Sunday, May 27, 2012

Pentecost Homily by Fr. Matthias Neuman, OSB

Readings: Acts 2:1-11; Gal 5:16-25; Jn 15:26-27, 16:12-15

At first glance it would seem to be a fair assessment to say that the Holy Spirit played practically no role in my religious upbringing or my learning and understanding of the Catholic faith. (Of course, the Holy Spirit did play a huge roll; I just wasn’t aware of it.) In those days in the 1950s and early 60s not much was said about the Holy Spirit in the Catholic Church. For some verification of that I checked in the Baltimore Catechism. The Holy Spirit is never mentioned in the entire booklet. You might say, "Well, we used Holy Ghost back then." Unfortunately the Holy Ghost only appears one time and that’s in the text of the Apostles Creed. No, as far as we Catholics were concerned in those days the Holy Spirit was blissfully inactive.

What happened? Like so many things within the Church the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s was a watershed in a new appreciation of the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church and in personal spirituality. In the previous centuries the Western Latin church had placed the Holy Spirit within very narrow confines. About the only place the Spirit worked was through the bishops in the administration of the sacraments and practically nowhere else. But at the Council the Western Latin bishops encountered the Eastern Catholic churches as well as the Orthodox churches; for all these churches the Holy Spirit was front and center in almost everything. They not only challenged the Latin bishops; they had the supporting evidence from church history to back up their own views. The Western Latin bishops had to face up to that. And so a new appreciation of the Holy Spirit began to appear in the Council documents.

For reasons too complicated to explain in a homily, the Western Latin church had emphasized more the Oneness of God, while the Eastern Christian churches stressed more the Trinity and the continual interaction between Father, Son and Spirit. In the Eastern view the whole of the Christian life was understood to be in the Spirit, through Christ the Son, to the Father. Sometimes Eastern church fathers would refer to the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ as the two arms of the Father. Above all Eastern Christians sang the prominence of the Holy Spirit regularly in the celebration of the Eucharist, the Divine Liturgy. God’s Holy Spirit pervades the whole Church.

The Council documents introduced Western Christians to dimensions of the Holy Spirit they had never heard of. One of the most powerful passages is in the Constitution on the Church: "It is not only through the sacraments and the ministrations of the Church that the Holy Spirit makes holy the People, leads them and enriches them with His virtues. Alloting His gifts as he wills, the Spirit also distributes special graces among the faithful of every rank. ... Whether these charisms be remarkable....or more simple they are to be received with thanksgiving and consolation."(# 12) With those words the bishops affirmed that the Holy Spirit acts directly in every believer in the Church. These were shocking words to Latin Christians, but just taken for granted among Eastern Christians.

I personally like that image of the Son and Spirit as two arms of the Father. The Son in Jesus Christ shows us the mystery of God in an external way that we can relate to with our senses; we can see, hear and relate to Jesus of Nazareth. The Spirit is the Mystery of God within us internally, bubbling to the surface in gifts and charisms, transforming us from the inside out. One of the Church Fathers favorite sayings was that the Holy Spirit is the soul of the Church. If so, then God’s Holy Spirit is in the soul of each one of us. Let’s celebrate that this feast of Pentecost!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Ascension Sunday Homily by Fr. Matthias Neuman, OSB

Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Eph 4:1-7, 11-13; Mk 16:15-20

The Physics course in my junior year of high school was one of the worst courses I’ve ever had. One day the professor brought in an instrument, which he said was an altimeter used to measure height above the ground. If you lift it up, the needle indicates the change in altitude. He raised it up; nothing happened. A second time, again nothing. Frustrated, he said he was taking it back to the store. A couple days later he told us that the reason the altimeter appeared not to work was that each one of the lines on the measurement list represented one hundred feet. In that same course I learned the difference between centrifugal force (a force impelling outward) and centripetal force (impelling toward the center). In nature the two forces often complement each other; at other times they compete with each other. The Physics teacher did a lot better on that subject.

Types of both of those forces are also represented in today’s scriptural reading, especially the Letter to the Ephesians. They concern the dynamics of forces in the Church. The centrifugal force is the explosion of ministries caused by the Paschal Mystery of Jesus; that explosion creates apostles, prophets, teachers, evangelists, pastors and all sorts of other ministries of service. The Ascension of Jesus is part of that outward explosion of service and love. Perhaps it’s too irreverent, but I imagine the Ascension like the lifting-off of a rocket. You see the rocket going up, but around its base there’s a great explosion of fire and smoke from all the energy being released. Life in the early Church was like that; ministries abounded everywhere. On the other hand the centripetal force impels toward unity in the Church, as the author of Ephesians writes: "strive to preserve the unity of the Spirit through one bond of peace: one body and one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all." Through all this diversification of spiritual energy in many forms, never forget the unity. At the same time that the Church spreads out in ministry, there is also the continual work toward oneness in the Church.

In the ideal setting life proceeds best when the two kinds of forces are evenly balanced. That’s as true of institutions as it is of individuals. There are times when we are doing things, actively engaged with others, giving of ourselves in service—this is energy flowing outward. But all that needs to be balanced with times when we pull ourselves together, work for some inner unity and peace. That’s what events like the annual retreat and your desert days are about. The outward and inward forces need to be balanced for each to support and strengthen each other.

Alas, we know that most of the time that doesn’t happen in life; emphasis usually tips in one direction or the other. We can get so caught up in activity, that we can almost completely neglect unifying issues. On the other hand, we can get so fixated on ourselves or on our own issues, that we give of ourselves meagerly. We always need to be looking for more balance. That’s good to remember on a feast like the Ascension of Jesus today. This feast is so outward looking, buoyed by that marvelous command of Jesus in the Gospel: "Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature." In the very same breath let’s also remember the words: "strive to preserve the unity of the Spirit through one bond of peace: one body and one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all." And as Benedictines who love moderation we want to see a good balance between the two forces in the Church and in our own lives.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter by Fr. Matthias Neuman, OSB

Readings: Acts 10:25-48; 1 Jn 4:7-10; Jn 15:9-17

I’m currently listening to a course from the Teaching Company entitled "Turning Points in American History." It’s certainly been a learning experience; the lecturer deals with some episodes that I’ve never even heard of before, like the eradication of hookworm disease in the American south in the first decades of the twentieth century. The lecturer frequently refers to a theme that often crops up: namely, that the study of history is the study of surprises. So often things happen that no one ever planned on, and yet everything changes because of it. That certainly holds true for the events in today’s first reading from the Book of Acts.

The author of the Book of Acts stresses several times how shocked and surprised the Jewish Christians (the circumcised believers) were when they saw that God’s Spirit also came down on Gentiles in the same way as they themselves had received it. "The circumcised believers were astounded that the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Gentiles also." That same process will be repeated and described several times in the Book of Acts. This turning point, the acceptance of Gentiles into the fledgling Christian community, was one of those surprises that no one saw coming. It ranks as one of the greatest turning points in the history of Christianity.

The passage that we heard today also makes it seem as if the circumcised believers accepted this change readily and even joyfully. But other passages in the New Testament give the impression that it didn’t happen so smoothly. We know for example of that crucial meeting in Jerusalem between community leaders there and envoys from Antioch over what aspects of the Jewish law these Gentile Christians were required to follow. One gets the impression that there were sharp differences of opinion. Then, too, there is that famous passage in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, where Paul writes of how he had to confront Peter because he was backsliding on the issue and caving in to Jewish Christians. "When Cephas (Peter) came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction." (2:11-12) Paul goes on to describe how he criticized Peter’s action right in front of the whole Christian community there. No, change was a little harder than today’s passage seems to say.

It does raise a question for us: how do we deal with religious change, especially that which comes very suddenly like at the Second Vatican Council? It’s not an easy task. Many years ago I read a little book entitled Managing Change in the Church (1974). It was written by Douglas Johnson, who was an organizational manager for the Churches of Christ. This book opened my eyes like never before about how church leaders need to have a whole bevy of skills to lead a community through a process of change. I knew right then why the years after Vatican II were so difficult. Practically no one in the Catholic Church was trained in any of those skills. (Seminaries have made some improvements since then.)

The challenge of coping with religious change can weigh heavy on individuals. I think it’s good to remember that dealing with religious change is itself a religious issue. Beyond what we like or dislike about any particular religious words or actions, there remains the issue: am I really doing my best to serve God? If we keep that thought as our touchstone, then we can make our way through the adaptation process involved in any religious change.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Homily for 5th Sunday of Easter by Fr. Matthias Neuman, OSB

Readings: Acts 9:26-31; 1 Jn 3:18-24; Jn 15:1-8

The Bible contains some marvelous passages that try to express the whole of one’s religious belief and actions in a very succinct way. For example, in the prophecy of Micah: "This is what the Lord requires of you: to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God." (6:8) Or again in the Letter of James: "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world." (1:27) And there’s one in today’s reading from the first Letter of John: "God’s commandment is this: that we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another." Oh, would that it were so simple. Lately I’ve been going through my notes and files, culling out lots of things (student grade sheets and hand-written notes that even I can’t read anymore) and throwing them away. When I look at all the topics in my notes, topics that I have taught in theology courses or given retreats and workshops about, it’s pretty clear that "being a Christian" has become a lot more complicated than those little thumbnail summaries would have us believe. And that’s just dealing with issues in systematic theology; lots of other areas of religious disciplines would contribute their own concerns and problems.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. It’s in the very nature of things to become more complex as they move on in time, s they evolve and change. For example, cars used to be relatively simple; it once was fairly easy to go out and work on an engine....until they started to put those computer chips in all over the place. Or again. There is nothing that strikes more fear in the hearts of parents of young children than when the child receives a present, a toy, that has imprinted on the box: Some assembly required. (I like that cartoon where a father is holding a list of Assembly Instructions and the first one reads: Get a degree in mechanical engineering.) You used to be able to go out and buy a telephone, bring it home, plug it in and use it right away. Now you buy a telephone and with it you receive a thick instruction book about all the things you have to pre-set before you can use the phone. It’s in the very nature of things to become more complex. Unfortunately that applies to religion as well.

But I would still maintain that those short summaries serve a very useful purpose. That purpose is this: when we get overwhelmed, confused, or conflicted by the complexity of a religious issue, these short sayings become safety grips to hold on to. We can say, "I can’t understand why this happens" and emotionally get tied in knots. The complexity is simply too much to sort out now. Then it’s helpful to grab on to one of these succinct summaries and say: "This is God’s command: believe in Jesus Christ and love one another." That can help to get you through. In a way that’s why we have some of the posters we do on our walls. I have one such poster that hangs on the wall by my work desk and computer. I’ve had it for years. It shows a part of the old city wall in Lucerne, Switzerland, along with part of the old medieval city center with the saying: "In solitude one lives in all ages." It’s hard to explain, but through the years, through class preparations, writing articles, reflecting on spiritual direction problems that picture and saying helped me many times. Maybe sometime when we are wondering about the complexities of "being a Christian," when we find ourselves swamped by some religious problem, just think of today’s maxim: "God’s commandment is this: that we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another." Maybe that will be enough to help us get through. Just another of God’s little gifts.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

May Message from Jesus

My dear apostles, be assured that the Father blesses your work. You may not see the blessings that are given to your work. You may not see the advances that come for the Kingdom because of your work. But the Father blesses both the servant and the service, day after day. Remember that without the full knowledge of the Father’s plan, you lack the ability to evaluate the impact Heaven is achieving through your service. Dear apostles, so committed to Me, please trust that the Savior is bringing about exactly what is needed for the Father. Serve on and I will continue to bring you courage when you need courage. I will bring you strength when you need strength. Please do not be tempted to think that there is only a limited amount of strength or courage and that you will run out of these things one day. I, looking through time, watched you serving Me faithfully, and from the cross I obtained every possible grace that you would need. If you have a struggle tomorrow, then you know that I have already obtained the grace for you to both endure it and overcome it. By overcoming it I do not mean that you will not suffer because, as you know, your King suffered. No, that is not what I mean. We are working together and we are suffering together. I suffered on the cross and you honor My suffering as you suffer through your life. Truly, I say to you, that when I suffered on the cross I honored your suffering and created for you a way. We are humble in suffering, dear apostles. We are humble in service. And when you come to Me and I present you to the Father as a faithful servant, you will be humble in the great triumph that will be ours to share for eternity. I am with you. I will not leave you to suffer alone.