Sunday, 20 September 2015 17:07

A column ‘of many things’ on my agenda

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In my July column, I noted an event in St. Louis on the Declaration on Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate, "In Our Age") of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II).

I am happy to pass along some information on another St. Louis event, this one focusing on this same declaration as well as the same Council's Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae, "Human Dignity").

Since Aug. 13, when I read a report in The New York Times, I have felt that I need to write about the horrific abuse of women and girls by the "Islamic State" (perhaps better known to us by the acronym ISIS, for "Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.")

This Dec. 8, it will have been 50 years since the close of the Second Vatican Council, the most important event in the Catholic Church in the 20th century, and very likely for many centuries into the past and future. Nearly all the Catholic bishops of the world, including our own Bishop William A. O'Connor, attended the four sessions of the Council at St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City, from 1962 to 1965.

If Pope Francis's encyclical letter Laudato Si' (Praised Be) had been the only compelling news story of recent days, I would have had plenty to write about.

With tremendous grief, however, we must also turn to the June 17 murders at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.

I've just returned from the National Workshop on Christian Unity, an event I attend every year. The most recent Workshop, held this time in Charlotte, N.C., had a distinctly interreligious emphasis. The interreligious input is always welcome. Most people who are active in ecumenism — that is, work for unity among Christians — also find themselves involved in enhancing relations among people of the various religions of the world.

Resurrection: Every time I come to the Easter celebration, it seems as if this great gift is too great to be appreciated.

All of us experience life as a wearying thing. We work; we expend energy; we feel tired at the end of each day. Our bodies show signs of age, and we are reminded that we are subject to death.

It's time to note one recent event and two upcoming.

First of all, on Sunday, Feb. 8, St. Jude Parish, Rochester, hosted a dialogue session for young Catholics and Muslims, and I was pleased to be an adult guest there. It was a very enjoyable initial session and the young people are looking forward to further opportunities to consider how Islam and Christianity converge and differ. The food was great, too. Thanks to the Muslim adult leaders, and to Dan Frachey and Father Dean Probst of St. Jude.

Pope Francis continues to be an effective communicator to the world. Over this past month, as we have been reflecting upon the terrorist attacks in Paris, we have certainly been moved to re-assert human rights to freedom of expression. Pope Francis, however, brings up a very important point which must be interpreted in light of the goal which must be before all of us: that we must learn how to communicate effectively, and with love, across religious boundaries.

All of us should be aware of the existence of an event called the "Parliament of the World's Religions." After all, it originated in Illinois.

The first "World's Parliament of Religions" took place Sept. 11-27, 1893, in Chicago, during the great world's fair called the World's Columbian Exposition. According to Wikipedia, "Today it is recognized as the occasion of the birth of formal interreligious dialogue worldwide."

With its two volumes and 4,400 pages, the just-published Norton Anthology of World Religions may seem quite imposing. I am only 100 pages into it, and I am happy to report that it is in fact a friendly guide to the religious heritage of a great proportion of the peoples of the earth.

Nov. 21, 1964, was a momentous day at the Second Vatican Council, which had begun its work in 1962. Three of its eventual 16 documents were issued that day by Blessed Paul VI in union with all the Catholic bishops of the world. Let us look, from a perspective of 50 years, at two of them: the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, and the Decree on Ecumenism.

It comes up every three years, and every six years it coincides with a presidential or state election. I'm referring to this Sunday's Gospel passage, Matthew 22: 15-21, in which Jesus taught us to "repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God," and thereby established the principle of separation of church and state.

In Judaism, the most solemn time of the year is almost here. Wikipedia tells us: "Rosh Hashanah is a two-day celebration, which begins on the first day of Tishrei. The day is believed to be the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, and their first actions toward the realization of humanity's role in God's world. Rosh Hashanah customs include sounding the shofar (a hollowed-out ram's horn) and eating symbolic foods such as apples dipped in honey to evoke a 'sweet new year.'" This year Rosh Hashanah ("Head of the Year") begins at sunset on Wednesday, Sept. 24, and continues on Thursday and Friday, Sept. 25 and 26. The new year to be entered is Annum Mundi (Year of the World) 5775, that is, from the beginning of God's creation.

The last column was in a literary vein, and now I would like to recommend a new memoir: Monastery to Matrimony by Mary Ann Weakley, a frank and moving account of the author’s experience of religious life in a diocese bordering ours from the 1950s to the 1970s. (Full disclosure: Mary Ann is my cousin.) Obviously, the author left religious life; be assured that the book is written with a sense of tremendous respect for her religious community, religious life, and Catholicism in general.

Sunday, August 3, is the 50th anniversary of the death, in Milledgeville, Georgia, at age 39, of Mary Flannery O’Connor, a singular writer.

Flannery O’Connor’s novels and short stories are the fruit of her reflection on her Catholic Christian faith and her assessment of life as it was lived in the South: “While the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted,” she remarked. One can reflect on such haunting in the short story “Parker’s Back,” which refers, not to the return of someone named Parker, but rather to a tattoo on Parker’s anatomical back. Race is a theme in many of her stories, and the ironies she plumbs are rich.

Imagine that two groups of Christians need to come together, and that the mediator is a non-Christian community. Does it seem strange that things should occur in this way?

Someone asked me whether I’d be writing about the prospect of baptizing an extraterrestrial. The question was spurred by recent remarks of Pope Francis about the inclusiveness of the Gospel. The Bishop of Rome spoke jocosely about the possibility of beings from other planets showing up at our church doors.

Our celebrations in the Easter season quite fittingly have a eucharistic focus. Jesus at the Last Supper gave us the holy Eucharist as the most excellent way to live and proclaim his death and resurrection. It is most appropriate that ordinations of deacons and priests take place at this time, as they will in our diocese for four transitional deacons on May 10 and two priests on May 24. Priests preside at Eucharist and deacons carry out many roles within this liturgy. Many celebrations of first holy Communion also occur in the Easter season.

A Pan-Orthodox Council has been announced for 2016. This is extraordinary news, especially in light of the fact that no such gathering of bishops in Eastern Christianity has taken place since the Second Council of Nicaea of 787 — the seventh and last council recognized by east and west as “ecumenical” (of the entire household of Christianity).

As I follow the news of the strife between Ukraine and Russia, I have been pleased to note the presence of priests in the midst of protesters and the armed forces of the two countries. The priests have placed themselves there as a way of calling agitated people into an awareness that the people on all sides of the controversy are God’s people.

The death of Pete Seeger some days back reminds me of an LP of his which was a favorite of me and my siblings when we were growing up. On that LP, our particular favorite song was The Foolish Frog, a hilarious take on the pitfalls of fame.

Some time back, I described the usual relationships, to be found in the many smaller towns of our diocese, among pastors and churches. Now, I would like to tell you about some other local associations, both ecumenical and interreligious.

I never expected to read a papal document which included the word “sourpusses.” If you’re wondering, Pope Francis is against them.

I’ve never been enthusiastic about people telling me how to feel. A contemporary humorist has identified something he calls “moodism,” which is the expectation that people all need to be in the same mood — chipper, usually. If I’m feeling surly, I don’t look forward to someone telling me to snap out of it. I want someone to listen. We might, in the process, learn something about each other.

I was a first-grader, coming off the playground at Our Lady of Lourdes, Decatur, when I learned of the death of John F. Kennedy. I am sure that most people younger than I are growing weary of the recollections of us whose memory of this shocking news is seared into us. Seared it is, for this youngest man to be elected president became, for millions, a symbol of progress for our country.

Even as the previous issue of this paper was being published, we were learning that Pope Francis, who had replied to some questions of a journalist in an Italian newspaper, contacted this man, the atheist Eugenio Scalfari, for a face-to-face meeting.

Last year I wrote briefly about atheism, and since that time I have been wanting to tackle the subject again. It seems to me that a discussion of this subject requires, perhaps, a series of columns.

Just recently I learned of the DVD existence of a film which had a profound effect upon me in childhood.

As far as I can figure, it was in 1967 as a fourth-grader at Our Lady of Lourdes School in Decatur that I saw, along with the entire student body, the 1960 British film Hand in Hand. From an early scene of the female lead’s singing, I recognized the film as, coincidentally, a forthcoming offering of the CBS Children’s Film Festival, which, according to the Internet Movie Database, premiered in early 1967.

When we ponder the religious diversity of human beings, we find that our perceptions of other human differences have a strong impact upon what we think we are, and what relationship we are to have with others.

If we associate writing with school, summertime may not seem to be the time to expect people to publish momentous statements. But in fact, people in the Christian world have been busy with documents which focus our attention on matters vital to us.

As we find the debate intensifying on the "mining" of information and its implications for civil liberties, we on this weekend of Father's Day might find ourselves considering the image of God as Father in terms of his all-knowing character.

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