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September 20, 2013

The church and Syria -
Personal but not self-focused homilies -
Catechists need more than enthusiasm -
The pope's amazing letter to a skeptical editor

In this edition:
1. The pope's amazing letter to the editor.
2. Incarnation and the church's purpose.
3. Responding to a nonbeliever's questions.
4. Current quotes to ponder:
a) Church leaders on Syria.
b) To speak of catechists.
5. Homilies grounded in Scripture.
6. Homilies: personal, yet not self-focused.
7. Evangelizers go where the action is.

1. The Pope's Amazing Letter to the Editor

The surprising letter from Pope Francis published Sept. 11 in La Repubblica, a major Italian daily newspaper, undoubtedly will be cited and analyzed for years to come as a model of respectful dialogue with others - dialogue with skeptics and nonbelievers, but with people of other faiths, too, and anyone the church hopes to converse with through the new evangelization.

Undoubtedly the letter also will be studied closely for its inviting way of speaking with others about Christian faith and describing what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Pope Francis' letter responded to several questions asked of him in articles July 7 and Aug. 7 in La Repubblica by Eugenio Scalfari, the newspaper's co-founder and its editor from 1976 to 1996. Scalfari describes himself as a nonbeliever who is not seeking God, but someone nonetheless "interested and fascinated by the preaching of Jesus of Nazareth."

Among questions he addressed to the pope, never anticipating a reply, Scalfari inquired whether the God of Christian faith forgives those who neither believe nor seek faith. Another of his questions inquired how the church assesses those who reject the notion of absolute truth.

In mid-September Scalfari wrote in La Repubblica that he would not have expected Pope Francis to respond to him at such length - the pope's letter, in fact, is some 2,700 words long -- or in "an affectionate and brotherly spirit," as he did. Scalfari pointed out that he, after all, had described God as a comforting invention of the human mind.

Scalfari viewed the pope's letter as a sign of a desire to "overcome hurdles" by speaking with others who search for peace and love.

Pope Francis accented the essential place of dialogue in Christian life today. "It seems very positive, both for us and for the society in which we live, to pause and discuss a reality as significant as faith, which points us to the teachings and person of Jesus," he wrote.

His letter drew a clear line from truth to love to dialogue. "The truth, with the witness of faith, is love," Pope Francis said. Here he quoted his first encyclical, "The Light of Faith," employing the following sentences -- sentences, I dare say, that fast are becoming the encyclical's most-quoted lines:

"Clearly, then, faith is not intransigent, but grows in respectful coexistence with others. One who believes may not be presumptuous; on the contrary, truth leads to humility, since believers know that, rather than ourselves possessing truth, it is truth which embraces and possesses us. Far from making us inflexible, the security of faith sets us on a journey; it enables witness and dialogue with all" (34).

That, Pope Francis said to Scalfari, "is the spirit in which I am writing to you."

Pope Francis described in his letter how faith was born for him out of an encounter with Jesus that gave his life direction. Expanding on this point, he wrote:

"It was a personal encounter that touched my heart and gave new direction and meaning to my life. At the same time, it was an encounter made possible by the community of faith in which I lived and thanks to which I gained access to understanding sacred Scripture, to new life in Christ through the sacraments, to fraternity with all and service to the poor, who are the true image of the Lord."

The pope then said to Scalfari: "From this personal experience of faith lived in the church, I find myself able to listen to your questions and, with you, to seek the paths along which we may walk together."

. . . 2. Incarnation and the Church's Purpose

The friendly manner and tone of Pope Francis' letter to Eugenio Scalfari seemed to astonish news commentators of all kinds. But commentators also found the content of the pope's responses to Scalfari's specific questions of compelling interest.

A person who lives the Christian faith neither flees the world nor seeks dominance, the pope wrote. Instead, he made clear that the Christian is called to serve "the person as a whole" and "all peoples, starting with those living on the margins."

The centrality of Jesus for Christian faith came through loudly and clearly in the pope's letter.

A question that arises repeatedly in the Gospel of Mark ("Who is this?") inquires into the identity of Jesus, the pope observed. He said this question "arises from the recognition of an authority that is not of this world, one that is not intended to impose itself on others but rather is directed to the service of others, to give them freedom and fullness of life."

Christians testify that Jesus "is risen," but the purpose of his resurrection is "not to bring the weight of his triumph to bear on those who have rejected him," the pope explained. Instead, the purpose is "to show that the love of God is stronger than death, that the forgiveness of God is stronger than any sin and that it is worth giving one's life to the end in order to bear witness to this immense gift."

Christian faith professes that God's Son "came to give his life to open the way of love to all people," Pope Francis said. He affirmed Scalfari's recognition "that the Christian faith hinges on the incarnation of the Son of God."

The incarnation "testifies to the astonishing love of God for all people and to the inestimable worth that he sees in them," Pope Francis wrote. His letter concluded with this statement of the church's purpose:

"The church, despite all of the sluggishness, infidelities, errors and sins that are committed and are still being committed by her members, has no other meaning or purpose than to live and witness to Jesus: he who has been sent by 'Abba' 'to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord' (Lk 4:18-19)."

. . . 3. Other Questions Scalfari Raised

Among questions asked of the pope in articles this summer by Eugenio Scalfari in La Repubblica, one inquired about the promise of God to the Jews and whether Christians now would say it all has come to naught.

Pope Francis replied that through "the awful trials of these last centuries, the Jews have preserved their faith in God. And for this, we, the church and the whole human family, can never be sufficiently grateful to them."

By "persevering with faith in the God of the covenant," the Jewish people "remind everyone, including us Christians, that we wait unceasingly as pilgrims for the return of the Lord, and that therefore we should be open to him and not remain entrenched in our achievements," the pope wrote.

He said that "with the help of God, especially in the light of the Second Vatican Council, we have rediscovered that the Jewish people remain for us the holy root from which Jesus was born."

Two of Scalfari's questions, those that undoubtedly drew the most attention in the media, inquired into the attitude of Christians toward nonbelievers and the existence of absolute truth.

"You ask if the God of Christians forgives those who do not believe and who do not seek faith," the pope wrote to Scalfari.

In reply, the pope said that "given the premise . . . that the mercy of God is limitless for those who turn to him with a sincere and contrite heart, the issue for the unbeliever lies in obeying his or her conscience. There is sin, even for those who have no faith, when conscience is not followed." Thus, the pope concluded:

"Listening to and obeying conscience means deciding in the face of what is understood to be good or evil. It is on the basis of this choice that the goodness or evil of our actions is determined."

On the issue of absolute truth, the pope summed up Scalfari's question this way: "You ask me whether it is erroneous or a sin to follow the line of thought which holds that there is no absolute, and therefore no absolute truth, but only a series of relative and subjective truths."

Here the pope explained he "would not speak about 'absolute' truths, even for believers, in the sense that absolute is that which is disconnected and bereft of all relationship," which it is not. "Truth, according to the Christian faith, is the love of God for us in Jesus Christ. Therefore, truth is a relationship."

Each person "receives the truth and expresses it from within, that is to say, according to one's own circumstances, culture and situation in life, etc.," Pope Francis continued. He said, though, that "this does not mean that truth is variable and subjective, quite the contrary. But it does signify that it comes to us always and only as a way and a life."

Pope Francis then made the point that "truth, being completely one with love, demands humility and an openness to be sought, received and expressed." What is needed, therefore, is "a correct understanding of the terms." He added:

"Perhaps, in order to overcome being bogged down by conflicting absolute positions, we need to redefine the issues in depth. I believe this is absolutely necessary in order to initiate that peaceful and constructive dialogue which I proposed at the beginning of my letter."

4. Current Quotes to Ponder

Church Leaders on Syria: "Chemical weapons have no place in the arsenals of the family of nations. There is no doubt that the use of chemical weapons in Syria was a heinous crime against humanity. . . . Tragically, the deaths from chemical weapons are only part of the grievous story of Syria these days. More than 100,000 Syrians have lost their lives. More than 2 million have fled the country as refugees. More than 4 million within Syria have been driven from their homes by violence. A humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding in Syria. We call upon our nation and the international community to save lives by pressing for serious dialogue to end the conflict, by refraining from fueling further violence with military attacks or arms transfers and by offering more humanitarian assistance. . . . We make our own the appeal of Pope Francis: 'I exhort the international community to make every effort to promote clear proposals for peace in that country without further delay, a peace based on dialogue and negotiation, for the good of the entire Syrian people. May no effort be spared in guaranteeing humanitarian assistance to those wounded by this terrible conflict, in particular those forced to flee and the many refugees in nearby countries.' . . . We ask the United States to work with other governments to obtain a cease-fire, initiate serious negotiations, provide impartial humanitarian assistance and encourage efforts to build an inclusive society in Syria that protects the rights of all its citizens, including Christians and other minorities." (From a Sept. 10 statement by the Administrative Committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops)

To Speak of Catechists: "Enthusiasm and desire are starting places for catechists, but that is not enough. They must be people of prayer, lovers of Scripture whose lives reflect Christian compassion, charity and justice. Formation of catechists and catechetical leaders includes courses in methods, catechesis and theology, and it is a continuing process. Catechists, as do lay ministers and all of us, require lifelong catechesis to grow in Jesus. Catechesis today must take place in a loving faith community where the Gospel is lived and not only preached. Becoming a catechist requires more than enthusiasm and faithful practice, it requires a personal relationship with Jesus and an understanding of the teachings of the church. That means that faith formation is not only for children." (From a statement Sept. 11 by Bishop Kevin Farrell of Dallas, Texas)

5. Qualities of Biblically Centered Homilies

Those who preach should take the world we inhabit seriously, Passionist Father Donald Senior told a summer conference for teachers of homiletics. For anyone who preaches "to be aloof from our world, to take only a moralizing, negative stance toward our world, is not the spirit of Christ nor does it reflect the tenor of the biblical word," the well-known biblical scholar, who is president emeritus of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, said June 24 at the University of Notre Dame. He explained:

"Preaching with a biblical character should be expansive, evocative and visionary rather than didactic, moralistic or trivial. Preaching is, in fact, an expression of the essential missionary character of the church."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations sponsored the homiletics conference. Father Senior, a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, discussed several basic characteristics of a spirituality of preaching that is grounded in Scripture.

"If we are to proclaim the word of God to this world and in this church we must have empathy for our world. The word of God is always incarnate at a particular time and place; it is not abstract or unchanging," Father Senior said. He is struck by how "in the Scriptures themselves, the word of God and the mission to proclaim that word are so woven with human modalities."

In fact, he added, "we often discover the meaning of our mission to the world only in the light of current events."

Another characteristic of the biblically grounded homily invites those who preach to "absorb the rhetorical power and beauty of the biblical language," Father Senior said. He employed "rhetorical" not in a narrow or pejorative sense, "as when we say 'that's just rhetoric' or that's 'political rhetoric,' but rhetorical in the classical sense, meaning language and forms of discourse capable of moving the human spirit."

That, said Father Senior, "is the sense of rhetoric in which most of the New Testament authors themselves would have been schooled." And most "biblical literature understands the importance of rich symbols, of language that has power and beauty, of imagery that captures the imagination and touches the heart."

Father Senor commented that "everyone in education today, theological and secular, is aware that despite or because of our prowess in empirical and technological matters we are in danger of creating a generation whose language is impoverished."

If he "had anything to do with training preachers," Father Senior "would urge them to spend more time on massive doses of reading in literature, especially poetry, and, especially of course, spend time in a reflective and prayerful reading of the Bible itself."

. . . 6. Homilies: Personal, Yet Not Self-Focused

How much should a homily focus on the preacher as a person? This was a question Father Senior addressed in his presentation at the University of Notre Dame.

"The intensely interpersonal focus of many students of ministry and the bias of our Western culture can make the self-transcendence of the preacher a difficult challenge," he observed. "Managing to be personal without riveting attention on oneself is an art and a spiritual discipline not easily learned."

However, he said, "there is a way in which those who proclaim the Word can expose their personal convictions and experience without forcing the biblical message to be trimmed to their own dimensions and their own concerns."

A homily that has a biblical character ought to be "experientially grounded but not excessively autobiographical and not centered on the preacher," according to Father Senior. He noted, after "hearing several of Pope Francis' homilies during a recent meeting" in Rome, that the pope's "own style of preaching is very much in this mode: biblically centered, rich with imagery, warmly personal and to the point, but not drawing attention to himself."

Father Senior pointed out that "recent analyses of the speech patterns of the sayings, discourses and parables of Jesus reveal his strong experiential base." The parables "reveal someone who, as storytellers must, had a penetrating and compassionate eye for the human drama, with all of its nobility, its crudeness, its suffering, its comedy."

An "appreciative eye for human comedy and human tragedy" is witnessed in the parables, and this "reflects the earth-rooted character of the Bible as a whole," said Father Senior. Scripture "is not polite, elegant literature," but "has the power of genuine human experience, of life itself," he added.

Yet, "the author of almost every book of the Bible is anonymous." Father Senior said that "the focus is not on the storyteller or on the author." As with most "artisans of the cathedrals, the biblical authors did not sign their names and often drew attention to someone else as the source of their authority."

Was St. Paul an exception here? "It is, after all, hard to write a letter and not have some personal referent."

However, even Paul, "with his robust, extroverted nature, used autobiography sparingly and usually in those cases where his apostolic authority was under attack and called for a vigorous personal defense," Father Senior observed. Furthermore, most of Paul's letters "were not written by him alone but, as he frequently states in his opening lines, were collaborative affairs composed with co-workers."

The text of Father Senior's address appeared in the Sept. 12 edition of Origins, CNS Documentary Service.

7. Evangelizers: Found Where the Action Is

"If living apart from Christ is inauthentic human living, then living apart from the risks and challenges of evangelization is inauthentic ecclesial living," Sister of St. Joseph Maria Pascuzzi, dean of the school of theology and ministry at St. Thomas University in Miami, Fla., said in a June 22 speech at the New York Catholic Bible Summit in Manhattan.

The early church communities founded by St. Paul "were right there where the action was in downtown Corinth, Philippi, Thessalonica -- at the docks, in the pubs, near the whorehouses, in sports arenas watching the competition, in the plazas listening to philosophers," said Sister Pascuzzi.

St. Paul "recognized that he could neither take the Corinthians out of Corinth nor take the Corinth out of the Corinthians," she explained. Paul's "communities were not cults that segregated themselves from the world like the Essenes, who moved to the shores of the Dead Sea to keep the world out and keep themselves beyond the influence of the culture around them."

She observed that Paul's "first converts were exposed to the cult of money, driven by cultural forces persuading them to pursue power and prestige, to indulge themselves sexually because, after all, as the reasoning went in Corinth, sex is only about biological needs (1 Cor 6:12-20)." If he was to "win converts or keep them," Sister Pascuzzi said, Paul knew he could not do so "by saying no, you can't go there or do that. First he had to evangelize, which was about bringing people to encounter Christ."

Then, she continued, by means of his letters, "which were tools of re-evangelization," Paul worked to persuade them "that the only source of authentic life now and eternal life in the future was life rooted in Christ and the church, his body."

St. Paul realized "that though evangelization and re-evangelization were about getting people to change their theological ideas, the greater challenge was to get people to undergo a cultural change," Sister Pascuzzi said.

This cultural change invited them "to see the world through another set of lenses and live by another set of values; to count what everyone else considered gain as loss; to understand self-emptying service rather than domination as the real expression of power" and to realize that "love of others rather than self-love" is "the real source of individual happiness."

Faced with highly persuasive cultural forces that "work against the Gospel," Sister Pascuzzi said one option is to "decide to cut our losses, retreat from that world, afraid of its powerful and polluting influences."

Or, she said, "we can be like Paul, who got into the fray and used his intelligence and energy to make a case for authentic life in Christ." (Her speech appears in Origins, CNS Documentary Service, Sept. 19, 2013.)