Even though Fr. Michael becomes pastor of St. Peter’s this week, he and I decided that I would still prepare the bulletins of July 12 and 19 so that he would have a bit of time to unpack and to acclimatize himself in his new position. He will begin doing the bulletin for July 26—Fr. Kurt
On January 25, 1959, before a small group of cardinals gathered in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, the newly elected Pope John XXIII announced his intention to call an ecumenical council. It would become the Second Vatican Council. The announcement caught everyone by surprise. First of all, an ecumenical or “worldwide” council, such as Vatican II, is a rare event in the life of the Church. Catholics count only 21 such councils in the Church’s 2,000-year history. Since the Protestant Reformation 400 years ago, there have been only two such councils. An announcement such like Pope John’s does not come along every day.
Another cause for surprise had to do with the reason for a new council. Previous councils were all called to respond to some threat facing the Church. The Council of Nicea, for example, was convoked in 325 to address the Arian heresy that was tearing the Church apart. Similarly, the Council of Trent (1545-63) was an attempt to answer the challenge of the Reformation. When Pope John made his announcement, no such threat loomed on the horizon. No obvious enemy mobilized Vatican II.
Instead, Pope John said that the idea for the council came to him as a divine inspiration, “like a flash of heavenly light.” In his announcement, he chose not to identify problems. Rather, he named two positive goals. The first was to promote “the enlightenment, edification and joy” of the entire Church. The second was to reach out to other Christians in a spirit of reconciliation.
The reason for the council was proactive, not reactive. Pope John framed its purpose in the positive terms of hope and opportunity rather than the negative terms of danger and threat. This basic posture gave the bishops who attended Vatican II the freedom to consider a wide array of concerns. One of the first things that Pope John did was send an open-ended letter to all the world’s bishops asking for suggestions for the agenda. As the council unfolded, the language of collaboration, cooperation and dialogue took center stage. In the end, the breadth of topics treated and the positive tone of its final documents set Vatican II apart from all previous ecumenical councils.
When Vatican II began in October of 1962, the Catholic Church was seen by many as a bulwark against the world. At the grass-roots level, the Catholic experience was marked by a rich devotional life, regular sacramental practice and consistent catechesis. Vocations climbed, religious life flourished. The postwar boom, particularly in the United States, brought a period of construction and institutional expansion for schools, hospitals, seminaries and parishes. If this grass-roots vitality fed the faith of thousands, it also kept Catholics somewhat on the margins, separated from the broader society in which they lived.
At the upper levels of the Vatican, this separation took the form of a defensive and reactionary stance toward all things “modern.” Ever since the French Revolution, with its violent and anticlerical cast, the papacy had thrown up the defenses. Statements from the Vatican condemned new democratic movements, new scientific theories, and new currents in art and culture. All of these developments were seen as an assault on the authority of the Church and a threat to the ancient truths of the tradition. Such a siege mentality continued well into the 20th century.
In this context, Pope John’s vision came as a breath of fresh air. In his opening speech at the council, the pope publicly disagreed with those “prophets of gloom” around him who saw in modern times only “prevarication and ruin.” Instead, the pope believed God was moving humanity to a new order of human relations. The Church needed aggiornamento—or “updating”—not because the Church felt threatened but because of its great desire to share Christ with others.
John XXIII was no naïve optimist. As a papal diplomat in Bulgaria, Turkey and postwar France, he had seen the horrors of war and the tremors shaking Europe to its core. He became pope in the shadow of the Holocaust, amidst the dismantling of colonialism, the rise of the Cold War and on the cusp of a technological transformation unlike anything the world had seen since the Industrial Revolution. What is remarkable is that Pope John—and by extension the Second Vatican Council—did not retreat from the challenges of the times. His experience taught him that the Church cannot escape the world or simply pronounce judgment on it.
Instead, the Church must engage the world in a positive way, he said. He encouraged the council to use “the medicine of mercy rather than of severity.” We must demonstrate the truth of our teaching and not simply condemn those who disagree, he thought. In the end, he said that the Church should “show herself to be the loving mother of all, benign, patient, full of mercy and goodness” toward all.
Just to indicate how far we have come in this regard since Vatican II, I was pleased to read recently that Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Texas, had knelt with a dozen other priests in a silent prayer for George Floyd holding a “Black Lives Matter” sign. Several days later he received a phone call from Pope Francis, who thanked him and the priests for their witness. In an earlier era, he might have expected censure from the Vatican which has often been associated with social conservatism.
Pope Francis himself had posted a message to Americans on the Vatican website saying “he witnessed with great concern the disturbing social unrest” in the United States and calling Floyd’s death “tragic.” “My friends,” he wrote, “we cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life.”
As followers of Jesus today and members of the Catholic Church, each one of us is called to bring the teachings of Jesus as manifested in God’s Word and apply them in the contemporary context in which we find ourselves. The culture and the circumstances today may be different, but the values, attitudes and principles are very much the same.
FIFTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Biblical texts often link the fate and well-being of humanity with the created world. Promising the exiled Israelites an exodus from Babylon, our passage from Isaiah 55 illustrates the reliability of God’s Word and the certainty of God’s purposes with an example that echoes that of Psalm 65.
God’s watering of the earth will result in food to feed people. The two last verses of that chapter, though left out of our Lectionary reading, portray the people not only exiting Babylon in joy and peace but also being accompanied by the singing and clapping of mountains and hills.
Similarly, Matthew’s parable of the sower makes the connection by presenting humans as soil. After all, in Genesis, the first human is created out of soil, and the word Adam can be translated as (an) “earthling.” Like Isaiah 55, Matthew hints at the blessing of a not-yet-fully-visible revelation (verses 16-17).
Hope for humanity and the whole creation in the midst of, and in spite of, a difficult situation is also found in today’s reading from Romans. Beginning with present suffering, Paul refers to a revelation and a first tasting of a coming glory to assert that humanity and the whole creation share in suffering and in longing for redemption. Since Paul had said earlier that humanity has been incapacitated by sin and death through Adam, he may be alluding to Adam’s vocation to do something with the created world (Genesis 1:26). If so, Adam’s subjection to sin and death might also end up subjecting creation to futility (Romans 8:20). If the subjugation and the redemption of humanity and the created world are not only shared but also related, humanity and the created order should be in solidarity instead of in enmity or competition with each other.
Humankind has been shown many ways to follow God’s will and to bear fruit in the world. As Jesus tells the Apostles in today’s Gospel, those who open their eyes to see and ears to hear will be converted and healed. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that through God’s Word and the Spirit, followers bear fruit in the world. “The Decalogue, the Sermon on the Mount, and the apostolic catechesis describe for us the paths that lead to the Kingdom of heaven. Sustained by the grace of the Holy Spirit, tread them, step by step, by everyday acts. By the working of the Word of Christ, we slowly bear fruit in the Church to the glory of God” (#1724).
In the parable of the sower, Jesus reveals that when the seed is planted on rich soil, the Word of God is understood and the hearer bears fruit. The Catechism explains that it is not enough to hear and understand what Jesus teaches; action must be taken. Just as Isaiah states that the Word shall do God’s will, the one who hears the Word should make a return to the Lord. The Catechism states, “Jesus’ invitation to enter his kingdom comes in the form of parables, a characteristic feature of his teaching. Through his parables he invites people to the feast of the kingdom, but he also asks for a radical choice: to gain the kingdom, one must give everything. Words are not enough; deeds are required. The parables are like mirrors for man: will he be hard soil or good earth for the word? (#546).
For Your Reflection: How does our parish offer nourishment to parishioners so the Word of God will fall on rich soil? For what do you think all of creation is groaning? When in your life have you been fertile soil ready to hear God’s Word and bear its fruit in the world? When have you been like a thorny area and, because of your anxiety, unable to hear God’s Word and bear fruit?
MEMORIAL OF ST. KATERI TEKAKWITHA
Tuesday, July 14, 2020
The blood of martyrs is the seed of saints. Nine years after the Jesuits Isaac Jogues and Jean de Lelande were tomahawked by Iroquois warriors, a baby girl was born near the place of their martyrdom, Auriesville, New York. Her mother was a Christian Algonquin, taken captive by the Iroquois and given as wife to the chief of the Mohawk clan, the boldest and fiercest of the Five Nations. When she was four, Tekakwitha lost her parents and little brother in a smallpox epidemic that left her disfigured and half blind. She was adopted by an uncle, who succeeded her father as chief. He hated the coming of the Blackrobes—Jesuit missionaries—but could do nothing to them because a peace treaty with the French required their presence in the villages with Christian captives. She was moved by the words of three Blackrobes who lodged with her uncle, but fear of him kept her from seeking instruction. Tekakwitha refused to marry a Mohawk brave, and at 19 finally got the courage to take the step of converting. She was baptized with the name Kateri-Cartherine on Easter Sunday.
Now she would be treated as a slave. Because she would not work on Sunday, Kateri received no food that day. Her life in grace grew rapidly. She told a missionary that she often meditated on the great dignity of being baptized. She was powerfully moved by God’s love for human beings and saw the dignity of each of her people. She was always in danger, for her conversion and holy life created great opposition. On the advice of a priest, Kateri stole away one night and began a 200-mile walking journey to a Christian Indian village at Sault St. Louis, near Montreal.
For three years she grew in holiness under the direction of a priest and an older Iroquois woman, giving herself totally to God in long hours of prayer, in charity, and in strenuous penances. At 23, Kateri took a vow of virginity, an unprecedented act for an Indian woman whose future depended on being married. She found a place in the woods where she could pray an hour a day—and she was accused of meeting a man there!
Her dedication to virginity was instinctive: Kateri did not know about religious life for women until she visited Montreal. Inspired by this, she and two friends wanted to start a community, but the local priest dissuaded her. She humbly accepted an “ordinary” life. She practiced extremely severe fasting as penance for the conversion of her nation. Kateri Tekakwitha died the afternoon before Holy Thursday. Witnesses said that her emaciated face changed color and became like that of a healthy child. The lines of suffering, even the pockmarks, disappeared, and the touch of a smile came upon her lips. She was beatified in 1980 and canonized in 2012.
THEOLOGY ON TAP
Last week in the bulletin I wrote about St. Peter’s Gala being postponed to sometime in October this year due to the problems with large gatherings during the pandemic. This week I am mentioning another wonderful summer event that St. Peter’s has hosted in the past years, namely, Theology on Tap. Usually on Monday evenings throughout the month of July as many as fifty (sometimes more) young adults would come down to our auditorium first for some food and then to hear a speaker on a topic very much geared to them. Following the speaker, a lively sharing would follow. Unfortunately Theology on Tap also had to be cancelled this summer, but we are hoping to have it back on the agenda in summer 2021.
A SUMMERTIME CHUCKLE
A visitor to a certain college paused to admire the new Hemingway Hall that had been built on campus. “It’s a pleasure to see a building named for Ernest Hemingway,” he said.
“Actually,” said his guide. “It’s named for Joshua Hemingway—no relation.”
The visitor was astonished. “Was Joshua Hemingway a writer also?”
“Yes, indeed,” said his guide. “He wrote a check!”