Thursday, 10 October 2013

Why Paul?

Many of my friends know I am going to be confirmed in the Church in about a week, and probably most of those know that a baptismal or confirmation name is generally taken from a saint, reflecting the character, gifts, interests or aspirations of the confirming person. What is not so public is who I have chosen: Saul of Tarsus, also known as St Paul the Apostle.

I have toyed with various names: St Francis of Assisi, St Francis Xavier, St Augustine of Hippo, St Ignatius of Loyola, etc. Each reflected something that I find in myself or revere: il Poverello had an extraordinary love for people in need, for animals and for God’s creation. Francis Xavier was a brilliant missionary, and a brother Jesuit. Augustine of Hippo was a brilliant theologian without which Christianity would be a very different religion. Ignatius of Loyola is founder of the Jesuits, and gave the world the Spiritual Exercises, a powerful way of spirituality.

Even so, the Apostle Paul has touched me, transformed me, intrigued me and shared much more with me than any of these great saints. All the others have inspired me in some way, or are my companions in some manner, but Paul: far more. What follows is a ramble of why I am taking Paul as my confirmation saint.

My closeness to Paul started with reading about his conversion: I had always been a relatively militant atheist, then I became a theist and subsequently a Christian in quick succession. He had always been a Jew, a “Pharisee of Pharisees,” a persecutor of the Church of God, and extremely zealous for his beliefs. Our conversions both rested on the same single data point: this Jesus fellow, even though we both disliked him and his followers, had really been resurrected – this changed everything.

What this meant for us, both cholerics, was profound: I think cholerics have a tendency to take what is true and important and centre our lives around it to such an extent that it is somewhat uncomfortable for others. We take things too seriously, some say, or we get accusations of extremism. Cholerics have a temperament of intensity: we find it difficult to be lukewarm about things, which drives us in many cases to be extraordinary – the greatest saints, but also the worst sinners, seem to have a strongly choleric vein. In this concrete case, both Paul and I seem to view the facticity of the resurrection of Jesus as something which should either radically change one’s life, or be rejected – for us, there is no middle ground.

Of course, this can be dangerous. Like I said, great saints have been cholerics, and those of our temperament in the population have done enormous good – but at the same time, because of our drive we have also done a great deal of harm. Batman is portrayed as a choleric…but so is the Joker. Like a hot fire, it can be used to melt metal and produce the great metallurgical industry (arguably a good)…or to burn people in the form of napalm (evidently wrong).

Whatever our purpose, cholerics like Paul and I can often be distinguished by our passionate commitment. Now, I do not want to claim that Paul and I are on any similar standing with regards to holiness: clearly this apostle had matured far beyond me by the time he was writing his epistles. Then again, taking Paul’s age at his conversion to be 17, one of his earlier epistles[1] is already at least seventeen years later,[2] so he clearly has a head-start.  But even the differences between us (and there are many) in mind, we have taken implicit vows of obedience to Jesus Christ – it certainly seems counter-cultural for me to gladly say with him: “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” – yet I do. I remember a time where I could not have said it, but I would be someone quizzical if someone said that I should be Christian and not believe that.

Lifestyle attitudes for us tend to come from dogmatic commitment, and for Paul and I there is no doctrine more central than that of grace. Issues surrounding grace have traditionally been what divided Protestants and Catholics (although today there is a post-modern distaste towards institutions, such that less historically grounded Protestant groups find this the sticking point), and Paul is certainly known for being forceful on this issue. He can often been twisted to espouse a perverted form of grace that would put him at odds with Jesus’ teachings on salvation, or he can be taken to extremes such that deny his own words – even so, it is clear that Paul is the apostle of grace. For some clarity as to how sola Gratia has impacted me, see Time in the Evangelical Church.

Although Paul and I are both converts because of something we saw in the resurrection, although we both have strong views on the sufficiency of grace and marked commitment to following Jesus wherever that might take us, and although we share the same temperament, this does not make him unique: an encounter with Christ in a poor person also changed Francis of Assisi. In the sense that we have both been moved by Paul the Apostle and have become converts to the Catholic faith from elsewhere, perhaps Augustine of Hippo and I are more similar.

Yet the manner of approaching matters is similar for Paul and I also, starting even with our pet prides. His pet pride seems to be quite clearly his relationship to wealth: he is content with practically nothing, but even when he effectively has zero to his name, he is still not going to burden any of the churches he has founded. He is glad that people have given him gifts, but sees it more as the Gospel of grace taking root in people’s hearts over and beyond any material gain that he would have. I also am content with very little (although I must say, luxuries such as a computer and internet are ones I value highly – they are very useful in today’s world), and I take a certain pride in not costing much to run. I eat cheaply, I don’t get drinks outside my home, I wear clothes that are all from charity shops (with the exception of my shoes, underwear and socks), I always use my bike or public transport… It’s not the romantic poverty of St Francis – indeed, it’s not even a poverty that precludes material wealth. It only excludes attachment to material things.[3]

The way I am most like Paul, however, is not a personality or personal-history similarity, though. Not only do we see in the resurrection a source of trust in God, or a sign that this man really has heralded the way: we see in Jesus’ resurrection the future. In other words, there is an eschatological dimension to the resurrection which necessitates evangelism, which requires us to go out and proclaim the Word.

This eschatological and thus evangelistic dimension is something I and many of the recent Popes have seen (since at least Paul VI). Something which I admired in the Mass, even for a few months before I thought I could conceivably be Catholic, was that the sacred liturgy still remains, after almost 2000 years, deeply eschatological: for instance, we pray (like the psalms do) that God would not forget his People, neither those living nor those who have fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection. This echoes the worry of the Thessalonians, where Paul addressed the issue of people who died before the second coming (the “parousia”) – there is a sense in both the liturgy and in the first epistle to the Thessalonians that the end is coming, and even though some may have fallen asleep, all of us are living for that future hope that we have in the resurrection of the body. Of this, Christ is the first-fruits, a pointer to the coming time when the world will be set straight by God.

For these reasons, I will take Saul of Tarsus as my confirmation saint: the odd apostle, the practical apostle, the legendary apostle who shaped Christianity and spread it as one of the Church’s greatest evangelists. Interestingly, the reasons Paul is a role model for me are quite similar to the reasons God seems to call me to the Jesuits.

[1] To the Galatians – somewhere in the mid-fifties AD is when I would date it to. I think Philippians was probably his earliest epistle, although 1 Thessalonians might be.
[2] Three from his conversion to the first visit to Jerusalem [cf. Gal. 1:18], fourteen more until the Council of Jerusalem [cf. Gal 2:1], and he must be writing it sometime after that.
[3] This is the essence of the Jesuit vow of poverty – Jesuits are notoriously practically-minded.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Practicality of the Church as Mother

[i]When one is little, one sees one’s mother as practically omniscient. It is not out of experimentation that I trusted my mother when she said not to dip my hand in the boiling water, it was because I have always found her to be a reliable source of knowledge. When invariably I tested something my mother had told me, like that the steaming chocolate cake was far too hot to eat, without exception she turned out to be right. Moreover, my mother is a living repository of knowledge: even when my understanding of theoretical physics far surpasses hers, if I want to know what temperature to roast a chicken at, or the smell of cheap hotels in the Soviet Union, I would make haste to ask my mother.

I have learnt to trust my mother, because even when her answers seem perfectly counter-intuitive (indeed, never surprisingly in such cases) her responses to my questions are dependable. These experiences, at least, I share with the great G.K. Chesterton, who shares similar stories in the last chapter of Orthodoxy. After reviewing all sorts of odd doctrines the Church has and finding them to align, upon reflection, most markedly with reality, he draws the point that:

This… is my reason for accepting the religion and not merely the scattered and secular truths out of the religion. I do it because the thing has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing. All other philosophies say the things that plainly seem to be true; only this philosophy has again and again said the thing that does not seem to be true, but is true.[1]

If you want to know what insights and facts he found that the Church had revealed to him and had turned out to be true against all odds, you ought to read the book – I have never met anyone who has lamented reading Orthodoxy. It is not my task at present to describe his points in summary, but instead to explain my own relationship to the Church as Mother.

I have learnt to trust Mother Church for precisely the same reason I trust my biological mother: both turn out to be right whenever they speak about their area of expertise. For this reason, I have learnt to trust the Church even when she appears to be in doctrinal error, because it always turns out that she is right and I am wrong.[2] Just like my own mother and the warnings about the cake being too hot to eat, I ignore the Church’s teaching more at my own peril than at hers. It certainly may seem that I am correct in opposing her, but indubitably there comes the time when I realize my error. Rhetorically brilliant counters to her teaching often overlook some crucial piece of data which, when considered, either produces repentance or increased bitterness. The former is appropriate; the latter is dangerous and unfortunately far more common.

Though I have much faith in the teachings of the Church, just like I can have confidence in my mother’s advice, the Church-as-Mother view has recently made me realize something far more interesting: from the fact that I am a child of the Church, and that the Church has other children, it follows that I have siblings – and one thing I have been taught by growing up with a brother is that such a conclusion is as inescapable as it can be unfortunate.

Much as I appreciate my brother most of the time, like any other human, he has faults. He sometimes snores. He wants to play this or that. He acts like he is six even though he is almost sixteen. He shouts across the whole house with no regard to the sleep of others. He is nonetheless my brother, and any plea to deny it would result simply in contradicting reality: I am stuck with him.

In the same way, I am stuck with other annoying Catholics. Were I to be Protestant, I could simply deny the familial bond to anyone outside my church, but if the Church is universal, that is, if the Church is Catholic, her children’s faults are my own family’s faults. Being almost-Catholic for a few months has taught me at the very least that I will not get along very well with a lot of my family – but unlike more fluid churches, in the Catholic Church that means I will have to put up with it. I cannot leave her, because at the end of it all, she is still my Mother.

What conclusion may I draw from this consideration? I must remember the inevitability and finality inherent in the word “brother” and “sister” – they are not terms that I can assign to some people but not to others at whim. Much like biological siblings, the other children of the Church are my own brothers and sisters. I am obliged to recognize this and so treat them accordingly. In fact, just like being true children of Abraham has less to do with the flesh and more to do with imitating his faith, my brothers and sisters in the Church are similarly more my siblings for being in Christ than they ever could be by having inhabited the same womb. This bond is what moves Jesus to say:

            “As you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me.”

[1] Chesterton, G.K., Orthodoxy, Dover Publications, New York, 2004, p. 150.

[2] Doctrinal and moral errors are very distinct – the Church is pure in her teaching, but she is certainly not without sin as a corporate People of God, in her members or in her more structured positions. Indeed, it is the essence of the doctrine of Original Sin that these two are distinct categories: if humans were not sinful, we would not by hypocritical either.

[i] Similar considerations to the ones in this blog post probably apply (in modified form) to God as Father. I have chosen to express it instead in terms of Mother, both to emphasize my relationship with the Magisterial teaching of the Church, in addition to making a more marked point about how even the peskiest member of the Church, even when that member is the priest, bishop or Pope, is not and cannot be grounds for leaving the Church.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

The Road Ahead

This is part IV of a four part series. The others are (in order): Road from Unbelief, Time in the Evangelical Church, The Road to Rome.

Quo Vadis?
- Latin for "where are you going?" The apocryphal text "Acts of Peter" tells the story of Peter asking Jesus this as Peter flees the danger of crucifixion in Rome. Jesus responds "Romam vado iterum crucifigi" - I am going to Rome to be crucified again. Peter then musters the bravery to return and face martyrdom.

The event probably never happened, but the question is one that Jesus asks, and by extension, the Church asks, of each Christian. Quo vado? Where am I going? Where are we going? These are questions to be answered in our own personal way, but not based solely on our own impulses and inclinations (for often these contradict or are wrong), but on where Jesus calls us.

This language of calling is the language of vocation, from the Latin “vocare” which means to call. So what is my vocation? In the early church, and actually throughout most of Christian history before the 16th century, the highest calling was to some form of religious life: a monastery, the priesthood, etc. This, from fairly early on, usually implied celibacy, and it is of interest to note that various martyrdoms among Christian women were because they refused to marry. Yet what of today? The major division for men to consider first is between marriage and the priesthood.[1]

Though Holy Matrimony has been recognized informally as one of the core sacraments since at least as early as St Augustine of Hippo, and despite relatively strong statements about marriage theologically in the New Testament (though not incredibly abundant – the strongest being Ephesians 5), some critics from within the Church (such as Erasmus of Rotterdam) and sometimes dissenters from outside the Church (particularly the Protestant reformers – though these were primarily opposed to clerical celibacy and monasticism) made moves to re-assert the beauty and holiness of the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Now, the reformers did not recognize Holy Matrimony as a sacrament, and this has led to the most elevated view of marriage surviving nowadays as being distinctly Catholic. The Catholic view is reasonably well summarized by a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

""The intimate community of life and love which constitutes the married state has been established by the Creator and endowed by him with its own proper laws.... God himself is the author of marriage." The vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator. Marriage is not a purely human institution despite the many variations it may have undergone through the centuries in different cultures, social structures, and spiritual attitudes. These differences should not cause us to forget its common and permanent characteristics. Although the dignity of this institution is not transparent everywhere with the same clarity, some sense of the greatness of the matrimonial union exists in all cultures. "The well-being of the individual person and of both human and Christian society is closely bound up with the healthy state of conjugal and family life." (1603)

Holy Orders, for better or for worse, has been considered holy since the very beginning. Take this quote from St Ignatius of Antioch, third bishop of Antioch and a disciple of St John the Apostle, as well as by some accounts directly appointed by St Peter the Apostle himself:

Follow your bishop, every one of you, as obediently as Jesus Christ followed the Father.  Obey your priests too as you would the apostles; give your deacons the same reverence that you would to a command of God.  Make sure that no step affecting the Church is ever taken by anyone without the bishop’s sanction. The sole Eucharist you should consider valid is one that is celebrated by the bishop himself, or by some person authorized by him.  Where the bishop is to be seen, there let all his people be; just as, wherever Jesus Christ is present, there is the Catholic Church.
(Letter to the Smyrneans 8:1-2)

Evidently, Ignatius is using a lot of hyperbole. However, the idea I want to get across presently is that from very early – this is written in about 110 AD[2] – the priesthood and religious life was held in high esteem. Now, all validly baptized Christians are part of the Church, and therefore partake of the “priesthood of all believers” – but this is a particular priesthood. Just as Israel was said by God to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6) yet still the Levites were selected as being the tribe with the particular priesthood. Strictly speaking, upon ordination one is ordained to the presbyterate, [3] and from there the presbyter (here on, simply priest) partakes not of their own human priesthood, but in the High Priesthood of Jesus Christ. For human priests could not and still cannot offer true and proper sacrifice – but Jesus can and did. The priest offers not his own sacrifice, but that of Christ, re-presented for the edification of all the faithful. Furthermore, the priest engages in other aspects of the ministry of Christ through various other sacraments, such as the sacrament of penance where the priest in persona Christi becomes a visible sign of the absolution of sin, though the absolution of sin itself is always done by God.

One area where the Church would benefit from a deeper theology of women, as Pope Francis has called for, is in the renewed emphasis on female vocation to religious life. It has been my experience – and from anecdotes, that of some others – that the procedure for discernment of vocation to religious life for women is greatly impoverished in comparison to that for men. What does this suggest? In my view, it promotes the idea that the real crux and foundation for the Church is the presbyterate, which in turn leads to an outcry over a male-only priesthood. This is not the correct place to discuss this issue, so I will merely say that this deeper theology of femininity and women in the Church is sorely needed at present, to fully express the truth that priests are only one part of a very multi-faceted Church. The Catholic Church is blessed by God with the laity of all stripes and forms (single and married), the Brothers and Sisters, the priests (together with bishops) and deacons. Having noted that there is a very important part to play for women, I will now set aside the issue of particularly female vocations, because this is to be a blog post about my own calling – so I must omit female vocations as well as the single life (as part of the laity), to which I am by no means called.

If becoming Catholic was the second most difficult decision I have yet taken, this must be the first: am I to follow Jesus in married life or the priesthood? This issue is one I have been considering since April 2013, and it can rightly be said I have even been struggling with this since around June or July 2013. Like always, these matters are intensely personal and coloured by my experience. I surely approach this issue differently as a convert – and more particularly still as a convert with my unique background – to someone who has embraced the Catholic faith since childhood.

If it is not clear from my discussion of both the sacraments of Holy Matrimony and Holy Orders, there is no distinction for me in how holy one is when compared to the other. Yes, I am aware of the rulings of the Council of Trent on this issue (which declared that Holy Matrimony is not above Holy Orders) – but that merely reinforces my point, that both are on equal footing. If not based on which path is holier, why the difficulty?

My circumstances impact how I approach this question in all sorts of ways. I had planned to get married ever since I left primary school.[4] I have had a girlfriend for close to two years. I barely know other than from theory what a priest does. I am completely unsure I can handle celibacy – both from the natural impulses I have and because I have been variously told that it can be very lonely at times. I have no enormous taste for liturgy. I also am very much in support of lay people realizing and taking hold of their crucial part in the Church – the universal vocation to love and holiness, the commission to make disciples of all nations, and many other callings – and that message would seem hindered if I was a cleric, not a lay person.

My aspirations also impact how I approach the matter. I grow ever more uncomfortable with my affluence – even though it is my parents’ and not my own – and material riches, particularly in light of Jesus’ call to sell everything, give to the poor and follow him. I aspire to be able to love chastely, give of my time and care freely and not be required to dedicate myself mostly to the small group of my wife and kids. And I want to say fully to God “not my will, but yours be done” – especially in the call to missions. I deeply desire these things, and always for the greater glory of God.

For the close reader, the choice would seem clear: most of my reasons for marriage are circumstantial or arise from the fear of being unable to take on celibacy (that precious but difficult charism) and fear of not being able to be used as I want to be, on my terms, in the presbyterate. In contrast, the reasons for the priesthood seem eternal though still personal.

Still, the solution could not yet be trivially arrived at, for these paths are both callings in the Christian life. One ought not to assume that marriage or the priesthood are defaults, for both are things to which the Lord calls or does not. We are not entitled to marry another person – marriage is therefore not a right – nor are we entitled to the priesthood, which is also not a right. Therefore the question is – and it should always be this question – am I called to one of these paths in life?

The reader that knows how the Church probably already knows the answer, because my list of aspirations closely mirrors the vows of the Society of Jesus. Jesuits take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, as well as a fourth vow of obedience to the Pope in matters of missions. If that hint was too subtle, that deeper desire to do things for the glory of God reflects one of the mottos of St Ignatius of Loyola and by extension of the Jesuits which he founded: “Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.”

Am I called to the Jesuits? This question which I struggled with for about two months was essentially answered one Sunday. What happened was this: for about a month when I was considering the issue, the Sunday Mass gospel readings had all been of Jesus calling and sending the apostles, other disciples, etcetera, and one week even the Old Testament passage also - it was of God calling Elisha to take over from Elijah. Finally I was sitting in the parish of St Ignatius in Toowong (notable because this parish is run by the Jesuits) for the closing Mass of the ACSA conference, and once again, the reading was of Jesus calling to his particular service. Could I say anything other than “your will be done”?

For these reasons and with this calling from the Lord, I have decided to pursue entry into the Society of Jesus to become a priest of Jesus Christ. It has been confirmed by many people, some saying I pray like a priest, one even going so far as to say, perhaps not so jokingly, that I have all the makings of a Pope.[5] Do my fears remain? In part. I come to Jesus much like St Peter did when he saw Jesus walking on water:

“He spoke to them, saying, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.” And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus; but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased.

Instead of walking on water, I walk to the priesthood. Instead of sinking in water, I may begin to sink in hesitation. But God, being patient and rich in kindness, nonetheless says to me “O you of little faith! Why do you doubt?” Then my Lord helps me out of my uncertainty with the hand of assurance that truly he is with me until the end of the age. May I yet fear? By no means! For God who has brought me thus far can be trusted to equip those he calls! The Lord does not call people to be light in the world and yet keep them in darkness.
It is true that I am not entirely sure what the future will hold. In the short term, I am called to finish my university degree and perhaps even some further studies, all the while doing my part to help edify the University of Queensland’s Newman Catholic Society. Each Christian, after all, is called to be a beacon of hope and of the love of God wherever they find themselves. In the long term things are even more uncertain, since in taking vows I relinquish control and surrender (in a new way) completely to Jesus Christ who called me where I go. I must hence live by faith, and not by sight, as it was said so long ago. May I live ever more ad majorem Dei gloriam!

Written on the Feast of St Bartholomew the Apostle,
24th of August 2013 AD
Brisbane, Australia

Published on the Feast of St Thérèse of Lisieux,
1st of October 2013 AD
Brisbane, Australia.

[1] Vocations to be a Brother or a single lay person exist, though these days these are found less frequently. Perhaps this is a sad thing, because both roles enrich the Church – but it is a fact in present times.

[2] Some scholars believe that this is even earlier than some of the canonical documents now recorded in the New Testament – though this is by no means a majority view, and the consensus seems to be that one of the Johannine texts is the last, dated around the end of the first century. If not a Johannine text, then one of the epistles of Peter instead – sometimes II Peter is dated to around 150 AD.

[3] For those wondering why the distinction is made, this more technical term lies behind the word “elder” in many translation of the New Testament. It is therefore properly understood as being entirely biblical. There are historical and cultural reasons for the use of a different word in many early church documents, but the concept is nonetheless identical.

[4] When I was in year 3 or 4 in England, at Manorcroft, I remember telling my best friend James Alston that I did not want to get married, though I would probably have a girlfriend. My childhood idea of girlfriends was one of companionship, and as it was most of my friends were boys, so having a girl companion did not seem a top priority. I also recall, though I know not when this was, asking my parents why people who are dating love each other, but married people do not. But this attitude of my childhood left me as I went to Spain, and by the time I was in first year of ESO (secondary school) I reckoned I would marry.

[5] That is not, of course, my intention. Why would I join a religious order that asked me to vow not to ambition for higher office?