The Way of Jesus: Beyond Benevolence

Posted December 20, 2014 by J. A. Dick
Categories: Roman Catholic Church

As we prepare to officially and ritually commemorate the birthday of Jesus of Nazareth, I offer a brief reflection. I will return after Epiphany with some longer reflections about contemporary faith and life…..

Last week, at my local train station, a very down-and-out looking fellow with a worn-out looking old dog was begging for money: sitting on the floor holding a tin cup. I had just bought a magazine for my wife and had the change, a bunch of coins, in my pocket.

As I passed the fellow, I quickly dropped the coins in his cup. He muttered something but I didn’t understand what he said. Behind me an older lady did the same as I: dropped a few coins in the tin cup.

Rushing to catch the train we both ended up standing next to each other on the platform. “I always give them something at Christmastime,” she said. “Yes,” I replied with a chuckle, “Do unto others…” Then we both boarded the train and continued on our separate journeys.

Sitting in the train, as it moved across the city and into the countryside, I started reflecting about Jesus; and about how easy it was for me to drop coins into the beggar’s tin cup. I didn’t even have to look into his eyes.

In the Gospels the devotion of Jesus to the men and women around him was something much more than mere benevolence: more than simply wishing them well or being eager to do things for them. Much more than simply dropping coins into their tin cups.

Jesus’ devotion was an expression of sympathetic identity with people: in their troubles and sufferings, as well as in their joys. Their life became his life.

To say that Jesus was also Son of God, means that God indeed is one with us in our daily life, with its joys and sorrows and its certitudes and uncertainties. Divine love is not essentially benevolence. It is a sympathetic sharing in life. Emmanuel – God-with-us.

If I truly believe that God walks and lives with me – as well as with the beggar at the train station – I need to move beyond kindly dropping coins into tin cups……And that is not so easy.

Dear Friends
My very best wishes for Christmas
And may the new year 2015 be full of life and grace for all of us



Posted December 7, 2014 by J. A. Dick
Categories: Roman Catholic Church

An old saying, attributed to Socrates, says: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” One of my old Louvain professors stressed in his classes long ago: “An essential element of belief is asking the right questions.”

Asking-questions brings us to greater self-knowledge, to a more realistic life-understanding, and lays the foundations for personal conscience-formation and a greater sense of personal responsibility.

All the great advances in human knowledge have come from people who dared to ask questions. Isaac Newton asked: “Why does an apple fall from a tree?” and “Why does the moon not fall into the Earth?” Charles Darwin asked: “Why do the Galápagos Islands have so many species not found elsewhere?” Albert Einstein asked: “What would the universe look like if I rode through it on a beam of light?” By asking these kinds of basic questions they were able to start the processes that lead to tremendous breakthroughs in human and scientific understanding.

Jesus of Nazareth asked: “Who do people say that I am?”

Some people of course are afraid to ask questions or believe it is wrong to ask questions. Fundamentalists – whether religious or political – are the big anti-question people. When confrontation with other people and other cultures challenges their own identity, they become anxious and fearful. Asking questions further threatens their identity and opens doors to change. Fundamentalists, anchored in an old ethos, don’t like change.

Authoritarian leaders – whether religious or political – don’t like people who question and therefore start to challenge their authoritarian leadership. Authoritarian leaders demand that men and women keep quiet and become their subservient and blindly-obedient followers. They insist that some questions can neither be asked nor discussed. Pure nonsense of course.

One of the greatest developments in the Catholic Church over the past fifty years has been the shift in attitude and practice, among Catholic laypeople and many ordained ministers, from a compliance-oriented approach (that accentuated the authority of the hierarchy) and a conscience-oriented approach that emphasizes Catholics’ need to question, think, and follow their own consciences. (Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI worked hard to re-impose the compliance approach; but, fortunately, most Catholics have rejected that. Others, unfortunately, have given up on a meaningful church and simply walked out the door. Catholic fundamentalists, like Cardinal Raymond Burke, on the other hand, are now even upset by Pope Francis and continue their angry noise-making.)

On this second Sunday of Advent, it is time to plan ahead and make one good New Year’s resolution: To ask more questions about Catholic belief and practice, to support those who question; and to explore together, in respectful and earnest dialogue, the complete range of answers……and no doubt further questions. We are on a journey. We have not yet arrived.

There are a lot of areas where we should be asking questions. Some questions are more easily answered. Others demand deeper reflection and a sharing of experiences.

Historical and biblical scholars tell us, for example, that the historic Jesus did not ordain anyone; and that Jesus chose men AND women to be his closest disciples. Why then do church authorities still insist that women cannot be priests because “Jesus called only men to the priesthood” ? Why, for instance, do some church leaders continue to protect or downplay punishment for sexually abusive priests and bishops? Why do so many of our bishops – when all sociological studies indicate that a high percentage of our bishops and priests are gay – do they still insist that homosexuality is an intrinsic aberration? Why is it ok for Catholic schools and parishes to employ gay people for many years but immediately fire them, when they announce they are getting married? The social teaching of the church? Professional ethics? A threat and a challenge to the sexual identity of closeted church leaders?

The bigger questions, however, are rarely being asked these days. Far too often, when they are proposed by theologians, church authority condemns, sanctions, and tries to shut up the questioners. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has been effectively gagging people, since the days of the Spanish Inquisition.

The bigger questions touch on a contemporary understanding of Jesus Christ and a contemporary understanding and experience of God. To me these are the really Big Questions that contemporary believers are struggling with……especially the growing number of people who are “ spiritual but not religious.” Institutional churches will have to answer these questions or close-up shop. It is difficult to be a genuine follower of Jesus without confronting these kinds of searching questions.

These are also the questions being asked by my young university students. One young fellow – not a seminarian but a well-informed student in my MA course – asked me some weeks ago, “Which is the more real ‘Real Presence’ of Christ? In that little communion wafer kept in the tabernacle or in the people sitting next to me in church? His girl friend had a more practical question about the Mother of Jesus. “Why is it,” she asked “that when more and more biblical scholars see the virginal conception of Jesus more as a theological symbol than a biological fact…..and the New Testament clearly speaks about Jesus’ brothers and sisters…..why is it that the church still insists that Mary was always a virgin?”

Questions about God are my big questions these days: Who or what is God for us today? What images of God are really meaningful today? What does it mean to experience God today? Last year I asked a bishop friend about his experience of God. After a long day of meetings, we were having a drink and a very serious conversation. At one point I asked him, “when was the last time you really experienced God’s presence in your life?” At first he didn’t want to answer, but I insisted and pushed him in a friendly way. Then, with a bit of sadness in his eyes, he rather softly said, “The last time I experienced God was when I was fifteen years old and thinking about becoming a priest.” He paused then continued, “Since then I have been operating on automatic pilot……saying and doing what people expect bishops to say and do.” (I later sent him a copy Elizabeth Johnson’s book Quest for the Living God.)

So…..let the questions come. Let us be and be with the questioners! We are all followers of Jesus and God seekers!


This week I am off to Moscow to deliver the keynote lecture for an international conference on fundamentalism and contemporary religious movements in Eastern Europe. And I have a lot of questions racing through my head……..


Happy Thanksgiving

Posted November 27, 2014 by J. A. Dick
Categories: Roman Catholic Church

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight
‘Till by turning, turning we come round right.


A Bishop with an Orientation Problem

Posted November 21, 2014 by J. A. Dick
Categories: Roman Catholic Church

In his November 21, 2014 diocesan newspaper column, titled “Looking to the East,” James D. Conley, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska explained his orientation concerns.

Appointed Bishop of Lincoln by Pope Benedict in 2012, he is very in sync with the old-times-theology of his predecessor Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz as well as that of his mentor Archbishop Charles Chaput from Philadelphia.

Bishop James will go public, this Advent, with his orientation problem and explained it this way:

Since ancient times, Christians have faced the east during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, to remember to keep watch for Christ. Together, the priest and the people faced the east, waiting and watching for Christ. Even in churches that did not face the east, the priest and people stood together in the Mass, gazing at Christ on the crucifix, on the altar, and in the tabernacle, to recall the importance of watching for his return.

The symbolism of the priest and people facing ad orientem—to the east—is an ancient reminder of the coming of Christ.

More recently, it has become common for the priest and the people to face one another during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The priest stands behind the altar as he consecrates the Eucharist, facing the people. The people see the face of the priest as he prays, and he sees their faces….

But the symbolism of facing together, and awaiting Christ, is rich, time-honored and important. Especially during Advent, as we await the coming of the Lord, facing the east together—even symbolically facing Christ together at the altar and on the crucifix—is a powerful witness to Christ’s imminent return….

During the Sundays of Advent, the priests in the Cathedral of the Risen Christ will celebrate the Mass ad orientem. With the People of God, the priest will stand facing the altar, and facing the crucifix.

When I celebrate midnight Mass on Christmas, I will celebrate ad orientem as well. This may take place in other parishes across the Diocese of Lincoln as well.

In the ad orientem posture at Mass, the priest will not be facing away from the people. He will be with them—among them, and leading them—facing Christ, and waiting for his return.

Very interesting. Eucharist reverts once again to being the priest’s action; and the people are reduced to pious spectators of the priest’s derrière….

And so, according to the Bishop of Lincoln, it is better for the Eucharistic presider to gaze upon a lifeless crucifix rather than look into the faces of very alive men and women out there in church.

Etiquette in almost every cultural tradition says one does not turn his or her back on people….More surprising for a bishop, it seems to me, is an apparent dismissal of the broad-based significance of the Incarnation and the presence of Christ in the community of faith.

In the Christian Scriptures, Jesus says: “Where two or three are gathered, there I am…” When one looks into the faces of the women and men gathered for liturgy, an ordained minister is looking into the face of the living Christ. Even the almost-forgotten (and not yet canonized) Pope Pius XII understood this when he wrote his encyclical about the “Mystical Body of Christ.”

Perhaps the bishop from Lincoln has a problem with eye contact? Looking at people eye-to-eye does have certain ramifications….

People who face other people eye-to-eye generally value warm and personable friendships. They are seen as leaders who are personally engaged with people; and they are perceived as trustworthy, honest, and sincere.

As I review biblical imagery, it is clear to me, at least, that turning one’s back on other people is a dangerous sign. It often indicates deception in human relationships and goes hand in hand with turning one’s back on God.

But…on the other hand, I am not from Lincoln, where life may be different.


A Casual Attitude Towards Catholic Teaching….

Posted November 16, 2014 by J. A. Dick
Categories: Roman Catholic Church

According to a Catholic News Agency report published this week, young American Catholics are “exhibiting an alarmingly casual attitude towards accepting church teaching.”

So is this a failure by young Catholics to understand church doctrine or a failure by church doctrinaires to understand young Catholics?

What puzzles the bishops is that young American Catholics “feel completely Catholic even while disagreeing with the church,” according to Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami. At the most recent meeting of the U.S. Catholic bishops in Baltimore, he summarised the responses given by young people to a survey conducted on behalf of the U.S. bishops.

For more than three years, a USCCB research group conducted a study about finding more effective ways to communicate Catholic belief. Researching a variety of segments of the U.S. Catholic population, they examined motivations, challenges, and expectations facing people in the U.S. Church. Young adult Catholics – those still in the church — stood out for their insistence on being part of the church while exhibiting a “causal disregard” for parts of Catholic teaching. If any Church teachings conflict with their own perceptions, Archbishop Wenski said, young people simply “tune out” the teachings. “They agree to disagree with the church.”

Furthermore, the archbishop observed, young Catholics are sensitive to language that could imply judgment. “For them, language like ‘hate the sin love the sinner’ means ‘hate the sinner.’”

Perhaps many bishops didn’t get the message; but shifting attitudes among young Catholics were pointed out by the Pew Research Center last year. Fully 85% of self-identified Catholics ages 18-29, for example, said in a 2014 Pew study that homosexuality should be accepted by society, compared with just 13% who said it should be discouraged. Older age groups were less likely to favor acceptance; but even among Catholics ages 65 and older, 57% said that homosexuality should be accepted.

One of my bishop acquaintances observed that our bishops need to teach more effectively. He would like to revamp parish and school catechetical programs so that they put more emphasis on church teaching.

I would suggest, frankly, that our bishops revamp their own leadership styles and put more emphasis on communication that starts with listening.

Speaking of listening, I wonder how many bishops were really listening to the Scriptures during their festive liturgy in Baltimore’s famous basilica. The first reading was from the letter to Titus (1:1-9), which told the assembled bishops to “appoint presbyters in every town, as I directed you, on condition that a man be blameless, married only once, with believing children….”


A Burkean Flashback : Flashback Catholicism

Posted November 8, 2014 by J. A. Dick
Categories: Roman Catholic Church

This weekend we have a bit of a flashback to an earlier posting about Cardinal Raymond Burke. One of my readers, a good friend in London, suggested that I re-post an earlier piece about the former Archbishop of Saint Louis and  recently-removed Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura.

Cardinal Burke has become a strong critic of theologians, like Cardinal Walter Kasper, who would argue that change has been and must be an important part of Catholic belief and practice. Burke is in fact a strong defender of what I would call “flashback Catholicism”……..more anchored in the late medieval past than the third millennium.

Flashback Catholicism is at the heart of the storm, now blowing through the Vatican — and certain foreign outposts with flashback archbishops like Philadelphia — as “progressives” battle “conservatives;” and people like Cardinal Raymond Burke accuse the Pope Francis of fostering confusion about church teaching.

Catholic chaos? A Catholic crisis? Or just maybe Catholicism at an historic crossroad? The challenges are there and they are very real. Writing in the New York Times this week, James Carroll phrased it this way: “The joyful new pope has quickened the affection even of the disaffected, including me, but, oddly, I sense the coming of a strange reversal in the Francis effect. The more universal the appeal of his spacious witness, the more cramped and afraid most of his colleagues in the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church have come to seem.”

Carroll’s solution is, I suspect, the only real solution for the growing Catholic dilemma: “…(a) Such retrieval of the centrality of Jesus can restore a long-lost simplicity of faith, which makes Catholic identity — or the faith of any other church — only a means to a larger communion not just with fellow Jesus people, but with humans everywhere. All dogmas, ordinances and accretions of tradition must be measured against the example of the man who, acting wholly as a son of Israel, eschewed power, exuded kindness, pointed to one whom he called Father, and invited those bent over in the shadowy back to come forward to his table.”

But now…….another kind of Burkean flashback:

Looking Sharp for Jesus

Best Dressed Cardinal in Rome for 2011

Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke

February is World Fashion Month. It is with feelings of great emotion that I announce that Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke — born and raised in Wisconsin, USA — has won the 2011 “Look Sharp for Jesus Award.” The judges found him one of the best dressed members of the Roman Pontifical Court. There is of course no cash connected with this award because — well — we just don’t think he needs it after what his threads cost all of us in the church.

Raymond Leo Burke — “Ray” to most of us — was born June 30, 1948. Heck,  John Greenleaf was already riding his tricycle when little Ray was in diapers…… Ray is the current Cardinal Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. That’s a big job for a big man.  Ray previously served as Archbishop of St. Louis (2003–2008) and Bishop of La Crosse (1994–2003).

Aside from his judicial expertise and his great fondness for the medieval liturgy of the Council of Trent, Ray is quite the party boy in Rome. Wherever he goes, people stand in awe at his expertly crafted and tailored episcopal dress.

Various young ecclesiastics around the world — and no small number of seminarians at the Pontifical North American College in Rome — are saving their pennies to “dress like Ray when I become a bishop.”

Here is a  quick consumers guide:

You need a big hat — called a mitre. Ray has quite a collection.

This colorful head cover is one of Ray’s favorites. “THE hat” for special occasions, like going out with the Pope. It cost Ray only $8,340.

On less formal, but certainly still very  important occasions, the Cardinal Prefect prefers his simple gold bonnet. This one below was a great buy at $1,042.

But a mitre does not make a bishop…or a cardinal…..Pontifical GLOVES do the real trick.

These beauties — great in a suddenly unexpected  Roman snow storm or for shoveling snow back in Wisconsin — were a great buy at $1,390.

Going…Going…Gone???: Church Trends

Posted October 30, 2014 by J. A. Dick
Categories: Roman Catholic Church

Perhaps not gone; but a new study of cultural-religious trends in the United States points to a seismic shift in U.S. Religious engagement.

Churchless, a new book by George Barna and David Kinnaman, draws on more than twenty years of research and more than twenty nationwide studies of the “unchurched.”

I read the book a couple days ago and strongly recommend it. Great material for an adult discussion group….The United States is undergoing a major shift in religious interest and practice. The findings (which resonate with other studies of religious trends) are a clear challenge to religious leaders. For an ever-growing number of contemporary Americans (and Europeans and others as well I suspect), the old theology, the old rituals, and the old institutional church structures just don’t communicate the good-news of Jesus anymore. Critical institutional leaders, I guess, can just dismiss studies like this; but they do so at their own risk….to say nothing about ignoring their vocation as messengers of Christ. The impact of what’s going on here will be far bigger than the sixteenth century Reformation.

The percentage of unchurched adults in America, since 1990, has risen from 30% to 43% of the total population; and the numbers are rising. It is a major religious climate change. The Barna study highlights five religious trends, which I briefly summarize:

1. America is becoming post-Christian.
Nearly two-fifths of the nation’s adult population (38%) now qualifies as post-Christian. In other words, in spite of our “Christian” self-descriptions, more than one-third of America’s adults are essentially secular in belief and practice. Traditional religion leaves them cold; and the younger the generation, the more post-Christian it is. Nearly half of the Millennials (48%) qualify as post-Christian compared to two-fifths of Gen X-ers (40%), one-third of the Boomers (35%) and one-quarter of the Elders (28%).

2. People are less open to the very idea of church.
Barna research suggests that the unchurched are becoming less responsive to churches’ efforts to connect with them. Barna’s tracking data stretching back to the 1990s reveals a slow-growing calcification of unchurched people toward churches. For every outreach method surveyed, the unchurched are less open to it today than they were two decades ago.

3. Churchgoing is no longer mainstream America.
Churchgoing is slowly but incontrovertibly losing its role as a normative part of American life. In the 1990s, roughly one out of every seven unchurched adults had never experienced regular church attendance. Today, that percentage has increased to nearly one-quarter. Buried within these numbers are at least two important conclusions: 1) Church is becoming increasingly unfamiliar to millions of Americans, and yet 2) the churchless are still largely comprised of “de-churched” adults: people who once found meaning in church but not anymore.

4. There are different expectations about church involvement.
Another intriguing shift among the churchless has to do with their expectations about church involvement. In the early 1990s, nearly 7 out of 10 adults, if they were to visit a church, would be most interested in attending the Sunday service. Today, weekend worship services remain the most common entry experience, but only slightly. Only 57% of churchless adults say they would be interested in attending some firm of Sunday worship. Today’s unchurched are more likely to say they would prefer attending some activity other than the Sunday services.

5. There is skepticism about the churches’ impact on society.
When the unchurched were asked to describe what they believe are the positive and negative contributions of Christianity in America, almost half (49%) could not identify a single favorable impact of the Christian community, while nearly two-fifths (37%) were unable to identify a negative impact. Of those who could identify one way Christians contribute to the common good, the unchurched appreciate their influence when it comes to serving the poor and disadvantaged (22%), bolstering morals and values (10%) and helping people believe in God (8%). Among those who had a complaint about Christians in society, the unchurched were least favorably disposed toward violence in the name of Christ (18%), the church’s stand against gay marriage (15%), sexual abuse scandals (13%) and involvement in politics (10%).

Perhaps our religious leaders (at all levels) should stop telling people what to do and start listening to them instead. Start to really listen to them…..especially to young people….listening to their contemporary lived experiences and their genuine search for meaning and purpose in their lives.

We used to say Vox Populi Vox Dei: the Voice of the People is God’s Voice.
We just need to open our ears…….



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