Wednesday, April 25, 2012


"It's wonderful being an imam in the United States.  I never have to worry about identity theft."
                                                           --Imam Imad Enchassi
(at the National Workshop on Christian Unity, Oklahoma City, OK, 4-17-12)

Friday, April 20, 2012


In my 3+ days in Oklahoma City at the National Workshop on Christian Unity, I attended plenary sessions and break-out sessions sponsored by the national organization, as well as seminars sponsored especially by CADEIO (the Catholic Association of Ecumenical and Inter-religious Officers).  I had the chance, as well, to get to know others involved in the ecumenical effort—Protestant and Catholic, ordained and lay, men and women.  They came from Maryland and California, from Louisiana and Kentucky, from Texas and Georgia.  It was a rich experience.
Having returned to Mobile, let me offer some of the questions and challenges it stimulated (perhaps some of these are a repeat of points already mentioned, but many are not).  They are in no particular order except the order of the pages of notes I took that are now on my desk:

If the goal of dialogue is mutual agreement, how do I determine when a stance on a particular question must be given a response of “either/or,” and when it can be given a response of “both/and”?  In this light, I think of the principle of canon law (canon 18) that laws involving penalties are to be interpreted strictly (that is, narrowly), while laws involving benefits or rewards are to be interpreted broadly. 

Am I willing to push the dialogue as far as I can?

Do we see each other’s dialogue partners as we are today, or do we insist on viewing each other through the (negative) lenses of historical background and prejudice?

Can we not only hold another’s view of their own Scripture as sacred, but also hold their Scripture as sacred?

When I encounter others in dialogue or relationship, do I remember to “take off my shoes” for fear of treading on someone’s holy ground?  Can I remember that God is there even before I show up?

Pope John XXIII called on the Church to be open to the “signs of the times.”  How open/aware am I of the new “signs of the times” today?

What is, in my mind, the status of other Christian denominations beyond my own, and that of other non-Christian religions?

Muslims who wish to impose Sharia’ upon everyone in their country might justify their position by saying, “If you tolerate other views, this means you do not really believe your own.”  What would be my response?

How do I best respect the positions of my dialogue partners without betraying my own position?

How can I best “keep out of God’s way” and be “a door-keeper for the Holy Spirit,” remembering that the path to unity is being followed on a time-table other than my own?

These questions are not necessarily all “burning questions,” but they are all worth pondering—whether or not you happen to be involved in ecumenical dialogue.  After all, as we live and work together, in the long run we are ALL either working for or against mutual respect, understanding and unity.

Thursday, April 19, 2012


It’s always nice to hit a home run on your last “at-bat” (as Lee Iacocca once said, when leaving Chrysler)—CADEIO did exactly that with the last seminar presentation, by Fr Tom Baima (from Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary) on the topic of the need for intra-religious dialogue.  This means conversation within the confines of the Catholic Church’s theological range.

            While Fr John Borelli observed that he saw three styles of interpretation of Vatican II’s documents—the more discontinuous line of aggiornamento,  the moderate line of “development,” and the sense of reaching back to the Scriptures and the Fathers that is ressourcement , Fr Baima added a fourth—“traditionalism” (in the sense of those who lean toward the views of the Society of St Pius X in liturgy and theology).  And he insists that we must enter into dialogue with all these views because they are (in differing ways) all competing for “acceptance” in the Church today.   How will we all engage each other in authentic and honest dialogue?

            Perhaps a good place to begin, according to Fr Baima, is to understand the world-view that is being imposed upon the world (and therefore the Church)—one in which tolerance for all things is preached—except for the view that there might exist a unique, universal truth somewhere?  Catholics who are labeled as “traditionalist” often embrace what some call a reversion to the past precisely as a way of “pushing back” against this kind of view, and of establishing what John Allen has called “evangelical Catholicism.”

            Fr Baima suggests that the major question that “ad intra” dialogue needs to address is the status of non-Catholic religions.  This might seem to be foolish—after all, hasn’t Vatican II in several crucial documents already answered this question?  Not entirely—there are those in the Catholic Church who do not recognize the teaching authority of that Council, arguing it was a pastoral Council only.  So we must go back, in a sense, to square one for this dialogue.

            I will end with a video clip that Fr Baima says can make anyone fervent for ecumenism in one minute…Unless, of course, this is the view of Christianity we want the world to have.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


During the plenary meeting of the Catholic Association of (Arch)Diocesan Ecumenical and Interreligious Officers (CADEIO), here at the National Workshop on Christian Unity (NWCU), we were addressed by Bishop Denis Madden, an auxiliary for Baltimore and a member of the bishops’ committee on ecumenical affairs.  He offered an extraordinary challenge to us: 
"Push the dialogue as far as you can,” he said.
What should this mean, in practice?
I think, first and foremost, that it is nothing more than the declaration of Pope John Paul II in his 1995 encyclical letter Ut Unum Sint when he insisted that the Catholic Church is “irrevocably committed” to ecumenism.  We should never cease to enter into and foster relationships that can help break down walls of division, especially those stemming from prejudice, resentment and misconceptions rather than substantive disagreement.

It means, too, I think, that dialogue for us cannot be focused on only one set of partners:  we should be a body that reaches out in all directions, including (these days, perhaps, especially) in the interreligious direction:  less to bring about “unity” and more to be able to see each other as brothers and sisters who can live together in mutual respect and harmony.  Imam Imad Enchassi yesterday told us since Muslims trace their ancestry to Abraham through Ishmael, while Jews (and Christians, figuratively—Romans 4:11ff) trace through Isaac, then we are indeed “Brothers from a different Mother.”  Can we not live as though we were such?

If we could “push the dialogue as far as we can,” who knows what barriers might be overcome?

A second statement we heard both sobers and encourages us in perseverance.  It came from the CADEIO Executive Committee President, Fr Don Rooney.  He thought that the most important thing we could be as someone involved in dialogue would be “To be a door-keeper for the Holy Spirit.”  In other words, our actions in the long run achieve nothing:  we only want to be “out of the way of God” (as Mother Teresa said).  We want to make it easier rather than harder for the Holy Spirit’s presence to be felt and effective.

These goals are doable.  We can push the dialogue, and we can hold the door open for the Holy Spirit.  In Cursillo there is a saying:  Make a friend; be a friend; bring the friend to Christ.”  I would only modify it slightly—“Make a friend; be a friend; go together, as friends, to Christ.”

Tuesday, April 17, 2012


Taking a brief break, there are a couple of wonderful things to report from today’s sessions so far.

The first was a fascinating three-way presentation (by a Christian, a Jew and a Muslim) on how we read our own (and each other’s) Scriptures.  The most enlightening thing for me, and I am sure for many, was the way in which the Muslim imam knew (without, as he insisted, being a Biblical scholar) the stories of the Bible as well as the Qur’an.  He was also clear that Sharia’ offers general principles only—there is nothing in the Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet) about cell phones, for example.

And the Jew (a rabbi) reflected on her understanding of oral tradition as well as Torah in Judaism (though the Mishnah and Talmud are now written down, they reflect oral discussions on applications of Torah). 

So although the Christian (a Methodist) did not refer to this notion, it is clear that from a Catholic point of view a major source of agreement in approach between Catholics, Jews and Muslims is the role of oral tradition/interpretation.  This is not a small thing to note.

Our keynote speaker today was Fr John Borelli (who will be coming to Christus in Mobile later).  He reflected on some of the “back-stories” prior to and during Vatican II (this is the 50th anniversary of its being convened).  He was a world of knowledge, having known many of the “players” personally and having worked with them.

This leads me to a question I was asked at supper last night:  given that this coming year is being proclaimed by Pope Benedict as “The Year of Faith,” in concert with Vatican II’s golden anniversary, is there any way that the documents can actually be taught to folks in parishes that would get their attention?  I had to think about this for a minute or two, before answering, “Yes, I think so—depending upon how the presentations were set up.”  And I have been reflecting on this possibility for our autumn/winter Adult Religious Education sessions.  For example, a pivotal document is Nostra Aetate, on the relation of the Catholic Church to non-Christian religions.  In it is a crucial and truly revolutionary section on our relations with the Jews.  Surely, if we could host a session or two on this document in conjunction with the synagogue or the temple (or at least the rabbis), this would be a wonderful experience for us all.

So (in the words of Radar O’Reilly)—“Wait for it.”  Please God, this will happen and will be a positive learning experience for us.
As for later this afternoon and tomorrow—who knows?!


“First Church” is a United Methodist church in downtown Oklahoma City—the opening worship service of our National Workshop on Christian Unity was held there last evening (4-16-12).  A variety of people from an even greater variety (it seemed) of Christian backgrounds and traditions took active part.  The welcome was made by the senior pastor of the church, Rev Mark McAdow.  What he told us was eerie (I have been grappling for a word—this is the closest I can come to my feeling).
            The Murrah Federal Building is directly across the street from First Church, and on 19 April 1995 when it was bombed, the church also was severely damaged.  It was the oldest church on its original site in the whole of the city, but after the bombing it was deemed that perhaps 2/3 of the complex was too badly damaged to be restored—it had to be re-built.  And so the worship service took place in a new church on the old site, and Rev McAdow was happy to welcome us to stand for the truth that Love will trump violence.

            Leaving the post-worship reception, I walked out into a gorgeously clear night, and I looked at the monument marking the Murrah Building’s site, a memorial to all those who were killed in that attack.  It had for me the effect that listening to Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin does:  music Ravel wrote to commemorate his friends who were killed in World War I. 
            And it took me back to 2002, when I was participating in a program called “The Pastor-Theologian Seminar.”  Our topic that year was “Resurrection,” and we made a field-trip from Princeton to Manhattan, to the site (still smoldering) of the World Trade Towers.  The back and the church yard of St Paul’s Episcopal Chapel looked out on the Twin Towers.  The church became at that time a center of activity to support the police and firefighters still working at the disaster site.  The inside of the church (where George Washington worshiped after taking the oath of office as our first president) was covered with multi-signed cards of prayerful support—the very first one of them coming, we were told, from Oklahoma City.
            This is a strange kind of “meditation” since I’m here for an ecumenical workshop.  Perhaps what is linking all these things in my mind is the sad truth that we come closer to one another in tragedy than in anything else.  Perhaps it is because it is then that we are stripped most completely naked, and we drop the pretenses and posturings that we allow separate us in “ordinary” circumstances. 

Thursday, April 12, 2012


“No, sheer simplicity.  The law, Roper, the law.  I know what’s legal not what’s right.  And I’ll stick to what’s legal….But in the thickets of the law, oh, there I’m a forester.  I doubt there’s a man alive who could follow me there, thank God…And whoever hunts for me, Roper, be it God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law.”   --Thomas More, in A Man For All Seasons

 More lived a life of courage, conviction and sanctity:  why then did he insist that he would take his stance in the law (of England) rather than the will of God?  For me, the answer is clear:  though he lived his life at the level of “A+,” he chose refuse at the level of “C-” on the theory that no one could under-cut him:  they must grant at least the place of law.  Of course, he did not foresee the perjury of Richard Rich.

But here we face a dilemma:  where do we determine issues of right and wrong, or good and evil?  Is all propriety and morality simply a function of legalization?  In fact, the answer seems to be “yes” for much of the world:  things like divorce, abortion, homosexual activity or adultery were all proscribed by law, and one could go to jail for a conviction (or at least be forbidden in law to secure one—like a divorce:  unless you are King Henry, of course).  But we appeal to “fair play” and insist that all folks should have the right to a divorce if marriage doesn’t work out, or an abortion if the pregnancy was unintended, or gay marriage if the couple desires to be in a stable relationship, or adultery if (actually, though we tolerate adultery, we still regard it as wrong—unless it becomes fashionable as on tabloid front pages for celebrities). 

Do I think that every social convention is in fact moral by being part of the convention?  No.  Slavery was surely a social convention for centuries, and we clearly understand its sinfulness now (at last).  Organ donation was once looked upon as sinful, but we understand this differently now.  Will the same judgment (of Church as well as of State) come for gays and lesbians in the future?  Perhaps.  But if it does, it must come because of a clarification of moral understanding and not because of a desire to “move with the times.”  Not all movement is movement forward, after all.

A German couple recently was found guilty of a sexual crime:  incest.  They are brother and sister and want to live in a sexual and procreative relationship, even if 2 of their 4 children have handicaps.  But the courts of that country have decreed otherwise.  Is this not unreasonable?  After all, they are presumably consenting adults—is this not all that is required?

What is required in making moral determinations that have societal implications?  Are, for example, the Ten Commandments too passé  to be considered as valid arbiters?  Is an almost universal cultural taboo on incest inadmissible in this court of appeal?

On what basis is “right” and “wrong” behavior determined?  There surely must be some kind of objective criterion by which to evaluate conduct—the alternative is to acquiesce in the idea that because all values are relative, yours and mine can disagree only as matters of taste:  and we can no longer say, for example, that Auschwitz was immoral, only not to our taste.  And this cannot be.
A starting point for Catholic social/moral teaching is the principle of the fundamental dignity of the human person.  This is a good beginning, but it is only a beginning.  After all, not all actions and decisions of the human person are in line with dignity.  Which are, and which are not, and on what basis can we make the determination?  We can (we must) do better than “Because I want to, and I can”…

Thursday, April 5, 2012


It's almost impossible for us today to understand the impact of Jesus' gesture at the Last Supper as recounted in John 13 (the Gospel for the Holy Thursday "Liturgy of the Lord's Supper").  Foot-washing was beneath descriptions like "menial" or "degrading"--not even slaves could be forced to wash their masters' feet, according to Jewish law.  What would make a similar impact on us today?

I think of people who are suffering from a stroke or cancer or any other debilitating illness--weakened to the point that one cannot bathe or use the toilet without someone else's assistance.  This condition is true also of Alzheimer's patients, but then (at least in the later stages) they are not aware; others are.  How humiliating it must feel for them to have to be tended in those ways!
Jesus' action is much like His offering to "clean someone up" after a bathroom accident--how degrading for Him to do that for us!  Who could bear it?  Peter certainly couldn't:  "Lord, you will never wash my feet!"

Yet there He is, doing that and so much more for us.  What is our response?

Below is a setting of words Jesus would speak to the disciples shortly after (Jn 14:15ff).  Enjoy His love!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


Palm Sunday begins our Holy Week, and its culmination of sorrow and sacrifice is, of course, Good Friday.  Music has a powerful way of connecting us, and so I offer below a chorale from Bach's St John Passion (whose version of our Lord's self-offering we read on Good Friday).  The chorale tune, however, is familiar to almost all who take part in Palm Sunday's liturgy.

Happy Holy Week to all!

Sunday, April 1, 2012


On this Palm Sunday and Holy Week, I offer a musical entry-way to the final steps of the journey through the Garden, to Golgotha, and finally to the Empty Tomb.  If I may, I would like to introduce this piece with a personal experience of it...
A couple of years ago I was in the church of Santa Prassede in Rome--a magnificent church around the corner from Santa Maria Maggiore.  In its so-called "Zeno Chapel" (decorated with incredible mosaics) is an alcove containing a broken piece of a column, reputed to be the one at which Our Savior was scourged.
As I was speaking to some friends about the mosaics, a young priest came in with about 20 teen-aged girls--they were from Germany.  He took them to the alcove and told them the story:  then they spontaneously (it seemed to me) began to sing the famous Passion Chorale in 4-part harmony:  heart-breakingly beautifully.  I hummed quietly the bass line of it (apart from them, not really along with them).  Their devotion really made my morning.  The music itself (as Bach adapted it for his Passions) is below. 
It's the home-stretch:  let's make it a truly HOLY Holy Week.