Saturday, March 31, 2012

Holy Week 1

Undoubtedly one of the most interesting places t spend Holy Week is Seville.  Seville is one of the most magical cities in the world to visit at any time, but in Holy Week it is particularly astonishing. There are incredible processions each day of the week sponsored by various guilds, confraternities, and pious associations.  Unfortunately, while religious in character, these processions have lost their pious association and the city takes on the ambiance of a carnival.  Some of the less touristy towns in Andalusia manage to maintain the drama without the popcorn and cotton candy air, but for the sheer numbers of processions, costumes, bands, Seville can’t be beat.  I will post a few pictures here.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Eucharist: Where the East Meets West

Kennedy Roshi ordains
Trappist monk Kevin
Hunt as a Zen sensei
or teacher
Kennedy Roshi is a Zen Master in the White Plum Asanga lineage who teaches and guides students in Zen meditation.  As his name indicates he is not Asian by background, but American.  Moreover he is a Jesuit and an ordained Catholic priest in good standing with the Church.  He was sent for studies in Japan where he was ordained to the priesthood of the Catholic Church in 1965.  After ordination he studied Zen with Yamada Koun, a distinguished  Japanese Zen Master to whom many Christians came to learn meditation.  Among other Dharma heirs (students whose fidelity to the tradition passed on by the Master) of Yamada Koun was not only Kennedy Roshi but several Catholic Religious—Jesuits, Benedictine monks and Benedictine nuns.  As a Roshi Kennedy himself has the authority to pass on authentic Zen tradition and has ordained several disciples including Kevin Hunt Sensei, a monk of Saint Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer MA.   How can one be a Catholic and a Buddhist?  It is not as rare as one might think.     
      Several years ago I was hiking in Tuscany and struck up a conversation with some English Buddhists who were staying at the same small hotel.  They were there on a wine tour.  Buddhists on a wine tour is somewhat like monks on a brothel crawl.  Buddhists abstain from alcoholic beverages as a matter of ascetic discipline.  Buddhists, at least practitioners of Buddhism, are vegetarian and these jolly Englanders were downing cinghiali, prosciutto, lardo, pancetta, sausages of every description, and whatever other pieces of pork, wild or tame, they could get their hands on like the Taliban was coming to eliminate pigs from the face of the earth.  These “Buddhists” were dilettantes whose “sangha” was more a social club and where the “dharma” was no more than an Asian take on “Prosperity Gospel” religion.  It was to Buddhism what Joel Osteen or Norman Vincent Peale are to Christianity—the Happy Clappy “power of positive thinking” hogwash. 
       Real Buddhism involves discipline.  The Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha are taken seriously.  But real Buddhism argumentably isn’t a religion, not in the western sense.  Buddhism doesn’t posit the existence of a Deity.  I wouldn’t say that it is atheistic in the sense that it denies God; it is just non-theistic.  I think it is more precise to say that Buddhism is, what we in the west would call, a philosophy.  Now I am saying this as a non-Buddhist and I am open to correction, or at least conversation,  on this point—from an acknowledged Buddhist.  I have read extensively in Buddhism for forty years and have a good collection of Buddhist works on my shelves.  I am not an authority by any means, but let me explain what I mean.  And when I say that it is not a religion, in the western sense, I do not intend that to denigrate Buddhism in any way.  But Buddhism differs greatly in the questions it ponders from the question that Christian, Jewish, or Islamic thought—or western atheistic thought—raises.    Or perhaps I had better further refine that: Buddhism differs greatly in the questions it ponders than does Christian, Jewish, or Islamic thought, excepting the mystical strains of those religions.  The bridge of commonality between Buddhism and Christianity  is pretty much limited to the mystical tradition within Christianity.   That is why the official Catholic/Buddhist dialogue is conducted by a panel of Christian and Buddhist monastics.   The various meetings of Catholic and Buddhist monastic scholars which have taken place at the Trappist Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemane in Kentucky in 1996, 2002, and 2008 have been very productive for both sides as the rich heritage of contemplation in both religions has been shared.
        Granted in some forms of Buddhism, and I think in particular of Tibetan Buddhism, there is mention of various “gods” or “demons” but these do not correspond to what is meant by a deity or god in western thought.  Anthropologically they seem to be survivals from pre-Buddhist animism and are some sort of “spirits.”  They are not common to all forms of Buddhism and these micro-gods would be foreign to most Buddhists, particularly those in the Zen tradition.  Even in Tibetan Buddhism they comprise an element more of popular religion than official doctrine. 
       I have always been struck by how most Buddhists, including and perhaps especially the Dalai Lama, have spoken of the western concept of God.  The Asian mind is not binary as is the western mind.  To the west, if A is true then B must be false.  We use scientific medicine or traditional forms of medical practice—herbs, acupuncture, etc.  One is a scientist or a mystic, a Democrat or a Republican, a believer or an agnostic.  In the East this duality seems strange and the Eastern mind is given to living with paradox and contradiction.   In Japan it is not uncommon for a person to be Buddhist and Shinto; in China Confucian and Buddhist. 
      While Buddhism does not posit the existence of a Supreme Being, Buddhist leaders and Philosophers speak comfortably of God and of Jesus without seeming to find a contradiction to their convictions.  In his book, Living Buddha, Living Christ, Thich Nhat Hanh, perhaps, after the Dalai Lama,  the best known Buddhist author in the West, tells of receiving Holy Communion at a Mass celebrated by Daniel Berrigan.  (OK, I know that isn’t kosher, um, I mean canonically approved, but it happened and Berrigan is a Jesuit so what does one expect.)  The Buddhist Master gives a remarkably clear and vivid statement about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist that not only reveals his experience of the Risen Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar but chides those Christians for whom an encounter with the Eucharistic Christ has become so routine as to be no longer truly appreciated.  Western minds have a difficult time wrapping around this ability to reconcile diverse understandings within a single mind and heart but perhaps the problem is not with the Eastern ability to live with Paradox but the Western inability to accept the complexity of Truth.  
        So can one be a Buddhist and a Catholic?  Does being a Buddhist preclude one from being a Catholic?  Well, it depends on what one means by “being a Buddhist.”  It is not necessary to leave the Catholic Church or renounce its doctrines to practice Buddhism’s spiritual path.  When one uses the traditional Catholic distinction between latria (the adoration given to God alone) and dulia, the veneration given to saints or holy persons, one can say that there is no worship (latria)  given in Buddhism to the Buddha or other figures but only the veneration due to wise and noble figures.   
        When the Reverend Marcel Guarnizo refused Barbara Johnson Holy Communion at her mother’s funeral Mass, he did so because she is in a same-sex relationship.   He was unaware that she is a “Buddhist.”  That fact was unearthed by Guarnizo’s supporters only after the fact but it has been used as a secondary justification for the priest’s action.  Of course since he did not know it at the time and therefore it played no part in his decision, it can’t be used to justify it.  On the other hand, should her being a Buddhist have been reason for Ms. Johnson not to have come forward to Communion?  Well it depends.  What sort of Buddhist is Ms. Johnson?  Is she, like those English vinophiles I mentioned a dilettante, a sort of religious tourist to Buddhism, who plays at it weekends?  If she does not follow the disciplines, to some degree, of Buddhism she is not really a Buddhist.    Though even if she practices Buddhism seriously that does not mean she is still a Catholic either.  Has she officially renounced Catholicism through some formal act?  The Church says you don’t just sort of cease being a Catholic.  You have to either formally join some other religious community incompatible with one’s Catholicism or formally reject, not Church teaching, but your membership in the Church.  (I know of a case where a priest required a person who said they no longer were a Catholic to sign a document to that effect and have it notarized before the priest would hire the man as a non-Catholic employee.)   Apparently from the example of Kennedy Roshi and other Catholic clergy, religious, and practicing laity on can practice Buddhist spiritual disciplines and still be a Catholic.  Since Ms. Johnson claims to attend Mass (and receive Holy Communion) at least from time to time, she does not consider herself to have left the Church whatever her involvement with Buddhism may be.         

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Two Sad Stories and a Happy One

A black youth is killed by a “Neighborhood Watch” warden with the very white name of George Zimmerman.  Stories abound—conflicting and contradicting one another.  Some rally around the white man and cast aspersions on the youth—he was suspended from school; he had been found with marijuana.  He was always in trouble.  They point out that George Zimmerman is in fact Hispanic.  (His ancestry is both European and Latino).  Others speak up for the victim: the President of the United States says: if I had a son, he would look like that young man.   Rick Santorum risks alienating his conservative base and jumps in on the side against the killer.  When Zimmerman’s defenders say: “He looked suspicious—he was wearing a hoodie,” thousands of people wear hoodies to Church to protest profiling.   Zimmerman’s friends claim that he, not the young man, was the victim.  They allege that the kid jumped Zimmerman, beat his head against a sidewalk.  911 tapes are released telling Zimmerman “We don’t need you to do that (follow Trayvon Martin)…” indicating that Zimmerman was out for the kid.  Racist remarks by Zimmerman are heard on the tapes but Zimmerman’s friends say there are other tapes not yet released that will give a different story.  Who knows what happened?  I wasn’t there.  This is what we have Grand Juries for. 
       And it is like the continuing saga of Marcel Guarnizo, the priest who denied Barbara Johnson communion at her mother’s funeral Mass because Johnson isn’t heterosexual.   Guarnizo has his story. Johnson has hers.  Guarnizo is having trouble getting people to go along with his story—not only family members but funeral home employees, parishioners, and even parish staff who were present are not backing him up and in fact accusing Guarnizo of bullying them to support his claims.  So the Archdiocese of Washington is convoking an investigation,  much like a Grand Jury, to determine as best they can the facts of the case.  And people on both sides are making wild accusations at the opposite side.  You know, Don Wuerl, those red hats don’t come cheap.  You pay for them with migraines.
      In the meantime, I want to surface a letter that appeared in the Washington Post two weeks ago that puts a different face on Catholicism.  Not on official Catholicism, the Downtown Chancery sort of Catholicism, but the real every day sort of Catholicism.  An Episcopal Priest,  the Reverend Anne Monahan, wrote of the compassionate warmth she received from a Catholic parish when her mother died and was being buried from a Catholic Church.  read below.  
      When my Roman Catholic mother died, I had a very different experience at her funeral than did Barbara Johnson, the gay woman recently denied Communion during the service for her mother at St. John Neumann Church in Gaithersburg.
       Until my mid-20s, I was, as a friend commented, “a little more Roman Catholic than the Pope.” But after starting a news reporting career, marrying a good Irish Catholic in my family’s parish church and giving birth to three daughters in three years, I had many questions for the church. Soon I found that the church did not welcome questions and had unsatisfactory, rigid answers to many of them. In 1966 I voted with my feet and left for the Episcopal Church, where a priest told me, “We may not have answers but we’ll walk with you on the search for answers.” 
     My journey led to ordination as a priest and a 30-year ministry. Once the culture shock wore off, my parents proudly told the world, including their pastor and his assistant, “Our daughter is a priest.”
      As my mother’s congestive heart failure approached its end stage, she and Dad informed their pastor that they wanted me to participate “up front” at her funeral. When she told me that the priest had agreed, I cynically thought, “The Second Coming will arrive first.” But I said I would ask about funeral participation when the time came. 
       Mom died in the early morning hours of a beautiful autumn day, and in the afternoon I called her priest to inquire about funeral planning. Prepared to be put in my place as an apostate, I gingerly approached the subject of participation, asking if I might read a lesson or lead the psalm.
     “Oh, more than that. You can do anything you want,” Father responded.                     
      “Anything,” he repeated.
       We set a meeting for the next morning at the rectory. There, warmly received by the pastor and his assistant, I found myself talking easily as we discussed our ministries and, as priests often do, exchanging war stories (e.g., a parishioner who wanted to be buried in a columbarium but definitely did not wish to be cremated). People are people, no matter where they pray, and priests have lots of stories to prove it. 
       As we planned Mom’s service, I found that “anything” meant “anything,” beyond my imagination. Both priests urged me to vest in alb and stole and to choose Scripture readings and hymns. When I said I hoped to read a lesson, they insisted it be the Gospel, which is reserved for a priest or deacon. Preach? “Your mother would want you to do that.” Two hours later, the service was outlined. At no time would I be excluded. 
       When I asked if they needed to get approval for my participation from their (very conservative) bishop, they gently informed me it is easier to seek forgiveness than permission, a practical rule I’ve invoked several times in parish ministry. I was awed by their courage in responding pastorally and compassionately to my family even though it might bring them harsh discipline from their hierarchy. (I decided not to name the church here, just to be on the safe side.)
        Vested as a priest, I presided at the reception of the body, read the Gospel, preached, concelebrated at the altar, distributed the bread, imparted the final blessing and led the graveside service from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. I will never forget the pride in my father’s face or the tears and smiles of those, especially women, who received Communion from my hand.
       There was no dis-invitation to receive Communion, an act that has offended so many Christians at Roman Catholic services. Everyone was welcome. After all, a female priest was “up front.”
         As I left the cemetery, a local Episcopal priest and his wife, my friends and also former Roman Catholics, tearfully related how my presence at the altar and their reception of Communion had helped to heal the pain they’d felt at their parents’ funerals, where Communion, along with any role in the service, was denied to them.       
       That evening my daughter Sue told the family that, as she stood graveside with the pastor’s assistant, he smiled and quietly said to her, “Remember what you saw today at the altar. That is the church’s future.”
        I pray it is, for all my brothers and sisters in Christ, and especially for Barbara Johnson.
       Well, I don’t know where this happened and hopefully the diocese in question will never find out.  But it just one more example that the Church on the ground is usually far ahead in the journey to God’s Kingdom than the Church of the Chancery office.  If there is anything wrong with Catholicism it is this: that the hardness of the official party line is allowed to mask the evangelical faithfulness of its pastoral practice.   

Monday, March 26, 2012

Tribute to a Martyr III

Oscar Romero
+ March 24, 1980
 I mentioned in the last posting that Oscar Romero was appointed Archbishop of El Salvador in part because he was considered “safe” by both the Vatican and the Salvadoran Government at a time when many of the clergy and religious of Salvador were being radicalized by “Liberation Theology.”  I will have to do a posting or two in the future on Liberation Theology as it is a very complex issue, but the fundamental flaw that the Church finds with it is that it uses the Marxist analysis of class struggle to interpret the principles of religious faith.  Marx had said that religion is the opium of the people—and indeed it often has been so misused.  Promises of a happy afterlife have been offered the poor and downtrodden as a soporific to deter them from seeking what is justly theirs in this life.  Divine Justice is not human justice, much less any sort of “fairness.”  What we mean by justice is that state in which each of God’s children has the share of this earth’s goods that God has willed for them. Such passages of scripture as the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man in which the Rich Man is in hell precisely and for no other reason than because he had an abundance of goods in this life while Lazarus is in Paradise because he had only trouble in this life (Luke 16:25)  are extremely subversive of the existing social order.  One doesn’t need Marx, only Luke, to envision a world turned upside down with the rich sent away empty and poor fed; the powerful cast down from power and the nobodies of this world raised up (Luke 1:52-53).  When Rutilio Grande was killed for being a “communist” Romero knew that this label was false. Grande was a priest who knew the power of the Gospel to call for social change, no more and no less.  The loss of his friend was the conversion point for the Archbishop who took up Grande’s cry, not much different than how Jesus had taken up the Baptist’s message of the Kingdom of God when Herod had put John to death.  And like Jesus, Romero had about three years of preaching before his zeal for God’s Good News brought down violence upon him. 
      As I pointed out in the last blog, after Grande’s death, Monsenor Romero refused any and all invitations from the Government to participate in public functions and this left the Government naked of moral respectability both in front of its own citizens and of the world.  Moreover, the Archbishop’s separating himself from the government and military made it clear in the eyes of the Salvadoran people that the establishment was inherently sinful.  Though the method was different the results were not unlike the way Becket had undercut  the authority of the King in 12th century England.  Without moral legitimacy, the Government could not claim any real authority.  Without moral legitimacy, people could resist the Government; even overthrow it to replace it with a legitimate government.  The situation became ever more perilous.  More and more people, especially those connected to the Church, were murdered, “disappeared” or tortured.  And wherever the Government used violence to put down the people, Romero showed up to denounce the Government and legitimize the struggle of the people for social change.
       Now Romero did not, unlike some “liberation theologians’ legitimize the use of violence to fight violence.  He condemned those who had taken up arms against the government though he recognized the justice of their cause. Like Gandhi, King, Tutu and other moral leaders of the twentieth century he was consecrated to non-violence but non-violence, while it may work more slowly, is more dangerous to illegitimate authority than is violence.  Non-violence consistently claims moral high-ground.  By 1980 El Savador was totally destabilized, in no small part by the Archbishop’s preaching.   On March 23, 1980 he gave a famous sermon in which he addressed the soldiers—the common soldiers—of the army. 
       "Brothers, you came from our own people. You are killing your own brothers. Any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God, which says, 'Thou shalt not kill'. No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you obeyed your consciences rather than sinful orders. The church cannot remain silent before such an abomination. ...In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cry rises to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you: stop the repression" 
       Such a speech was calling the military to mutiny.  It could not be tolerated.  The following day, March 24, 1980, Archbishop Romero was shot and killed by a government assassin as he raised the chalice at Mass.  
       Romero’s death caused a huge outcry.  The Pope denounced the “sacrilege” of killing a bishop while he was saying Mass.  World leaders decried the murder.  Bishops and religious figures—from many different Christian denominations and religions—flocked to San Salvador to the funeral to pay tribute to the Archbishop.  But the violence did not stop.  During the Archbishop’s funeral, in an act of moral contempt, the Salvadoran military to cause panic dropped smoke bombs on the huge crowd gathered before the Cathedral.  Then in the panic they began firing on the crowd. Dozens of people were killed.  
      The war in Salvador continued for another 12 years.  Peace has finally come to the country.  Oscar Romero stands as the national hero.  His picture is everywhere.  Scores of folk songs tell his story.  Although not officially recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church, he is venerated as on in Salvador and his tomb in the Cathedral is a place of pilgrimage.  His cause for Sainthood has been introduced at official levels and he has been given the title “Servant of God” by the Vatican, but in Salvador he is “San Romero.”   His statue stands alongside those of Martin Luther King, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, Dietrich Bonheoffer, Maximilian Kolbe, and other “Martyrs of the Twentieth Century” over the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey.  Most important however, his memory and example are imprinted on the hearts of the People of San Salvador and in their National story.      

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Tribute to a Martyr II

Father Rutilio Grande(1928-1977)
a martyr for the poor of El Salvador
Oscar Romero was born to a working class family in El Salvardor—a country where a small clique of less than twenty families owned almost 50% of the arable land, the vast majority of Salvadorans being share-croppers on the extensive ranches of the oligarchs.  The Romero family, though working class, was not poor by Salvadoran standards and Oscar and his siblings were tutored at home.   Romero was an introverted child and deeply religious who spent much time studying or hanging out in the town’s churches.  The Church sent him to Rome for seminary training and he was ordained to the priesthood in Rome in 1942.   The following year his bishop summoned him back to Salvador.  He spent years as a parish priest before being called to be rector of the seminary. 
A lot of things had changed in the Latin American Church from the time that Romero had gone off to study.  In 1955 the Bishops of Latin America had organized the Latin American Episcopal Conference.  At the time of the Second Vatican Council the Bishops in Latin America, or at least the vast majority of them, made a drastic shift in their alliances.  Traditionally the bishops had been closely tied to the political and economic oligarchies that ruled most of the Latin American nations but as the Gospel began to take root in the hearts of so many of the clergy and faithful, the bishops themselves came to see the radical demands Christ makes on his disciples to embrace the plight of the poor.  The 1968 meeting of CELAM (the Spanish language acronym of  Latin American Episcopal Conference) at Medellín in Columbia gave a strong endorsement to what is called “Liberation Theology.”  The timing of this endorsement was not opportune as 1968 was not only a year of great political unrest and riots in various countries,  around the world but was also the year that Pope Paul VI released—to very mixed reviews—his encyclical, Humanae Vitae, repeating the Church’s condemnation of artificial contraception.  In many ways 1968 can be seen as the year in which the optimistic enthusiasm in the Catholic world unleashed by the Second Vatican Council met the resistance of those in the Church determined to undo the work of the Council.  It certainly was a time when Paul VI’s confidence in Church reform faltered as his difficult decision to maintain the teaching against contraception resulted in an immense fall not only in his popularity but in his credibility.  Paul aged terribly that year and in many ways his papacy faltered, giving him the sobriquet “the Hamlet Pope” for the agonizing indecision that marked the last eight years of his papacy.  It was in this atmosphere of reevaluation of Vatican II that Romero was named an auxiliary bishop.  After a few years in a small diocese, he was named Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977. 
His appointment reflected an alliance among the Salvadoran military, the small oligarchy of rich families, and the Church.  He was considered “safe” by the establishment.  On the other hands, the clergy and faithful were distraught, feeling that they had been deprived of a genuine pastor. 
While the people were unenthusiastic and most of the clergy shunned him, one priest who reached out in friendship was Father Rutilio Grande.  This was somewhat ironic as Grande was among the most radical of the “liberation theologians,” organizing the poor campesinos into Bible study groups that gave the poor an understanding that their suffering was not God’s will but the product of human sinfulness.  Grande’s method of using the scriptures to open the eyes of the poor and to give them a sense that God is on their side was thought by those in power to be very subversive.
On March 12, 1977 Grande and two laymen—one only a lad of 16—were driving to the village of El Paisnal where Grande was to say mass.  Their car was racked by machine gun fire and all three men were killed. 
Romero went at once to the village church to which the three bodies had been brought and celebrated Mass there.  He sent the evening there listening to the local peasants as they told him story after story of their suffering.  This event radicalized the Archbishop.
Romero demanded of the government that they do an investigation of the murders—rumors were strong that Grande and the others had been killed by the Salvadoran military—but President Molina refused.  The newspapers, under duress from government censors, published a highly sanitized version of the murders.  The Archbishop had an independent investigation of the murders and published an accurate account of what happened.  Moreover, the Archbishop announced that he would not attend any Government function nor meet with President Molina until the government investigated the murders and punished the offenders.  This was a huge embarrassment for the government as the presence of the Archbishops—Romero and his predecessors—had always given a legitimacy to the government.  Romero’s blockade of government functions signaled the world that the Church no longer recognized the legitimacy of the government in representing the people.   From this point on, Romero became a public enemy in the sight of the military and the government. 

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Tribute to a Martyr

Today is the 32nd anniversary of the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador, killed by an assassin trained at Fort Benning Georgia’s infamous “School of the America’s,” now reconstituted as “The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.” I will do a future posting on Monsignor Romero’s story, but I was moved this morning at Mass when a young Religious Brother from Latin America gave this tribute.
Monsenor Romero,
32nd anniversary of his martyrdom.                                                   24 March, 2012.
Monsenor Oscar Romero
I didn’t have the opportunity to know Monsenor Romero during his life but I have come to know him through a very special way: I know him by his word which became flesh in in the hearts of the Salvadorian people, not only because of his way of life, but also in the way he died. Meeting him in his easy to understand words was for me meeting a man of God whose humility and strength call me to conversion, to conciliation, and to action.

Therefore, In 2006, when I was in the novitiate in Lima, a Carmelite came to our house, and that Carmelite was Father Peter Hinde, who lives in “Ciudad Juarez” where he helps the victims of the violence of the Mexican Drug wars. Father Peter introduced Monsenor Romero’s life to all the novices with a deeply moving reflection about faith and justice, and about Romero’s martyrdom. Moreover, when I moved to El Salvador in 2009, one month before this anniversary, I began to experience and see how Monsenor Romero is alive in the lives of the people there. My experience deepened when I met at UCA (The Jesuit University of Central America) people who have lived and shared with Monsenor Romero during his lifetime. So, now I want to share with you my experience, my understanding and my hope about Monsenor Oscar Romero.

Monsenor Romero was confronted by the particular historical reality, in which the Salvadorian people were living at the time. El Salvador was led by a dictator-president for more than 20 years. In 1979, when the president proposed an agrarian reform favoring exclusively the land-owning minority of the very wealthy, most people disagreed with it as the majority of Salvadorans are very poor. The poor farmers began to protest against the government, asking for justice and for their rights, but, rather than seeking a fair solution, the Government initiated a war in an attempt to silence and oppress the camposinos. Monsenor Romero became archbishop at a time when the war got worse and the historical situation of El Salvador could be defined only as a situation of injustice and oppression. Many priests, religious, and lay leaders of the church were killed, tortured, and “disappeared.” There was no light, but darkness, and therefore, the Presence of God was not to be found.

The second point to consider is that Monsenor Romero made himself responsible for the historical transformation of the reality of the people of El Salvador. Like Jesus, Monsenor Romero put his faith in God, and sought God’s will for his native land, where the death or life of the people was constantly at risk. He was named archbishop in order to keep the Church there
“orthodox” and to distance the Church from a social activism. However, being confronted by the stories of so many people who suffered violence in the concrete historical situation of the Government’s war on the poor caused him to change and to speak out against all the powers which were responsible for the murders of countless people. In El Salvador the Church was, and is still, the official religion of the Government. Therefore, the presence of the archbishop was and is still very important in political events. But, after Jesuit Father Rutilio Grande, a young boy, and another man were killed, Monsenor Romero decided not attend any political events until the government explained the death of these people. Confronting this experience of death made Archbishop Romero believe that there is no Christian love if there is not justice. As a result, he proclaimed that he would never tire of preaching love and that the Christian has to work to marginalize sin and to plant instead the seeds of the Kingdom of God. Social Activism is not communism. It is not enough for us to save our souls at the last minute before our deaths. The Gospel requires people, the Christians of today, to enter into the historical situation in which we find ourselves and to participate in making the Gospel alive. Salvation comes about in a historical context.

Monsenor Romero, not only spoke against injustice and oppression; he carried on his own shoulders the suffering, the oppression and death of the people suffering the same persecution. He said “the shepherd does not want security if his sheep don’t have it”. Expressing a sign of true and deep humility he said “with this people, it is not difficult to be good shepherd. I ask your prayers, to be firm on this promise, that I will not leave my people, but I will suffer all the risks that my ministry requires”. Also, he understood that in a situation where many people were killed, where the blood of many innocents, of the poor, and of the oppressed, runs on the streets, if the church does not suffer the same persecution, it is not a Church truly rooted in Christ. The church’s mission is to defend the human rights that are being oppressed.

In addition, Monsenor Romero let himself be guided by the reality of offering his life as hope of freedom for his people. John Sobrino says “Monsenor Romero allowed God to be God”. And Ignacio Ellacuria, one of the martyrs of the UCA, reinterpreted Romero’s life saying “By Monsenor Romero, God came down to El Salvador” because Monsenor Romero confessed “the Christian is someone who loves deeply, the Christian is Christ”. Romero had deep faith in God. God was the beginning and the end of life, of justice, of love and of truth. Therefore, Monsenor Romero found God’s presence and mastery in the poor; and the mystery of God Was shown to him by the poor, those who in the eyes of the powerful of this world mean nothing. He was loved by his people and his people felt loved by him acknowledging him a man who comes from God as Good News and as hope of liberation.

Therefore, Brothers, the challenge is how Monsenor Romero can inspire us today. Monsenor Romero invites us to find God in the simplicity, in “la nada”, and live our faith completely. As soon as he became Archbishop, the rich people and the government offered him a beautiful home with every need met. But being consistent with the gospel, and with his people, Archbishop Romero preferred live in a small room adjoining the chapel of the Carmelite Sisters’ chapel. Finally, Brothers, during this Lent, God invites us by the example of Monsenor Romero to conversion becoming the voice that cries in the desert because Lent is preparation for our resurrection, the Resurrection with Chirst that is our salvation. But if we are to be raised with Christ, it is also necessary for us to accompany Jesus in his suffering and cross. Thus, God is knocking the door of our house, and it will depend of us if we open or not our door to him, and invite him to come in and eat with us at our table.

That's the homily--now let's look at the Gospel for tomorrow, the 5th Sunday of Lent, year B and see Monsignor Romero in this context

Some Greeks who had come to worship at the Passover Feast
came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee,
and asked him, "Sir, we would like to see Jesus."
Philip went and told Andrew;
then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.
Jesus answered them,
"The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.
Amen, amen, I say to you,
unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies,
it remains just a grain of wheat;
but if it dies, it produces much fruit.
Whoever loves his life loses it,
and whoever hates his life in this world
will preserve it for eternal life.
Whoever serves me must follow me,
and where I am, there also will my servant be.
The Father will honor whoever serves me.

"I am troubled now. Yet what should I say?
'Father, save me from this hour?'
But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour.
Father, glorify your name."
Then a voice came from heaven,
"I have glorified it and will glorify it again."
The crowd there heard it and said it was thunder;
but others said, "An angel has spoken to him."
Jesus answered and said,
"This voice did not come for my sake but for yours.
Now is the time of judgment on this world;
now the ruler of this world will be driven out.
And when I am lifted up from the earth,
I will draw everyone to myself."
He said this indicating the sort of death that awaited him.

It does give us something to think about--we can see why the Church calls Jesus "The King of Martyrs" Archbishop Romero is only one of many who follows in the footsteps of his king.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Coptic Church Today

A Coptic monk visiting with
faithful at his monastery on the
roof of the Church of the Holy
Sepulcher in Jerusalem
The Arab Caliphate invaded Egypt in 639 and from that time on Egypt was ruled by Muslims, yet for many centuries the majority of the Egyptian people clung to the Christian faith.  The main instrument that the Muslim rulers used to influence its subjects to convert was the jizya, a tax levied on non Muslims to remind them of their inferior status under the law and also a means of putting the burden of taxation on the Dhimmi or non-Muslims.  The jizya may have been a burden but it was not without benefit—as the Dhimmi were not subject to conscription into the military. And in some places, among the Palestinians for example, Christians were proud to pay this tax and saw it as a sign of spiritual integrity that their religious faith was not for sale.  In regards to Egypt, it is a testimony that as many Egyptians as did remained faithful to the Christian faith—between ten and thirteen percent of the population. 
     Despite popular Christian mythology, especially of the pseudo-evangelical sort, Islam has not made it its policy for there to be outright persecution of Christian or Jewish minorities in Islamic states.  The Arabian Peninsula, by the decree of the Prophet Muhammad, is restricted to Muslims and religions other than Islam are proscribed today in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  And it is forbidden everywhere in the Islamic world for a Muslim to convert to another religion.  For the most part, the philosophy has been that intermarriage, and in particular the marriage of Muslim men to Dhimmi women, as well as the social disadvantages of not being Muslim will eventually persuade Jews, Christians, and others to accept Islam.  And so in Egypt, over the almost fourteen centuries since the Islamic invasion, the vast majority of people have accepted Islam.  But not the Copts and they are very proud of their independence.  
      The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have triggered a negative reaction among many Muslims.  The “Crusade” language used by the previous American administration and the anti-Islamic rants of the religious right have sparked the resurgence of a militant Islam.  Oppressive regimes such as the Sadam Hussein Regime in Iraq and the Hosni Mubarak Regime in Egypt feared militant Islam and kept it at bay.  The overthrow of those regimes, rather than spawning democratic movements, has energized radical Islam. Unqualified American support for Israeli policies, especially in regard to the Settlement Movement, has also awakened a sense of Islamic solidarity especially among those Muslims of Arabic language and culture.  Indigenous Christian communities in the Near East and North Africa have felt the consequences of this.  Since the fall of Mubarak in Egypt the Copts have been put in an especially difficult situation with many violent outbursts against Coptic Churches and communities.  The more traditional harmony between the Muslim and Coptic segments of Egyptian society are giving way to more politicized and polarized antagonism. 
      Several months ago when first planning to do an entry on the plight of Coptic Christians I visited a Coptic Orthodox Church and spoke with several lay leaders of the congregation.  (I would have like to speak to the priest but no offer was made to introduce me; I suspect the laymen with whom I was speaking were anxious to get their opinions across rather than the views of a more official spokesperson.) 
      Unlike the Palestinians with whom I have spoken who feel that it is the Israelis who are squeezing them out of their ancestral homeland, encouraging them to emigrate and begin new lives elsewhere, the Copts with whom I spoke are blunt in saying that the cause of their suffering is Islam.  In this they are not unlike the Chaldean Christians—Iraqis—who also feel that it is their Muslim neighbors who are squeezing them out of the lands on which they have lived for millennia.  The Coptic men with whom I spoke that day pulled no punches in their blaming Muslims for the suffering of their ancient community.  For more information and (I believe) balanced views, I suggest you contact the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Origins (and Origen) of the Coptic Church

The Cathedral of Saint Mark in Cairo, Seat of the
Patriarch and Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church
In our last entry I wrote about Pope Shenouda III and how the Coptic Orthodox Church emerged out of one of the five great Patriarchates of Christianity, the Patriarchate of Alexandria which traces its origins back to the Evangelist Mark. 
     I want to look a bit at the Coptic Orthodox Church because it is one of the Christian Communities of the Near East that is in grave danger today.   Blog entries of December 24th and 26th spoke of the Palestinian and Iraqi Christian communities and I had always intended to get back to the Coptic Christians of Egypt but there is so much happening these past few months to comment on that I haven’t had the chance to do an entry on the Copts. 
      In the ancient world of Greek and Roman culture, the first three centuries of the Christian, or Common, Era, Alexandria—situated on the Mediterranean coast at the Nile Delta was the great center of learning where Philosophers and scientists met and exchanged idea.  The philosophy of the day was neo-Platonism and it was in Alexandria that Plotinus, probably the most influential of the Neo-Platonists studied.  In addition to the Greek and Roman pagan philosophers, it was also a center of Jewish studies, having a huge Jewish community. Some scholars think from the evidence of certain medical and scientific knowledge available in Alexandria that there may have been Buddhist monks from India in Alexandria.  That is not as farfetched as it may sound because we know the trade routes took sailors and merchants down the Red Sea and across the Indian Ocean to Indian ports. There was an ancient synagogue dating to this era in the city of Cochin in Kerala. Christians gravitated to Alexandria as well, Alexandria becoming the catechetical center of ancient Christianity with Clement of Alexandria, Athenagoras, and Origen all teaching there.  At the time of the Council of Nicea it was a priest from Alexandria by the name of Arius that had triggered the heresy of Arianism which the Council was called to correct, but it was also a Patriarch of Alexandria Athanasius who led the opposition to the heresy.  Indeed Athanasius is the personification of Christological orthodoxy. 
     It was only in the fifth century at the time of the Council of Chalcedon the Church of Alexandria (and several other Oriental Churches) could not agree with the Churches of Constantinople and Rome regarding the precise way in which Divinity and Humanity are each and both characteristic of Jesus.  This is a complicated issue—far more complicated than I want to get into here and far more complicated than I need to get into here—and so let us just say that while agreeing that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, they differed on precisely how that should be explained.  
      While it may seem a bit trivial to us, or at least while we may see that there is essential agreement and the disagreement is more a matter of definition, it was a serious enough difference that the Chalcedonian Churches (Rome and Constantinople) no longer shared Eucharistic fellowship with the Churches that did not accept the doctrine as defined by the Council of Chalcedon (451). 
Egypt was part of the Byzantine Empire and the Imperial Court ascribed to the Chalcedonian formula—consequently the Emperor made life very difficult for the Christians of Egypt who rejected the Council’s doctrines.  It was a case of Christian persecuting Christian and ultimately it undermined the place of Egypt in the Empire.  In 639 when the Arab armies came into Egypt, the loyalty of the people to the Emperor in Constantinople had been weakened by these religious disputes, empowering the conquerors to take Egypt into the Caliphate without much resistance.  While initially the vast majority of Egyptians remained Christians, over the next six centuries through intermarriage and for economic advantage most of the Egyptian population had become Muslim.  Today between 10 and 12 percent of the Egyptian people are Coptic Christians.   More on this next time.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

There's another Pope?

Pope Shenouda III, Patriarch and
Pope of Alexandria,
+ March 17, 2012
  So the Pope died this Saturday past.  Well, not that pope—but the Pope of Alexandria, Pope Shenouda III.  Who knew there were two popes?  Pope is, or at least was, used by some village priests among the Greek Orthodox Christians of Asia Minor and various islands in the Aegean Sea.  While this was common in the days of the Ottoman Sultanate, the persecution of Asiatic Greeks by the Ottomans and the destruction of most of those communities in the 19th century along with the modernization that has come to Greece with its independence from Turkey have made this title obsolete.  The title survives chiefly for two of the five Great Patriarchs of Christendom—the Patriarch of Alexandria in Egypt and the Patriarch of the West, the Bishop of Rome.  The title has been used for the Patriarch of Alexandria since the time of Pope Heraclas of Alexandria in the middle of the third century. By comparison, for the Roman Pontiffs, “Pope” is somewhat of a modern affectation as the Bishops of Rome have used the title only since John I in the second decade of the sixth century.  The Greek Orthodox claimant to the Patriarchate of Alexandria also makes claim to the title, asserting that as an Orthodox (i.e. Chalcedonian) Christian he is the authentic heir to the See of Saint Mark.

The See of Saint Mark—this is what gives Alexandria its importance. 

One of the first places to which Christianity spread was Alexandria in Egypt, most likely being brought back to Alexandria by Alexandrian Jews who had been in Jerusalem that Pentecost and heard the preaching of the Apostles and accepted faith in Jesus as a fulfillment of their Messianic hopes as Jews.  There were strong ties between Jerusalem and Alexandria and Judaism was strong in that ancient Egyptian city with pilgrims regularly going to Jerusalem for the three annual pilgrimage feasts each year.  The See (or Diocese) of Alexandria is usually attributed to Mark the Evangelist, the author of the Second Gospel but it is clear that there would have been a Christian community there from the beginning—the very beginning, making the Alexandrian Christian community perhaps the second oldest only to Jerusalem—Church in Christianity. 

While the foundation of the Church of Alexandria by Saint Mark would be an overstatement of historical fact, the identification of Mark with the Church of Alexandria is from the earliest days.  The patristic sources and Alexandrian legends differ.  The Alexandria tradition puts Mark in Alexandria as early as the mid ‘40’s—just ten years or so after Pentecost.  The patristic tradition which roots the Gospel of Mark in the preaching of Peter claims that Mark was with Peter in Rome until after Peter’s martyrdom in AD 67.  There are also stories of Mark having served as first bishop of Aquileia.  These stories of Mark preaching up in the Venetian lagoons and marshes along the Adriatic are almost certainly spurious but the Patriarchate of Venice claims descent from Saint Mark as the See was translated from Aquileia to Grado and then to Venice when the Archdiocese of Venice was formed from the old dioceses of Grado and Castello. 

In any event, the traditions merge with Mark arriving in Alexandria at some point and leading the Church there.  The cultural and economic prestige associated with this ancient city was certainly as important as its connection with Mark the Evangelist in establishing it as a leading center of Christian thought and practice. 

While we Catholics usually think—naively—of the papacy as dating back to the Apostle Peter and his ministry at Rome, the fact of the matter is that the papacy as we know and would recognize it is the product of a long evolutionary process that is continuing even today.  The Church of the first centuries did not see itself universally as subject to the oversight of the Bishop of Rome.  In fact there was no Church (in our sense) in the early centuries.  There was a communion of Churches, hundreds of local Churches corresponding somewhat (operative word: somewhat) to what we would think of as a diocese.  These churches maintained communion with one another—that is they held each other in mutual respect and love, praying for and with one another, and assisting one another at times of need.  The unity of faith permitted them to share the Eucharist with one another as a sign both of mutual love and conformity of doctrine.  Quite early on, by the end of the first century, an unofficial pattern of leadership among these churches began to emerge.  Rome as center of the Empire began to exercise more and more authority, particularly as Christianity spread out westwards from Rome into what is today France, Spain, England, Ireland, and the western reaches of North Africa.  Antioch and Alexandria, two cities with somewhat different theological traditions but each centers of theological reflection and evangelization—as well as economic (and for Alexandria, cultural) influence began to exercise importance.  Alexandria achieved leadership in the African Church—both along the Mediterranean seaboard and southwards along the coastal regions along the Red Sea.  Antioch’s influence spread eastwards down into what is today Iraq and Iran and beyond into India. When the Emperor Constantine established a new Imperial Capital in Byzantium and named it Constantinople (Constantine’s City), the imperial connections gave its Church and Bishop added importance, great importance.  And finally Jerusalem, always the heart of the Christian world, achieved a prominent respect and honor once Christianity became the religion of the Empire.  By the early sixth century these five Sees became the “Pentarchy” officially recognized both by Imperial decree and Church ordinance as the leading authorities in Christendom—equal in governance but ordered in dignity with Rome first, followed by Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem.  Apostolic foundations were ascribed to each of these Sees: Rome claiming descent from Peter and Paul; Antioch from Peter (before he move on to Rome); Constantinople from Andrew, Peter’s elder brother;  Alexandria from Mark;  and Jerusalem from James, brother of the Lord. 

Infighting among the Patriarchs over jurisdiction and honors due as well as some doctrinal squabbles led to a breakup of the Pentarchy.  Jerusalem, due to the pressure of Imperial control from Constantinople, never achieved any real independence from Constantinople but Antioch and Alexandria each dissented from the Council of Chalcedon and their independence led to the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Coptic Orthodox Church respectively as these Patriarchs and the Chalcedonian Churches—Rome and Constantinople—parted ways.  Pope Shenouda, as Pope and Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church has sat in the Chair of Saint Mark and served as the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church since 1971 until his death this past Saturday, March 17, 2012.  Future postings will tell more of the Coptic Church and its late Pope.