Better homilies, better readers: That’s the ticket

VATICAN CITY — The need for better homilies and the importance of lectors carefully, slowly and clearly proclaiming the word have been insistently recurring themes at the world Synod of Bishops on the Bible.

Auxiliary Bishop Anton Leichtfried of Sankt Polten, Austria, told the synod yesterday that for too many Catholics, going to Mass is like standing near a train station: every once in a while, a train whips by — the Sunday Scripture readings.

A Franciscan Friar at Rome's Termini Train Station (CNS photo/Max Rossi, Reuters)

A Franciscan Friar at Rome's Termini Train Station. (CNS photo/Max Rossi, Reuters)

“The readings of the Sacred Scripture will pass quickly by the ears and eyes of the faithful who cannot get on board and stay on board,” he said.

Bishop Leichtfried asked the synod to suggest that all Catholics read at least the Gospel for themselves before going to church. And that those who preach really take on board the fact that their Sunday homily is probably the only Biblical reflection most Catholics will hear all week.

CNS Bible Blog: Judith, Chapter 8 — Fighting for right

By Uta Sievers
Special to Catholic News Service

I sat down with the Book of Judith and started reading Chapter 8. Following what is often described as an Ignatian method for reading and praying with the Scriptures, I took a step inside the story. (At the end of this post, you will find a video with Jesuit Father James Martin, associate editor of America magazine, giving a step-by-step explanation of Ignatian contemplation.)

Uta Sievers

I am Judith. Sadness has been with me for the last three years and four months. The man I love, my husband, has died unexpectedly. Too soon. I now live in a tent on the rooftop of my house. It’s hot in there. I pray, I fast. My sadness is physical. My clothes are black. They cover my pain. Now I have so much time for myself. Time to spend with God.

I pray, I fast. I ask. I listen. The moment will come. God has planted a forest of fast-growing nurture-trees within me. I have enough energy to explode.

Something in me calls me with a low, gentle voice. I am prepared.

I explode in bursts: first, when the Elders make plans. Oh, the anger! I knew anger could be good thing. It got me into doing my own planning. And then I told them: “You can’t play with God like this! You bet your lives and those of your people on him interfering in the next five days. Are you mad?? God will act when the time has come, and there is no way for us to know when that is. I know you wanted to protect the people from the worst when you told them not to surrender the city but wait for another five days. That was the right direction. No good will come from us surviving in slavery, while the enemy gets to Jerusalem and destroys the temple. Not surrender, but action will save us. I am going to try something…. Just let me do my thing and you’ll see.”

When did I know what to do? Much earlier. On my rooftop. The knowledge flowed through my body day in and day out, through my prayers. It felt very natural. That was then, this is now. I rise, I get angry, I act. God is here.

As I step out of the story, I pray for all those who feel called by a small, gentle voice to stand up for what is right.

The Road to Emmaus: The synod’s favorite Bible story

By a huge margin, the Bible story quoted most often during the first week of the world Synod of Bishops on the Bible has been the story of the disciples meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus, said Basilian Father Thomas Rosica, who is briefing English-speaking journalists on the synod speeches.

The Emmaus Icon commissioned by Father Rosica. (CNS photo by Father Thomas Rosica. Used with permission)

Anytime the word “Emmaus” is mentioned in any language or anytime there is a reference to Luke 24:13-35, Father Rosica’s ears perk up. He did one of his post-graduate projects on the story. And, while in Jerusalem in 1990, he commissioned Benedictine Sister Marie-Paul of the Mount of Olives Monastery to paint an icon of the story’s two main scenes.

The reason the story keeps coming up at the synod is because so many bishops and other synod members see it as the perfect example of what the church must do with the Scriptures: discuss them with the faithful, explain them and let them lead people to recognize Jesus.

Father Pasual Chavez Villanueva, superior general of the Salesians, told the synod this morning that the story give precise instructions for how to evangelize the young, emphasizing that it is Jesus who evangelizes through his word and that evangelization takes place by walking alongside people, listening to their sorrows, and then giving them a word of hope and a community in which to live it.

Father Chavez told the synod that today’s young people definitely share with the disciples “the frustration of their dreams, the tiredness of their faith and being disenchanted with discipleship.”

“Young people,” he said, “need a church that walks alongside them where they are.”

Did we all get too greedy?

This week’s Washington Letter takes a look at some of the parallels between earlier economic depressions and today’s financial upheaval.

One often cited concern that led us into this mess is the drive to produce ever increasing income which leads to higher profits, at least on paper. Fueled by a booming housing market and relaxed regulations governing many types of financial activity, incomes grew meteorically.

The quest for more revenue became almost addictive in the era of growing real estate values, which those in the industry said would continue upward for years to come. Although different industries were involved, it’s a similar story that existed prior to the nation’s two most serious economic crises: the panic of 1873 and the Great Depression.

One key factor in the economic decline has been the increased concentration of wealth where the top 1 percent of the U.S. population garnered higher shares of the country’s wealth. It’s what Douglas Astolfi, professor history at St. Leo University, calls “incredible greed.”

But another expert contacted by Catholic News Service suggests one additional segment of American society contributed to our current economic woes: us.

Joan Junkus, associate professor of finance at DePaul University, said the consuming habits of just about everyone helped build debt that many could not afford to pay back. With more defaulting on debt payments, banks and financial institutions got sick.

 Junkus encouraged Americans to step back and look at their lifestyle and ask why they desire to consume more and more.

“I think the conversation for everyone should be more of ‘did we go too far being greedy?’ Ourselves included. In an election year, people want to point the finger at someone. People have a huge amount of (financial) leverage in their own lives that we used to not have.

“Credit cards and home equity loans are part of this. You have this problem where people are leveraging themselves. And why? They’re not doing it to start a business or invest. They’re trying to support a lifestyle.

“(Our debt accumulation) is not so my children have a better life. It’s ‘I really deserve it.’ I think we have to talk about other things in life than consuming.”

Enough said.

CNS Bible Blog: Sibling rivalry and reconciliation

By Michael Kolarcik, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service

The stories recounted throughout Genesis are all about relationships: God and humanity, husband and wife, parent and child, and brothers –- many brothers. It’s interesting to notice the movement from the first set of siblings to those at the end of Genesis. We move from the most violent at the beginning to reconciliation at the conclusion.

First, Cain kills his brother Abel. A son of Noah acts with disrespect to his father in front of his brothers. Ishmael and Isaac become permanently separated (but I like the touch where both of them come together to bury their father Abraham, Gen 25:9). Jacob and Esau compete to the point of threatening death, but become almost reconciled.

Michael Kolarcik SJ

Michael Kolarcik, SJ (Photo by Moussa Faddoul, SJ)

Finally at the end, covering Chapters 37-50, longer than any other family story in Genesis, the story of Joseph and his eleven brothers is mostly about seeking reconciliation.

All because of a special place that Joseph had in his father’s heart, tremendous jealousy swelled up in the older brothers. Joseph received a special tunic from their father and he did not wear the special status well before his brothers or before his parents. The conflict in this family is one each generation must face. How do you treat those who are your equal but more gifted? How do you treat your equals who are less gifted than you? Joseph at seventeen does not yet know how to use the gifts he is given for the service of others. The brothers do not know how to recognize and foster the gifts in their younger brother.

The conflict reached a breaking point. The brothers stripped Joseph of his special tunic, threw him in a pit, sold him to a caravan heading to Egypt and returned the blood-smeared tunic to their father. “Here is a bloodied tunic, see if it is that of your son!”

Lost to his family, Joseph goes through test after test until he emerges as one who has learned to use his gifts for the benefit of others. For this reason he was placed in charge of Pharaoh’s government.

The story might have ended here except that we want to know how these brothers will act if they have to face each other once again. Sure enough, Jacob sends his 10 sons to Egypt in search of food during a famine while keeping the youngest son Benjamin at home. Joseph, who is not recognized by his brothers, forces them to undergo a trial to see whether they too have learned in their lives to care for those weaker than they.

Just as Joseph had undergone two tests (in the pit at the hands of his brothers and in the dungeon at the hand of Potiphar’s wife) so too do the brothers undergo two tests, first with Simeon then with Benjamin. Judah emerges as the one who offers himself to save the life of his youngest brother.

With this sacrifice, Joseph can contain himself no longer and reveals his identity to his brothers with great weeping and joy. As he sends them off to bring their families and their father Jacob to Egypt, Joseph gives to each brother a set of clothing. He gives to them that which they had long ago stripped from him.

The gift of clothing to each and five sets to his brother Benjamin, points to the concrete way Joseph wants to assure his brothers that they are all reconciled once and for all. But it is not easy. In the end, it will be the brothers who finally clothe Joseph after he dies in the clothing of embalmment with the promise to bring his bones back to the promised land.

CNS Bible Blog: Abraham and Isaac, surrender and salvation

By Michael Kolarcik, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service

It may seem very strange to both casual and longtime readers of Scripture that after all God had done with Abraham, the Lord would need to test him yet again (Genesis Chapter 22). Has Abraham not done enough in proving trust and loyalty in the midst of doubt and anguish?

And this is not an ordinary test, but one that struck Abraham at the heart. God asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son, the one whom he loved, yes, Isaac. As you can well imagine, there have been a flurry of interpretations about this test. They range from it being a critique against child sacrifice, to the need for complete obedience, to a call for freedom, and to the challenge of passing the torch of faith on from one generation to the next.

Michael Kolarcik SJ

Michael Kolarcik, SJ (Photo by Moussa Faddoul, SJ)

It is not an easy story to read. It has even been called a “text of terror.” And yet, like so many texts of Scripture, even the most difficult ones may uncover for us a powerful and liberating truth.

There are a few simple observations to be made about the story which can help uncover the meaning of its captivating gaze.

The story of the Sacrifice of Isaac needs to be compared and contrasted with the original call of Abram in Genesis Chapter 12. There God calls Abram to leave his land, his family and his country to go to another unknown land. God promises to Abram many descendants, land to be inherited by them, and all the nations of the earth will consider themselves blessed through Abram.

“Get up and go” is a unique phrase used there. Interestingly, also in our story that same rare phrase appears, “Take your son and get up and go to the land of Moriah to a mountain that I will tell you and offer him there as a burnt offering.” Moreover in the call of Abram we see God speaking to Abram for the first time. In our story, it is the last time God speaks to Abraham. And this is significant. Something in the life of Abraham has reached its zenith.

In the call of Abram, God asks him to leave his past, his familiar land, and even his father in order that something new may take place and be created. In the call, God asks Abram to die to his past so that a new future can be born.

A panel depicting Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac appears in a mural in the parish of St. John Nepomucene Church in Bohemia, N.Y. (CNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic)

A panel depicting Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac appears in a mural in the parish of St. John Nepomucene Church in Bohemia, N.Y. (CNS photo by Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic)

In the end, God asks Abraham to die to his future so that the future, his son Isaac, may become the inheritor of the triple promises. In the sacrifice of Isaac, we can recognize the need for every parent to “let their children go” to follow their own path in life. This is my reading of the test of Abraham. God has begun something new in Abraham which required his unwavering faith at the beginning and now at the end requires his complete surrender. When God saw that Abraham had “surrendered” his son Isaac, both Abraham and his son Isaac were saved.

With Abraham’s successfully passing the test, the promises of descendants, land and blessing are made once again. Sarah his wife dies, and Abraham is left with the task of finding a wife for his son Isaac. Though Isaac is not even mentioned at the end of the story in Genesis 22, almost as if to say, “He really has died to Abraham,” the stories that follow concentrate on Isaac becoming the inheritor of the promises.

Church teachings in your pocket

VATICAN CITY — The U.S.-based Apostolate for Family Consecration is offering bishops attending the world synod on sacred Scripture a free MP3 video player preloaded with commentaries on church teaching.

a logo from the Apostolate for Family Consecration

A logo from the Apostolate for Family Consecration.

The black, pocket-sized video player has more than 45 hours of Cardinal Francis Arinze giving colorful commentaries on Scripture, catechetics, and Vatican II teachings. The Nigerian-born cardinal is prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments.

The gift is part of an wider initiative the international lay movement is promoting during the monthlong synod. They have invited synod bishops to attend a one-and-a-half-hour presentation Oct. 8-10 to hear and ask questions about the movement’s catechetical materials and formation programs.

Apostolate members came to Rome after visiting Hong Kong and Myanmar, where they spoke with church leaders about offering catechetical training to local Catholics and bringing their materials into local dioceses so as to help families bring Scripture into their daily lives.

If you feel left out because you are not a synod bishop, not to worry: many of the apostolate’s materials are available for free online, and videos and audios are easy to download onto your own MP3 player at the apostolate’s Web site, www.familyland.org.

CNS Bible Blog: A rainbow and a covenant for Noah

By Michael Kolarcik, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service

The story of the flood which destroyed almost all life on earth (Genesis Chapter 9) reminds us just how precarious life is even in the midst of a good and beautiful habitat. In the face of so much wickedness and violence, God is said to have regretted the creation of life.

The pattern that we have seen time and time again in Genesis — namely, how the stories present before us our deepest desires as well as our worst fears — is confirmed in the story of the flood. But the last word in this story is not destruction but the promise of life.

Michael Kolarcik SJ

Michael Kolarcik, SJ (Photo by Moussa Faddoul, SJ)

At one point the story seems to end with Noah’s sacrifice and God’s acceptance of the pleasant fragrance of the offering with the promise, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind…” (Gen 8:21).

But the same author who wrote the opening chapter of creation has transformed this divine promise to Noah into the most significant agreement which could be made among humans –- a covenant. God declares the promise to Noah in the form of a covenant. And this is the first of many covenants that we witness in the Torah.

Just as God had blessed humanity with the command to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, so too is Noah given the same blessing (Gen 9:1). Just as God had given vegetation as food to the animals and humans, so too God gives to humanity food; this time the food includes flesh. But there is a limit. “Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (Gen 9:4).

In this changed state of affairs where we live in disharmony between the animal and the human world, humans are commanded to treat life, even the life of animals, with respect. With the covenant of Noah we have a recreation, a new ordering of creation.

A rainbow appears over the desert near Phoenix. (CNS photo by Craig Robinson)

A rainbow appears over the desert near Phoenix. (CNS photo by Craig Robinson)

What is the function of this covenant with Noah? With this covenant a sign is given, the sign of the rainbow. The bow in the clouds is a sign of the covenant. We all know how after a rain storm, with the combination of light and darkness, a refraction of light often gives shape to a splendid display of colors. Every child can take delight in a rainbow. It is a reminder from nature that after the struggle for life there is the possibility of joy and beauty.

The flood story tells us that the rainbow will be a reminder to God never to forget the promise made to Noah, that “never again will all flesh be destroyed by a flood” (Gen 9:11). But the function of the sign of the covenant is to assure humanity that God’s intention in creation is to let life flourish even in the midst of storms.

The covenant with Noah with the sign of the rainbow is a reminder to us of this essential promise on the part of God. The intention of God behind all of creation, with its beauty and even with its storms, is to let life flourish.

Encyclical on the way

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI’s social encyclical is very much alive and is expected to be published before the end of the year, Cardinal Renato Martino told reporters Wednesday.

“The project exists, and at this point it’s certain. We hope the pope can publish it before the end of the year,” Cardinal Martino said at a Vatican press conference.

Sources earlier this year said the encyclical was provisionally titled,  “Caritas in Veritate” (“Charity in Truth,”) and was expected to touch on issues related to social justice and globalization. The encyclical has reportedly been undergoing some revisions, and there was a rumor floating around recently that it wouldn’t be out until next spring.

Cardinal Martino added that the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, of which he’s the president, is working on a document on globalization. He said this would be a more technical document than the encyclical, taking a close look at poverty in the age of a globalized economy.

Meanwhile, the Pontifical Council `Cor Unum,’ which promotes and coordinates Catholic charitable giving, is preparing a separate document on immigration, according to Archbishop Agostino Marchetto, who spoke at the same press conference.

He said the last such document was released in 1992, and there was a need to update it.

Worth a look during the synod

As you follow the world Synod of Bishops on Scripture at the Vatican this month, here are two Web sites that might be worth your time:

– On our synod page we’ve posted a link to a new slideshow of photos by David Maung, who spent a day inside a Mexican prison following the ministry of the Missionary Servants of the Word.  As one of the captions in the photo slideshow notes, nuns from the Missionary Servants offer Bible study several times a week to the prisoners. We hired David to illustrate a synod-related story on how organizations like the Missionary Servants of the Word might be an example for the church as it seeks to find fresh ways to make the Bible important in Catholics’ lives.

– Chris Gunty, associate publisher of the Florida Catholic, which serves most of Florida’s dioceses and its one archdiocese, has launched a new blog on the synod aimed particularly at “what the synod means to you and me.” The latest post (as of this writing) tells how one parish found blessings for its members by organizing a way for the parish to read the Bible in manageable chunks rather than all at once.

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