Standing by Christ

On the afternoon of March 13, 2013, during a long break in a class I was teaching, students watched, on the “edge of their seats,” the live, televised papal election of Cardinal Bergoglio, presented as “Pope Francis.”   They cheered and screamed exuberantly. In the excitement of the moment, I reminded them that, when the world views him more critically—when the pope’s preaching and living the Gospel evokes anger and hatred among those “of the world”—then they must continue passionately supporting and encouraging our Holy Father. Not so easy, though, when popular culture castigates the Church’s stance “in truth” as an outmoded and bigoted vestige of dark ages in humanity’s past.

We may view Pope Francis’s exceptional popularity—a huge boost for Catholic counter-culture and waning Church attendance—as a timely but provisional blessing from God. As we know, popularity comes and goes. Jesus’ sobering words clarify our focus on realistic discipleship: “…because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you…If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:19-20)

Today, we celebrate Palm Sunday, on which we recount Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem during his earthly ministry. Just prior to this entry, descending the MoPalmunt of Olives toward Jerusalem, Jesus’ multitude of disciples accompany and receive him. They lay down cloaks and leafy branches on the road before him and proclaim Jesus of Nazareth the “son of David,” the “king.” This alludes to and fulfills Psalm 118:25-27: “Lord [actually, YHWH], grant salvation! [in Hebrew, Hosanna!]…Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord…The Lord is God and has given us light. Join in procession with leafy branches…!” Jesus’ extolled, messianic procession also fulfills prophecy in Zechariah 9:9 and alludes to Isaiah 40:9 and 62:11. Concerning Jesus’ approach toward Jerusalem, the intertextuality between each Gospel and the Old Testament is significant and intricate in messianic contour.

Jesus’ peak of popularity, and the renown proper to him as the true Messiah and world Redeemer, are quite transitory. Shortly following his climactic reception on Palm Sunday (as we call it), the religious leaders of Jerusalem—at risk of suffering the fate of the unrepentant sinners of Zion, of those consumed among unquenchable flames (Isaiah 1:27-31)—falsely arrest, torture, and crucify the Christ.

Jesus, undaunted by the esteem of men or their status (Matthew 22:16, John 5:41), boldly speaks the truth: “…for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37). Jesus’ mission of testifying to the truth corresponds to his identity, Truth itself (John 14:6). If our discipleship of Christ is genuine, we must be faithful to his word. Can we withstand the pressure to conform to “the world?” By what we say and do, and even at times by our silence or act of omission, do we fail to courageously, faithfully embrace all of Jesus’ teachings? Out of fear of social reprisal, do we slight duty and devotion to Sunday Eucharist and holy days of obligation, patience and kindness toward all, chastity and the sanctity of real marriage, material solidarity with the poor, etc.? When we conform to our fallen nature, we deny our divine image, as well as Jesus, the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). In our denial, we are saying about the Christ, in effect, “I do not know this man!”

In contrast, by the amazing grace God lavishly bestows on us, along with our freely-chosen resolve, we each can stand by Christ in courage, saying, “I can do all things through him who empowers me” (Philippians 4:13).

Mark Koehne teaches moral theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Communion & Evangelization: A Lesson from Evangelii Gaudium

Recently I was asked to participate in a panel discussion on Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. The instructions one usually receives upon agreeing to be part of such an activity normally only extend as far as: “Just make a brief presentation on something that struck you in the text.” The instructions in this case would be no different. The following, therefore, is a short mediation on what I understand to be a great lesson to be learned, or reminder to be noted, from Evangelii Gaudium.

When one normally conceives of evangelization, a phrase often used is “handing on the faith.” While a good phrase, a temptation can be to understand faith strictly as it relates to the intellect. In other words, faith relates to what we believe, what we know as disclosed by divine revelation. Accordingly, missionary and evangelizing activity can be seen strictly as a task which communicates these truths to others. I am not attempting to disparage this task. In fact, this is precisely what I do every day in the classroom, i.e., communicate the truths of the faith as intelligibly as I can for my students. But the goal of evangelization is not a full understanding of the Catholic faith, rather, it is communion: communion with God and one another in the Church.

In this apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis is reminding us that “handing on the faith” is not simply an intellectual activity. Rather, and primarily, “handing on the faith” is the communication of God’s love for us; a love which is personal. As St. Paul wrote: “I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me” (Gal 2:20). For Pope Francis, as for St. Paul, faith cannot be separated from love in our evangelizing activity. It is “the love of Christ [that] urges us on” (2 Cor 5:14) in our missionary vocation, and impels our desire to seek out the least of Christ’s brothers (cf. Mt 25:40).

One passage of Evangelii Gaudium which, I think, points to this relationship between communion, love and evangelization, is the first section of chapter one, entitled, A Church which Goes Forth (Una Chiesa in uscita). This is more strictly translated as “A Church Going Forth,” a church active and in the process of reaching out. In this section Pope Francis mentions that the missionary impulse of the Church stems from the love of God who loved us first (cf. 1 Jn 4:19), and who calls us to be servants of one another (cf. Jn 13:17); thus forming an evangelizing community which “goes forth” in service. This service is not a disengaged and aloof didacticism, but an immersion in and among the evangelized, a taking on of “‘the smell of the sheep,’” a forming of communion in the one who has laid down his life for his sheep (cf. Jn 10:15).

This is the great reminder, I believe, of this apostolic exhortation: that the goal of evangelization is not knowledge but communion in love. This is the joy of the Gospel, that “God never tires of forgiving us” (§ 3) and constantly calls us into communion with Himself and, thereby, with one another.

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

The New Martyrdom

Everyone is talking about the New Evangelization. In the spirit of the Second Vatican Council (the reason for the Council, in this author’s humble opinion), it is a missionary effort to bring the Gospel to a modern, secular world which has, for the most part, rejected, ignored, or at best, compartmentalized it for its own purposes.

I love Pope John XXIII’s image of “opening the windows”. Some have interpreted this as the Council’s blessing on bringing the modern world into the Church, on updating its teachings and practices to “better fit into” the modern world that the Church finds herself in. These same people have been gravely disappointed that the Church has remained consistent in its teachings, especially the ones that prove difficult for the modern mind to accept. If the Council was not about bringing the modern world into the Church, then what do we do with this image of the open window?

I say, “Fly!” Yes, the New Evangelization is about flying out of the window with the Gospel in hand (and heart!) and living it radically, encountering the world at every turn, bringing the light of Christ to it. I say flying because human beings cannot fly of their own power. The New Evangelization requires a complete trust in God’s providential care. A radical living of the Gospel demonstrates that trust. It will bring about a transformation of the world, not a “better fitting into” it.

The Christian views the world through the eyes of the Gospel, not the Gospel through the eyes of the world. Just like the first Christians, a person radically living the Gospel, radically loving as God loves, will be misunderstood, labeled an outcast at best or a threat at worst, and ultimately rejected or persecuted. The Christian is not of the world, and will be hated by the world (John 15:9). Thus, the New Evangelization is a call to a New Martyrdom.

This martyrdom is not to be sought, nor is it a rejection of the world. It is simply the response the world will have to the Christian, who is loving for the world’s sake, in order to transform it. If the world is considered “the enemy”, the Christian loves the enemy, making friends (even brother and sisters) in the process, and bringing about the kingdom of God. We fight the enemy with love, not so the enemy dies, but so that he may have life.

Both Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and his successor Pope Francis understand this. Two ways the contemporary Christian lives out this martyrdom is by loving God and loving one’s neighbor – regardless of the worldly consequences. In a modern world, where human reason is god and wealth is the measure of success, faith in a transcendent God and life that first concerns the welfare of one’s neighbor put one in opposition to the way things work. Benedict spent much of his papacy tending to the celebration of the liturgy, the worship of God. His papacy culminated in a Year of Faith, celebrating faith in the resurrected Jesus and the consequences of having a personal relationship with Him (which is, of course, to know unconditional love in one’s life and to be able to recognize the lack of it in the world). Pope Francis has followed up with a focus on how human beings are to treat each other in light of this faith, placing a spotlight on the poor of the world, our neighbor.

We might come to an awareness of how our actions – economic, political, environmental, etc. – affect other people (even future generations), but we will only care about these effects if, by faith, we are united to all people in the love of God. Only with the faith of which Benedict speaks can the Church of Francis come to fruition. The witness of the New Martyrs will bring the world to Christ, for they will prove the truth of the Gospel.

Carmina Chapp teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

A Work of Missionary Discipleship

Pope Francis with UND coalition

Pope Francis with UND delegation

Recently, Pope Francis greeted a delegation from the University of Notre Dame.  He offered the following exhortation to his guests, but more broadly, to be received by Catholic colleges and universities everywhere.  He said:

In my Exhortation on the Joy of the Gospel, I stressed the missionary dimension of Christian discipleship, which needs to be evident in the lives of individuals and in the workings of each of the Church’s institutions.  This commitment to “missionary discipleship” ought to be reflected in a special way in Catholic universities, which by their very nature are committed to demonstrating the harmony of faith and reason and the relevance of the Christian message for a full and authentically human life. 

This “missionary discipleship” is the impetus for Saint Joseph’s College Theology blog, which arose out of the desire on the part of the faculty for the Online Theology Programs to foster intellectual engagement among each other and in the wider arena of the Church in which our students and graduates live out their vocation of discipleship in many and various ways, such as religious educators, pastoral associates, hospital chaplains, college professors, campus ministers, just to name a few.  The topics discussed in this blog reflect the varied interests of the bloggers, and so the topic of our inaugural blog on this Ash Wednesday is Confession.

The Medicine of Confession

It is thanks to the medicine of Confession
that the experience of sin does not degenerate into despair.
Augustine, Sermon 82

It is fitting that a blog’s debut on Ash Wednesday be devoted to Confession.  It may, however, seem odd that a college sponsored blog kick off with sinAfter all, in the ever increasing competitive market, many universities are clamoring to attract students by highlighting the warts-free ideal.  It goes something like this:  You, prospective student, are terrific.  We, the college for you, are terrific.  Together, we are perfect.

Maybe so, but since this is a blog of Catholic theology, sin and redemption are foremost in our minds.  Catholics – theologians or otherwise – view those they encounter as souls in need of salvation.  That is to say we see others and ourselves as possessing an immortal soul and that human actions are for the good or the ill of others, not just here and now, but eternally.  When a teacher of Catholic theology remembers that core truth and teaches in sincerity and with humility and joy – all the while sensitive to the diverse needs and backgrounds of his or her students—the extraordinary happens.  The student who doesn’t “feel” terrific and may be on the brink of despair, experiences something wonderful:  hope.  For Catholic students, the Sacrament of Reconciliation may seem like a wonderful starting point, for in the confessional, “hope springs eternal,” as the saying goes.

After my son made his First Confession at age seven, he ran to me and blurted out, “Mom, I feel like I have never sinned in my entire life.”  While we are reluctant to speak of “feelings” in relation to faith—as feelings come and go–what he really was conveying was an experience of grace that involved his entire being.  When not even ten minutes later he started fighting with his brother, I was tempted to say, “So, do you remember now what it feels like to sin?”  Of course, I bit my tongue and refrained from sharing the proverbial parental “gotcha.”  It was well I did keep silent because that initial grace of the confessional stayed with him, and later when the experience of sin became more profound as one matures and grows, Confession was a home to which he could return, a respite from the crushing weight of sin and guilt, and a place of hope from which to set out on the path of True North again and again.

Patricia Ireland is the Director of Theology Programs for Saint Joseph’s College Online.