I ran across something today that got me thinking about the revised English translation of the liturgy again. I guess I should let this go, but things I read keep bringing it back up. Maybe I am obsessed, or maybe this is a case of a process Richard Feynman described: you keep a bunch of problems in your head, and every time you learn something new, you try to apply it to one of them to see if you can make further progress on it.
A few weeks ago I made two posts (here and here) on the phrase “visible and invisible” in the new translation of the creed. Today, catching up on my daily scripture readings (I am really far behind!) I ran across this passage from Romans (Tuesday of the 29th week in Ordinary Time, read on October 22, emphasis added):
Brothers and sisters:
Through one man sin entered the world,
and through sin, death,
and thus death came to all men, inasmuch as all sinned.
If by that one person’s transgression the many died,
how much more did the grace of God
and the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ
overflow for the many.
For if, by the transgression of the one,
death came to reign through that one,
how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace
and the gift of justification
come to reign in life through the one Jesus Christ.
In conclusion, just as through one transgression
condemnation came upon all,
so, through one righteous act
acquittal and life came to all.
For just as through the disobedience of one man
the many were made sinners,
so, through the obedience of the one
the many will be made righteous.
Where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more,
so that, as sin reigned in death,
grace also might reign through justification
for eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
As you all will recall, one small translation change in the Missal that sparked a great deal of discussion was the translation of pro multis in the Eucharistic prayer as for many in place of the earlier for all men. We discussed this in a post two years ago; at the time I noted something my son Kiko, the budding Latinist, said to me: pro multis may be translated as either for many or for the many depending on context. A variety of other reasons, for and against the new translation, were advanced in the comments. Many people (including several European bishops conferences) argued for retaining for all or changing it to for the many. This, however, was over-ruled by Pope Benedict. Sandro Magister provided thorough though somewhat partisan coverage: e.g. see here. On the other hand, the German bishops dragged their feet and last month announced they were keeping their old translation as (in German) for all.
The underlying problem is balancing a translation style which hews to as close to a literal translation of the Latin text as possible versus the theological point that Christ died to save all people. I was led to revisit this question because in the above passage, where Paul is making a very strong point about the universality of the sacrifice of Christ, the text is translated into English four times as the many. I therefore decided to consult the underlying Latin text. I used the Biblia Sacra Vulgata made available online by BibleGateway.com. (This is also called the Stuttgart edition: see Wikipedia for more details.)
In Romans 5:15, the many is used to translate multi and plures:
sed non sicut delictum ita et donum si enim unius delicto multi mortui sunt multo magis gratia Dei et donum in gratiam unius hominis Iesu Christi in plures abundavit
In Romans 5:18, all people is used to translate omnes homines:
igitur sicut per unius delictum in omnes homines in condemnationem sic et per unius iustitiam in omnes homines in iustificationem vitae
And finally, in Romans 5:19, the many is used to translate multi:
sicut enim per inoboedientiam unius hominis peccatores constituti sunt multi ita et per unius oboeditionem iusti constituentur multi
Now this is of course a somewhat backwards process, since the English text of the NAB is not translated from the Latin: both are translated from the Greek. Consulting an online interlinear text at blueletterbible.org, it appears that in both 5:15 and 5:18, the underlying Greek work is polys, meaning many, multitude, etc. (Note that the Latin text translates this word in two ways in 5:15.) And to add to my confusion, this is the same Greek word used in the institution narrative in Matthew 26:28, and there translated by the NAB as many.
Though it is very tempting to draw a sweeping conclusion from this, my awareness of my own ignorance, combined with my own limited experience as a translator, makes me proceed cautiously. Nevertheless, I find it striking that in one place the same Greek word can be translated as the many and in another as many, and that the Latin text uses multi(s) in both places. The temptation is to use this as evidence that pro multis could have been translated as for the many or for the multitudes instead of as for many without doing any harm at all to the Latin text while emphasizing the universal nature of Christ’s sacrifice. However, there may well be nuances of the use of the language in the various passages that argue for one reading in one place, and a different one elsewhere. I cannot resolve this question, and perhaps it is moot: as a Church we have better things to do with our time, as Pope Francis has made clear. But it is fun to think about.
The real bottom line: I wish I spoke both Latin and Greek to answer this question. Thoughts, corrections, and emendations would be appreciated.
Yesterday, the Vatican released Pope Francis’ first formal document, the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, available here in English translation, with both HTML and PDF versions. I have not read it yet; at 51,000 words I think I can be excused for not having done more than print it out. So it may seem presumptuous to blog about it but I have a few quick thoughts on the reception and presentation of the text.
Both the secular press and the blog-o-sphere quickly filled with commentary and quotations. The Guardian, predictably, focused on the economic aspects of the letter. The New York Times gave a broader summary, but tended to focus on the hot button issues they care about: women’s ordination, abortion, gay rights, denying the sacraments to politicians. The Washington Post covered the encyclical in several columns and blog posts (e.g. here), giving brief summaries but with most of the emphasis on economics. In particular they brought attention to the Pope’s explicit condemnation of “trickle-down economics.”
Unsurprisingly, the National Catholic Reporter was overjoyed by the document, with the usually staid John Allen comparing it to Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. Michael Sean Winters calls it a “song” and is one of the few commentaries I have seen that highlights the “joy” in the title.
A quick check of conservative blogs showed a much warier approach. Fr. Z. withheld judgment, while warning his readers to ignore the secular press and to be sure to remember that this was not an encyclical, or even apostolic letter, but “only” an apostolic exhortation. He also added the interesting tidbit (with an ineffable sense of disaprobation) that there is no Latin text available. Rorate Caeli had one quote, and claimed that the exhortation is a very Thomistic document. And Catholic World Report had a long summary (sort of like a Cliff Notes version) that seems to go out of its way to bury any commentary about the economy in the details. And the Acton Institute has nothing at all.
Going forward my intention is to read the text carefully, and I hope to provide more detailed reflections as I complete each chapter. Here, however, I want to comment on the semiotics of the document and its release. Previous papal encyclicals were only available in HTML, and were typeset on the parchment colored background used throughout the Vatican website. The effect is one of age, solidity, tradition. The text itself is useful for reference but not for extended reading. The footnotes, at least, were hypertext. Moreover, one generally had to make several clicks and dig down to find the text. The general effect was one of distance and detachment from the world. Even when the contents were provoking (as in Pope Benedict’s commentary on the economy) their impact was offset by the presentation.
By contrast, Evangelii Gaudium immediately appears in a pop-up window as soon as you select the English language homepage. It is available in both PDF and HTML formats. In HTML, the background has been changed to clear white, with a border in the traditional parchment background. The text begins with a fairly detailed hyper-linked table of contents. The net effect is a document that is easy to read and easy to search. (This may explain the rapidity with which “juicy” quotes were able to appear.) I had not realized this, but this change in layout actually occurred with Lumen Fidei, though this document did not have the handy table of contents.
The availability of the PDF was a real surprise. Moreover, when I went to print it, I discovered that the PDF had not been formatted as a monograph—narrow margins with footnotes at the end—but in a very readable book format with wide margins and a pleasing typeface. (Though I must complain that at 200+ pages, it would have been a real waste of paper to print; however, if you print double-sided, two pages on each side of the sheet, with the text blown up to about 150%, you get a more compact but still readable document.) The footnotes are given at the bottom of each page, rather than as endnotes. The table of contents is still there, but in a European touch it is at the end of the book where Americans would expect the index.
The effect of these changes is quite striking and delivers in print and electronically the “populist,” outward looking style that Pope Francis has brought to the papacy and wants the whole Church to adopt. In form the documents appear modern, inviting and relevant. The typography of the PDF suggests to the reader that this is a document for every man and woman and not a learned text to be parsed by theologians but otherwise not to be looked at. Just in appearance it makes the title more plausible: the good news is indeed joyful.
Even if Pope Francis is not proposing any significant shifts in Church teaching, the change in the presentation is itself an important departure, an attempt to again make the Church a touchstone for moral and ethical reflection of the world around us by making the teachings appear part of this world. I once heard Pope Leo described as the first pope to engage directly with modernity (and, more acerbically, as the only one until Pope John). With these new documents, I think that Pope Francis is demonstrating that he is the first pope willing to engage with the post-modern world.
As I read Living by Faith, Dwelling in Doubt: A Story of Belief, Uncertainty and Boundless Love, two prominent images arose in my imagination.
The first surrounds a difference of opinion between authors Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. In A Burnt-Out Case, Greene presented his central character as having lost his faith. This character made some religious friends of Greene uncomfortable. They felt that, through the character Querry, Greene had announced doubts he himself could not overcome. In one letter to Waugh, Greene exasperatedly writes: “If people are so impetuous as to regard this book as a recantation of my faith I cannot help it. Perhaps they will be surprised to see me at Mass.”
Living by Faith, Dwelling in Doubt, authored by Vox Nova contributor Kyle Cupp, presents Mr. Cupp as perhaps someone others are surprised to see at Mass:
When I mention in conversations that my religious faith is an uncertain faith, I am sometimes met with bewildered expressions, with words of concern, and, especially online, with aggressive push-back from my more feisty respondents. I have been accused by other Catholic Christians of harboring a remarkably weak religiosity, advocating skepticism…
I wonder if Cupp views the rhetoric of, what he calls, mainstream American religion, as emanating from a sort of wasteland in which, perhaps, some of his own critics currently dwell. Perhaps his lens is similar to one donned by Greene who, to Waugh, would write:
A wasteland inhabited by … the piety of the educated, the established, who seem to own their Roman Catholic image of God, who have ceased to look for him because they consider they have found him. Perhaps Unamuno had these in mind when he wrote: ‘Those who believe that they believe in God, but are without passion in their hearts, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, without an element of despair even in their consolation, believe only in the God idea, not in God himself.’
If the first image Living by Faith, Dwelling in Doubt triggered in me was of one others are surprised to see at Mass, the second is drawn from The Road. In this post-apocalyptic masterpiece – a masterpiece mentioned by Cupp in a later chapter – a man and his son journey through a world unrecognizable to the one the man once knew: Each day grayer than the one before. Cold and growing colder as the world slowly dies. The man “knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.” Those words – if he is not the word of God, God never spoke – constitute the second image and, almost immediately, Cupp takes his readers down this route:
Two things happened that reilluminated my way. The first was the birth of our daughter Mirielle. The joy and gift of new life helped soften my heart, and she, like her brother, was so full of wonder and energy that I could not help but see the God I loved in her giggles and eyes and puckered lips…
Cupp has stated that in the act of storytelling, the hearer of a tale is the one who must decide how best to interpret it and whether to believe the story. My sense is that these two images – that of (1) a person others are surprised to see at Mass and that of (2) a person able to say, as Cupp is, that “if she is not the word of God, God never spoke” – together form a very special communique.
When Cupp titles one chapter “Farewell to Explanation”, I wonder if he has Templeton’s Farewell to God in mind. I ask because, at several moments throughout Cupp’s work, Cupp identifies how what his experience mediates is not always what is reason does (and vice versa). By bidding farewell to explanation – to that which might be given the pretense of having been proved in argument – and instead surrendering to an apprehension of transcendence, Cupp maintains faith; the choice to, experientially, enter into the drama of the stories which make up his life.
Living by Faith, Dwelling in Doubt is finely written and touchingly personal work. It is thought-provoking and puts words to realities which have, for some of us, thus far gone unnamed.
- James Nicholas
I love the story of the loaves and fishes.
Jesus answers the doubts of his disciples with overflowing love – love not only from Him, but spread by and through each member of the crowd. There can be no limit to His generosity, and the more His followers shared it, the more comes pouring out.
The company I work for occasionally offers the opportunity to do a volunteer day feeding the homeless of San Francisco at Glide Memorial Church in the gritty Tenderloin neighborhood.
I have volunteered several times, and every time I do I’m moved beyond words.
There is something about giving food to the hungry that strips away whatever it is in me that resists seeing love in the world. There they stand, some neatly dressed, some in little more than street-grimed rags, and they silently ask me to feed them, and in their vulnerability and their wounds I see the Face of Christ, and Him crucified.
I always think “Lord, I am not worthy that You should enter under my Roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”
I see an old man sitting at one of the tables, missing his front teeth, and I see another old man offer him his soft dinner roll with a look of humble and saintly kindness, and then I realize that those two old men are Christ, showing me the Way to Heaven.
I see a man softly ranting, at once incoherent and deeply convinced, and see the other diners at his table listen attentively, as if he were a professor discussing the classics in a graduate seminar, and there I see the most simple and beautiful mercy being made plain.
I see men and women pouring each other cups of water, and responding with simple gratitude, and it is the wedding at Cana, writ small.
The Kingdom is at hand.
Glory to God in the Lowest.
Station 10: Jesus is stripped
Behold, my other self,
the poorest King who ever lived.
The cross – my deathbed -
even this is not my own.
Yet who has ever been so rich?
Possessing nothing, I own all:
my Father’s Love.
If you too would own everything,
be not solicitous
about your food, your clothes,
Lord, I offer You my all –
Whatever I possess
And more – my self.
Detach me from the craving for
prestige, position, wealth.
Root out of me
all trace of envy of my neighbor
Who has more than I.
Release me from the vice of pride,
My longing to exalt myself,
And lead me to the lowest place.
May I be poor in spirit, Lord,
So that I can be rich in You.
The second reading for today’s Feast of Christ the King is Colossians 1:12-20. St. Paul, in a paean to God the Father, describes Jesus by saying that
“in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible” (Col 1:16)
As I was preparing this reading (I am a lector for today’s mass) I was struck by the use of visible and invisible. Last week I blogged about this turn of phrase in the new translation of the creed, comparing it to Blessed Newman’s use of “seen” and “unseen,” the language of the earlier English translation. Out of curiosity, I decided to see what other bible translations used in this passage. A brief search showed that the majority of translations use “visible” and “invisible”. A sampling of translations can be found at the BibleHub.
The underlying words in Greek are “horatos” and “ahoratos”: according to Strong’s Concordance, “visible” or “capable of being seen.” It is the only occurrence of horatos in the New Testament; “ahoratos” appears twice.
One translation did use “seen” and “unseen”: the Weymouth New Testament. According to Wikipedia, this was a 19th century version that attempted to translate the best Greek manuscript into “modern” (i.e. 19th century) English. This use of seen and unseen thus squares with Newman’s use of the same terms and is further evidence that at least in the 19th century these terms were used interchangeably.
I would be interested in knowing more about why the most recent translations (including the NAB, the NIV and the NJB) all translate these words as visible and invisible, and how this differs from the places where the text reads “unseen”—e.g. Matthew 6:6 in the NIV. But this requires a far better knowledge of NT Greek than I can gain using Google.
Please feel free to draw whatever conclusions you want from this micro-excursion into the history of translations! And as this liturgical year draws to a close, may God in his goodness, which is indeed visible all around us, continue to bless each and every one of you.
Attending daily Mass this morning, I was reminded of two observances taking place today, in an ironic intersection of liturgical and national calendars. For the Catholic Church, it is the feast of St. Martin of Tours, a 4th-century convert who experienced an irreconcilable tension between his Christian faith and his career as a soldier. Meanwhile, in the United States, Veterans’ Day is being celebrated, and along with it the broader mythos that is a formative part of the culture – and cultus – of any major world military power.
The irony of this juxtaposition would not have been evident from this morning’s Mass had I not been looking for it. The priest (who, to compound the irony, is Ugandan) began his homily with a biography of St. Martin, mentioning his departure from the Roman army by telling us simply that he was “discharged” and told his former commander that he would now be serving him in a different way. The priest then transitioned into a list he had taken from the internet of 10 ways to observe Veterans’ Day – which, need we be reminded, is not a liturgical holiday and is of course not observed by the universal Church. It took me until number two, “display the American flag”, to decide I could not listen anymore. Not all this. Not in church. I am generally not in favor of walking out of Mass in protest, believing instead that the catholic thing to do is to give precedence to my devotion to the Church over my personal complaints. But as catholicity was already being drowned out by more nationalistic priorities, I recognized that this was one of those rare cases in which it would have been dishonest of me to continue to participate. So I went out.
By the time I had prayed a couple decades of the rosary to calm myself down, the Mass was over, so I went back inside and spoke to the priest, asking him why he had devoted all that time during Mass to the observance of a military holiday. He asked me for further explanation and listened kindly and attentively. We talked for awhile, prayed together, and wished each other peace. But something in our conversation, some aim at understanding one another, was missed.
When he spoke of the people he sometimes visits at the VA hospital, their sufferings in body and mind, and their need for compassion rather than condemnation, I told him I completely agree. And I do. The difference I tried inadequately to articulate is between the Church’s ministry of compassion to those who have been wounded by war and other violence (including by actively participating in it, which can leave the deepest wounds of all), and the sacralization of a nationalistic narrative that glorifies the beast that wounded them.
That difference exists precisely because the Church professes the intrinsic and inviolable dignity of every human being, even – or perhaps especially – if they have known profoundly dehumanizing experiences. I would no sooner deny military veterans (a few of whom I count as friends) the respect owed to that human dignity than I would anyone else. I can even see some good intentions in the mythic stories repeated on days like this, as we want so badly to derive some meaning from their woundedness that we dress it in vaguely heroic language and tell ourselves they have sacrificed for some nobler cause. But is romanticizing the altar of militarism on which so many of our fellow citizens have been sacrificed really the best way to honor their humanity?
St. Martin represents a different kind of sacrifice: following his conscience at the cost of his career, giving the needy (literally) the shirt off his back, living in humble simplicity – in short, the life-giving sacrifice of service to Christ and his presence in others. It is this example that the universal Church, across all nations, exalts today.
St. Martin of Tours, pray for us. Oh, pray for us.
The French have a marvelous turn of phrase “l’esprit de l’escalier” which might best be translated as “staircase wit.” It is used to refer to those situations where you think of the perfect retort far too late to say it—e.g., on the stairs as you are leaving. I think of this because I ran across a passage from Blessed John Henry Newman that I wish I had seen when we were discussing the revised translation of the Missal.
One of the changes at the time was to replace “seen and unseen” with “visible and invisible”, a change that I thought was a distinction without a difference and that was only done to make the new translation conform more literally to the underlying Latin text. I ran across some explanations, such as this one by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university:
I believe that the literal rendition “visible and invisible” is not only more accurate than “seen and unseen” but also better reflects the philosophical and theological history behind the use of these terms.
In Christian philosophy and theology an invisible creature pertains to the spiritual realm beyond physical reality.
In this sense, “invisible” is not synonymous with “unseen.” If I were to hide behind a curtain, I would be unseen, but I would certainly not be invisible. Even the fictional “Invisible Man” felt hot and cold and would bleed if he stepped on a nail.
We sometimes use the term “invisible” to refer to physical realities in the infrared or ultraviolet spectrum shielded from our normal vision, or to radiation, radio waves and all sorts of forces. All of these realities pertain to the physical world, and although they are unseen by our eyes they are detectable and measurable by specialized instruments. Hence, philosophically and theologically they might be unseen but are not invisible.
The new translation of the creed, in using the term “invisible,” affirms with greater clarity the reality of the spiritual realm beyond the physical. This reality is explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (even though this work obviously refers to the former translation of the creed).
I just didn’t buy this argument but could not think of an appropriate response. But today, getting caught up on back Gospel readings from Daily Gospel Online I found a marvelous quote from Newman, from his sermon “The Invisible World”:
That they form a part of our unseen world, appears from the vision seen by the patriarch Jacob (Gn 28,10f.)… How little did he think that there was any thing very wonderful in this spot! It looked like any other spot. It was a lone, uncomfortable place…. Yet how different was the truth! Jacob saw but the world that is seen; he saw not the world that is not seen; yet the world that is not seen was there. It was there, though it did not at once make known its presence, but needed to be supernaturally displayed to him. He saw it in his sleep. “He dreamed, and behold, a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached up to heaven; and behold, the Angels of God ascending and descending on it. And behold, the Lord stood above it.”
So it would seem that for a theologian of Newman’s acumen, there was no functional difference between the words “unseen” and “invisible”. Now it could be the case that there was no such distinction (or a different one) in 19th century English, but now this distinction holds in modern English. But the fact that we can still refer to “The Invisible Man” (as Fr. McNamara does) and do not feel obliged to say “The Unseen Man” since he is still part of our physical reality suggests otherwise.
So with l’esprit de l’escalier: if “seen and unseen” was good enough for Blessed Newman, I think it should be good enough for us!
Can we know with certainty that God exists? This traditional mission priest says yes. Apparently upset with the recent talk higher up the hierarchy that atheists might just be on the good side of the Good Lord, the priest, sickle in hand, delivered a sermon arguing that atheists can never be pleasing to God or do good in any way that ultimately counts. The traditionally-minded folks at Rorate Caeli call the sermon “very timely.”
The preacher withholds his name, but he’s not shy about telling us what he thinks: if atheists are ignorant, well, they’re to blame. He pulls together biblical passages and quotes from saints and theologians, all of which might have produced a more convincing case had his bedrock appeal to infallible authority not made a fallacious leap:
The Church teaches ALL men can know with certainty by the light of natural reason alone… that God exists and that He is our Creator. All men must start here to render unto God what is God’s. Faith is not required for this first step. It comes with being a creature in the Cosmos made by God. Listen to this infallible statement of the First Vatican Council: “If anybody says that the one true God, Our Creator and Lord, cannot be known with certainty in the light of human reason by those things which have been made, anathema sit” (Dz 1806).
Champion of uncertainty in faith that I am, I actually have no objection to this statement of the council. Whether or not it’s infallible, it’s absolutely necessary if we’re to say that God has revealed. There’s a reason why the First Vatican Council began a section of its teaching on revelation with this warning: it establishes a precondition for divine revelation. Any divine revelation. If God cannot be known with certainty in the light of human reason by those things which have been made, then the very idea of revelation by God is absurd. Language, for example, is one of the things by which God is said to have revealed. If God cannot be known by way of language, then no sacred text in any religious tradition discloses God. No prophet could hear the voice of God; God wouldn’t be able to communicate with anyone. And if God cannot be known with certainty, then God cannot well be truth itself, the most certain of all things.
On the flip side, the statement neither says nor implies that all people can know that God exists. The grammatical subject of the clause isn’t all people or even some people; it’s God. To say that God can be known with certainty in the light of human reason by those things which have been made does not indicate that any particular individual can know God, or can know God with certainty, or even can know anything in the light of reason. It doesn’t address any of the possible conditions on the side of the individual that may affect or limit her knowing.
The priest giving this sermon assumes that God simply speaks and we can simply hear and–voilà!–certain knowledge. God says X, we can hear X. No assembly required. If you insist that you don’t see God, then you’re foolish, corrupt, and blind. You should have paid attention to the teachings of Nature, the Church, and the Saints, through which God speaks, apparently without needing any interpretation. The meaning of what God has said is simply present, fully accessible as long as you’re in the right place–the Catholic Church.
This being a sermon, I don’t expect a comprehensive account of the realist epistemology at work here–a detailed description of how the mind knows God with certainty in the light of human reason by those things which have been made. I also don’t expect it because he doesn’t seem to think he needs one. His epistemology is pretty much: be Catholic (in the sense that he is), the meaning of what God has said will be clear to you, and you’ll understand. But underlying even this simple epistemology is a host of presuppositions about how reason and the things of things of this world (e.g., language, culture, institutions) mediate (or don’t mediate) the perception and understanding of meaning.
It’s important to note that these presuppositions are philosophical in nature. They’re not matters of faith or morals or revelation, but they do affect how matters of faith, morals, and revelation are interpreted. Our mystery preacher might benefit from knowing that atheists don’t see God when looking at the world in part because they don’t share his presuppositions and so they interpret the phenomenon of the world differently than he does. If he wants to make the case that atheists should have certain knowledge of God, then he needs to do the hard work of showing how their presuppositions concerning the the perception and understanding of meaning are wrong and his are right. This task, however, means that he can’t assume that reason, language, and so forth function in the way he believes they do. He has to demonstrate this functionality and do so, I would argue, with respect to the history of epistemology and philosophical hermeneutics because, well, his underlying assumptions have been seriously challenged.
The Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time (03 November 2013).
Wisdom 11:22 -12:2; II Thessalonians 1:11 – 2:2 & Luke 19:1-10.
Grade six. I had just come in from recess and was changing shoes in the coatroom. A grade five girl was the next one in. Totally in love with her, I felt I should say something – anything – just to make her aware of my existence. It was a perfect opportunity and yet I was tongue-tied. Time was running out. Others were on their way inside and would soon be joining us. The pressure seemed … overwhelming. I remember her humming sweetly and, mercifully, I found my voice. I said “Shut up!” She said “You shut up!” and angrily stormed off to her classroom.
I just wanted to say something nice – “I like your sweater”, “you could hum professionally,” “will you marry me?” … – but my nerves would not let me. It almost makes me feel kinship with Zacchaeus. He and I both found ourselves in situations we really wanted to be in. I really wanted to be coming in from recess at the exact moment that girl was and, in the Gospel, Zacchaeus really wants to see “who Jesus was”. Listen to the excited language: Trying to see Jesus, Zacchaeus “ran ahead”, “hurried down”, and was “happy to welcome Jesus”. He even climbed a tree to get a better sight. Further, Zacchaeus and I both find ourselves obstructed; me with my bad nerves, social awkwardness, fear of rejection … and Zacchaeus by his being short and by there being a crowd between himself and Jesus.
An observation, or two, though:
First, Jesus approaches Zacchaeus. Sure, Zacchaeus wants to “see who Jesus was” but it is Jesus who approaches Zacchaeus and Jesus who initiates conversation with him. My sense is that Zacchaeus, sitting as he was on the branch of that tree, would have let Jesus pass by beneath. Uninterrupted. My sense is that Zacchaeus does not intend on doing anything but “see” Jesus.
I wonder if, thief and traitor that he was, Zacchaeus knows that he is not the sort of person with whom others, particularly this wandering Jesus, is going to want to associate. Zacchaeus, then, and his feelings of unworth, is not so foreign a figure. Is it really that rare, today, to think: If I could just lose this fat or kick that habit or become better at my job, then the people I want to love me, and those I want to hold me in esteem, will?
The Gospel, good news, operates differently. It tells that the love of God – the friendship of Christ – is not earned but given. The onlookers grumble because Jesus becomes the guest of a “sinner”. Jesus says “Zacchaeus … I must stay at your house today”. Onlookers grumble because, to such persons, it is about earning love and friendship and Zacchaeus surely has not. Remember the Pharisee, in the Gospel of last Sunday, preoccupied with his own fasting and charitable works?
That Pharisee – remember? – left the temple unjustified. The tax collector, in contrast, recognizes his own sinful character and can therefore desire healing through the love and friendship of God.
A second observation: By experiencing the love and friendship of Jesus, Zacchaeus becomes free. Here again, Zacchaeus is not so foreign a character. It has been an extraordinary gift in my life to find a person or two around whom I can be who I am – in all my frailties, imperfections and eccentricities – without fear of losing love in the process. The experience of love and friendship is transforming and that manifests in Zacchaeus who, having encountered Jesus, now wants to correct the evils of his past.
Pope Francis, in a recent interview, was asked to describe himself. His response was simply: “I am a sinner”. There is no pretense, in Francis, of being self-sufficient. He lives a life which appears to have been touched by the presence of God.
One way Christ makes himself present is through bread and wine. The language of transformation is used to describe what happens in the celebration of the Eucharist. More is asked, however, than my simply “seeing” this. Like Jesus approached Zacchaeus, we here are being approached. Like Zacchaeus, we here might find ourselves transformed.
- James Nicholas
Since I’ve been more transient than usual of late, I’ve experienced parish life and worship in a variety of settings within recent weeks and moths. And since I’ve been endowed with a critical mind that was hard enough to tone down even before seriously studying theology and liturgy, there is always something I end up mentally picking on – all the more so as my preferences fall on different sides of the “liturgy wars” that are hashed out in countless parishes, academic circles, and (of course) websites.
I could never have dreamed of being Catholic without Vatican II and am strongly partial to the Novus Ordo, but in pretty much a color-inside-the-lines kind of way, not in blind deference to rules for their own sake but in recognition of the way ritual speaks. If this sounds like an odd combination of leanings, what holds it together is the longing for familiarity, both in the sense of accessibility and of ritual environment. When we participate in the Eucharist, we enter into an inexhaustible mystery that is bigger than we know, and yet we need something recognizable to stand on if we dare approach it. Liturgy should be both a language we can grasp or at least begin to grasp when we come to it, and a language all its own, reinforced over time by enough repetition to take root and become a holy habit that cultivates other holy habits (namely the Christian virtues).
To illustrate what I have tried to articulate in the abstract, and recognizing the subjectivity of what follows in the concrete, here’s an idea of what my “ideal” Mass would look like if I had all my druthers.
- I want a sense of sacred space that catches my breath the moment I walk in the door, drawing me in to something bigger than me, in a way that is inviting rather than intimidating, yet nonetheless numinous.
- The whole Mass should begin and end with the sign of the cross, as a liturgical bracket signaling who we belong to and why we are doing all this. No blurring the bracket with a tangential mini-homily or a preemptive “good morning” or anything else; the only things that should precede and follow it (besides the dismissal) are the entrance and exit hymns.
- While I’m on the subject of music, I like the occasional chant proper and the occasional Haas/Haugen/Joncas (preferably the ones that sound more like hymns and less like showtunes), but mainly I hope for liturgically appropriate hymns with sturdy tunes and solid texts of both classic and contemporary authorship. I know four-part harmony would be asking too much for most Catholic parishes, but it’s nice to at least have a congregation that sings.
- Variables like the homily and intercessions should ideally reflect, in varying ways, emphases on Christian discipleship, social concerns, and the particular concerns of the parish community, engaging the lectionary readings as well as tying back to anything applicable on the liturgical calendar (such as the saint whose feast it is, although this shouldn’t completely displace the scripture).
- I’d rather not bother with grammatically awkward tap-dancing around all masculine pronouns.
- The celebrant should resist temptations to satisfy his theological hangups through liturgical improv. If you want to make a point, Father, save it for the homily. (Having said that, I do smile at certain subtle translation fixes, e.g. “for the many.”)
- Let’s please recite the Creed and the Our Father slowly and deliberately enough to hear what we’re saying, because this is serious stuff.
- Yes to kneeling during the Eucharistic Prayer, because we are the community at prayer.
- Yes to joining hands during the Our Father, because we are the community at prayer.
- Wafers are fine, but a loaf is even better. And please do give us the cup too.
- And if I happen to hear my favorite dismissal, that will be icing on the cake: “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.” And then, most importantly, let’s go out and do that.
Needless to say, I probably won’t ever find any one Mass that meets all of the above criteria. And ultimately I know that’s a good thing – as hard as this is to remember when I’m frowning at something or other that’s not to my liking – because it’s not about me. I can always make a case for my preferences, and while some of them may be more petty and insignificant than I like to think, much of my rationale would, I believe, be valid. I especially long for a strong sense of both reverence and community in one place, which underlies many of the particulars I have delineated here. And yet, however valid my concerns may be, I know I am not entitled to a made-to-order consumer product, because that is not what the Mass is. A liturgical theology professor of mine once said that being Catholic means living with what makes us uncomfortable, and maybe every liturgy is a reminder of this in one way or another. As much as I’ve enjoyed indulging in this little liturgical fantasy, in the end I must remember that what I can’t stomach may be someone else’s deep nourishment, and vice-versa; and that each of us must surrender some ego and make room for each other in the pew, as we come together to be what we cannot be by ourselves: the church catholic.
A double posting today, but this commentary on the Blessed Virgin Mary by Ste. Therese of Lisieux is way too good to not share. Again it is coming from the good folks at Daily Gospel Online.
“How I would have loved to be a priest in order to preach about the Blessed Virgin! One sermon would be sufficient to say everything I think about this subject.
“I’d first make people understand how little is known by us about her life. We shouldn’t say unlikely things or things we don’t know anything about! For example, that when she was very little, at the age of three, the Blessed Virgin went up to the Temple to offer herself to God, burning with sentiments of love and extraordinary fervor. While perhaps she went there very simply out of obedience to her parents… For a sermon on the Blessed Virgin to please me and do me any good, I must see her real life, not her imagined life. I’m sure that her real life was very simple. They show her to us as unapproachable, but they should present her as imitable, bringing out her virtues, saying that she lived by faith just like ourselves, giving proofs of this from the Gospel, where we read: “And they did not understand the words which He spoke to them” (Lk 2,50). And that other no less mysterious statement: “His father and mother marveled at what was said about him” (Lk 2,33). This admiration presupposes a certain surprise, don’t you think so?
“We know very well that the Blessed Virgin is Queen of heaven and earth, but she is more Mother than Queen; and we should not say, on account of her prerogatives, that she surpasses all the saints in glory just as the sun at its rising makes the stars disappear from sight. My God! How strange that would be! A mother who makes her children’s glory vanish! I myself think just the contrary. I believe she’ll increase the splendor of the elect very much. It’s good to speak about her prerogatives, but we should not stop at this… Who knows whether some soul would not reach the point of feeling a certain estrangement from a creature so superior and would not say: “If things are such, it’s better to go and shine as well as one is able in some little corner.”
From the folks at Daily Gospel Online, a quote from St. John Chrysostom that I wanted to share. “Those with ears, let them hear!”
Nothing is more cold than a christian who is not dedicated to saving others. In this respect there can be no pretense of poverty: the widow who gave her two tiny coins would rise up and call you to account (Lk 21,2). Peter too, who said: “Silver and gold have I none” (Acts 3,6). And Paul, who was so poor that he often went hungry and lacked the necessary means to live on (1Cor 4,11). Neither can you protest your humble birth: they too were of modest degree. Ignorance won’t give you any better excuse: they were uneducated as well… It’s no good claiming sickness: Timothy was subject to frequent illnesses (1Tim 5,23)… Anybody at all can be of service to his neighbor if he would do what he can…
Satan, your kingdom must come down
Satan, your kingdom must come down
I heard the voice of Jesus say
Satan, your kingdom must come down
- Robert Plant
The Fifth Estate (2013)
On 17 July 2007, a series of attacks took place from the skies of Baghdad. In the first, fire is directed at a group of a dozen or so men. Among them were two war correspondents working for Reuters. Eight of this group were killed including one of the war correspondents. In the immediately following second strike, fire is directed at the wounded. Clearly wounded, and posing no risk – though he had posed no risk prior – the second correspondent was killed by helicopter fire as he was being helped into a van. Two further men were killed, two children within the van wounded, and their father killed. A spokesperson at the time stated that coalition forces had been engaged in combat against a hostile entity. For several years that interpretation was accepted. On 5 April 2010, however, Wikileaks released footage of these strikes and a story different than the one previously spun was told.
The Fifth Estate attempts to tell the story of Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks. In the film, Assange quotes Oscar Wilde who observes that “man is least himself when he talks in his own person [but] give him a mask and he will tell you the truth”. Wikileaks is very much predicated on its ability to provide a person his or her mask (behind which, it is presumed, that person can then more truthfully speak).
Unfortunately, The Fifth Estate tells the story it does from the perspective of two books whose authors both had previously, and publicly, fallen-out with Assange. Despite this film not being a hit-job per se, the extent to which its makers have sought to complement their story with input from either Assange or his collaborators is not apparent. In fact, by presenting the Assange of the film as disparaging to works which seek to depict him, The Fifth Estate rather cynically attempts to bolster its own credibility by anticipating the response of Assange and cheaply undermining it.
Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Assange, notes approaching his character in a way different than director Billy Condon had: “On a lot of the stage direction, we collided because Bill did seem to be setting [Assange] up as this antisocial megalomaniac.” Though The Fifth Estate presents Assange as reckless and deceptive, neither quality inhibits either Condon or Cumberbatch from admiring aspects of Assange, or from acknowledging his impact upon journalism. The merit of Wikileaks, after all, can stand independent of the moral character of its founder.
Granting that the merit of Wikileaks can stand independent of the moral character of its founder, it is not apparent to me that it needs to. It is not apparent to me that the charges leveled against Assange in The Fifth Estate – of recklessness, for example, or of deception – are warranted.
As to the charge of recklessness, the dispute which arises in The Fifth Estate, between Assange and Domscheit-Berg, surrounds the release of documents which had not been redacted (the war logs from Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the cables from the NCD database). In its own Talking Points to The Fifth Estate, Wikileaks identifies that the character Domscheit-Berg is given a much larger role than he had in real life. In a sense, I do not see that as mattering. The larger concern surrounds whether Assange, through Wikileaks, has placed persons in risk.
The Fifth Estate has its own opinion. The viewer is told, for example, in the post-script of the film, that some two thousand confidential sources have been exposed around the world as a result of the release of unredacted cables. Why then manufacture a Libyan character forced to flee his homeland when, if the accusations against Wikileaks are true, there would have been at least two thousand real persons to draw upon? The answer is simple: there are not two thousand once-endangered persons to draw upon. In a 2011 interview with 60 Minutes, Assange stated that “there’s no evidence, or any credible allegation, or even any allegation from an official body that we have caused any individual at any time to come to harm in the past four years”. Even the United States government, in their trial of Private Manning (who was found guilty of leaking the relevant materials to Wikileaks), did not identify one specific person who had come to harm as a result of that which Manning had leaked and which Assange had published though Wikileaks.
Several human rights organizations have expressed apprehension about the Wikileaks release of the Afghan war logs in their unredacted form. This is an apprehension entirely fair to express but, in 2010, Robert Burns of the Associated Press could write that “so far there is no evidence that any Afghans named in the leaked documents as defectors or informants from the Taliban insurgency have been harmed in retaliation”. There are other truths as well. For example, the redaction advice of the United State government was sought by Wikileaks. Wikileaks requested that United States government officials go through the leaked documents so as to ensure that no innocent people were being placed in risk but this was rebuffed. Further, some fifteen thousand of the original ninety thousand documents were held back by Wikileaks because of the harm minimization process in place at Wikileaks. One would not know any of this from The Fifth Estate. Further, one would not know, from The Fifth Estate, that there have been no issues with the harm minimization process as it has been applied to subsequent releases (such as the Iraq war logs).
Even if it were once possible to argue that persons had been placed in risk by Wikileaks, Glenn Greenwald argues that, in regards to Cablegate – the release of several hundred thousand unredacted diplomatic cables – any such potential harm owes more to the recklessness of David Leigh and Daniel Domscheit-Berg than it does to Assange (Leigh and Domscheit-Berg are the two authors upon whose work The Fifth Estate has relied). Christian Stöcker of Der Spiegel, here, outlines how the publication of these diplomatic cables occurred, but the substance of the charge made by Greenwald is this: the hand of Assange had been forced by events beyond his control and, at that point, the unredacted release of all such cables was the most reasonable course of action.
What is truly disappointing about the interest The Fifth Estate takes in the moral character of Assange – how reckless he is, for example, with the lives of others – is that, besides being not true, it distracts from, Greenwald writes, the “actual, deliberate acts of wanton slaughter” committed by persons in service of the United States. Kill-lists, assassination squads, complicity in the torturing of others, have all been uncovered. Among the cables of Cablegate was one which provides evidence of American troops executing ten Iraqi civilians (one of whom was a woman in her seventies and another who was a five month old infant).
Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, stated in a 27 March 2006 communique (which can be read in its entirety, here), that he had
received various reports indicating that at least 10 persons, namely Mr. Faiz Hratt Khalaf, (aged 28), his wife Sumay’ya Abdul Razzaq Khuther (aged 24), their three children Hawra’a (aged 5) Aisha (aged 3) and Husam (5 months old), Faiz’s mother Ms. Turkiya Majeed Ali (aged 74), Faiz’s sister (name unknown), Faiz’s nieces Asma’a Yousif Ma’arouf (aged 5 years old), and Usama Yousif Ma’arouf (aged 3 years), and a visiting relative Ms. Iqtisad Hameed Mehdi (aged 23) were killed during the raid.
According to the information received, American troops approached Mr. Faiz’s home in the early hours of 15 March 2006. It would appear that when the MNF approached the house, shots were fired from it and a confrontation ensued for some 25 minutes. The MNF troops entered the house, handcuffed all residents and executed all of them. After the initial MNF intervention, a US air raid ensued that destroyed the house.
Iraqi TV stations broadcast from the scene and showed bodies of the victims (i.e. five children and four women) in the morgue of Tikrit. Autopsies carries out at the Tikrit Hospital’s morgue revealed that all corpses were shot in the head and handcuffed.
For those inclined to doubt the veracity of that which has been reported, might I simply ask whether reports of the treatment of persons within Abu Ghraib would have experienced your similar disbelief? The Prime Minister of Iraq ultimately refused to accept the condition that, were U.S. troops to remain in Iraq, they would be immune from criminal prosecution. This is why. Wikileaks is revealing significant abuses and yet, instead, what some want to discuss is the moral character of the one mediating such truths to the public. For The Fifth Estate to find the supposed eccentricities or inter-personal conflicts of Mr. Assange more interesting, or for them to peddle oft-repeated and easily refuted charges of recklessness, is more than tragic. A really important story could have been told.
To the tyrants, truth-telling will always be treasonous. Because The Fifth Estate did not deign the voice of Assange interesting enough to include in its supposed depiction of him, I conclude with that ignored voice:
Every time we witness an injustice and do not act, we train our character to be passive in its presence. Eventually we lose all ability to defend ourselves and those we love. If we have brains, or courage, we are blessed and called not to frit these qualities away – not to stand agape at the ideas of others, win pissing contests, improve the efficiencies of the neo-corporate state, or immerse ourselves in obscuranta – but rather to prove the vigor of our talents against the strongest opponents of love we can find.
I also write at Musings on Film.
The US government is (technically) functional again, and the national crisis has been (sort of) averted, for the time being. But whatever our political persuasion, we all know that the recent government shutdown was only the latest episode in an ongoing pattern of melodramatic debt crises ending in hard-fought, down-to-the-wire agreements to kick the can a little further down the road. And now as always, the question of the day remains, “Who is to blame for this mess?”
If this is our starting point for a national self-diagnosis, we are already asking the wrong question. It’s true that the latest kerfuffle was largely driven by an apocalypticism over the implementation of Obamacare that is insanely disproportionate to whatever valid concerns there are about it, and it’s also true that the first and loudest screams of protest at any suggestion of blame to go around on all sides have been coming from an equally reactionary left that suddenly sounded as obstructionist as the GOP as the shutdown approached. But now that I have probably annoyed everybody, I want to take it a step further. It’s easy for Democrats and Republicans – congressional and otherwise – to throw stones back and forth to no end. And it’s easy for me, as a staunch Independent, to smugly cry, “A pox on both your houses!” But ultimately, responsibility for the state we’re in extends beyond congress and the White House.
The problem is not only in the way politics is practiced, but just as much in the way news is presented. Partisan gridlock is being fueled by partisan news outlets – and, by extension, the audiences that feed them and are fed by them. We may justly (or, often, one-sidedly) criticize our elected representatives for their unwillingness to work together, but if we selectively listen to news sources that instill bitter hatred in us toward half of our compatriots (a hatred which, as thoughtful commentaries by Frida Ghitis and Michael Austin point out, has become increasingly personalized), are we really any different?
It is sometimes said that in a democracy we get the government we deserve. As frustrated as we all are with congress by now, they are, sadly, a reflection of ourselves. Elected officials act with specific voter bases in mind. When they act out of ideology, this is often an appeal to, and a result of, an electorate that rewards ideology. Congress is polarized because America is polarized.
And yet, the extent of the frustration may be an ironically hopeful sign that the polarization is near the breaking point. I’m not sure whether a silent middle is finally speaking up or some war-weary ideologues are reaching the point of laying down their swords (perhaps it’s some of both), but public sentiment at last seems to be turning toward fatigue. The toxic political atmosphere we’re breathing has taken its toll on all of us, and more and more of us are saying we’re tired of fighting. Maybe by next year’s midterm elections, enough of us will be ready to stop rewarding ideological gridlock with our votes. And maybe we are already signaling a shift in priorities to those currently in office.
We haven’t seen the last of the nastiness, but hopefully we’ve seen the worst.
The news came through today that Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, the Bishop of Limburg in Germany, has been granted a leave “outside of his Diocese” for an indeterminate period. Bishop Tebartz-van Elst has acquired the moniker “the bling bishop” for his expenditures on a new residence, which reportedly cost $40 million, and his other lavish lifestyle choices. Though the matter is being handled very discretely by the Vatican, it seems to me that he is being (in the language of government) suspended with pay while there is an outside investigation of the finances of his diocese. (The Guardian was quite pointed in their assessment, headlining their article “Pope Suspends Bling Bishop”.)
I had been thinking about writing about Bishop Tebartz-van Elst for the past month, since it seemed that at least part of the reason the story was gaining traction was because Pope Francis, by word and deed, had staked out a very different position, calling for the Church to become “a poor Church for the poor.” I was interested in the question of whether this sort of soft influence was going to be effective in changing the princely lifestyles affected by certain bishops, both in the US and abroad. Certainly the Pope was leading by example and the contrast was marked. Cardinal Dolan was forthright enough to say that he felt challenged by the Pope’s example, and my sense of the blogosphere is that a lot of people (particularly on the Catholic left) were drawing invidious comparisons between the Pope and other “princes” of the Church. Some on the Catholic right, on the other hand, were denouncing Pope Francis for his “false humility.” (See, for instance, here.)
I think this line of discussion is still fruitful: is a Papal example that challenges the deep-seated materialism of the Western Church sufficient to work any significant change in it? Much as we want to fault our bishops for their luxurious ways, they differ only in degree and not in kind from many of their flock who are, in practice, far more devoted to Mammon than to God. (Nominally poor Franciscan that I am, I do not exempt myself from this criticism.) In his day Francis of Assisi was widely respected for his poverty and humility, just as Mother Theresa of Calcutta was in our day. But in all honesty we have to ask how big an impact their example had in changing the behavior of those who praise them.
Today’s announcement, however, changed my focus entirely and led me to the question: has the Pope decided that the soft approach of his example must also be accompanied by a firmer hand in some circumstances? Is this suspension, however gently affected, intended as a thinly veiled warning to other bishops that there is a new sheriff in town, and things which had been tolerated are no longer acceptable?
After reading my colleague Julia Smucker’s very thoughtful commentary on Papal popularity I am mindful of the danger of reading too much into the specific actions taken or words spoken by Pope Francis. In particular, I realize that popular expectations and narrative should be treated with caution. And it is certainly the case that for a very long time there has been a sense (again particularly on the Catholic left) that the Church was failing to rebuke and discipline bishops who had failed their flocks miserably, particularly in their dreadful handling of the child sexual abuse scandals. I have personally felt that a few heads should have rolled. Therefore, there is a desire to read into this suspension the fulfillment of these wishes.
So the question becomes: is this incident a one-off? Are there circumstances in play that we are not aware of? Or does this tell us something fundamental about the Pope’s management style? Will he continue to lead by example but resort to sharp rebukes when he deems it necessary? And how often will he think is necessary? Important questions, but we have little evidence with which to answer them. This is an aspect of Francis’ tenure as archbishop of Buenos Aires I have not seen discussed in the press. As bishop there he also led by example, but a bishop must also make painful personnel decisions: what to do about a pastor who is incompetent, makes bad financial decisions, etc. How did Cardinal Bergoglio deal with these matters? Some bishops, like some bosses, prefer to maintain the positive image, and delegate the role of disciplinarian to a trusted subordinate. Others relish the role of hatchet man, and others still simply ignore the problems and hope they will go away.
If I had to guess, I think that Pope Francis will be his own disciplinarian, and when he feels it necessary he will act decisively. But I also think he will be slow to act, preferring to gather as much information as possible first, and also leaving the door open for the errant bishop to mend his ways on his own in the light of the gospel (and the Pope’s own example). And, should he act, I think we will always see justice tempered with mercy. Fewer heads will roll than I might want, but I think more will be reconciled to the Father.