Archive for November, 2008

November 30, 2008

Final list of book winners will be up sometime tomorrow…


Spe Salvi Day

November 30, 2008

First of all, a blessed Advent to all.  Today is the First Sunday of Advent, and the first day of a new liturgical year.  Advent is, uniquely, a season of hope.  Joseph Bottum, editor of First Things, offered an extraordinary essay on this last year, and it appears this week on the FT blog.  A snip:

I’ve noticed in recent years, however, that the ­feeling comes over me more rarely than it used to, and for shorter bits of time. I have to pursue the sense of wonder, the taste in the air, and cling to it self-consciously. Even for me, the endless roar of untethered Christmas anticipation is close to drowning out the disciplined anticipation of Advent. And when Christmas itself arrives, it has begun to seem a day not all that different from any other. Oh, yes, church and home to a big dinner. Presents for the children. A set of decorations. But nothing special, really.

It is this that Advent, rightly kept, would prevent—the thing, in fact, it is designed to halt. Through all the preparatory readings, through all the genealogical Jesse trees, the somber candles on the wreaths, the vigils, and the hymns, Advent keeps Christmas on Christmas Day: a fulfillment, a perfection, of what had gone before.

Do check out the whole thing this week.

We have to note that it was one year ago today that Pope Benedict XVI signed the second encyclical letter of his pontificate, Spe Salvi, on Christian hope.  “The Gospel,” he wrote in that letter, “is not merely a communication of things that can be known—it is one that makes things happen and is life-changing. The dark door of time, of the future, has been thrown open. The one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life.”

This reference to how we live reflects a theme that runs throughout the encyclical.  As I tried to bring out strongly in Your Guide to Spe Salvi: Saved in Hope, the Pope’s intention is not to offer a pious theological reflection on a point of doctrine.  No, he insists on pressing the question throughout his letter: What difference — what real, concrete difference — does the virtue of hope make to those who possess it? 

In fact he presents several living, breathing examples of people who have lived lives pulsing with hope — St. Josephine Bakhita, Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, and St. Paul Le-Bao-Tinh — and draws out the difference it made to them.  None of them were strangers to the pains and frustrations of real life.  Indeed, they knew more suffering than most of us, thank God, ever will. 

And yet, it was hope, for example, that fueled Bakhita’s conviction (Bakhita, who literally bore the scars of brutal childhood beatings upon her body) that “I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me—I am awaited by this Love. And so my life is good.”  That is as concentrated a statement of Christian hope as you will find anywhere.

Many of the guest posts that have appeared on this blog during the past month have brought out this point very well, too.  Reading them, I have given thanks for the hope that is in the hearts of these authors and that has been shared with us here. 

Appropriately, we also bring to a close today a month traditionally dedicated to remembering and praying for those who have died.  Along these lines, I would encourage you to take a look at the text of a homily delivered earlier this week at the funeral of a young woman who was a well-known figure among many Washington, DC, Catholics.  A snip:

The first Christians had a beautiful symbol they engraved on their tombs, a symbol unknown to the pagans: the anchor. With it, they signified that their ship, on its final voyage over the ocean of death, was not without security in its crossing the waves. There was a sturdy device aboard that would firmly secure them on arrival in the final harbour.

This anchor is placed in Heaven, and, as the letter to the Hebrews tell us, is a symbol for Jesus, who has entered heaven before us, opening us a firm path in the ultimate journey of death. And thus, this anchor is not totally like the anchors we let fall into the deep, because this anchor is thrown upwards, similar to what mountaineers employ to climb mountains.

Prayer for the dead, and consideration of our own deaths from the standpoint our Christian faith, is an act of hope.

Advent is the season of hope because we remember and celebrate the coming of Christ into human life more than 2000 years ago, we remind ourselves and give thanks for this presence among us in our very midst, and we look forward to and pray for the coming of Christ at the end of time.

Louis-Marie Chauvet, one of the most significant sacramental theologians of our day, points out (in this book) that the sacramental hosts that we consume at Mass and adore outside of Mass offer a wonderful image of Christian hope.  By faith, we see Christ present in our palm, “body, blood, soul, and divinity — the whole Christ” (as Trent put it, and  the Catechism of the Catholic Church repeats).  And yet to “the naked eye,” in particular to the doubting eye, it seems to be just bread, nothing more. 

Hope is similar, Chauvet suggests.  Without it, life is merely what it seems to be at face value — it has its nice moments, joyful moments, sorrowful moments, miserable moments.  But in the end, none of these moments have any special significance beyond what they appear to be on the surface.  But by our faith and our hope (which Benedict insists at length in Spe Salvi to be intimately interrelated), we see Christ present in the midst of it all, accompanying us, guiding us, strengthening us.

May I suggest a re-reading of Spe Salvi this Advent season (with Your Guide to help you along, if it seems like it might), and an ongoing prayer that the Spirit open you and us ever more widely and generously to the gift of hope that God offers.  It is, after all, a theological virtue, which is, unlike most virtues, received rather than achieved.

And let’s pray together, those who peruse these words this week, this season: Come, Lord Jesus.  Come, Lord Jesus.

Thank You to

November 30, 2008

— everyone who visited this blog during the Festival of Hope, including those whose interest moved them to try to win the giveaways, or those sent encouraging comments either in the comment boxes or via e-mail

— the guest bloggers who contributed their extraordinary voices, and books, to this event

Pauline Books and Media, who also contributed several books to be given away this month

— my family, who put up with my spending even more time sitting at the computer than I often do, and in particular to my wife, who helped me a lot in the task of getting all the books giveaways enveloped, addressed, and mailed out to the winners

November 30 Book Giveaway: Andre Nguyen Van Chau’s “The Miracle of Hope: Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan: Political Prisoner, Prophet of Peace”

November 30, 2008

The last book giveaway of many this month is The Miracle of Hope: Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan: Political Prisoner, Prophet of Peace.

This is an excellent biography of Cardinal Van Thuan, who I mention in the post above, and who is featured prominently in Pope Benedict’s Spe Salvi.  It would make for some wonderful Advent reading (or a pretty cool Christmas gift!).

At 288 pages, it has a cover price of $19.95.  You may win a free copy if you leave a comment in the comment box to this post.

Blessed Jose Olallo Valdez

November 29, 2008

As I mentioned here earlier, today marked the beatification of Blessed Jose Olallo Valdez in Cuba.  He is Cuba’s second native blessed (the first was beatified just last year, though it occurred in Spain). 

One bit of news to come out of the event was the attendance of Cuban President Raul Castro.  That’s significant in a nation that has been officially atheist, and strongly anti-Catholic in practice, for decades.

Here’s an article on a miraculous cure associated with Blessed Jose’s cause.

Today’s Guest Blogger: Dr. Heath White

November 29, 2008

One other element I was aiming for in the Festival of Hope was the voices of non-Catholic Christian authors.  I invited several to join.  The one who responded positively (and, in fact, one of the very first responses I received) was Dr. Heath White, a professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina and the author of Postmodernism 101: A First Course for the Curious Christian

I asked him because I thought his book, which I’m giving away to one fortunate visitor today, seems to provide an incisive diagnosis about what ails the culture we live in.  And without a good diagnosis, there can be no cure.  With one, even if it’s a distressing one, our hope is strengthened because we know the disease we’re facing and can begin to consider how to treat and cure it.

His guest post follows below.  It’s a shining example of the unity that already exists among the Christian churches and an extraordinary lesson in the hope that can and must live within every Christian.

Dr. Heath White: “An Alternative to the World’s Ways of Doing Business”

November 29, 2008

Hebrews 6:19 calls the hope Christians have “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.”  But at least in the evangelical circles I run in, there is remarkably little attention given to what this hope actually is.  Everyone knows that the end result is “going to heaven” and there is some consciousness that this involves worship, though the kitschy images of haloed saints sitting on clouds plucking harps for eternity don’t make heaven sound very attractive.  Scripture, however, is pretty clear on what our hope is, and why it is worth hoping for. 


First, Christian hope is a response to a promise from God.  The New Testament writers are clear that this promise was originally given to Abraham, to multiply his offspring and bless all the nations of the earth through him.  And God’s promise to Abraham was his response to the havoc wreaked by the sin of Adam.  Genesis 3 traces the pains of childbirth, marital discord, the toilsome necessity of hard labor for survival, and physical death to Adam’s sin.  The individual human heart, relations between people, and even the non-human creation itself are twisted by sin.  And it is these consequences that God has promised to undo.  That is our hope.


That sounds pretty good at an abstract level.  But what, more concretely, would a world with Adam’s sin undone look like? 


A good place to start is the prophet Jeremiah.  Living in the dying days of the kingdom of Judah, endlessly prophesying doom and destruction, Jeremiah does receive a promise from God for his people.  “I will make a new covenant…not like the one I made with their fathers… I will write my laws on their hearts.”  (Jeremiah 31:31-33).  Six centuries later, this promise is fulfilled with Christ’s death.  “This cup is the new covenant in my blood,” Jesus declares at the Last Supper (Luke 22:20).  Jesus had spent his ministry preaching the nearness of the kingdom of God:  “The kingdom of God is at hand,” he had declared, echoing John the Baptist.  (Mark 1:15, Matthew 3:2)  What is “the kingdom of God”?  We pray for it every time we say the Lord’s Prayer:  “Your kingdom come—that is, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  The kingdom of God is present when the world is managed according to God’s will.  Adam’s sin brought the world, and us, into rebellion against this kingdom.  In restoring it, God begins from the inside of the human heart—with a new covenant, writing his will on our hearts—and works outward.  It is probably true that most of us are more eager to see other people ruled by God’s will than ourselves…but God’s kingdom is a voluntary organization.


What happens in someone with God’s law written—however faintly!—on his heart?  He is inhabited by the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit is a source of moral and spiritual power that, over time, changes a person.  Ultimately, Christians are “predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son” (Romans 8:29) and for this reason we are not to “conform to the pattern of this world” (Romans 12:2).  What happens then?  “You will be able to test and approve what God’s will is”—you are in a position to contribute to the kingdom of God. 


The Son is the image of the Father (Colossians 1:15).  So as we become conformed to the image of the Son, we are at the same time being conformed to the image of the Father.  Though humans were originally “made in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27) that image was tarnished, marred, and broken in the Fall.  The indwelling Spirit restores it.


The end result is not just a moral reformation.  It enables us to live with divine power, to participate in the life of God.  The apostle Peter called it, “participating in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).  St. Athanasius describes it by saying, “God became man that men might become God.”  He did not, of course, mean that we are literally incorporated in the Trinity.  He meant that we attain “the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13), gaining access to the full powers and resources we were meant to have as bearers of the image of God.  Peter and Athanasius, too, are drawing on promises from the Old Testament:  Isaiah 32:2 prophesies a kingdom in which “Each man will be like a shelter from the wind and a refuge from the storm, like streams of water in the desert and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land.”  All of these descriptions are elsewhere used of God; the message is that, in the new kingdom, “each man” has a character that reflects God’s protection and bounty.  The apostle John speaks of our new relation to God as “union”—“you remain in me, and I in you” (John 15). 


Nor is the end result of the Spirit’s work a purely “spiritual” matter.  For we are also promised quite “physical” results:  the resurrection of the body, moreover, of a body transformed.  “Our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies,” the apostle Paul calls it.  (Romans 8:23)  What exactly this amounts to is not totally clear, but we have a model in Jesus’ resurrected body.  This is a body that eats, walks, bears wounds and scars, and can be touched.  It also disappears without notice and does not die or decay.  This is what Paul, again, calls “the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). 


I said that God works from the human heart outward.  What does a group of people, all indwelt by the Spirit, being conformed to the pattern of the Son, partaking of the life of the Father, look like?  Well, it looks like a Church—a new kind of society, no longer ethnic or territorial, but composed of “every nation, tribe, people and language”  (Revelation 7:9).  The Church, too, is inhabited by the Spirit—“Don’t you know that you [plural] are God’s temple?” Paul asks the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 3:16).  In the Church, ideally, we find new forms of social organization—“neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free” (Galatians 3:28)—a holy, peaceful, united alternative to the world’s ways of doing business. 


Finally, the ripening kingdom of God, the inbreaking Holy Spirit, restores the creation itself.  “A new heaven and a new earth” the Bible calls it, in the Old Testament and the New.  The prophet Isaiah saw it:  “Behold, I will create a new heavens and a new earth,” he says, prophesying health into ripe old age, productive labor, answered prayers, and even a change in violent animal nature:  “The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox.”  (Isaiah 65)  John saw it in Revelation, too:  “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth.”    The Bible’s picture is one of peace and harmony:  “On each side of the river stood the tree of life….  And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse.” (Revelation 22:2).    Also, the picture includes intimacy between God and human beings:  the New Jerusalem is described as a giant cube, which sounds strange until you realize that the other cube in the Bible, “a shadow of the things to come,” (Colossians 2:17) is the Holy of Holies in the temple, the place where God himself dwells. 


“No longer will there be any curse.”  Meditate on that, in all its richness and depth.  Pray for it.  Bless the Lord for that promise.  And wait in hope. 

November 29 book giveaway: Heath White’s “Postmoderism 101: A First Course for the Curious Christian”

November 29, 2008

I’ve spent plenty of time thumbing through the copy of Postmodernism 101: A First Course for the Curious Christian that Dr. White sent me to include as a giveaway during our Festival of Hope.  And let’s just say the winner will be lucky their copy doesn’t show up marked up by a highlighter.  (I’ll definitely be picking up a copy of it for myself soon, so I really can go at it with my highlighter.) 

This is quite a book — Dr. White, who states clearly that he writes “as a professional philosopher and a Christian,” packs an enormous amount of information and insights about the culture in which we live into its 167 pages.  It’s an excellent example of making some important but otherwise difficult to grasp concepts accessible, understandable, and compelling to the average educated reader. 

If you’re interested in a copy, leave a comment in the comment box to this post.  One winner will be chosen at random from among those who do.

Someday, today will be her feast day.

November 29, 2008

Today is the 28th anniversary of the death of Dorothy Day.  She died November 29, 1980.

I have to admit, she is a hero of mine.  The reason can’t be stated in a quick sound bite, though.  She is a remarkable example of someone who was willing to embrace the whole of what it meant to be a Catholic — the Church’s doctrine, sacramental life and devotions, a profound spiritual life, and an iron-willed committment both to helping those who are poor and changing the aspects of our society that contribute to keeping them poor.

Earlier this year, the journals that she kept for decades were finally published.  The time I spent reading their 800+ pages made me a better Catholic.  I also interviewed their editor, Robert Ellsberg, which formed the basis of a major article that will appear in the January 2009 issue of St. Anthony Messenger

In 2000, Cardinal John O’Connor (another hero of mine, and for similar reasons) took the first official steps toward opening Dorothy’s cause for canonization.  I haven’t seen much said publicly about the cause since then, but I look forward to the day when we’ll be giving her public veneration within the Church.

[Phil Runkel, archivist of the Dorothy Day Papers at the University of Marquette, notes in the comment box that this photo included here should be duly credited: it’s from the Milwaukee Journal, in February of 1968.  Thanks, Mr. Runkel.]

Today’s Guest Blogger: Alicia Van Hecke

November 28, 2008

When I first contacted Margot Davidson, the editor of mater et magistra, about giving away a one-year subscription to the magazine during this Festival of Hope and asked her to consider doing a guest post during the month as well, she responded by saying she’d be happy to give away the subscription and that she had just the article, by a mater et magistra writer, in mind for the Festival.

When the article’s author, Alicia Van Hecke, sent along the article, I could see exactly why Margot thought it would be a good fit.  In fact, after my first look at it, I wrote Alicia to thank her, and asked her if I could do some editing for length.  She was fine with that.  The thing is, the more I looked at it, the more I thought everything in it belonged in it, and I didn’t want to cut a thing out.  So here it is, with just a few minor edits, just as Alicia sent it.   You’re going to like it.

Alicia is a homeschool graduate and an alumna of Thomas Aquinas College.  Her and her husband John homeschool their six children naer Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  She is the editor of and blogs at Studeo.  You can hear her Love2Learn Moments daily on Milwaukee’s Relevant Radio.