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April 14, 2009

New papal analysis of liturgical symbols: water, and fire and light - The church as lender during economic downturn - St. Paul's gospel of reconciliation - Native Americans celebrate Palm Sunday - and more.

In this edition:
-- The gospel of reconciliation in St. Paul.
-- Ambassadors of the gospel of reconciliation.
-- New papal analysis of liturgical symbols: a) fire and light; b) water.
-- Current quotes to ponder: a) Native Americans celebrate Palm Sunday. b) What is good about Good Friday? c) Do good science and good theology ever conflict?
-- The church as lender in an economic downturn.
-- Holocaust denial: New injustice to victims and their families.

1. The Gospel of Reconciliation in Paul

The "gospel of reconciliation" in the writings of St. Paul is "good news for a broken world that is losing hope," said Precious Blood Father Robert Schreiter, a theologian at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. He addressed a March 26 symposium in New York that celebrated the National Pastoral Life Center's 25th anniversary.

Based on Father Schreiter's remarks, it seems the gospel of reconciliation could well aid efforts to bring a divided church together and to build peace between nations. And it seems to me that the principles of reconciliation he sets forth apply well to personal and community relationships in need of healing.

Father Schreiter cautioned that putting the gospel of reconciliation into practice does not just mean being nice to each other, nor does it imply shying away "from airing our differences."

Reconciliation is a work of God that "does not stand at a distance from earthly realities but is deeply enmeshed with them. It deals with the real experience of alienation and anxiety. It addresses the divisions and conflicts within communities. It addresses the very way we look at the world in both its visible and invisible dimensions," the theologian said.

The road to reconciliation "is a messy one, something we cannot completely control from our own resources," Father Schreiter commented. The strands of reconciliation - truth, justice, mercy, peace - cannot be pursued independently of one another, he said in remarks related to peace building.

According to Paul's gospel of reconciliation, those who are reconciled by God are called "to live in the same graciousness to others as has been shown to them," said Father Schreiter. He noted that Paul makes the "astonishing claim in Second Corinthians that this ministry of reconciliation has now been entrusted to us by God. We are ambassadors of Christ."

It appears the gospel of reconciliation was very important to Paul. Father Schreiter noted: "Words denoting 'reconciliation' do not occur at all in the Hebrew Scriptures and only 14 times in the New Testament. Of these occurrences, all but two are in the writings of Paul. For Paul, then, what 'reconciliation' connotes must have had special significance."

Father Schreiter said that Paul broadened and deepened the meaning of "reconciliation" as it was understood in his time so that it assumed "individual, social and even cosmic dimensions."

Paul's thinking about reconciliation and his description of his experience on the road to Damascus indicate that, at its core, it was an experience not of judgment but of God's "graciousness and forgiveness of him through the risen Christ." And with reconciliation, "things are made utterly new."

I felt that this notion of things being made new, of a new creation, was a key to Father Schreiter's presentation. The efforts of Christians to serve as ambassadors of reconciliation are based in a new creation of love. Thus, conflicts ought to be resolved not just through better strategies but from a new, changed playing field, so to speak.

Father Schreiter said: "Paul's gospel of reconciliation is based on an experience of utter graciousness and gratuity coming from God. It is not something achieved by human beings, nor merited by their actions. Thus it cannot be measured completely in human terms. Consequently it is not to be understood as an adjustment of existing systems and relationships; it is, rather, a 'new creation.'"

"Mysterious forces of creativity" emerge from the personal encounter that is basic to Paul's vision of reconciliation, Father Schreiter suggested.

At a point in his speech when he was discussing the role of "moral imagination" in peace-building efforts between nations, he said something that I might apply to reconciliation in all contexts:

"What moral imagination calls us to is to be able to think differently about a situation and to get us out of the ruts that contesting sides of a conflict often burrow into in the course of conflict. Where there is polarity, we need to learn to see paradox. When we think of what a peaceful future looks like, that vision must have room for our enemies as well as ourselves. We need to come to realize that peace is less a mechanical construction than a creative act."

The full text of Father Schreiter's speech will appear in an upcoming edition of Origins, CNS Documentary Service, and the text can be found on the National Pastoral Life Center's Web site.

2. Serving as Ambassadors of the Gospel of Reconciliation

How do Christians serve as ambassadors or ministers of the gospel of reconciliation? Father Schreiter said in his March 26 New York speech, "We do this in discerning the action of God in a broken, conflicted and deeply troubled world." He continued:

-- "When we are able to see the glimmerings of hope in the midst of a widespread gloom, when we can celebrate the small victories of justice being done or a measure of peace being achieved in situations that are without hope and without promise, we witness to what God is doing in the world.

-- "When with God's help we are able to effect some measure of change that improves people's lives, bring them comfort in their suffering or sustain their own struggle to hope and to move forward, we are witnessing to God's work.

-- "And when we live together, to the best of our ability, as a reconciled people, we mirror in faith what God is bringing about in reality."

If serving as ambassadors or ministers of reconciliation means traveling a road that can be "messy," that fact serves as a "reminder of the need to de-center ourselves and try to discern the movements of God in what we see and hear," Father Schreiter explained. De-centering ourselves in this way, he said, "helps us keep to our proper roles as agents of God's reconciliation, as ambassadors of Christ, empowered to speak and act on his behalf, but never being the Christ ourselves."

What is this de-centering of ourselves? Father Schreiter explained that Paul's vision of reconciliation would move us "away from taking ourselves as the center point of orientation and arbitration," instead placing "that center squarely with God."

Said Father Schreiter, "In reconciliation we see God truly as active in the world."

3. A Papal Analysis of Liturgical Symbols: Water and Light

The symbols employed in the church's liturgy are a frequent topic for Pope Benedict XVI, particularly the symbols of fire and light, and of water. He turned attention to liturgical symbols again in his homily for this year's Easter Vigil in St. Peter's Basilica.

He observed at the outset that the meaning of Christmas is a little easier to comprehend than Easter. At Christmas, he said, "we can love the child, we can imagine that night in Bethlehem, Mary's joy, the joy of St. Joseph and the shepherds, the exultation of the angels. But what is resurrection?"

Resurrection "does not form part of our experience, and so the message often remains to some degree beyond our understanding, a thing of the past," said the pope.

However, he added, "the church tries to help us understand it by expressing this mysterious event in the language of symbols in which we can somehow contemplate this astonishing event. During the Easter Vigil, the church points out the significance of this day principally through three symbols: light, water and the new song - the alleluia."

Pope Benedict said that "the singing of the new song - the alleluia" -- tells us something about the people who are celebrating the resurrection. Those who are touched by the light of the resurrection, thus coming into contact "with life itself, with truth and love," cannot simply "speak about it," for speech "is no longer adequate"; instead, they have "to sing," said the pope.

Let's look in more detail at the pope's discussion of water and light. This discussion may be of special interest to catechists, those preparing parents for a child's baptism, participants in RCIA programs and others.

4. Light and Fire

In the biblical narrative, creation begins "with the command, 'Let there be light!'" Pope Benedict said: "Where there is light, life is born, chaos can be transformed into cosmos. In the biblical message, light is the most immediate image of God."

With the resurrection a new creation is born, said the pope. "The resurrection of Jesus is an eruption of light. Death is conquered. The risen One himself is light, the light of the world. Beginning with the resurrection, God's light spreads throughout the world and throughout history. Day dawns."

The pope asked, "Why is Christ light?" Answering his own question, the pope said:

"In the Old Testament the Torah was considered to be like the light coming from God for the world and for humanity. The Torah separates light from darkness within creation, that is to say, good from evil. It points out to humanity the right path to true life. It points out the good, it demonstrates the truth, and it leads us toward love, which is the deepest meaning contained in the Torah. It is a 'lamp' for our steps and a 'light' for our path.

"Christians, then, knew that in Christ, the Torah is present, the Word of God is present in him as person. The Word of God is the true light that humanity needs. This Word is present in him, in the Son.

"Psalm 19 had compared the Torah to the sun which manifests God's glory as it rises for all the world to see. Christians understand: Yes, indeed, in the resurrection the Son of God has emerged as the light of the world. Christ is the great light from which all life originates. He enables us to recognize the glory of God from one end of the earth to the other. He points out our path."

Pope Benedict noted how, during the Easter Vigil celebration, "the church represents the mystery of the light of Christ in the sign of the paschal candle, whose flame is both light and heat." In other words, "the symbolism of light is connected with that of fire: radiance and heat, radiance and the transforming energy contained in the fire - truth and love go together."

Those present at the Easter Vigil, especially those baptized during that very celebration, then light their own candles from the paschal candle, the pope noted. He said:

"The early church described baptism as 'fotismos,' as the sacrament of illumination, as a communication of light, and linked it inseparably with the resurrection of Christ. In baptism God says to the candidate, 'Let there be light!' The candidate is brought into the light of Christ. Christ now divides the light from the darkness."

Pope Benedict described the baptismal candle as "the symbol of enlightenment that is given to us in baptism." He urged people to pray that the light of Christ within them will become ever stronger and brighter" so that they "can be people of the day, bright stars lighting up our time."

5. Water

"The second symbol of the Easter Vigil -- the night of baptism -- is water," Pope Benedict said. Throughout Christian history, Easter has been viewed as a pre-eminent time for baptisms.

The pope described water as a two-pronged symbol, at once threatening in its power and life-giving.

First, he said, there is the water of the sea, "which appears as a force antagonistic to life on earth, continually threatening it." In this sense water in linked to death. Connecting this with baptism, the pope said that with his death on a cross, "Christ descended into the sea, into the waters of death, as Israel did into the Red Sea. Having risen from death, he gives us life."

Thus, the pope continued, "baptism is not only a cleansing, but a new birth: With Christ we, as it were, descend into the sea of death so as to rise up again as new creatures."

Second, however, water represents "the fresh spring that gives life," Pope Benedict said. He recalled that "according to the earliest practice of the church, baptism had to be administered with water from a fresh spring."

There is no life without water, the pope emphasized. He called attention to the importance of wells in Scripture. Wells "are places from which life rises forth," said the pope. He commented:

"Beside Jacob's well, Christ spoke to the Samaritan woman of the new well, the water of true life. He reveals himself to her as the new, definitive Jacob, who opens up for humanity the well that is awaited -- the inexhaustible source of life-giving water."

Pope Benedict then turned attention to the soldier whose lance "struck the side of Jesus, and from his open side -- from his pierced heart -- there came out blood and water." In this account the early church saw "a symbol of baptism and Eucharist flowing from the pierced heart of Jesus," the pope said. Thus, "in his death Jesus himself became the spring." He is "the spring of living water."

The pope concluded his discussion of water as a symbol, saying, "In baptism the Lord makes us not only persons of light, but also sources from which living water bursts forth."

Everyone knows people "who leave us somehow refreshed and renewed, people who are like a fountain of fresh spring water," Pope Benedict said. Naturally, he added, "we also know the opposite: people who spread around themselves an atmosphere like a stagnant pool of stale or even poisoned water." The pope exhorted Christians to "ask the Lord, who has given us the grace of baptism, for the gift always to be sources of pure, fresh water, bubbling up from the fountain of his truth and his love!"

6. Current Quotes to Ponder

Yaqui Palm Sunday Celebration. "I celebrated the entry of our Lord into Jerusalem yesterday with the community of Cristo Rey, a mission of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha Parish in Tucson. Many participate in the Yaqui Palm Sunday celebration, making a 'manda,' a pledge or promise, to take a certain role during the festivities. The 'Chapayekas' don masks and wear blankets and trinkets. They carry wooden knives and swords that they bang against each other and shake their bodies to rattle the beads they wear. They represent evil. They try to distract those praying, and they rejoice at the death of Christ on Good Friday, only to be rebuffed by the Lord's resurrection. The 'Anhelesim' are young children, the angels, who resist the lure of the 'Chapayekas' and wind their way with their parents through the field to the cross where they gather to pray. The 'Vanteareom,' or flag girls, participate in the procession of the palms, waving their flags. The 'Mantechinas' play their instruments and dance along with the deer dancer. The symbols and ceremony are rich with meaning. The focus is on the blessing and procession with the palms. Latin hymns are sung as the statues draped in purple are led around in procession. All of Holy Week, the Pascua Yaqui take part in the services, carrying out their roles and reliving the passion, death and resurrection of Christ. It was a privilege to celebrate with Father Dan McLauglin, ST, pastor, and to see the faith of the people." (From the April 6 online Monday Memo of Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz.)

What Is Good About Good Friday? "Ever wonder why this day is called 'Good' Friday when it recalls the most violent and hideous of tortures brought to bear on Jesus? Perhaps it takes its title from the fact that only God can make something truly good come from something truly awful. Isn't 'Good Friday' with all it recalls an oxymoron? Hardly. God made it good by what he asked of his Son and what we learn tomorrow night at the Easter Vigil." (From an April 10 entry by Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla., in his "For His Friends" blog)

Do Good Science and Good Theology Ever Conflict? "A friend of mine tells me that she was long worried about real and potential conflicts between science and faith. She was attending the University of Chicago at the time, and she concluded from an aphorism of Father Theodore Hesburgh's that if she ever encountered a conflict between science and faith, she should go back to the drawing board. As he said: 'There is no conflict between science and theology, except where there is bad science or bad theology.' My friend has found this a reliable lifetime principle, and so have I, even though it requires living with some patience while further inquiry seeks who or what has gone wrong." (From "A Reason to Believe," by Michael Novak, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, in the spring 2009 edition of Notre Dame Magazine, a publication of the University of Notre Dame)

7. The Church as Lender: Naples Archbishop Starts "Bank of Poor"

The local impact of the global economic crisis led Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe of Naples, Italy, to start a microcredit lending fund to aid out-of-work people and help them get back on their feet. The cardinal announced the new "bank of the poor" during a press conference April 8, four days before Easter. He said that because of the economic crisis and high unemployment rates in Naples, people were finding it hard to imagine "the joy of the resurrection, because we have in front of us a crowd of hungry people who, like sheep without a shepherd, are asking for bread."

Cardinal Sepe said he would donate about $65,000 of his own money to start the microcredit fund. "I will take the first step toward an ethics of solidarity, giving part of my personal savings and a year's stipend to open the 'bank of the poor' fund," he said. He asked the deans of the archdiocese to work with pastors to locate those who need food, clothing or help paying rent and utility bills. Priority will be placed on young job-hunters and others who lost jobs recently.

In a pastoral letter, Cardinal Sepe explained that "far from being a handout, microcredit will help the creativity and ingenuity of our people emerge." He said that providing microcredit "to someone who cannot offer a guarantee other than the promise to pay the money back interest-free with small payments over time means having the courage to believe in men and women, and to trust in the possibility of multiplying loaves and fishes," as Jesus did.

The cardinal believes that the microcredit lending program represents a way for the church and its people to address unemployment and the rise in poverty at a time when the economy is not offering solutions to people. Cardinal Sepe said that while it was widely believed that economic globalization would foster human well-being, instead poverty was globalized.

8. Holocaust Denial: A New Injustice

A "new injustice" is done to the victims of the World War II Holocaust and their survivors through "Holocaust denial," Cardinal Walter Kasper said in remarks March 25 in Boston. The cardinal, president of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews and of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, spoke during the rededication of Boston's Holocaust Memorial Menorah at the Archdiocese of Boston's new pastoral center. "No Holocaust denial can be allowed or permitted," the cardinal said.

"In rededicating this memorial," Cardinal Kasper said, "we commemorate the unprecedented and most atrocious event of the last century, the Holocaust or Shoah." He added, "We bow our heads before the millions of victims of this until then unimaginable tragic event."

Good fruit has been borne of "the painful memory of the Holocaust," Cardinal Kasper observed. "The no to such a horrific event has promoted a yes to a new partnership and friendship between Jews and Christians," he explained. Jews and Christians, "after a long, difficult and complex history," have "rediscovered that they are both the children of Abraham, our common father in faith."

In fact, said Cardinal Kasper, what Vatican Council II said about the church's relationship with the Jews in its declaration "Nostra Aetate" was in a sense "also a fruit of the shocking experience of the Holocaust." This "must remain the point of no return - the Magna Carta for future Jewish-Christian relations," said the cardinal.

The issue of Holocaust denial came into the news in late January. After Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication of four traditionalist bishops ordained against papal orders in 1988 by the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, it was discovered that one of the four, Bishop Richard Williamson, held the view - and had made it publicly known - that the number of Jews killed by the Nazis at the time of World War II had been greatly exaggerated and that no Jews died in gas chambers. Reports of Bishop Williamson's viewpoint prompted the Vatican to reply that his position was "absolutely unacceptable and firmly rejected by the Holy Father."

The Vatican said that the Holocaust, or Shoah, "remains 'a warning for all against hate, against denial or reductionism, because violence done to a single human being is violence against all.'" The Vatican added, "For any admission to episcopal ministry in the church, Bishop Williamson will have to distance himself, in an absolutely unequivocal and public way, from his positions on the Shoah, which the Holy Father did not know about at the time the excommunication was revoked."

Cardinal Kasper said in Boston that many steps have been taken in recent times to foster good Catholic-Jewish relations. However, he said, "we all know that the world we long for, we work for and we pray for is not yet ours. The memory of the Holocaust is still an unfinished agenda."