Searching for meaning in great tragedy

When we see large tragedies like the Newtown shooting, they’re often followed by stories of people helplessly searching for ways to “do something and you don’t know what to do”. They feel helpless. It’s a natural feeling, but I wonder if people who have a deep abiding faith are less prone to it.

There’s something in us that sees a tremendous evil and wants to do something, anything, in response. We saw it after Columbine, after 9/11, after Aurora, and after natural disasters like Katrina and now Sandy.

While there are some obvious ways to help—blood drives, giving to charity, etc—still people need a way to memorialize, to take an existential stand against the evil they confront. So either they build memorials of flowers and teddy bears and stand awkwardly in front of them, perhaps after traveling to the place under a kind of compulsion, or they do the same memorial building and candlelighting, but turn to the Lord in prayer, knowing that only the Father who loves so much that He gave His only begotten Son, His pure, innocent, unblemished Son to die to turn death from meaningless into eternal life.

This is the only way that we can make sense of how we feel after such incidents. My prayer is that all who are confronted by this evil can turn to the Lord to find the meaning and consolation they seek.

Photo: Boston Globe/AP

Of Gnostics and Religion Professors

The Gospel of Jesus Wife papyrus

In September, Harvard Divinity School professor Karen King ignited an international controversy when she claimed to have found a piece of what she claims is a fourth-century papyrus that refers to Jesus’ “wife”.[1] (To be fair, she doesn’t claim that she believes that Jesus was married, only that whomever wrote the scroll believed He was. Of course, most of the media coverage didn’t make the fine distinction and played it up as evidence that orthodox Christianity was wrong and/or hiding the truth.) There’s been plenty of criticism of King and her claim and even the way she went public about it.

However, on Sunday the Boston Globe–which was one of the few media outlets that King and Harvard went to for an exclusive on the papyrus in September– did a profile of King and her background.

What I find interesting in the profile is how King–an Episcopalian raised as a Methodist and now a professor of religion who was one of the founders of the women’s studies department at Harvard–views what many of us consider heretical–or at least heterodox–beliefs in the past and today.

King began to consider how this insight might apply to the Nag Hammadi literature and other ancient Coptic texts discovered since the late 1800s, which included prayers, revelations, and teachings of Jesus that ultimately did not make it into the New Testament canon in later centuries. The “Gospel of Mary of Magdala,” for example, presents Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ favorite disciple and has her relating a strange vision she alone received from him.

All these texts had been lumped together as “heretical” or “Gnostic.” King began to argue that those labels were misnomers. When the texts were written, there was no such thing as orthodox Christianity — or Gnosticism, she argued. There were only tiny communities of a minority faith, scattered across the ancient Mediterranean, each caught up in their own political and cultural realities, and struggling to make sense of Jesus’ teachings and death.

“I started seeing that the lines that were being drawn between orthodox or correct Christianity and heretical Christianity couldn’t be drawn that way,” she said. “I had to step back and start sort of fresh and say, ‘What are the similarities and differences among [ancient] Christians, and how might we account for them, in terms of them belonging to this place?’ ”

King argued that these texts should be seen as part of the story of Christianity, not as distortions of a complete belief system articulated by the Gospels and handed down by the fathers of the early church. She contends that the early history of Christianity needs to be rewritten to include these previously marginalized voices, taking into account how “a limited set of perspectives has shaped what people believe.”

From a liberal Protestant perspective this makes perfect sense. When you reject the authority of the Church, then who’s to say what is authoritative or orthodox? The decisions on canon, for example, are just arbitrary. History is written by the victors and orthodoxy is determined by those who hold hierarchical power. From there, it’s just a matter of deciding what you want to consider is authoritative.

However, from a traditional Catholic Christian perspective, this doesn’t make any sense because, of course, there was an authority in the ancient world that wasn’t just based on powerful sects, but on the office of apostle starting with those directly appointed by Christ and then by their descendants. We believe that the Holy Spirit protects and guides the Church, especially in this case with the understanding of what is inspired by Spirit and what isn’t and thus what is canon and what isn’t. but once Luther and Calvin and the rest threw out the authority of the Church, then the logical consequence is to throw out that which was decided by the Church.

It’s also a case of reading into the past the biases and categories of our present ideologies. The fact that King is a liberal academic–which we know from her background–influences her mindset. This happens across the academic humanities disciplines, so that, for example, literary critics turn Jane Austen into a 20th-century feminist or ancient Gnostics into liberal Protestants. I’ve even seen an anti-Catholic fundamentalist turn Anabaptists, Maniecheans, and Gnostics into orthodox Christians so that he could trace his splinter of Protestantism back to the apostles without having to acknowledge that indeed had split from the Catholic Church.

So when liberal academics like King or Elaine Pagels or the like attach some equal significance to some scrap of payprus that any random person could have jotted down that they do to the Gospel of Mark[2], it shouldn’t surprise us because they’re just being consistent with their overall approach to faith, religion, and the world.

Photo from Harvard Divinity School and Karen King 2012.

  1. “Historian’s finding hints that Jesus was married”, The Boston Globe, September 19, 2012  ↩


  3. It’s like someone in the year 3812 finding a scrap of page from The DaVinci Code and concluding from it that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene.  ↩


Pats’ fan Moms at Mass

Patriots fan face painting

I’ve noticed a trend in the last couple of weeks of moms of school-age kids showing up to Mass in jeans and Patriots jerseys. Now, people dress down all year ’round, not just during football season, and men and children are dressed down just as frequently. So why is it that these jersey-wearing moms stand out so much?

Maybe I just expect more from your average mom than going to Mass looking like you’re heading to the sports bar for the game (and I do think the outfits are entirely appropriate in that context). I think of moms as being the ones who set the standard for our appearances in public. So when they just as slovenly and out of place, it strikes me as especially odd.

Melanie’s theory–which addresses general slovenly dress– is that many women don’t have appropriate dress clothes anymore, that dress clothes are those more appropriate for a night of clubbing than Sunday morning church. It’s possible. Certainly I found that to be true of high school girls when I was leading Confirmation preparation in a parish. We had to give exact instructions to the girls about the outfits to wear to Mass or they’d show up in low-cut, off-the-shoulder blouses and mini-skirts.

What’s especially bizarre is that these are the 15% motivated to actually come to Mass on Sunday morning.

Photo by bearklektor, on Flickr

John 6:60 is Consolation for Priests, Deacons, Bishops

Ghirlandaio, Domenico - Calling of the Apostles - 1481

While much of the discussion of the Mass readings for this 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time focuses on the second reading from the fifth chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, with it’s talk of submission, I think today’s Gospel shouldn’t be overlooked.

I particular, I think the end of the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel should provide consolation to every priest and deacon who’s ever given a homily or teaching that’s fallen flat.

Imagine: Jesus has just laid out for his disciples the awesome reality of the Eucharist–the source and summit of the Christian life and the centerpiece of Christian faith and worship for the rest of time. And what was their reaction? Most of his disciples walked out on him, unable to accept what this man they’d been calling messiah and teacher was telling them. And as for the rest,cell, Peter sums it up on their behalf, saying essentially, We don’t know what to make of this crazy talk but we trust you so we’ll stick around. That is, unless you can find someone else with the words of eternal life but who doesn’t have crazy “eat my flesh” teachings.

Even Jesus seems resigned to losing them all as a result of preaching the truth: Will you leave me too? It’s like he expects them to.

Again, this should console every Christian preacher and teacher, every bishop, priest and deacon. Get up and preach the hard truths. Don’t water it down, don’t apologize for it. Some will walk away angry. Some will stay, confused but loyal. And some few may actually understand. But whatever the case rest assured you aren’t the first to go there. It even happened to God.

N.B. We did have an awesome homily on Ephesians 5 today by Fr. Matt, the priest in residence at our parish who is the director of the archdiocesan Office for the New Evangelization of Youth and Young Adults. Among other things, he incorporated the 1986 Peter Cetera hit “The Glory of Love”, especially these lyrics:

I’m a man who will fight for your honor/
I’ll be the hero you’re dreaming of/
We’ll live forever/
Knowing together that/
We did it all for the glory of love

He said this is both what a Christian husband says to his wife and what Christ says to us.

Then Fr. Matt gently castigated those who are uncomfortable with Ephesians 5 but have no trouble with reading 50 Shades of Grey, which really does demean and subjugate a woman.

He hit this one out of the ballpark. And did so despite the fact that Anthony bolted from the pew in the middle of the homily to find his mother who was with Ben in the back of the church. But that’s another story.


The Life of the Mind for a Good Marriage

Before I was married I used to lead a Bible study in my parish that brought together mainly young adults. As the resident guy with the Theology degree, I became the study leader, leading the discussion and doing the research into what we were reading at the time. I enjoyed it immensely, because it was a great social gathering (we always went for food and drink at Salem Beer Works afterward) as much as a wonderful intellectual and spiritual stimulation. I loved exercising those theology muscles again.

(The memory of the Bible study is also near and dear to my heart because it’s where I truly started the courtship of Melanie. After our near-disastrous beginning, she started coming to Bible study with her roommate and she saw I wasn’t just an impetuous cad.)

We haven’t had anything like the Bible study in a long time. After we and our friends started getting married and having kids, getting a free night to have people over the house became more and more difficult. Then we had to up and move to the South Shore of Boston, at least an hour away from our old place (at best). I’ve been attending the Men’s Group in our parish, but it’s not the same.

However, Melanie just started something new, which brings back the old theological joy, while also making me appreciate all over again what a smart, intellectual woman I married. Someone (I forget who, sorry) linked to 2006 academic article by Dr. Scott Hahn published in the journal “Letter & Spirit”. It was entitled “The Authority of Mystery: The Biblical Theology of Pope Benedict XVI” (PDF). It looked intriguing so I downloaded it to my iPad, but I was having the hardest time reading it. Maybe it’s the lack of hard theological reading lately or just the many nights of sleep interrupted by wakeful children, but I couldn’t grasp it.

However, when I mentioned this, Melanie asked me to start reading it aloud to her. So I did as she cooked and cleaned in the kitchen, with punctuations from children seeking a drink or something. And what do you know? It worked. Suddenly I was grasping it. Not only that, but we start discussing it as we went, digging into the meaning, applying to our own situations or more broadly. As if by magic, we were back in our dating days, when we’d have long intellectual discussions while sitting in my car in front of Melanie’s house, as I was dropping her off from a date. Or standing by the door of my house after Bible study, her hand on the doorknob, for two hours.

A large part of our mutual attraction was indeed the intellectual curiosity and capacity of the other, but as we settled into the routine of family life, we seemed to have let that slide somewhat.

(While I’m shallow enough to admit that Melanie’s good looks were an equal part of my attraction to her, I’m also lucky that when Melanie considered me, looks were not as important as intellect.)

I’m reminded again what a blessing it is to have a wife with whom I share not just so many interests, but whose differences from me are also intriguing. I’m not a big poetry or “literature” fan (I like books just fine, but serious English Lit eludes me), but with Melanie I can begin to appreciate it. Likewise, Melanie has never been big on politics or science, but she likes to talk with me about them. And when it comes to faith and theology, that is a shared love we dig deep in together.

Some of the best husband-wife couples I know include two great intellects in them, which seems to spur both on to greater accomplishments. I’m thinking of Scot and Kimberly Hahn for one and Phil and Leila Lawler for another. Certainly, the life of the mind is a key element to a happy marriage, I think.


Memorial of Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati

July 4 is the memorial of Pier Giorgio Frassati, the young man from Turin, Italy, who died in the early 1920s and who has become an unofficial patron for youth and young adults of our modern times.

I’ve maintained webpages devoted to Pier Giorgio online since about 1994 or 1995, when they lived at my site. Over the years, they’ve received tens of thousands of hits from all over the world from people seeking to learn more about this young man who has been an inspiration for me.

If you don’t know Pier Giorgio, I encourage you to learn more about him, perhaps from the several books written about him which I’ve linked from those pages. He’s certainly well worth knowing. And please pray to him for intercessions so that he can be canonized. I think it would be a boon for the Church.


Praying for my mom

As I’ve been writing on Twitter and Facebook this afternoon, my mom is very sick. She’s had replacement knees for several years and a problem with them getting infected. Twice now, she’s had to have one of the replacement knees removed for a six-week period while they dose with her antibiotics to knock the infection back.

The most recent surgery was a couple of weeks ago, which left her with a stent in her leg. There was concern ahead of the surgery that she might be too anemic or that there wouldn’t enough bone left to re-attach the surgical implant. They were worried they would end up amputating or—worst case—we’d lose her.

Since then she’s been in a rehab hospital and just came home this past week with a visiting nurse each day. Yesterday, she had a bad reaction while taking her IV meds and my sister took her to the ER. Last night, she asked the ER doc if he’d talked to my mom’s infectious disease doctor about whether my mom should be admitted or sent home. The ER doc said he had and that the infectious disease doc had been non-committal. So she went home.

This morning, my mom had a bad reaction again and when my sister called the infectious disease doctor, he said he hadn’t talked to the ER doc! She called 911 again and she’s back in the hospital.

My mom’s labs from yesterday came back and she is septic with a number of infections in her blood, including e. coli. They are moving her to ICU now.

We’re very worried. Please keep her in your prayers.


Do you belong to a Foursquare church?

St. Joseph on Foursquare

Do you belong to a Foursquare church? No, not this kind of Foursquare Church. Thiskind of Foursquare church. The kind you find on the social networking site Foursquare.

(In case you don’t know what Foursquare is, it’s a location-based social network that is used primarily with other social-networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. A user “checks in” to a venue, sometimes providing a pithy comment, a photo, or a tip at the same time. If you check-in to a location often enough, you can become its “mayor,” which usually only affords bragging rights, but in some cases can result in special “mayoral” benefits from an Internet-savvy retailer.)

Some have dismissed Foursquare as another example of the ability of social-networking addicts to share too much of the minutiae of their lives, which can be true. Just as no one needs to know every time you retire to the bathroom on Twitter, neither does everyone need to know every time you stop for gas at the service station or pick up a value meal at McDonald’s. for my part, I only use Foursquare when I actually have something pithy to say. (If you’d still like to check-in, say to maintain your mayorship, without having anything to say, you can check-in without sending the notice to your Twitter or Facebook stream.) In any case, it can be another fun way to get to know your social-media friends and to share a little bit of yourself with people who live far from you.

But Foursquare can also be an opportunity to live out your Christian witness. Using the tools that Foursquare gives you, you can let your check-ins speak to others. For example, I’m the “mayor” of my parish, St. Joseph in Holbrook, MA. If you look at the page for my parish on Foursquare, you will see that I’ve made sure that all of the parish’s contact information is correct, including the address. I’ve also used the tips feature to leave information about the parish’s men’s group. And when we have special occasions at the parish, like the recent May crowning, I include a photo in my check-in.

Similarly, I check in to my workplace daily at the Archdiocese of Boston’s Pastoral Center in Braintree. On that venue page, I’ve made sure the address and phone number are correct as well as putting our Twitter page there. My tip for the Pastoral Center lists the time for daily Mass in our Bethany Chapel, inviting the public to attend and stay for lunch afterward in our cafeteria. I could also leave a tip to check out the small religious goods shop run by the Sister Servants of the Divine Master off the lobby. Or to make an appointment to do genealogical research in the archdiocesan Archives. Or something similar.

The point is that just by checking in on Foursquare, you can provide an invitation for the casual user, someone who may just be in the area or who follows you on Twitter or Foursquare or Facebook. to experience the prompting of the Holy Spirt. It’s certainly not the entirety of Christian witness (we should all be doing a lot more than that in our daily lives to share the Gospel with others), but it’s just one small way to do your part to make Christ present in life. Even in the social networking world on Foursquare, Facebook, and Twitter.


Worrying about my kids’ faith formation

Cradle Catholic

Now that Isabella is five years old (where id the time go?!), Melanie and I have been talking about her education, which we expect to begin formally in the fall as homeschooling. While Melanie is taking the lead here, I want to be involved, especially in the subjects in which I have competence including her faith formation.

I want to make sure that all of our kids are better off than many of the kids I used to see in religious education, many of whom couldn’t name the Ten Commandments or the 12 Apostles and didn’t recognize who Adam or Noah were. Now, as I’ve chronicled here and on my Facebook page, it’s obvious that our four children are doing pretty well in this area and by their prayers and how they talk to us we know that they are developing a personal relationship with Christ. Yet I was emphasizing to Melanie how important it is that Isabella learn some things by rote as well. I want her to be able to answer the question, “Why did God create me?” I want her to be able to name the 12 Apostles and the Ten Commandments and to know the Patriarchs of the Old Testament and all that stuff that I didn’t learn in my hippy-dippy “Jesus is my pal” religious education back in the ’70s.

But Melanie assured me that Bella and the others are doing okay. For a five year old, Isabella is very advanced. And I saw proof of it this morning. Before breakfast, she was sitting on the couch with me and she picked a children’s book of the Way of the Cross. Even though she can’t read, she was able to identify by the images all of the Stations of the Cross and give them their proper names. She picked out St. Veronica and declared her to be her new favorite saint. In the back of the book she recognized the Regina Caeli, even though she cannot yet read, and then began to sing it. In Latin. A few minutes later, she went to take care business in the bathroom and while in there she regaled the whole house with the Litany of the Saints.

So I guess I don’t have to worry too much about whether she’s learning her faith. I don’t want to relax too much, but I think I don’t have to be afraid as long as she keeps reading good books, still loves to go to Mass, we keep praying with her, and we keep modeling our own faith to her. In the end, we have to leave the rest of it up to the Holy Spirit.

This parenting stuff is hard.


Review: “Between the Savior and the Sea” by Bob Rice

Bob Rice’s “Between the Savior and the Sea” is a novelization of the public ministry of Jesus with a focus on St. Peter. It is not a theological treatise, although as Bob says, he based his story on solid theology. Neither is it private revelation, although it is faithful to the public revelation of the Four Gospels. Instead, what Bob has created is a narrative bridge that fills in the gaps of what the Gospels choose to tell us, creating a story that brings the truths about Christ and His apostles to us in new ways that are uniquely suited to a culture such as ours that consumes such stories for hours per day.

To be clear, Bob is not claiming that the way he depicts Jesus, Peter, Mary or any of the figures in the books is the way they actually were. “Between the Savior and the Sea” is undoubtedly not what really happened in the pubic ministry of Christ. But it could be what happened as nearly everything rings true to what Scripture and Tradition tell us.

“Between the Savior and the Sea” accomplishes what every work of Christian fiction should aspire to, namely that as I read it and when I was done I was brought closer to Christ, to His Church, and to His sacraments. At times, I was brought to the point of tears as I contemplated Christ’s love and His sacrifices. Particularly moving was the scene in which Mary receives the Body of Christ from the cross and contemplates Him as the newborn baby He once was.

The focus on St. Peter is especially satisfying. I’ve always loved Peter because it is so easy to identify with him. Having been chosen by the Lord, Peter so obviously fails again and again, and yet manages to also express profound truths about the Lord. In his denial of Jesus, he’s not quite like Judas in the depth of his betrayal, but even so he shows in his life the forgiveness that could have been Judas’ had he not given into despair. Bob’s depiction of Peter’s soaring love for Christ, his self-doubt, his final thrust of himself at the mercy of the Lord all resonate with my own relationship with Christ. How often do I fall in to sin? Yet, even St. Peter failed the Lord at times and look at he got back up time and again to go forward for the Lord.

Some will be bothered by the colloquial language used by the characters in the novel as being too 21st-century American. Others will not like how one or another character does not live up to their own mental images of these people who are in many ways as much a part of our lives as our own families. It can be hard to let encounter someone else’s interpretation of that person.

The research that Bob put into the book shows clearly. He went to the Holy Land and stood in the places he describes and in that way, we stand there too.

At the beginning of Holy Week, this is a perfect time to read this book. It will be good spiritual reading and nourishment for your contemplation of the Passion and Resurrection. If you have a Kindle or a device that can show Kindle books, then you can download the book and be reading it within minutes.

Personal Disclosure: Bob and I went to school together at Franciscan University of Steubenville, but my opinion of his book would be the same regardless.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”