Thursday, December 28, 2006

St. Stephen, Martyr: December 26, 2006

Truth then, and Truth Now

St. Stephen died for the truth of the faith. The content of that truth is the Person of Jesus Christ. The term “Christocentricity” “is intended to stress that at the heart of catechesis we find, in essence, a Person, the Person of Jesus of Nazareth, `the only Son from the Father… full of grace and truth,’ who suffered and died for us and who now, after rising, is living with us forever. It is Jesus who is `the way, and the truth, and the life,’ and Christian living consists in following Christ, the sequela Christi [1]

The bishops of the United States in their annual meeting in November 14, 2006, after a delay of 38 years, spelled out the “sequela Christi” for human sexuality and the sin of contraception that had been authoritatively pronounced in Humanae Vitae in 1968. Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, remarked: “This is the first document in many years in which the U.S. bishops are collectively addressing a message on contraception directly to engaged and married couples,” adding that “this is our first word on the subject in a long time and not our last word.”

The document, “Married Love and the Gift of Life,” affirmed positively that “the mutual gift of fertility is an integral part of the bonding power of marital intercourse.” It went on to say: “When married couples deliberately act to suppress fertility, however, sexual intercourse is no longer fully marital intercourse. It is something less powerful and intimate, something more `casual.’” It went on to say, “Suppressing fertility by using contraception denies part of the inherent meaning of married sexuality and does harm to the couple’s unity. The total giving of oneself, body and soul, to one’s beloved is not time to say: `I give you everything I am – except…’” The document goes on to its inexorable moral conclusion: “every act of intercourse must remain open to life and that contraception is objectively immoral.”

Coupling the teaching of “Married Love…” with another simultaneously released document “Happy Are Those Who Are Called to His Supper” that teaches that the state of grace is necessary for the worthy reception of Communion makes a strong case for the conclusion feared – and avoided by a large number of priests and laity – that if one is contracepting, one should not go to Communion.

The latter document, “Happy Are Those…,” states that “As Catholics we believe what the Church authoritatively teaches on matters of faith and morals, for to hear the voice of the Church, on matters of faith and morals, is to hear the voice of Christ himself. To give selective assent to the teachings of the Church not only deprives us of her life-giving message, but also seriously endangers our communion with her.” It goes on to say “If a Catholic in his or her personal or professional life were knowingly and obstinately to reject the defined doctrines of the Church, or knowingly and obstinately to repudiate her definitive teaching on moral issues, however, he or she would seriously diminish his or her communion with the Church. Reception of Holy Communion in such a situation would not accord with the nature of the Eucharistic celebration, so that he or she should refrain.”

This conclusion comes as a “hard saying” to the American Catholic population who have not heard a word about this for the last 38 years and have inevitably drifted with the secularized culture into contraceptive practice and contraceptive mentality. It has been suggested that 90% of married couples in the child-bearing range are using contraceptives without having their consciences clarified and formed by the Magisterium of the Church. It has been argued that such a state of affairs leaves people in invincible ignorance, and therefore devoid of culpability. But what does it say for the bishops (who passed the document by an overwhelming margin and without floor debate) and their priests who, equally carrying the onus of the Good Shepherd to give their lives for their people, continue to be silent on the issue with the fear that they will leave and that it is too complicated to explain.

We – bishops, priests and laity - are clearly now in an area of ascetical and moral obligation to devise a strategy of doctrinal formation so that a people who are habitually in sin and receiving the Eucharist can be relieved of the progressive damage that is being done to them by ignorantly staying in a state of being deaf and dumb. Clearly, it is not otiose to connect the dots from contraception to abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage and harvesting embryos. Mother Teresa spoke with profound supernatural insight when she remarked at that prayer breakfast in Washington, February 1994 (and wonderfully described by Peggy Noonan), that she would not give a child for adoption to a couple who had used the contraceptive. I personally went to her afterward to inform that I was trying to help people confess and receive absolution for the sin of contraception, and ask her if, in that case, would she give the child for adoption? She answered: “But how could I give my child to someone who had done that to herself or himself?” I immediately realized that she was working on the deep ontological level of the person, and I was on a more superficial and almost legal level. She was suggesting that the very structure of the person was in play, and that is it had been corroded by this particular sin. It would take the rebuilding of the ontological hard-wiring of the person by repeated gifts of self.

Teach Jesus Christ At the Risk of Your Life

A young curate asked his pastor, many years his senior in the priesthood, what he was going to do about these documents on contraception and the obligation of the state of grace to receive. The pastor told him that he was not going to tell anyone not to go to Communion, and that it was up to the local bishop to mandate that it be preached. In either case, it is dead letter.

In this light, and on the occasion of St. Stephen as proto-martyr for the truth of Christ, it might be helpful to rehearse the mission of the ministerial priest in hierarchical communion with Jesus Christ through the bishop.

· Jesus Christ stands before the Church as Bridegroom before the Bride. The relationship is spousal which means the gift of one’s very self to death. “Christ stands `before’ the Church and `nourishes and cherishes her’ (Eph. 5, 29), giving his life for her. The priest is called to be the living image of Jesus Christ, the spouse of the Church… In his spiritual life, therefore, he [the priest] is called to live out Christ’s spousal love toward the Church, his bride.”[2]
· “The gift of self has not limits, marked as it is by the same apostolic and missionary zeal of Christ, the good shepherd…”[3]
· “The priest is first of all a minister of the word of God. He is consecrated and sent forth to proclaim the good news of the kingdom to all, calling every person to the obedience of faith and leading believers to an ever increasing knowledge of and communion in the mystery of God, as revealed and communicated to us n Christ.”[4]
· “The priest ought to be the first `believer’ in the word, while being fully aware that the words of his ministry are not `his,’ but those of the One who sent him. He is not the master of the word, but its servant. He is not the sole possessor of the word; in its regard he is in debt to the People of God. Precisely because he can and does evangelize, the priest… ought to grow in awareness that he himself is continually in need of being evangelized. He proclaims the word in his capacity as `minister,’ as a sharer in the prophetic authority of Christ and the Church. As a result, in order that he himself may possess and give to the faithful the guarantee that he is transmitting the Gospel in its fullness, the priest is called to develop a special sensitivity, love and docility to the living tradition of the Church and to her magisterium. These are not foreign to the word, but serve its proper interpretation and preserve its authentic meaning.”[5]

To Preach = To Give the Self to Death – like Stephen

Before the Vatican II’s “Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests” of December 7, 1965, there were two opposing concepts of priestly ministry standing face to face. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote: “On one side, the social-functional view defines priesthood in terms of `service;’ a service performed for the community, through carrying out a function of the Church in its social dimension. On the other side, the sacramental-ontological view, without denying the aspect of service, sees priesthood as rooted in the minister’s being itself, and this being, in turn, as determined through a gift bestowed by the Lord through the Church, known as a sacrament.”[6]

Ratzinger continues: “What, then, are the answers to the problems we have described? To put it briefly, the Council teaching cannot be reduced to either one of the alternatives.” He insightfully sets up the terms of the question: 1) “we can state that the first chapter of the decree (Nos. 2 and 3) heavily underlines the ontological aspect of priestly existence, and thereby emphasizes the power to offer sacrifice. Both elements are again stressed at the beginning of no. 3: `Priests, taken from among the people, and ordained on their behalf in the things that pertain to God for the purpose of offering up gifts and sacrifices for sins (cf. Heb. 5, 1), live with them as with their brothers.’ In contrast with the Council of Trent, there is a new emphasis on the lived unity and common path of the whole Church, into which the traditional conception of the priesthood has been inserted.

“All the more, then, is our attention drawn to the beginning of the second chapter, where the concrete duties of the priest are described: `It is the first task of priests, as co-0workers of the bishops, to preach the Gospel of God to all’ (no. 4). This seems to affirm clearly the primacy of the word, or the ministry of preaching. The question then arises, what is the relationship between these two statements: a priest is ordained… for the purpose of offering up gifts and sacrifices;’ and his `first task (Primum… officium) is to `preach the Gospel (Evangelium… evangelizandi)’”?

Ratzinger’s Insight

Jesus does not “allow his evangelizing to be taken for a merely intellectual affair, a matter for discussion alone. His words demand decision; they bring reality. In this sense, his word is `incarnate:’ the mutual relation of word and sign expresses a `sacramental’ structure.
“But we must go a step further. Jesus does not convey a knowledge that is independent from his own person, as any teacher or storyteller would do. He is something different from, and more than, a Rabbi. As his preaching unfolds, it becomes ever clearer that his parables refer to himself, that the `Kingdom and person belong together, that the Kingdom comes n his person. The decision that he demands is a decision about how one stands toward him, as with Peter, who said, `You are the Christ’ (Mark 8, 29). Ultimately, the message of his preaching about the Kingdom of God turns out to be quite clearly Jesus’ own Paschal mystery, his destiny of death and resurrection… We now understand that Jesus’ preaching can be called `sacramental’ in a deeper sense than we could have seen before. His word contains in itself the reality of the Incarnation and the Church in the mutual dependence of preaching and the Eucharist, and in the mutual dependence, as well, of preaching and an authentic, living witness.”[8]

Ratzinger then offers an example of this in the founder of Opus Dei, St. Josemaria Escriva. He said: “I would like to recall now an episode from the early days of Opus Dei, which illustrates the point. A young woman had the opportunity to listen for the first time to a talk given by Fr. Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei. She was very curious to hear a famous preacher. But after participating in a Mass he celebrated, she no longer wanted to listen to a human orator. She recounted later that form that moment on, her only interest was to discover the word and will of God."

“The ministry of the word requires that the priest share in the kenosis of Christ, in his `increasing and decreasing.’ The fact that the priest does not speak about himself, but bears the message of another, certainly does not mean that he is not personally involved, but precisely the opposite: it is a giving-away-of-the-self in Christ that takes up the pain of his Easter mystery, and leads to a true finding-of-the-self, and communion with him who is the Word of God in person. This Paschal structure of the `not-self’ that turns out to be the `true self’ after all, shows, in the last analysis, that the ministry of the Word reaches beyond all `functions’ to penetrate the priest’s very being, and presupposes that the priesthood is a sacrament.”

Conclusion: Woe to us if we do not make this episcopal document known.

[1] John Paul II, “Catechesi Tradendae,” #5.
[2] John Paul II, “Pastores Dabo Vobis” #22.
[3] Ibid #23.
[4] Ibid #26.
[5] Ibid #26.
[6] J. Ratzinger, “The Ministry and Life of Priests” reprinted from the August-September 1997 issue of HPR.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid

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