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June 16, 2012

Changing times: The church in the world - The church and its divorced-remarried members - Vast implications of new book on God as love

1. Noteworthy new book: "God Is Love."
2. Pope: Church's love for divorced-remarried.
3. Parish support for the engaged and married.
4. Current quotes to ponder:
a) Communications and faith, 21st-century style.
b) Upcoming state-level voting on marriage.
5. Changing times: The church in the world.
6. Evangelization and Christians in the world.
7. U.S. bishops plan work and economy message.

1. Noteworthy New Book: "God Is Love"

I do not usually employ this space to recommend a book. But I enjoyed a new book titled "God Is Love: The Heart of Christian Faith" (Liturgical Press) more than any I've read on faith or Christian life in a very long time. Its author is Redemptorist Father Anthony Kelly, an Australian theologian.

I suspect that homilists, educators of many kinds, retreat groups and countless individuals will profit from this insightful book.

The understanding that believers have of God can influence their self-understanding profoundly and shape their behavior as well. So if nothing else, a focus on God as love seems to me healthy and positive. I can well imagine this book contributing valuably to pastoral ministries.

Father Kelly teaches at the Australian Catholic University. He is a member of the International Theological Commission, whose members are appointed by the pope.

"At every juncture God invites us to participate through our own action in the Love that God is," Father Kelly writes. He affirms that "a healthy sense of the inexhaustible and ever-active Love of God . . . overflows into all aspects of Christian life."

Actually, the author says, we are "not spectators, but participants" in God's love. In a chapter on the Holy Spirit, Father Kelly explains that a "believer does not behold God from the outside, as it were, but lives the divine life from within."

Thus, "to believe is to participate in the [Trinity's own] circulation of life and love."

Father Kelly's approach to divine love is not of a sentimental variety. Nor does it reflect the sort of sweet thinking about God that is divorced from life as we know it with all its difficulties and complexities. Father Kelly writes:

"The meaning of God as Love is not found in some fantastic bubble of religious sentiment floating far above and away from the evils we suffer and cause. Rather, it is crystallized in resources that are given us to face life in all its darkness and problems."

"Love is reshaping the universe in its entirety," Father Kelly states. This conviction leads in the book to fascinating discussions of heaven, the resurrection of Christ, the human body and Mary.

I would not recommend "God Is Love" just for its discussion of heaven, but I suspect a few readers will conclude that this brief section alone makes the book worthwhile.

"Our going to heaven is first of all God's coming to us," Father Kelly says.

He writes of the resurrection that "in Christ's rising from the dead, he has not left our humanity or our world behind." Moreover, he observes, "faith in the risen One affects our sense of the final shape of reality -- the world is already on the way to transformation."

"God Is Love" offers readers "a meditation on what it means to identify God as love." Father Kelly insists that "it is God who defines what love originally and ultimately means."

In the universe of the God who is love, "self-absorption and self-indulgence are replaced by self-sacrificing, other-regarding love," according to Father Kelly. He makes clear that "the demands of love are always excessive."

2. Pope on Church's Love for Divorced-Remarried

Divorced Catholics who have remarried without receiving an annulment of a first marriage were the subject of a question asked of Pope Benedict XVI during a June 2 Evening of Witness in Milan, Italy. The event was part of the World Meeting of Families, sponsored in Milan by the Pontifical Council for the Family.

Five couples and families were invited to ask a question of the pope. A couple from Brazil inquired about the church's relationship with divorced-remarried Catholics. Pope Benedict's response accented the church's love for its divorced-remarried members and said that, in their own way, they witness within the larger church to the meaning of marriage.

The church loves these people, "but it is important they should see and feel this love," Pope Benedict said. In this he saw "a great task for a parish, a Catholic community, to do whatever is possible to help them to feel loved and accepted, to feel that they are not 'excluded,' even though they cannot receive absolution or the Eucharist."

Divorced-remarried people need to "see that, in this state too, they are fully a part of the church," the pope said.

"Perhaps," he suggested, "even if it is not possible to receive absolution in confession, they can nevertheless have ongoing contact with a priest, with a spiritual guide." The pope considered support for them in this form "very important, so that they see that they are accompanied and guided."

Pope Benedict also considered it "very important" that divorced-remarried people "truly realize they are participating in the Eucharist if they enter into a real communion with the body of Christ." The pope said that "even without 'corporal' reception of the sacrament, they can be spiritually united to Christ in his body."

On that point, the pope added that "bringing them to understand this is important -- so that they find a way to live the life of faith based upon the Word of God and the communion of the church, and that they come to see their suffering as a gift to the church, because it helps others by defending the stability of love and marriage."

Pope Benedict said he is convinced that the suffering felt by the divorced-remarried in the church, "if truly accepted from within, is a gift to the church." Again, however, he insisted that "they need to know this, to realize that this is their way of serving the church, that they are in the heart of the church."

3. . . . Parish Support for Couples

In his June 2 remarks during the Evening of Witness in Milan, Pope Benedict also underscored the need to offer the church's support to engaged and married couples as a step toward preventing divorce.

"Prevention is very important so that those who fall in love are helped from the very beginning to make a deep and mature commitment," he said. "Then accompaniment during married life is needed so that families are never left on their own but are truly accompanied on their journey."

The church's support for engaged couples also was stressed in Pope Benedict's response to an engaged couple from Madagascar during the Milan evening event. He said that "falling in love is a wonderful thing." However, a couple's initial love needs over time to grow and mature, he added.

The pope said that during a couple's continuing journey of love, it is "important" that they "are not alone" -- that they enjoy support from their parish community, friends and others.

4. Current Quotes to Ponder

Communications and Faith, 21st-Century Style: "The truth of our faith has not changed. Our Tradition -- capital T -- has not changed. But the people of our dioceses are living in a new world. The communications future that we were promised long ago is here right now. . . . We used to ask ourselves, 'What do we need to tell people?' Now we also have to ask ourselves, 'What do people want to hear from us?' They no longer wait for the town crier, or the evening newscast, or the morning paper, or even the Sunday homily to come to them. When our parishioners need information, they seek it and find it. When they need guidance, they look for it. When they need community, they connect to it. They are living in the Digital Continent, as Pope Benedict XVI calls it. . . . We cannot meet these challenges -- and the ones around the corner -- without embracing a culture of innovation and experimentation in communications." (From remarks to the U.S. bishops' June 13-15 national meeting in Atlanta by Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City, chairman of the bishops' Communications Committee)

Upcoming State-Level Voting on Marriage: "The redefinition of marriage in the law is not, and never will be, inevitable. But ongoing vigilance and effort are needed. Maine, Minnesota, Maryland and Washington state are poised to have crucial votes in November. Also, in Illinois a lawsuit was recently introduced challenging the current law around civil unions as discriminatory and calling for the full redefinition of marriage." (From a report to the U.S. Catholic bishops' meeting in Atlanta by Bishop Salvatore Cordileone of Oakland, Calif., chairman of the bishops' Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage)

5. Changing Times: The Church in the World

The time of Vatican Council II "was a time of optimism. In many ways both the church and the world seemed to be going in the right direction, sharing a common concern to foster progress and equity," Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, Ireland, said in a June 11 speech to the International Eucharistic Congress held in that city.

The archbishop examined the strengths of Vatican II's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World in the context of council times and in the changed context of our world nearly five decades later.

"We have passed from the optimism of the 1960s with its dreams of progress through years in which we have more clearly experienced what Pope Benedict calls the 'ambiguity of progress,'" Archbishop Martin observed.

He asked, "Who in the 1960s, when the memory was still strong only 15 years after the end of World War II and its atrocities, would have imagined that further genocides and fratricidal wars of immense proportions would mark Europe and the world just 20 years later?"

Progress, said the archbishop, "is not linear." He pointed out that the council's pastoral constitution spoke not only of the joys and hopes of the human family but also of the grief and anguish of the world's men and women. He said:

"[The pastoral constitution] unambiguously stresses the reality of sin and its effects on human activity, especially when egoism and self-interest begin to dominate the pattern of relations within society."

In the 1960s, when the pastoral constitution was developed, the world was experiencing "great change," Archbishop Martin recalled. "It was the decade of space exploration. Around the world many countries, especially in Africa, attained independence. The map of the world and the list of the members of the United Nations changed."

The council, he said, saw "promptings of the Holy Spirit" in much that was happening. And the council document began to elucidate how the church and its people "could enter into dialogue with the changing culture, placing at its center the dignity of each human being."

Archbishop Martin said, "The pastoral constitution had remarkable effects on the relations between church and politics, and church and culture all over the world."

The document "built a bridge with the realities of the day, going beyond an individualistic morality toward a vision of human solidarity linked with the very mystery of the incarnation" and the light it casts on "the mystery of the family of humankind."

Today, the archbishop said, bridges into the societies we inhabit remain essential. But he suggested that if the church's people are to be constructively present within society, a new evangelization is required. (The archbishop's speech appears in Origins, CNS Documentary Service, June 21, 2012.)

6. . . . Evangelization and Christian Presence in Society

For Archbishop Martin the new evangelization encompasses "a profound renewal in faith" that leads to "a coherent and authentic witness" to that very faith in our world and culture.

In his address to the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, he pointed out that the 2005 encyclical "God Is Love," Pope Benedict XVI's first encyclical, says that "the church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the state."

However, he noted, "the pope quickly adds that the church 'cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument, and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper.'"

Archbishop Martin said that today "there are indeed those who would prefer to see the church totally banished to the margins of the 'public square.'" However, he asked, "Are there today new ways in which we can . . . render the public square a more fertile ground for the Gospel?"

The challenge must be faced "of ensuring that we prepare new generations of Christians who can, with competence and idealism, be truly at the heart of political culture -- alongside persons of different viewpoints, but fully inspired by their Christian vision," Archbishop Martin commented.

He said, "We have to remind ourselves that, while respecting the role of politics in the broad sense, the church has its own responsibilities to ensure the contribution of believers to the building of a strong and cohesive values-oriented society."

Pope John Paul II "never shirked from identifying the challenge to the church to continually renew itself in order to live its mission of service," Archbishop Martin said. That, he added, is why Pope John Paul called the new evangelization "the order of the day."

"Resignation" and just doing enough to keep things ticking "will never renew the church," Archbishop Martin told the Eucharistic Congress. Moreover, he said, "a divided, squabbling church will not attract young people, but only alienate them."

A great characteristic of Jesus Christ's followers is their communion, the archbishop said. "One of the characteristics of authentic Christian living is thus the ability to foster communion even amid the divisions that mark the daily lives of our communities and our world."

He urged the Eucharistic Congress to "help us to reflect on how a church of communion can be a builder of communion in the wider society."

The church must "find new ways of being present" in society, Archbishop Martin insisted. But "to do that," he said, "the church must rediscover its own sense of communion and sense of common purpose, overcoming its internal divisions in a spirit of love of the church and in a dialogue of charity."

7. U.S. Bishops Plan Work and Economy Message

Because poverty continues to grow and the economy still lags, the U.S. Catholic bishops decided during their June 13-15 meeting in Atlanta to develop a message on work and the economy. The message, which may be finalized by the bishops in November, is seen as a way of calling attention to poverty and the struggles of unemployed people.

To be titled "Catholic Reflections on Work, Poverty and a Broken Economy," the message will demonstrate the new evangelization in action and accent the priority of human life and dignity, according to Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

"We can say to our people that we can identify with what you are going through," Bishop Blaire said.

The message, he indicated, will address the moral, social, spiritual and community costs of the economic downturn. It will share and apply Catholic teaching on economic life, work and poverty.

Bishop Blaire said the message will be "a document asking for engagement, asking our people and all who are out there as part of the larger community to engage, to reflect, to pray, to discuss and to see what the Gospel can bring into the economy."

The document's purpose will not be partisan, he said. Its purpose will be to "raise up the principles of the church, the principles of Catholic social teaching, so that the very people you are talking about can struggle with these and evaluate their position in light of the teaching of the church."