Pain and the gift of community

While away from the parish recently, I was able to take time reflecting on what community is about.  I was helped with this by the wonderful little book Welcome as a Way of Life by Benjamin S. Wall.  The book reflects on the reality of community as it has been lived and reflected on by Jean Vanier.

Vanier is the French-Canadian founder of the communities called L’Arche, where people of normal capacities and people with intellectual disabilities live together in community as friends searching together for human fulfillment.  Jean Vanier is truly one of the spiritual giants of our age.

There is one significant point that Wall makes as he reflects on Vanier’s experience that really strikes me and challenges me.  Vanier insists that we often look to community as the place to heal our pain, our loneliness, and to free us from our sense that our lives don’t matter. In fact, however, “community accentuates these realities.  Although community can be life-giving, ‘it is also a place of pain because it is a place of truth and of growth’” (p. 30).  Community confronts us with the truth about ourselves as well as the other.   “While we are alone,” Vanier says, “we could believe we loved everyone.  Now that we are with others, living with them all the time, we realize how incapable we are of loving, how much we deny to others, how closed in on ourselves we are” (p. 31).

How often I encounter this in parish life.  People come to a parish to find God, to experience God’s love and to love others in the name of God.  People come to find others who know God and can help them grow closer to God.  Me, too, I would say.

Instead, what we often discover in the parish community are people who know less about God than we think we do, people whose lives do not match up so well with Jesus’ kingdom way, people who are hypocritical, controlling, judgmental and mean-spirited.

This, in turn, makes us angry, touching deep sources of anger within us.  We begin to find ourselves judging and talking negatively about the others.  Our own need to control comes out, as we in frustration realize we cannot control all the others in this parish.

Ironically, and painfully, this is the very place of encounter with reality, with what is true.  It is the encounter with the truth of our and others broken humanity.  This encounter is what has potential to lead us to the greatest truth:  that is, the truth of our need for and discovery of a savior who loves us not despite our brokenness, but with our brokenness.

As Vanier so powerfully reveals, in the painful encounter of community, we discover the truth that, “We must cry out to Jesus, the Saviour, who will send us his Spirit and guide us, and forgive us.  Only then can the truth make us free” (p. 28).

Community frees us from the illusion of being self-reliant and self-sufficient.  Community reveals to us our need for a Savior who loves us and who possess the healing balm that our broken self so desperately needs.  This is precisely the role of Christian community, to unmask our broken humanity and to turn our hearts to the God who is the source of authentic life.

And yet, make no mistake about it, this is a painful process.  It is why so many leave our parishes, deciding I suppose that it is much easier to live with the illusion that somewhere I will find and be part in the making of the perfect community, because I am good enough, rather than embracing the truth of my, and others, terrible vulnerability and need for constant mercy and healing generated by God.

Father Anthony Oelrich currently serves as pastor of Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud.

The Fourth Day of Christmas

The word gospel has many meanings.  This Fourth Day of Christmas gives us a chance to reflect on the four Gospels found in the New Testament.  These four are, of course, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Stained Glass in Seville Cathedral Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See in Seville Andalusia Spain

When speaking of the four New Testament Gospels, we are talking about a genre of writing which is biographical in the sense of first century Greco-Roman biography. Gospel in this sense is a book communicating the life, ministry, and meaning of Jesus Christ.

It is spectacular that we have four different narrators of the life of Jesus.  The reason for four is very much connected to the Christmas mystery. God in Jesus has taken a human face.  God is, therefore, encountered by other human beings.  Each person brings his or her own history and personality to the relationship with Jesus.  We receive, because of this, a much fuller and diverse, and for that, more beautiful understanding of the person of Jesus.

Matthew, among many other things, is fascinated with how Jesus fulfills Jewish prophecy and expectation.  Mark is most interested in the essentials about Jesus, getting to the point.  Luke loves to repeat the stories Jesus told and his special affection for the poor.  John is so mystical and spiritual, he relates the deep sense of Jesus’ spirit to us.

Four different Gospels, four different portraits of Jesus, yet one Lord and one Savior of all.

And this gets us to another meaning of Gospel.  Each book we call Gospel is essentially about relaying to us what the message of Jesus is.  This message, also, is called Gospel.  Mark, the great summarizer, tells it most clearly:  “This is the time of fulfillment.  The kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent, and believe in the Gospel”  (Mark 1:15).  This is the essence of the Gospel as message found in all the Gospels, though different aspects are highlighted in each.

And finally, the ultimate meaning of the word Gospel:  It is Jesus Christ himself.  Jesus is, in person, the good news of God’s inbreaking kingdom of healing, mercy and grace.  Ultimately, when we Christians speak of the Gospel, we mean Jesus Christ!

That is, the baby born for us on Christmas, to be for us Emmanuel, God with us!

And we have four written narratives, the four Gospels, to tell us the story of this one Gospel.

Father Tony currently serves as pastor of Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud.

The Second Day of Christmas

This second day of Christmas invites us to reflect on the two natures of Christ.

(CNS photo/Paul Haring)

This is the very heart of the Christmas mystery. The baby born in Bethlehem is so super special because the baby is divine, sharing in the fullness of God. And yet, the baby is a baby, a fully human bundle of joy.

The language of the two natures, human and divine, in the one person of Jesus Christ wasn’t fully developed until the Council of Chalcedon in 451.  There, when Pope Leo the Great’s famous Tomb of Leo concerning the two natures of Christ was read out, the council fathers responded by shouting, “This is the faith of the fathers … Peter has spoken thus through Leo …”

This technical, theological language addresses something truly existential.  It is about the encounter that makes Christmas a source of joy and grace and true delight even after some two thousand years.  In the birth of Jesus, a real encounter has taken place between humanity and divinity.  God is truly and fully with us.  Our humanity has really and fully become a dwelling place for the divine.

The wonderful Flannery O’Connor highlights this while speaking of an author’s work at writing fiction, who is “looking for one image that will connect or combine or embody two points; one is a point in the concrete, and the other is a point not visible to the naked eye, but believed in by him firmly, just as real to him, really, as the one that everybody sees” (Mystery and Manners:  Occasional Prose, 42).

Jesus is, in God’s grand narrative, the one image that connects, combines and embodies the two points; the seen, fleshy humanity and the unseen, spiritual divinity.

From the point of Jesus’ birth until this moment, human beings are never alone, God is near.  The two, human beings and God, have become one again in Jesus.

Father Tony currently serves as pastor of Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud.

“I incline as much to rosary beads…”

With almost perfect timing, in light of this year’s election and all, I fell upon a poem I hadn’t seen before from one of my favorite poets, Seamus Heaney. It is entitled, “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing.”

I’m writing just after an encounter
With an English journalist in search of  ‘views
On the Irish thing’.  I’m back in winter
Quarters where bad news is no longer news,

Where media-men and stringers sniff and point,
Where zoom lenses, recorders and coiled leads
Litter the hotels. The times are out of joint
But I incline as much to rosary beads

As to the jottings and analyses
Of politicians and newspapermen
Who’ve scribbled down the long campaign from gas
And protest to gelignite and Sten,

Who proved upon their pulses ‘escalate’,
‘Backlash’ and ‘crack down’, ‘the provisional wing’,
‘Polarization’ and ‘long-standing hate’.
Yet I live here, I live here too, I sing,

Expertly civil-tongued with civil neighbours
On the high wires of first wireless reports,
Sucking the fake taste, the stony flavours
Of those sanctioned, old, elaborate retorts:

‘Oh, it’s disgraceful, surely, I agree.’
‘Where’s it going to end?’ ‘It’s getting worse.’
‘They’re murderers.’ ‘Internment, understandably …’
The ‘voice of sanity’ is getting hoarse.

Yes, it has it all, doesn’t it. Incivility of politicians and journalists, the reality of civility still found among neighbors, things apparently getting worse, polarization and hatred, and, even, the backlash we are experiencing in city streets.

But I too would like to say, “I incline as much to rosary beads.” Which is to say, remember what is truly substantial and dependable. Substantial and dependable is the faith that puts us in touch with a living God who sorts all things out, who possess the power of peace-giving to hearts receptive, and who empowers us always and in the face of all things to take up the task of doing good by loving our neighbor as we have been loved by God. These are things no election, no government, no politician, no journalist, nor even no ‘crowd’ can take from us.

And so, because “I live here, I live here too,” I will insist on singing as I incline more toward God for what is truly ultimate and strive to work with the others while not expecting so much from them.

Father Tony currently serves as pastor of Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud.
Father Tony currently serves as pastor of Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud.


Allowing Jesus’ words to ‘warm our hearts’

Recently my attention was drawn to something said by the great German biblical scholar Rudolf Schnackenburg. Commenting on St. John’s First Letter, he says, “The love of God has been ‘revealed,’ that is, become open to experience through God’s sending of his only Son into the world” (The Johannine Epistles: A Commentary, 208).

The nature of God revealing himself to human beings is that God makes himself accessible to our experience. In other words, no longer is our capacity to relate to God simply intellectual — what we might think about God and the nature of God — but because of revelation we can touch and be touched by God in our emotional, truly personal selves.

On July 15 we celebrated the Feast of St. Bonaventure, the Franciscan doctor of the Church. Throughout this saint’s writings is found the insistence that human beings must approach God on a deeply personal and experiential basis. Answering the question about how to experience God, St. Bonaventure says, “Seek the answer in God’s grace, not in doctrine; in the longing of the will, not the understanding; in the sighs of prayer, not in research; seek the bridegroom not the teacher; God and not man; darkness not daylight; and look not to the light but rather to the raging fire that carries the soul to God with intense fervor and glowing love” (from the Office of Readings in The Liturgy of the Hours).

Notice particularly, “the longing of the will, not the understanding” and “seek the bridegroom not the teacher.” Bonaventure would never deny the precious ability of human beings to use their reason to contemplate God. Yet, the point here is that God desires to live in a truly and fully human relationship with us. God desires that our spirits be touched with the experience of his love, his saving passion for us. God desires that our hearts catch fire with a passionate love for him.

This is another way of saying what Pope Benedict insisted on at the beginning of his very first encyclical, God Is Love, when he said, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” Or more simply and directly, Pope Francis’ often-repeated invitation that we allow Jesus’ word to “warm our hearts.”

A living faith is a faith that touches the whole of our humanity and, yes, warms our hearts.

Father Tony currently serves as pastor of Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud.
Father Tony Oelrich currently serves as pastor of Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud.

How to understand and interpret Pope Francis

Many people are delighted by his seemingly easygoing pastoral way, his smiles and hugs of young and old, by the simple and pointed way he speaks, his mastery of turning a metaphor, his love for the poor and weak and vulnerable, and his insistence on opening the doors so as to reach out to everyone without exception.

Some are not so sure, concerned even by his language which at times seems to be confusing on things like marriage and divorce, and that he writes a whole encyclical on the environment while rarely mentioning the horror of abortion, and when he says something like, ‘Who am I to judge?’ when he is the pope after all and we expect a pope to do just that, judge right from wrong, instead of appearing to be more concerned with having everyone like him than knowing just where he stands on the things that matter.

For me, there are a couple of things Pope Francis has said that help to understand the particular way he sees the world and the Church today interacting with that world.

The first is so well know. It came in a widely published interview early in his pontificate where he said, “I see the Church as a field hospital after battle.”

Sit with this image for a time. Notice what it says about the church and the world. The church lives in the midst of a world ravaged by a fierce battle. This battle is all too literal in the violence of our day but is also a battle of the spirit, that has left people terribly wounded by broken relationships, poverty, depression, loneliness and a sense of purposelessness.

Clearly, this is no naïve, Pollyanna view of contemporary society.  Pope Francis is profoundly convinced of a world in trouble. It is, precisely, because of the dramatic nature of the anguish of our world that the pope insists on the approach he has taken. He went on to say in light of the Church as a Field Hospital, “I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity…It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.”

Because of his view of a world deeply marked by sin—just read his New York Times bestselling book The Name of God is Mercy to see how much he has to say about sin—Pope Francis is unrelenting in his insistence that now is the time for mercy, for the Church to make grace as living and palpable an experience for people of our age as possible. As his image highlights, you don’t tell a man dropping over of a heart-attack, as he is dropping over, to stop smoking and use less salt. First you call 911 and do CPR until medical help arrives. Certainly his doctor will get to the anti-smoking and reduced-salt campaign if the man survives. So to, apply grace and mercy urgently.  Find every way possible to breathe life back into a people desperate for the Holy Spirit.

There is a second, powerful lesson from Pope Francis that helps to understand how he sees his ministry and the life of the Church today. In a talk to the bishops of Brazil while in that country for World Youth Day celebrations, Pope Francis pointed to the ‘icon of Emmaus’ (Luke 24). There he reminded his listeners of the two disciples walking away from Jerusalem discouraged and disappointed by the events surrounding Jesus’ life and death. The Holy Father sees in Jerusalem an image of the Church and those two disciples the many people walking away from the Church for many, various reasons. Then he said, “We need a Church unafraid of going forth into their night. We need a Church capable of meeting them on their way. We need a Church capable of entering into their conversation. We need a Church able to dialogue with those disciples who, having left Jerusalem behind, are wandering aimlessly, alone, with their own disappointment, disillusioned by a Christianity now considered barren, fruitless soil, incapable of generating meaning.”

This relates very much to Francis’ vivid insistence on the Church doors being unlocked so that those of us in the Church can go out to meet people who are no longer in the Church with us. Jesus met and walked with the disciples on the way to Emmaus. We need to be a Church willing to go out and walk with the many who have headed away from Christ. Jesus, with those disciples of Emmaus, warmed their hearts with his friendship. We need to be so deeply rooted in our faith life with Jesus that we can warm the hearts of the people we meet along the way.

Pope Francis, as he himself has said, is a son of the Church.  The Church, in all her richness, is a precious gift for him.Yet, he recognizes, these gifts are not experienced as such by so many of our contemporaries. We need to meet them with the GIFT, the person, life, love and healing of Jesus Christ. Making Jesus vivid again for the people of our age is the way to draw people into the fullness of our Catholic life. This, it seems to me, is the pastoral plan of Pope Francis.

Father Tony currently serves as pastor of Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud.
Father Tony currently serves as pastor of Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud.