Dependence on God Makes Us Free

Pope Benedict XVI


         The theme chosen this year is meaningful—“By nature, man is relation to the infinite”—in view of the now imminent Year of Faith which I have chosen to proclaim for the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council.

Speaking of man and of his desire for the infinite means first of all recognizing his constitutive relationship with the Creator.  Man is a creature of God.  Today this word—creature—seems almost to have gone out of fashion.  People prefer to think of the human being as a being complete in himself and the absolute master of his own destiny.  Viewing man as a creature seems “reductive”, because it involves an essential reference to something else or rather, Someone else—who cannot be managed by man—who comes into it to define his identity in an essential way; a relational identity, whose first given is his original and ontological dependence on the One who wanted and created us.  Yet this dependence, from which modern and contemporary men and women seek to free themselves, not only does not conceal or diminish buy rather reveals clearly the greatness and supreme dignity of the human being, called to life to enter into a relationship with Life itself, with God.

To say: “By nature,, man is relation to the infinite” thus means saying that every person has been created so that he or she may enter into dialogue with God, with the Infinite.  At the beginning of the world’s history Adam and Eve were the result of an act of love by God, made in his image and likeness, and their life and relationship with the Creator coincided: “God created man in his own image; in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them (Gen 1:27).

Moreover original sin is ultimately rooted precisely in our first parents’ evasion from this constitutive relationship, in their desire to put themselves in God’s place, in their belief that they could do without him.  Even after their sin, however, human beings are left with this all-consuming desire for this dialogue, almost as if the Creator himself had branded their soul and their flesh with it.

Psalm 63 (62) helps us penetrate to the heart of this subject.  “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where no water is” (v. 2).  Not only my soul but every fiber of my flesh is made to find its peace, its fulfillment in God.  And this aspiration in the human heart is indelible, even when God is rejected or denied, the thirst for the infinite that dwells in men and women is not slaked.  Instead a frantic, sterile search for “false infinites” begins, that can satisfy them at least for a moment.  The thirst of the soul and the longing of the flesh the Psalmist speaks of cannot be eliminated.  Therefore human beings, unbeknownst to themselves, are reaching out for the Infinite but in mistaken directions: in drugs, in a disorderly form of sexuality, in totalizing technologies, in success at every cost and even in deceptive forms of piety.  Even the good things which God has created, such as paths that lead to him, often risk being absolutized, and thereby becoming idols that replace the Creator.

Recognizing that we have been made for the infinite means taking the route of purification from what we have called “false infinites”, a way of conversion of heart and mind.  We must uproot all the false promises of the infinite that seduce men and women and enslave people.  Truly to rediscover ourselves and our identity, to live our dignity, we must return to recognizing that we are creatures, dependent on God.  The possibility of a truly free and full life is linked to recognizing this dependence—which in our inmost depths is the joyous discovery of being God’s children.  It is interesting to note that in his Letter to the Romans St. Paul sees the contrary of slavery not so miuch as freedom as, rather,  sonship, having received the Holy Spirit that makes us adoptive sons and enables us to cry to God “Abba! Father!” (8:15).

The Apostle to the Gentiles speaks of an “evil” slavery: the slavery of sin, of the law, of the passions of the flesh.  Yet he does not counter this with autonomy but with “being slaves of Christ”, (cf. 6:16-22).  On the contrary, he describes himself as “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ” (1:1).   The fundamental point, therefore, is not to eliminate dependence which is a constitutive part of the human being, but to direct it to the One who alone can truly set us free.  At this point, however, a question arises.  Is it not perhaps structurally impossible for human beings to measure up to the loftiness of their nature?  This question beings us directly to the heart of Christianity.

In fact, the Infinite One took a finite form in order to make himself a response that the human being could experience.  The unbridgeable abyss between the finite and the infinite was filled from the Incarnation, from the moment in which the Word became flesh; the eternal and infinite God left  his heaven ad entered into time, he immersed himself in human finiteness.  Nothing, therefore, is trivial or insignificant in the journey of life and of the world.  Men and women are made for an infinite God who became flesh, who took our humanity to uplift it to the heights of his divine being.

We thus discover the truest dimension of human existence to which (we are called): life as a vocation.  Everything, every relationship, every joy, as well as every difficulty, finds its ultimate reason in being an opportunity for a relationship with the Infinite, God’s voice that continually calls us and invites us to look up, to discover in adherence to him the complete fulfillment of our humanity.

“You have made us for yourself”, St. Augustine wrote, “and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (Confessions, I,I,I).  We must not be afraid of what God asks of us through life’s circumstances, even if it be the dedication of the whole of ourselves in a particular form of following and imitating Christ in the priesthood or in the religious life.  The Lord, in calling certain people to live totally in him, calls all to recognize the essence of their nature as human beings: made for the infinite.  And God ahs our happiness at heart, our complete human fulfillment.  Let us therefore ask him to allow us to enter and to remain in the gaze of faith that characterized the saints so as to discover the seeds of goodness that the Lord scatters along the path of our life and adhere joyfully to our vocation.

As I express the wish that these bring thoughts may be of some help to (those who receive them), I assure you of my closeness in prayer and my hope that the reflection of these days may introduce everyone into the certainty and joy of faith. …

–Pope Benedict XVI,

Message for the 23rd Meeting for Friendship Among Peoples taking place in Rimini, Italy.  L’Osservatore Romano; #34, Wednesday, 22 August 2012.



“Jesus’ Words Still Shock Today”

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (B); August 26, 2012

Jos 24:1-2a,15-17,18b; Ps 34; Eph 5:21-32; Jn 6:60-69

Deacon Jim McFadden; Divine Savior C.C. & Folsom Prison


            The Eucharist has been from the beginning a source of conflict and division.  This, of course, was not Christ’s intention, for the Eucharist is supposed to be what unites us.  Nevertheless, for the past two thousand years, the radical doctrine of the Real Presence has caused many to abandon Jesus.  When a large crowd heard Jesus proclaim “unless you eat my Flesh and drink my blood, you have no life within you…My Flesh is real food; my blood is real drink,” they walked away.

As the crowds leave him, Jesus turns to the Twelve and asks the most poignant question in all of the New Testament: “Do you also want to leave” (v. 67)?  What a question!  You get the feeling that the whole Church, the whole Christian project is hanging in the balance: if they (the Twelve) leave, it’s over.  If they leave, then Jesus stands alone.

There’s an interesting parallel with this passage from John and those in the synoptic gospels, when Jesus turns to his disciples and says, “Who do people say that I am?”  In both cases, there is something that is absolutely essential and striking at stake.  “I know that some say I am a  prophet or that I am John the Baptist  come back from the dead.  But, who do you say that I am?”  It’s Peter who speaks in their name: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (cf. Mk 8:27-29). Peter, speaking  for the Church, affirms the divinity of Jesus.

Here, in John’s gospel, he turns to the Apostles and asks will you leave too because of this teaching on the Eucharist?  Again, it is Peter who speaks for them: “Master, to whom shall we go?  You have words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68).  That’s the great Catholic answer: we may not be able to explain it in everyday language, but we trust that what Christ  speaks is the Truth.  As the crowd leaves, the Church remains: Lord, we accept these words because they are Your words and the words of eternal life.

Brothers and sisters, these words on the Real Presence of Christ call forth a decision on our part—either we accept it or we don’t.

How are we going to respond?

In our first reading today, Joshua confronts the people: do you follow the Lord or not?  “As for me and my family, we will follow the Lord” (cf. Jos 24:14-15).  It’s an ‘either-or’ proposition; a decision had to be made and Joshua forced the question.

So, too, around the Eucharist, a decision has to be made; there is no wiggle room.  There is considerable wiggle room with a number of questions within the Church: e.g., you can adapt a different style of spirituality whether it be  Salvatorian, Franciscan,  Jesuit,  Dominican, or Benedictine, etc.  You can find certain devotional practices that others may find less palatable.  Maybe  theologically you’re a Thomist where your friend gravitates towards Process Theology.  There’s plenty of wiggle room in other issues of the Church, but none regarding the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist

In the 11th century a pious and brilliant monk by the name of Berengarius proposed a symbolic interpretation of the Eucharist.  He said the Risen Body of Christ is in heaven in its gloried form.  Therefore, it cannot be simultaneously on a variety of altars on earth and still be in heaven.  Therefore, he concluded what you have at Mass is a symbolic representation of the glorified body of Christ in heaven.  Your offering is a spiritual participation.

This seems commonsensical, rational, and relatively easy to grasp. The risen and glorified Christ sits on the Father’s right hand in heaven and on the altar below we have a symbolic representation.

But, the Church in the 11th century said “No” to Berengarius because his doctrine did not honor the realism and unequivocal meaning that we see in the sixth chapter of John.  “My Flesh is real food and my Blood is real drink.”  We saw last week that when Jesus was given the opportunity to offer a softer symbolic interpretation of his teaching, he upped the intensity by saying, according to the Greek, that unless you GNAW on my Flesh and drink my Blood, you have no life within you (v. 53).

It’s in this response to Berengarius that the Church develops this notion of trans-substantiation:  that the substance of the bread and wine changes while what we see remains bread and wine.  Jesus is really and fully present in this consecrated bread and wine.

People of God, the Eucharist is a difficult teaching: it is shocking, always has been, always will be.  Good and smart people like Martin Luther, John Calvin and some contemporary theologians have looked for ways to explain it, to get around its unequivocal meaning.  But, the Church has stubbornly said, “No” to those who would domesticate this teaching.  And, so the question goes out to you and to me.  When you hear this teaching, do you accept it or would you walk away?

“Latinos Transforming U.S. Catholic Church”

A new book, Latino Catholicism: Transformation in America’s Largest Church, focuses on the impact that Latinos are having on the Catholic Church in the United States.  The book’s author is Timothy Matovina, professor of theology and executive director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

The books introduction frames the background: “Catholics comprise the largest religious group in the United States, encompassing nearly a fourth of all U.S. residents.  Hispanics constitute more than a third of U.S. Catholics.  They are the reason why Catholicism is holding its own relative to other religions in the United States.”

Latinos are shaping the American Catholic Church in their advocacy for Hispanic ministry and immigration rights; their participation in parishes, apostolic movements; their responses to the clergy sex abuse; their voting patterns, involvement in faith-based community organizing and proclivity for ritual and devotional traditions.

Is the Decline in Priestly Vocations Ending?

Depends how you look at the situation.  A piece by Anne Hendershott and Christopher White in the Wall Street Journal (April 12) noted that despite predictions in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal about the end of the male celibate priesthood, “Yet today the number of priestly ordinations is steadily increasing. “  They describe the recent construction of new seminaries, the expansion of others, and a few, who have turned away candidates for lack of seminary space.

On the other hand, this stable inflow each year of new ordinands does not compensate for the number of diocesan priests dying or departing the priesthood annually  via retirements.  In 2010 there were 467 priestly ordinations, but there were 766 losses for a net loss of -301.  Many dioceses deal with this shortfall, in part, by bringing in international priests who have been ordained outside the United States.  The latter used to be a missionary country (cf. Maryknoll), but now we are dependent upon foreign priests to meet our parish needs.

Learning from “Former Catholics.”

Father William J. Bryon, S.J., university professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University and Dr. Charles Zech, director of the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova University, employed an on-line survey to learn why some Catholics left the Church and what can be done about it.  Their study found the following:

•  Doctrinal concerns should be dealt with pastoral understanding. It’s not enough to repeat the rule.  Rather, one should offer a reasoned argument and better explanation of points of doctrine and practice that are troubling people.  Some of the issues frequently cited were the exclusion of women from ordination, the perception that people of a homosexual orientation are unwelcome, the complexity of the annulment process, and barring divorced and remarried persons from the sacraments.

•  A fresh explanation of the nature of the Eucharist is needed.   This calls for a creative liturgical, pastoral, doctrinal, and practical response.  The “Sunday obligation” must be explained as an obligation to give thanks, through sacrament and sacrifice, not just to be present in the pews.

•  Parishes need to make an effort to be caring, welcoming communities.  No one should be made to feel like the woman who wrote,
“I was always alone in a crowd where I knew no one land no one knew me.”

•  The quality of preaching needs to improve, as does the image of the clergy—fairly or unfairly—are to often seen as arrogant, distant, unavailable, and uncaring.  Also, better music is needed.

•  On a practical level, many complained about the quality of sound systems in the churches and the difficulty in understanding foreign-born clergy with heavy accents.  Another pulpit-related matter is the perception of too-frequent appeals for money.

Half of Global Christian Population Is Catholic.

            Global Christianity: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population, released in December 2011 by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, came up with the following observations:

• The Catholic Church has 1.1. billion adherents worldwide, representing half of the global Christian population.

•  Brazil has more Catholics than in Italy, France, and Spain combined.  The ten countries with the largest number of Catholics contain more than half (56%) of the world’s Catholics.

•  More than 70% of Catholic live either in the Americas (48%) or in Europe (24%).

Workforce for the Apostolate.

The latest edition of the annual Statistical Yearbook for the Church, published by the Vatican, shows the following in terms of the workforce:

Category                                    Worldwide                                    United States

Bishops                                           5,104                                                    448

Priests                                          412,236                                                42,572

Permanent deacons                    39,564                                                 16,521

Religious brothers                       54,665                                                  4,895

Religious sisters                        721,935                                                 56,878

Catechists                                3,160,628                                              426,365

Total Catholics                1,195,671,000                                     69,795,000


Permanent Diaconate Continues to Grow

The number of permanent deacons in the U.S. has climbed steadily since this ministry was restored in the years following Vatican II to its present total of 17,289.  Some aspects of the Permanent Diaconate include the following:

•  The 131 deaconate formation programs during the 2011-12 year report 2,302 candidates.

•  Deacon formation programs vary considerably according to local needs and situations.  Thirty programs, including the Sacramento Diocese, offer formation in both Spanish and English.

•  Diaconate formation programs differ in their requirements for admission, program duration, number of required courses, the frequency of training sessions meet, participation of spouses, and tuition and fees.  Candidates typically meet one or two evenings or weekends a month over the course of four to six years, for an average of 152 years annually.  N.B.: The Sacramento Diocese has made spouse participation voluntary, but encouraged to participate fully.  Such a shift in policy may attract younger candidates who have children living at home.

•  75% of candidates are in their forties and fifties, with just 4% under 40 and 19% age 60+.   96% are married, 3% are single and never married, nd 1% are widowed or divorced.  29% have a graduate degree, 389% have a  bachelor’s degree, 17% completed some college, and 16% have a high school education or less.

23 Countries with Catholic Populations Over 10 Million

Countries                        Catholics            % Catholic                        Priests            Parishes

Brazil                                    163.2 M                   84.5%                                   20,349               11,407

Mexico                                   99.6 M                   91.9%                                    16,234                 6,744

Philippines                             77.3 M                  82.3%                                     8,966                 3,153

United States                         69.7 M                  22.6%                                    42,572                17,382

Italy                                          57.5 M                   95%                                       48,745                25,692

France                                     47.1 M                     74.9%                                   19,349                15,765

Spain                                      42.9 M                      92.7%                                  24,733                22,890

Colombia                               42.9 M                      94.4%                                    8,943                 4,174

Argentina                               37.7 M                      93.2%                                    5,916                   2,754

Congo, Dem. Rep.               37.7 M                        52.6%                                    5,244                  1,391

Poland                                   36.7 M                        96.2%                                  29,737                 10,302

Peru                                       26    M                        88.6%                                    3,185                    1,561

Germany                               25    M                        30.7%                                   17,234                  11,483

Venezuela                             25.3 M                        87.9%                                    2,691                     1,343

Nigeria                                  23.7 M                        15.5%                                      5,921                     2,891

India                                     19.2 M                           1.6%                                    26,380                    9,990

Canada                                 14.8 M                         43.6%                                      7,892                    4,312

Uganda                                 14.1 M                         45.4%                                       1,942                       427

Tanzania                               13.1 M                         30.6%                                      2,557                        925

Ecuador                                 13    M                        91.9%                                       2,221                      1,301

Chile                                        12.6 M                      74%                                           2,235                        948

Guatemala                            11.4 M                        79.8%                                        1,085                        480

Kenya                                    10.9 M                        27%                                           2,236                        845

FYI/Trends was gleaned from The CARA Report (Vol.  18, #1; Summer 2012).

–Deacon Jim McFadden