Tuesday, May 15, 2012

"The ghetto mentality that pervaded the Church 50 years ago" or Graduation Speakers Redux

A Diocesan priest and regular reader of SFC after reading about Graduation Speakers, alerted me to the commencement address of St. Joseph Seminary in Covington, La this past weekend. The speaker was Bishop Anthony Taylor of Little Rock. Here it is in full without my comments:
Bishop Taylor meets with Pope Benedict XVI
St. Joseph Seminary in Covington, Louisiana--Commencement Address 2012 Over the course of the last few months we bishops of the United States had what was for many of us our first Ad Limina visit to Rome. The best part of our trip was our audience with the Holy Father, which highlighted for me what a grace the upcoming Year of Faith can be for us. This Year of Faith begins on October 11, 2012--the 50th Anniversary of the beginning of the Second Vatican Council, in which Pope Benedict himself participated as a theological advisor to Cardinal Josef Frings of Cologne.

A fresh reading of the documents of Vatican II will help us see that through this Council the Holy Spirit has laid a solid foundation for the New Evangelization to which we are called to open our hearts today. The reason I have chosen to speak about this today is that through this Year of Faith, the Lord is giving you graduates, and indeed all of you seminarians, special spiritual resources to draw on to enable you to open your hearts to an ever deeper, ever more personal commitment to the Lord!
This Year of Faith has three basic goals: 1) to open our hearts to get to know Jesus better, 2) to open our minds to understand and embrace Jesus' teachings more fully, and 3) then to engage our wills to address today's issues in the light of the Good News of Jesus Christ!

Can you imagine what a different world we would be--indeed, what a different Church we would be--if all of us (all Catholics and especially all priests and seminarians!) had a deep, continually nourished, life-giving relationship with Jesus, embraced his teachings fully and then drew on our faith to address contemporary problems? Goal #1: To get to know Jesus better: You know as well as I do that the only way to get to know Jesus as a friend and source of strength (and not just know about him but to know him on the inside) is by spending time with him and consciously sharing our life with him--like with any other friend, only more so--surely you have already experienced that here at St. Joseph's! We do this by spending time with Jesus in prayer--especially in our daily Holy Hour, ideally in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, in which we make the space and take the time to encounter him in the intimacy of our own heart.

This quiet prayer of listening is essential because it enables us to open our hearts to hear what Jesus wants to say to us on his side of the conversation. I want to encourage you to continue to be faithful to your daily Holy Hour and your daily Mass, even during your Summer break--after all, there is no vacation from a vocation! Goal #2: To embrace Jesus' teachings more fully in the light of the Second Vatican Council: Even though you have not yet begun Theology, I am sure you must already have some familiarity with Vatican II's four great constitutions on the Liturgy, on Sacred Scripture, on the Church itself, and on our engagement with the World, but have you also prayed those documents in addition to studying them? I have invited the priests and seminarians of the Diocese of Little Rock to consider substituting a continuous reading of the documents of Vatican II for the Second Reading of the Office of Readings in the Liturgy of the Hours during this Year of Faith. Prayer is what enables the knowledge we have acquired in our brain to travel that longest 18" from our head to our heart, and thereby moving from abstract thought to concrete action, which is necessary for the teaching of Jesus to make a real difference in our life and in the life of others.

I was in Junior High when Mass began to be celebrated in English. I had been an altar boy in Latin since 4th Grade, so I remember vividly the before, during and after of Vatican II. It's really hard for young people today to have any concept of the ghetto mentality that pervaded the Church 50 years ago. I remember well what it was like to be discouraged from reading the Bible out of fear of misinterpreting it and to be forbidden to attend practically anything except funerals in a non-Catholic Church out of fear of contagion. This was not exactly official Church teaching even in those days, but it was the practical reality in many parts of the United States as well as in many other countries. The Council Fathers realized that this is not what Jesus taught and that the time for "circling the wagons" out of fear of the outside world had come to an end. Few of those who today seem so gripped with nostalgia for the time before Vatican II have any actual lived experience of what those days were really like.

So as you pray these documents: 1) I invite you to consider what a blessing it is to be able to participate fully in the Mass, which was not the case prior to Vatican II. In the past much of the laity prayed rosary privately during Mass and very few went to Communion on any given Sunday. In those days it was very much the priest's Mass and only the priest and altar boys had liturgical roles--or indeed could even hear, in Latin, much of what was going on--because a lot of it was whispered. That was the reason for the bells: to alert people that the priest had reached the Consecration and so they should interrupt their rosaries and now direct their attention to the altar. So first, I invite you to consider what a blessing it is to be able to participate fully in the Mass!

 2) I invite you to consider--as you pray these documents--what a blessing it is to be able to study the Scriptures ourselves, now provided with the tools of Catholic biblical scholarship--especially we who live in the Bible Belt. This is something that we now just take for granted. The still-thriving Little Rock Scripture Study was the first program of its kind for the laity, and it was born in Little Rock after the Council to implement Dei Verbum, Vatican II's Constitution on Divine Revelation.

3) I invite you--as you pray these documents--to marvel at the great insight the Holy Spirit gave the Council Fathers in inspiring them to use the inclusive, dynamic image of the People of God to express the common ground we share with other believers. Vatican II enabled us to recognize that as pilgrims on a journey, we should support our fellow non-Catholic believers in our common effort to know and do God's will as best we understand it. This ecumenical approach was the diametrical opposite of what we had been doing up until then!

4) And--as you pray these documents--I invite you to consider the great blessing of the Council's encouragement for us to foster a positive relationship between the Church and all of society--thankful for all of the blessings of human progress in many fields, despite all of the attendant problems and challenges, and specifically Vatican II's insights regarding how to draw on our faith to address contemporary issues. Sure, there are funny stories--and even horror stories--about aberrations and missteps in the implementation of the reforms of the Council... people who acted on what they perceived to be the "spirit of the Council" rather than on what the Council documents really said, but these were the exception and serve only to cloud the picture.

So that's the second goal of the coming Year of Faith. To really hear what Jesus wants to say to us today, we need to study these documents and pray them--much like we pray the Bible in addition to studying it. This will help us to open our hearts to embrace Jesus' teachings with love and live his teachings with the spirit he intends, which is far more than just understanding his teaching intellectually.

Goal #3: To draw on our faith to address today's issues. A major focus of Vatican II--especially in Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World--was to apply Jesus' teachings to contemporary life and you are being prepared to serve the Lord as priests in a United States that is far more secular today than it was 50 years ago. So every four years the USCCB produces a very balanced document titled Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship 1) to clarify why the Church teaches about issues affecting public policy, 2) to remind us of the responsibility of the laity to participate in political life, and 3) to indicate the role of the Church in helping Catholics address political and social questions.

And we do this by helping people develop well-formed consciences. We teach people the virtue of prudence, we remind people that we can never support intrinsically evil acts, and we help people make moral choices that promote the common good. Currently the common good is most threatened in three areas of public policy that will be key issues in the upcoming elections: 1) The Right to Life and the Dignity of the Human Person, 2) Religious Liberty, and 3) Marriage and Family Life. St Joseph Seminary has given you a solid foundation from which to understand what is at stake in each of these areas of controversy--about which there should be no controversy for any Catholic and certainly not any graduate of this seminary! The bottom line is that a consistent ethic of life is central to the teaching of Jesus, and his teaching should guide all that we do in every area of life, public and private.

 Every year at the Chrism Mass when priests renew their priestly promises, the Gospel reading gives us Luke's version of Jesus' mission statement (so to speak). Jesus says: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord." This Year of Faith is to be a "year acceptable to the Lord!" And since every priest is to be an Alter Christus, intimately conformed to Christ by virtue of our ordination, Jesus' entire mission statement should be the mission statement especially of all of you whom God is calling to become priests.

So let us thank the Lord for his desire to enter into a deeper, more personal relationship with us! Let us thank him for his great gift of Vatican II, which helps us to understand his teachings better. And let us ask him to show us--and especially you graduates--how best to give witness to him now in the concrete realities of today's world.