The Heart Has Its Laws —26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 137 Numbers 11:25-29 Psalm 19:8-14 James 5:1-6 Mark 9:38-43,45,47-48 Blaise Pascal’s famous adage “the heart has its reasons which reason knows not” would sound very strange to one attuned to the Biblical concept of “the heart.” The term “heart” occurs over a thousand times in the Bible, and its meaning consistently refers to the center of an individual’s identity, comprising all the various dimensions of one’s personal agency: physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. In the Biblical imagination, your heart is “you”; it is the integral core that makes you who you are. Like his near-contemporary Descartes, Pascal presumes...

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Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time: What Wisdom Sees

Ignorance is bliss, they say, and it’s tempting sometimes to think the only a willful refusal to face reality can give us happiness. Find a way for yourself in the world, take pleasure where you can find it, and tune the rest out: it’s one recipe. But the texts today talk about a different sort of wisdom, and that is good news.

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Scandal in the Church and Concern for the Environment: A Renewed Need for Ember Days

At a recent conference, someone commented that one task of today’s theologian is to review Vatican II and the implementations and other changes made in the years following this council. Among these changes was one that resulted in a drastic decline of penitential culture in the United States. This was precipitated by an apostolic constitution of Blessed Paul VI, who wrote Paenitemini with the hope that local bishops would be able to renew the practices of penance in their respective locales. An updating of such practices, it was hoped, would bring penances more directly related to (and appropriate for) the situation of the faithful in particular places, rather than prescribing (as canon law did) a one-size-fits-all obligatory penance. In the United States, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote a letter establishing new guidelines for penance, which were implemented in Advent of 1966. Among the required penance that was altered for the faithful was the practice of Ember Days. Due to this change in 1966, most post-Vatican II Catholics are altogether unfamiliar with Ember Days. This time of year, however, people will occasionally mention the practice, and there are a few who still choose to observe Ember Days. Ember Days represent a classic re-appropriating of the pagan culture, as they were a way to sanctify the pagan rituals associated with the seasonal changes related to planting, harvesting, and vintage. The western...

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Connecting the Disconnects: Report from the USCCB-Young Theologian Conference

This past Thursday and Friday (September 13-14), the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops, with generous funding from the Knights of Columbus, hosted a conference for young theologians with the theme of “Teaching Undergraduate Theology: Connecting the Disconnects.” Although I speak for myself alone here, this conference was a great experience. Given the tension in the Church right now, and particularly the criticism directed at bishops generally and the USCCB specifically, it would not have been surprising if the organizers had considered canceling this conference altogether. What bishops would willingly want to face a crowd of potentially angry theologians? And might not theologians disdain meeting the representatives of the Committee on Doctrine of the USCCB in the midst of the scandals revealed in the Church this past summer? Courage, however, prevailed, even as Washington, D.C. declared a state of emergency as a precaution for the oncoming Hurricane Florence. The format of the conference involved presentations by senior scholars (one of whom was Bishop Daniel Flores), followed by brief responses from younger scholars, as well as ample time for discussion. The food was delicious, but the atmosphere was not completely comfortable, even cool at times…as one might expect given the current situation. Throughout the two days, the conference seemed to illustrate both the continued need for collaboration between theologians and bishops, as well as the obvious benefits of such a...

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Twenty-Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Three Points About Suffering

Reading 1: Isaiah 50:5-9 Responsorial Psalm:  Psalm 116 Reading 2: James 2: 14-18 Gospel: Mark 8:27-35 In his The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone writes, “Where there is hope, there is God—that divine presence that prevents despair and empowers poor people to resist.” (143).  Cone does not think that this presence of God makes one’s life easy but leads into a life of suffering.  The suffering, though, is not the point.  As Cone continues, “I find nothing redemptive about suffering in itself.  The gospel of Jesus is . . . a story about God’s presence in Jesus’...

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Glimpses of Hope amid Crisis

It’s been nearly a month since the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report was released, and the topic still seems more relevant than ever. This is entirely appropriate. The report and its fresh revelations not only of predatory priests and sexual abuse in horrendous details but also of concerted efforts to cover up the crimes have brought the depths of human sinfulness out into the open in ways that have sparked a true crisis in the Church, just as the Boston Globe reporting did 16 years ago. It is hard to know how to make sense of all of this, and...

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Insights from the Pew Religious Typology

Sometimes in the midst of immediate, internet-generated daily drama in the Church, it is very helpful to step back and look at bigger-picture matters. The beginning of the school year – meeting new students – always makes me ponder, “Who are these new faces?” Mostly, they are not hanging on the latest report about this or that bishop! At the same time, The Pew Research Center has released another one of their excellent studies, this time constructing a “religious typology” of Americans. Rather than slice and dice Americans based on demographic data, denominational affiliation, or partisanship, the study refreshingly...

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A Printer’s Choice (You Should Read This)

One of my favorite moments in the Lord of the Rings is when Aragorn and Gandalf are marching to the Gates of Mordor.  Sauron so strongly desires the ring that he assumes that everyone else must feel likewise.  He cannot imagine that anyone would try to destroy it, so when Gandalf and Aragorn arrive, Sauron believes exactly what Aragorn and Gandalf hoped he would, that they bear the ring and are challenging his dominion. Sauron empties his troops onto them.  This folly leaves the fields of Gorgoroth vacant and enables Frodo and Sam to move unhindered to Mount Doom. It is...

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Learning from the Pharisees – 22nd Sun Ordinary Time

Readings: Ex 16:2-4, 12-15; Ps 78:3-4, 23-24, 25, 54; Eph 4:17, 20-24; Jn 6:24-35 I’ve spent this first week of classes preparing my students for an in-depth study of the Gospel of Luke, and this week in particular is the one I’ve dubbed my “anti-Marcionism” week. By which I mean, I want my students to understand the unity of the two Testaments, to understand that these gospel narratives only make sense with the full history of Israel behind them. I am making it my mission, even in this introductory course, to combat the common perceptions of the Old Testament as irrelevant...

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Surviving the Apocalypse: Tips from the Catholic Tradition

For American Catholics, it feels like a dark time. For many of us, the current presidency represents a broader national moment of anger and division, a resurgence of pettiness and hatred, a loss of thoughtfulness and magnanimity. And now, the stomach-churning news of new tales of sexual abuse. Frankly, it has left some of us wondering how to put one foot in front of the other. As it turns out, the Catholic tradition has some advice to offer. Do your work. The old monastic saying is “age quod agis,” which contemporary translators try to dress up as “do your...

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