In the West today, pessimism is warranted. Suicide, crime, and drug use are up; birthrates are down. In America, woke excess has undermined much of the progress made toward racial reconciliation over the course of the last century. The decline in religious practice has eroded those values that transcend political conflict and material consumption; we’re losing the shared cultural language with which we could talk to one another about matters touching on the common good. In the absence of a common cultural narrative and shared values, tribal loyalties have filled the void, becoming our false gods.
I don’t think it disloyal to admit that the Church has not adequately responded to the West’s malaise. Faced with Covid, we closed shop. Rome these days sometimes seems to be swimming in nostalgia for the 1960s. No doubt it was more pleasant to be a young cleric in the heady days of Vatican Council II–at least, before the seminaries emptied–but those are not our days.
Half a century ago, perhaps, Catholics in the West could still see their societies as Christian, though ones that were rapidly changing. So it seemed reasonable enough to hope that with a bit of updating around the edges, a little accommodation to the Zeitgeist, we might experience a new flourishing of Christian life. That didn’t happen, and it is no longer reasonable to expect that it will. We need a new response to today’s reality.
My trip to New Zealand last week put me in mind of previous travels in the American West. If I could make one recommendation for travelers to the USA, it would be to visit our National Parks. New Zealand offers similar pristine landscapes, though on a more compact scale. Of course, both landscapes boast their own unique treasures. New Zealand has its fiords and temperate rain forests; the American West, its vast expanses and the red rock sculptures of Utah that look like a landscape dreamed up by Antoni Gaudí.
The trip had me rummaging through old photos of my trips out West and looking up old notes. I had a few thoughts about travel published in Plough a few weeks ago, and that reminded me of an older article in the same magazine inspired by a long drive out West. Here’s that older article: Nature is Your Church? And, to go with it, a few pictures of places mentioned in Montana and Wyoming –Devil’s Canyon, Fort Phil Kearney, Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, and Glacier.
The new year came early for me this year–while in America 2022 still had almost a full day left to go, I was as close to the International Date Line as I’ve ever been watching fireworks erupt from the Sky Tower in Auckland, New Zealand. I will be spending the first half of the year doing Jesuit “tertianship” in Melbourne, Australia. Tertianship is the final formal stage of Jesuit formation in which we do the 30-day Spiritual Exercises again and have a chance to reflect on all that’s happened so far.
New Year’s Eve also brought the sad news of the passing of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, someone I have immensely admired as a man whose character balanced both courage and humility, as a Christian for whom Jesus was the center of everything, and as a theologian capable of expressing the most profound truths with luminous clarity. Benedict knew how to cut through both theological jargon and political rhetoric to get to the heart of the matter– always the absolutely unique encounter with Jesus Christ.
The end of the liturgical year coincides with a number of gems from the Office of Readings, including this conference from St. Thomas Aquinas, which I’d never taken note of before. It reinforces a number of things that I’ve noticed over the past several years researching the theme of baptism of desire. The first–that eternal life means union with God–is perhaps the most important and, today, the most neglected. Heaven, in others words, does not mean having more treats, but communion with God. It’s maybe uncomfortable to say in our age of “moralistic therapeutic Deism”, but those who don’t desire communion with God don’t really want what we mean by heaven. In the end, heaven has more to do with how we love than with where we are.
Here’s how Thomas puts it:
Final Judgment, Orvieto Cathedral
“The first point about eternal life is that man is united with God. For God himself is the reward and end of all our labors…
“Next it consists in perfect praise…
“It also consists in the complete satisfaction of desire, for there the blessed will be given more than they wanted or hoped for. The reason is that in this life no one can fulfill his longing, nor can any creature satisfy man’s desire. Only God satisfies, he infinitely exceeds all other pleasures. That is why man can rest in nothing but God. As Augustine says: You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our heart can find no rest until it rests in you…
“…eternal life consists of the joyous community of all the blessed, a community of supreme delight, since everyone will share all that is good with all the blessed. Everyone will love everyone else as himself…”
St. Thomas Aquinas, Credo in Deum
Office of Readings
Saturday of the Thirty-third week in Ordinary Time
A few weeks ago I mentioned José Granados’s fine new book Introduction to Sacramental Theology: Signs of Christ in the Flesh. It’s full of interesting insights. Since I’m working on putting the final touches on my book about baptism of desire, one line that indirectly touches on the theme of desire stood out.
I often point out that our rituals are meant to form us. They shape us and make us into new beings, especially the sacraments of initiation. In this regard, Granados points out that rituals form our desires as well.
“For in our action there is always more than what we have put into it; and for that reason we desire, when we act, more than what we think we desire.” (309)
The action of the liturgy, in other words, implies desiring certain things and in a certain way. When we participate in the liturgy, therefore, those desires become our own. This insight gets at what makes the sacraments irreducible, why they cannot be replaced with just having the right ideas, and what makes baptism of desire such a difficult and fascinating topic.
My summer reading this year included Fr. José Granados’s excellent book Introduction to Sacramental Theology: Signs of Christ in the Flesh, which Catholic University of America Press has recently made available in English. (The Spanish original Tratado General de los Sacramentos came out in 2016.)
Like the Church Fathers, Granados emphasizes the rootedness of the sacraments in the Incarnation of Jesus. This means giving due importance–too often lacking in theology–to the human body, which is the locus for all of our relationships.
The sacraments tell us that the message of Jesus is always rooted in the concrete relations that we form in our flesh.
José Granados, Introduction to Sacramental Theology, xiv
The book’s preface eloquently identifies the fundamental desire to which the sacraments respond, our need for the presence of Jesus:
“We have his parables, we lack the sight of him; we have his commandments, we lack his voice; we have the strength of his commission, we lack the touch of his arms. Without the second, the first loses its foundations: doctrine that is clear but abstract; morality that is superior but utopian; mission that is great but irrelevant.” (xiii-xiv)
The sacraments provide what is missing.
This leads to surprising conclusions about the need for a sacramental basis for today’s evangelization. A fairly common error is to think that responding to the needs of the modern world means conforming to the modern world; really, it means offering what contemporary life lacks.
“In fact, the great evil that afflicts the postmodern subject is his isolation in the cell of subjectivity. What remains is a weak individual who moves to the tune of his most intense feeling, with no relations to sustain him and with no path to bring him to his destination. We will not cure this sickness by proposing that he encounter God in the depths of his soul. For his real problem is the lack of relational environments that would enable him to understand his true identity, which is always discovered and forged in an encounter and a communion.” (383)
Last month I had an interesting discussion with Jesuit scholastic David Inczauskis about the sacraments–what they are, why we have them, how they and the theology surrounding them developed through time, what are the challenges for sacramental theology today. David produces an in-depth podcast on liberation theology, so my general introduction to sacramental theology was the lead-in to some of his reflections on liberation theology and the sacraments, which are also included in the podcast. Here’s the Apple version of the episode:
Homily for the sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
This morning, I want to talk about Abraham. For many of us, perhaps, Abraham is like one of those distant relatives your grandmother mentions occasionally but you’re never quite sure how you’re related. Fortunately, it’s easy to see how Abraham fits into the family tree. He’s at the top—Abraham is the patriarch, the father of the Jewish people and also, according to the New Testament, the father of us all in faith.
We find Abraham’s story in the book of Genesis. He lives in that period in history after the fall, when the sin of Adam has left humanity existentially disoriented. It’s the era of Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel, Noah and the Flood—man is lost, and every turn he makes only worsens his desolation. When I was in the Peace Corps, I was once heating a bucket of water with an electric coil, which was, shall we say, not up to OSHA standards. And without noticing that the plastic safety handle around the coil had melted, I picked it up and gave myself a shock. And in the moments after the shock, everything was fuzzy, and I couldn’t quite tell what had happened or what I was doing—so I picked it up and shocked myself again. And that’s kind of what original sin did to mankind.
Anyone reading St. Augustine’s Confessions, of course, knows exactly where the book is leading, even if the story itself recounts a tortuous journey from doubt and confusion to faith. Augustine dedicates relatively few words to his baptism–at the time, Christians avoided describing what happened during the celebration of the sacraments to those not yet initiated–but what he does say reveals much about the power of the rite. Augustine was baptized by St. Ambrose in the baptistry of Milan’s cathedral on April 24, 387, along with his fifteen-year-old son Adeodatus. Adeodatus died only two years later. Looking up the passage anew, I was struck by the feeling in what Augustine wrote about his son:
“You had made him a fine person. He was about fifteen years old, and his intelligence surpassed that of many serious and well-educated men. I praise you for your gifts, my Lord God, Creator of all and with great power giving form to our deformities. For I contributed nothing to that boy other than sin… I learned many other remarkable things about him. His intelligence left me awestruck. Who but you could be the Maker of such wonders? Early on you took him away from life on earth. I recall him with no anxiety; there was nothing to fear in his boyhood or adolescence or indeed his manhood.”
Augustine goes on to describe his baptism, side by side with Adeodatus, both now reborn “the same age in grace”.
“We were baptized, and disquiet about our past life vanished from us. During those days I found an insatiable and amazing delight in considering the profundity of your purpose for the salvation of the human race. How I wept during your hymns and songs! I was deeply moved by the music of the sweet chants of your Church. The sounds flowed into my ears and the truth was distilled into my heart. This caused the feelings of devotion to overflow. Tears ran, and it was good for me to have that experience.”
Last week, I mentioned visiting the church of San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro in Pavia, resting place of the relics of St. Augustine. This week, I thought I’d share a few more pictures of the church and the tomb, as well as a favorite panel from the monument, a scene of young Augustine listening to St. Ambrose preaching.
Ambrose, then bishop of Milan, is another of my favorite theologians. He was the first Christian thinker to formulate the doctrine of baptism of desire, which–1530 years later–became the subject of my doctoral dissertation. (Augustine was the second… I’m not quite sure where I fall on the list, but it’s significantly farther down.)
In any case, below is Augustine’s description of his encounter with Ambrose to accompany the photos.