rediscover the meaning of parenthood. Society today is very much oriented to the enjoyment of the present and to subjectivism. In such a climate parenthood is almost counter-intuitive. Giving birth and parenting a child involves sacrifice and a commitment to the future. Both of these are values that would make for us a better society.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Candidates and Catechumens in the RCIA

I have read a number of blogs and articles about RCIA that cast a lot of doubt regarding the structure of the program and its value. Most recently a blogger implied that candidates deserved individual treatment regarding their initiation into the Church and should not be forced to associate with the unbaptized and the uncatechized. Regarding this I would like to offer a few observations of my own.

First of all; the RCIA is not a theology course. It is an experience that involves awareness of Catholic teachings but it also involves a degree of formation in Catholicism as well as providing for prayerful discernment regarding the call to Baptism or to full membership in the Catholic Church. This means that RCIA sessions should not be "just" about theology or "just" about the religious feelings and experiences of the group. All participants need to be exposed to enough of the Catholic vision of faith in order that they can draw from these riches on their own faith journey. They also need to be able to understand how their own faith journey relates to the story of the entire Church. So, I cringe when I read about catechists dealing with Aquinas and the Summa just as much as I cringe when I read that many groups learn nothing at all about Catholic doctrine.

Regarding the catechized and the uncatechized; I have certainly been part of groups where a candidate had a wealth of knowledge about Christianity (especially about scripture). Despite this most of the people (including sponsors) that I have met during my years of participation in RCIA groups have been seriously lacking in knowledge of their faith. My own hope when I encounter one of these well catechized candidates is not that they proceed to full membership in the Church ahead of the rest of the group (as was suggested by the blogger I mentioned earlier). What I would hope to happen is that these people are able to use their gifts and their knowledge to enhance the growth and the experience of other members of the group. Remember, that is what the Church is all about.

I also accept that there needs to be a process of discernment for people making such a momentous decision regarding their faith. Discernment, despite the impatience of the candidate or the catechumen takes time. In our parish a few years back one candidate who did not have the time or the patience for RCIA was given private instruction and baptized in a short period of time. A year later in a different diocese this same individual had already left the Church and was heavily involved in some new-age group. In our Parish people are normally in RCIA for about one year. In many ways, this is not enough time to do all that is asked of us yet it does provide some time for the element of discernment that is proper to religious initiation.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Abraham and Isaac

The Sacrifice of Abraham: Genesis 22:1-18

In this story God tells Abraham to offer his only son Isaac as a burnt offering. Abraham is willing to do as he is told and proceeds with the sacrifice only to be stopped at the last moment. God accepts Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac as proof of Abraham’s faith. In the letter to the Hebrews the author identifies this act as proof of the strong faith of Abraham. The passage comes near the end of the Abraham story in Genesis. This passage is the second reading in the Liturgy of the Word at the Easter Vigil.

So, why is this passage part of the Easter Vigil? I think that there are two things that stand out about the story. First of all, the early Church saw the figure of Isaac in the story as being a “Christ” figure of sorts. Isaac, like Christ, was the only son offered to the Father. Isaac, like Christ, carried the wood of the sacrifice to the place of sacrifice. Second, and most importantly, the Church sees Abraham as a model of faith.

Throughout the period of Abraham’s relationship with God from being told to leave his homeland to the question of his being childless to finally being told to offer Isaac in sacrifice there is a strong element of testing. God does not seem willing to just let Abraham “be”. In this reading it would be easy to get side tracked by the horror of what Abraham is asked to do. In fact part of the reason for the story could be that Israel’s neighbors over time probably practiced child sacrifice at certain times. In this context this story merely shows God’s repudiation of such practices. It is also interesting that some commentators point out that Isaac was not likely a young child since he could carry the wood for the sacrifice. It might also be easy to be side tracked by issues surrounding the nature of God. How could God ask such a thing? If God knows all things and knows that Abraham will obey then what is the purpose of the test? These might be worthwhile questions but they miss the point of the reading in the liturgical context of the Easter Vigil.

The central question in this context is; what does faith, which we celebrate when we initiate new members at the Vigil, ask of us? In Genesis, Abraham is asked a number of times to leave security behind and to follow God in faith. God asks Abraham to leave his homeland and in trust Abraham does so. Even though he and Sarah are advanced in age Abraham is asked to believe that God promise (that he would be the father of many nations) would be fulfilled. Finally in this passage Abraham is asked to sacrifice Isaac (the one on whom Abraham’s hopes rest). Abraham’s willingness to completely trust God, even in these extreme circumstances, brings the test to an end. God now knows that Abraham completely trusts God.

Do we completely trust God? The Sacraments of Initiation offer us an intense experience of God and a sacramental celebration of our first commitment to God. After this experience are we going to be able, like Abraham, to continue to leave security behind and to trust God as we continue on our journey of faith? David Gushee, a Baptist commentator, writing in Christianity Today recently wrote:

“I suggest that we tend to confuse the beginning of the faith journey with its entirety. Yes, believe in Jesus – that’s the first step. Yes, invite Jesus into your heart as your personal Savior. Then, empowered by God’s grace, embark on the journey of discipleship, in which you seek to love God with every fiber of your being, to love your neighbor as yourself, to live out God’s moral will, and to follow Jesus where he leads you, whatever the cost.” That is, I think, a good summary of the essential meaning of Genesis 22: 1-18.

Prayer (from the missal)
God and Father of all who believe in you, you promised Abraham that he would become that father of all nations, and through the death and resurrection of Christ you fulfill that promise: everywhere throughout the world you increase your chosen people. May we respond to your call by joyfully accepting your invitation to the new life of grace. We ask this through Jesus the Lord. Amen.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Our Father

In our RCIA group last Wednesday we spent half of the time reflecting on the Our Father. There were many valuable insights shared but we ran out of time and missed what I think is the most valuable insight into the unique nature of this prayer of Jesus. The Our Father is unique compared to what we know of other Jewish prayers of the time because of intimacy with which Jesus addresses the Father. We know that the most common names used for God in Hebrew scriptures emphasize the transcendence and power of God. For example:
  • Elohim means mighty or strong one.
  • Adonai means master or ruler or lord.
  • Yahweh most likely means the self-existent one (I am who I am).
  • El Shaddai means God almighty.

There are many other titles given to God but mostly they emphasize the power or the strength of God. The name of God was held in such reverence that writing it was a dangerous act. Often the titles of God are circumlocutions designed to get around actually using the name of God (for example, one title of God translates simply as "the name").

Jesus by contrast calls God Abba, a word which would have been used by a young child addressing their father. It means simply "daddy". So, this title of God together with the petitions that follow gives us a picture of a God who is gentle and forgiving. A God who asks only our love in return. St Hilary in the Office of Readings for Thursday of the Second week of Lent explains it well while explaining the fear of the Lord. "Fear is not to be taken in the sense that common usage gives it. Fear in this ordinary sense is the trepidation our weak humanity feels when it is afraid of suffering something it does not want to happen. (But) For us the fear of God consists wholly in love, and perfect love of God brings our fear of him to its perfection. Our love for God is entrusted with its own responsibility: to observe his counsels, to obey his laws, to trust his promises." So, God is obviously transcendent and mighty and powerful but God is also gentle and forgiving and near to us. It is this "daddy" aspect of God that gives us the confidence to pray the Lord's Prayer.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

The Tomb of Jesus

The finding of Christ’s tomb
This past week or so has been filled with stories about the possible finding of a so far unknown tomb complete with the remains of Jesus and other members of his family. The stories were to generate publicity for a documentary set to air on the Discovery channel in the U.S. and on Vision TV in Canada this weekend. Naturally, a book is set to appear this spring (likely before Easter?) The basic content of the stories so far seems to be that:
In 1980 a tomb was excavated in a district of Jerusalem. Inside this tomb the excavators found ten ossuaries (bone boxes made of stone) which included some skeletal remains. The ossuaries were inscribed with names that were common at the time such as Joseph, Jesus, Mary, and Judah. At the time little was made of this discovery.
About fifteen years ago the BBC made a film suggesting that this might be the tomb of Jesus. The suggestion seems to have been laughed away by all. Now drawing on the fame of the Da Vinci Code and using the prestige of DNA evidence these film makers put forward the theory that the remains found are in all probability those of Jesus of Nazareth, his parents, his wife Mary Magdalene, and his child, Judah. The film will apparently try to make a case based on statistics to establish this probability. The DNA likely could only show that one set of remains was not related to the others (its unlikely that the filmmakers sent to heaven for a control DNA sample).

What to make of all this? Well, first of all the early Church was quite clear about the tomb - it was empty. St. Paul in the first letter to the Corinthians is also quite explicit: "If there is no resurrection from the dead, Christ himself cannot have been raised, and if Christ has not been raised then our preaching has been useless and your believing it is useless..." (1Cor: 15:14). Secondly, the fact that other people at that time were named Jesus, Mary, and Joseph is not surprising. For example, one article that I have seen suggests that about twenty percent of the female population at that time was named Mary. Jesus was not the most common male name but it was still relatively common (sixth most common according to the article). So, for example, my neighbors are named Frank, Ken (his son), and Marj. If twenty years from now (never mind two thousand years) I go to a cemetery in another town far from here and find a family plot with just those markers, (mentioned above) it is extremely unlikely that I am viewing the graves of my former neighbors. So, I am not going to lose sleep about this so-called "earth shattering" discovery. In fact, it seems like "deja moo" to me (I’ve heard this bull before). I suspect that visions of the fortune made by the Da Vinci Code dance before the eyes of the film makers and obscure any honest search for truth.

It seems to be that plain greed as the motivation for projects such as this is the most likely explanation for their existence. Another explanation seems to be (in my opinion) an almost antirational quality of modern culture that makes people ready to believe in cover-ups and in bizarre alternative explanations for events. One of the first examples that I can recall came with the book, Chariots of the Gods, which theorized that intervention by space travelers was the most likely explanation for the achievements of ancient civilizations. That book was popular and spawned a whole industry of people providing alternative explanations for things. Finally, I think that some people who are nominal Christians are ready to accept stories that cast doubt on traditional teachings of the Church because they are more comfortable with picking their own beliefs rather than accepting the beliefs handed down by the Church.

Update: I watched most of the documentary last night on Vision TV. It was fairly boring. You have to accept a series of highly dubious conjectures about the identity of the individuals in the tomb and then the triumphant conclusion of the film becomes, "Then if all this is true, statistics suggest that this must be the tomb of Jesus. Of course if each of the individual conjectures is false, then the final conclusion is very false.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Accepting the Faith

"How much of this do I have to believe?" This question came in our RCIA group last night as we were discussing the Creed and its role in the profession of faith at the Easter Vigil. The quick answer to the question in the context of our discussion is to say that you must at least be able to say yes to the questions that make up the profession of faith. The longer answer needs to take into account the fact that people coming to the Catholic Church particularly from an evangelical background are likely to have problems with some aspects of Church teaching. So the larger question becomes, can I or should I join a Church if I "have problems" with some aspect of Church teaching, such as the doctrines surrounding Mary?

It seems to me that there are two ways to answer the question. The first way is simple, safe, and orthodox. "Some one hundred years ago a previous Pope named Benedict stated it simply when he said; Such is the nature of Catholicism that it does not admit of more or less, but must be held as a whole or as a whole rejected." So it is not possible to "pick and choose" regarding Catholic beliefs. You accept or reject the entire package of doctrine and magisterial teaching (both ordinary and extra-ordinary). So, if a candidate at the time of initiation did not feel that they could accept all of the teachings of the Church they should not join the Church.

A second, more complicated and slightly risky answer is to recall that adult christians of good will ought to be able to come to their own assent to Church teaching. Of course it is true that some central teachings require my assent. Without believing these things I could not be Catholic . But with these as with other beliefs I ought to be able by prayer and individual study (perhaps with some help and guidance) come to personal assent to the teaching in question. If I cannot come to this assent after prayer and study it might still be that I am called to be a member of the Catholic Church. This would be a matter for personal discernment in consultation with the pastor.

The analogy that we use in RCIA of the people of God on a physical journey (like the Hebrew people of Exodus) provides a way of clarifying these two answers. In the first case the people travel along a single well-worn path. The path is quite narrow and represents the way mapped out by our leaders and the people of God who have gone before us. People generally do not step outside of the boundaries of this path especially because of the danger of losing contact with the group. Outside of the boundaries we recognize that there are other paths that seem to go the way we are going but our path is uniquely ours. In the second case the people of God travel together but sometimes individuals wander a short way from the main path to explore something or another. At certain places where those who have gone before have found danger there is a narrowly marked path and people try to stick to the narrow path at those places. People recognize that those who have wandered a short way from the main path are still part of the group but they also recognize that if people wander too far they will lose contact with the group.

Each of the above answers has advantages and disadvantages. The first answer recognizes the authority of the magisterium. If everyone who is Catholic accepted this answer the Church would "speak with a single voice" and be a stronger moral force in the world. If the whole church practiced this answer it is likely that the Church would be smaller in numbers but perhaps more fervent in belief. The second answer recognizes the importance of the individual in coming to belief. It recognizes that while the magisterium has a central role to play in the faith of believers there is room for a certain diversity of belief within the body of the Church.

So, the answer that, on reflection I would give to my questioning candidate is that the Church is inviting new members to explore the richness of Catholic belief. When the new (potential) believer encounters something that seems difficult for them to believe the invitation is to further explore, study, seek help, and pray. Only the individual candidate together with the pastor or the RCIA director can say if a particular individual should join the Church at any particular time and in any particular circumstance.(now, why couldn't I come up with this when the question was asked?)