Monastery Visit/Retreat July 6-12, 2022

 This was an unusual visit in several ways.

For one thing, there was less of the usual daily routine and more special events. For another, I had to take a break and go home for a memorial service, and I was away from the monastery for about 28 hours on Saturday and Sunday.

As I may have posted in past years, the normal routine involves lunch and dinner taken in the refectory without talking, while one of the monks reads from a book — except on Sunday evenings when dinner is either in the cloister yard or in the chapter room, with conversation among those present.

This year, however, a man was admitted to the novitiate on Friday, with a festive lunch following in the cloister yard. The on Saturday a novice took temporary vows, followed by another cloister yard lunch. To top it all off, on Monday, another monk took his permanent vows‚ attended by maybe 180 family and friends, followed by a reception in the courtyard and a big lunch. Since Monday was the Feast of St. Benedict, we also had a festive outdoor dinner that evening. The result was that I got two lunches (Thursday and Tuesday) and three dinners (Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday) in the refectory with silence and table reading. Breakfasts were also a bit unusual. The monastery is in the midst of bringing in new kitchen staff, and the usual eggs were not available. Cereals, breads and toppings, and juices were available. Breakfast is always assembled by each individual from the available materials.

All the festive meals increased my time for visiting with the monks but cut into the time available for reading and pondering the books I had brought for my retreat — Entering the Twofold Mystery: On Christian Conversion, by Erik Varden, and Life is Messy, by Matthew Kelly. The Kelly book is based on a time of great difficulty in his life and basically encourages us not to let ourselves be defeated by the bad stuff. It’s based on his journals from the time, and feels a bit repetitive.

Varden was abbot of a Trappist monastery in England,* and the book comes from talks he gave to the monks. It may seem unconnected with life “in the world,” but there are lessons to be applied. One is about obedience. Monks don’t just have to do what the abbot tells them. They also should obey one another. It’s a good point for all of us: when someone needs us to do something, we should be willing to help. My other major takeaway has to do with “murmuring,” which St. Benedict considered one of the worst vices in a monk. It can undermine a community because instead of speaking to the abbot or the person being complained about, the murmurer sows bad feelings among others, thereby creating disunity. When we resent what someone else gets, when we focus on what we wish we had instead of realizing the good we do have, if we start grumbling about it, it can disrupt the groups we’re part of. So we should be aware of our feelings of envy or discontent.

All in all it was a very worthwhile and enjoyable visit/retreat.

*He has since become a bishop in his native Norway.

Insurrection: Police and Military Participation

The participation of police officers and active duty military personnel in the insurrection of January 6 is not entirely surprising, given what we already knew about the presence of racist, white supremacist, and pro-trump elements among their ranks. Nevertheless, it is a serious problem. People sworn to protect and defend the Constitution took it upon themselves to decide that the duly consituted legislative branch of the United States government was a “domestic enemy” of the government and that it was their right and duty to attempt to overthrow it by force and violence. They had no orders coming through their chain of command. They had only their personal belief.

How did it come about, and how can it be prevented in the future?

It seems to me that a large part of the problem may be a lack of education in civics. I could be wrong, but my impression is that most American schoolchildren do not receive the kind of education in civics which was commonplace sixty years ago. From the early years, they learned, in progressively growing detail, that America was founded on principles of God-given universal human rights, that our system of governments, federal and state, was designed to protect those rights by limiting governmental power and distributing it among different levels and institutions. Nevertheless, each element of government was authoritative within its own sphere. Our Constitution was studied as a work of genius, balancing various interests in light of a keen awareness of human propensities to evil. In high school, the education was capped with a course specifically in American government, which presented the design and function of our constitutional system in detail. Such an education should prevent all but the most gullible from going rogue as far too many of our men and women in uniform seem to have done.

Recently we have seen the 1619 Project proclaiming to all and sundry that racism and white supremacy are what it means to be an American — precisely what many of the insurrectionists seem to believe. I disaagree with that view of America. I say that America as a nation has always embraced the principles of the Declaration of Independence, even when we have failed to live up to them, when some Americans ignored or denied them, when others compromised them. I do not want future police officers and soldiers to be taught from their earliest days in school that America means white supremacy.

We must overcome the deep mistrust of our system of government which allowed insurrection to flourish among people who were sworn to defend the Constitution but clearly did not understand what that oath meant. Certainly, the military and the police do not lose their right to have an opinion about what is best for our country and to vote for the candidates of their choice, but no citizen has the right to resort to force and violence to attempt to impose their opinion, much less one who has taken an direct oath to protect and defend the Constitution.

Of course, a proper education in American history and civics is essential for the entire population. I have no doubt other factors played a part in the insurrection, including racism and certain strains of evangelicalism, and it is important to deal with those as well, but I think understanding of and respect for our constitutional system is foundational.

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Sunday Scriptures — OT A 15-17, Jul. 12, 19, 26, 2020

I wrote the following a week ago but never got around to posting it. Nevertheless, I hope you’ll find it worth reading.

First Readings — Isaiah 55:10-11;  Wisdom 12:13, 16-19;  1 Kings 3:5, 7-12

Second Reading — Romans 8:18-23;  26-27;  28-30

Gospel — Matthew 13:1-23;  24-43;  44-52

There could hardly have been a better time for me to have missed posting on the Sunday readings than the past couple of weeks. Not only are the second readings for all three Sundays from close together in the Epistle to the Romans, but, more importantly, the gospel readings present the entirety of a section in Matthew which may be called “Parables of the Kingdom.”

There are seven parables and they can be categorized in different ways, I suppose. I see four groups:

  1. sower and seed (first parable);
  2. mustard seed, yeast (second and third parables);
  3. hidden treasure, pearl of great price (fifth and sixth parables); and
  4. weeds and wheat, net cast into the sea (fourth and seventh parables).

The first parable is about the sower and the seed. The type of ground the seed falls on — path, rocky ground, weeds and thorns, good soil — determines its growth or lack of growth. God’s word — above all, Jesus, but also the gospel of salvation — is effective for the growth of God’s Kingdom to the extent that those who hear it are receptive. The Kingdom of God relies on people who internalize the word then spreading it in their turn.

The second group of parables tell of the internal dynamism of the Kingdom. If it is true that believers must evangelize. the Kingdom of God’s growth also take place because of an unseen power which energizes it, just as the mustard seed seems to grow on its own and a bit of yeast has power to leaven a batch of dough. This unseen power is none other than the Holy Spirit. (See the second readings for July 12 and 19.)

The third group tell us the the Kingdom of God is worth more than everything else. That  is because it brings eternal happiness with God and the rest of the members of the Kingdom in a life beyond our present one. Next to that any good thing we can enjoy in this life is only temporary and worthless. That doesn’t mean that it is easy to sell everything to buy the hidden treasure or the pearl of great price. There could be some really good stuff, there could be some stuff of great sentimental value. But in principle, we have to be ready to let it go, if necessary. And of course, we can’t take it with us when we go. On the other hand, it is also true that most people get to keep most of what they have even as members of the Kingdom. For them, it’s a question of understanding priorities.

The fourth group tell of God’s patience as well as of a judgment at the end of time. As the first reading on July 19 makes clear, God is lenient and clement. Unlike plants, which can’t change in midlife to another species, humans can repent and go from being “weeds” to “wheat.” That’s what God wants for all of us. Nevertheless, we are free. We can reject him. Jesus uses the image of fire to indicate how undesirable it is to end up as weeds or as what is bad from the net. I don’t think this has to be taken literally. More importantly, I think many people whom seem to be rejecting God are not rejecting the true God but an image which may come from a literalist reading of certain passages of the Bible (Atheists can be the most fundamentalist of fundamentalists.), or feel-good stories told to children about a god who always protects us from harm which most adults learn to treat as fables, or scare stories of an angry god designed to keep people on the straight and narrow.

After all the parables, there is a final comment that “every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.” Perhaps the wisdom of Solomon (see first reading for July 26) is needed to know which to bring out when, but Jesus insisted he was fulfilling te Law, not abolishing it. Christians retained the Old Testament, and after 2,000 years we have retained the New as well. We also look to many writings of those who have lived and worked since the time of Jesus. But the Church is not static. We are always adapting to changing times and cultures as we attempt to present the word of God to people everywhere.

Did John Roberts Deliver the 2020 Election to Donald Trump?

People who are pro-life generally believe that abortion is wrong in all or most cases because it involves the willful killing of a human being and that Roe v. Wade, which ruled that obtaining an abortion is the constitutional right of any pregnant woman, is wrong both morally and as a matter of law. Most would agree with Justice Thomas, that nothing in the Constitution was intended to create such a right or did so inadvertently. Therefore, we believe that the decision in Roe v. Wade should be reversed.

In light of the number of lives taken by abortion, we see abortion as one of the greatest evils of our time, and reversing Roe is a high priority. For many, it is the highest priority. A few of us see facts such as the decades-long decline in rates of abortion and the fact that States could still allow abortion even if Roe is reversed as reasons not to make it the single determining factor in how we vote.

It had seemed that with the appointment of Justice Kavanaugh there was a solid “conservative” majority on the Court — Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh — which would reverse Roe when it got the chance. That belief could lead some pro-lifers to decide to base their vote for president on factors other than the appointment of conservative Supreme Court justices. Now CJ Roberts has called that belief into question, if not contradicted it.

In the Louisiana case just decided, June Medical Services, L.L.C. v. Russo, CJ Roberts found a Louisiana law unconstitutional, when only four years ago he thought a similar Texas law was constitutional. He claims that he still believes that the Court was wrong four years ago when it disagreed with him. But now he followed the decision he disagrees with and became the swing vote to strike down theLouisiana law. He did so based on a principle called “stare decisis,” which he describes as follows:

The legal doctrine of stare decisis requires us, absent special circumstances, to treat like cases alike. 

It has long been “an established rule to abide by former precedents, where the same points come again in litigation; as well to keep the scale of justice even and steady, and not liable to waver with every new judge’s opinion.” 

Stare decisis is not an “inexorable command.” Ramos v. Louisiana, 590 U. S. ___, ___ (2020) (slip op., at 20) (internal quotation marks omitted). But for precedent to mean anything, the doctrine must give way only to a rationale that goes beyond whether the case was decided correctly. The Court accordingly considers additional factors before overruling a precedent, such as its adminstrability, its fit with subsequent factual and legal developments, and the reliance interests that the precedent has engendered. See Janus v. State, County, and Municipal Employees, 585 U. S. ___, ____–____ (2018) (slip op., at 34–35).

Stare decisis principles also determine how we handle a decision that itself departed from the cases that came before it. In those instances, “[r]emaining true to an ‘intrinsically sounder’ doctrine established in prior cases better serves the values of stare decisis than would following” the recent departure. Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Peña, 515 U. S. 200, 231 (1995) (plurality opinion). Stare decisis is pragmatic and contextual, not “a mechanical formula of adherence to the latest decision.” Helvering v. Hallock, 309 U. S. 106, 119 (1940).

If he feels bound to follow a precedent he thinks is wrong and that is only four years old, how can he overrule a precedent that he thinks is wrong (if he does) and that is 47 years old? There can be grounds for overruling a precedent, as stated in the quotes. But would any of them apply if Roe v. Wade were directly challenged?

Is Roe difficult to administer? There have been numerous cases with respect to laws States have enacted. The question is whether they are the power os States to regulate abortion or whether they place an “undue burden” on women seeking abortion.

Are there new “factual and legal developments?” There are none I can see that call Roe into question.

As for “reliance interests,” certainly people have grown accustomed to having a legal right to an abortion.

Was there an “intrinsically sounder” doctrin established by a previous line of cases? No. This was a new area, not one in which previous decisions were set aside?

Maybe CJ Roberts could find the distinction between the right of women to abort their unborn children and the right of States to legislate standards of safety and to protect viable fetuses is too difficult to administer. But there is certainly no guarantee that he would do so. And apart from that, what he says here suggests that he would feel compelled to uphold the precedent of Roe v. Wade in any case that sought to overturn it.

To me, the decision just shows that you can never be sure how a justice will vote, so voting for a candidate just so he’ll nominate a conservative to the Court is no guarantee of getting the decision you want. And even if Roe is reversed, that won’t end abortion. Trump is so terribly unfit for office that we have to get rid of him; but I still can see how some people could decide in the light of CJ Roberts’ decision that they have to vote for Trump.

The result is that for pro-lifers who believe that overturning Roe v. Wade outweighs all other considerations, voting to reelect Donald Trump becomes an absolute obligation. Before this decision, they could have thought that there was a solid majority already on the Court and based their decision on other issues. But by clearly signaling his unreliability, Chief Justice Roberts has certainly delivered a number of voters to Donald Trump. The question is whether the election will be close enough for their votes to decide the outcome in a State or States which will change the electoral college majority.

Sunday Scriptures — OT A 13, Jun. 28, 2020

First Reading — 2 Kings 4:8-11, 14-16a

Second Reading — Romans 6:3-4, 8-11

Gospel — Matthew 10:37-42

I see two messages in last Sunday’s readings. One is in the first part of the gospel and it goes along with the second reading. The other message is in the second part of the gospel, and the first reading illustrates it.

A Prophet’s Reward

Jesus tells us that those who receive us receive him and the Father, and since our baptism makes us prophets, those who receive us will have their reward. The story from Second Kings gives an example. The woman of Shunem was hospitable toward Elisha. She knew he was a man of God, and she wanted to be generous toward him. She wasn’t expecting anything in return. But she received a reward. And it was not just a small token of gratitude. It was probably the greatest thing a woman could hope for in that culture and that time: a baby son.

This reminds us of what Jesus says in the parable of the Judgment of the Gentiles: any good deed done to the least of his brothers is done to him and will obtain eternal blessedness for the benefactor. Not only does this encourage us to imitate the kindness of the woman of Shunem; it also gives us a reason to expect that God will give his reward to everybody who shows kindness to us.

Losing One’s Life for Jesus’ Sake

The second reading begins by reminding us that baptism unites us with the death of Jesus in order that we might also have a share in his new, glorified life. That new life isn’t just for the next life, after we die. St. Paul tells us it has already begun: we must be dead to sin and live for God here and now.

When Jesus tells us we must lose our lives for his sake in order to find them, it means the same thing. There are places where persecution of Christians is so bad that people are literally losing their lives for Christ. But for us, it is more metaphorical. We take up our cross and lose our life when we live the life of holiness to which we are called by our baptism. And if the words about not loving parents or family more than Jesus seem startling, demanding, and almost impossible, let’s remember that love is not a zero-sum game. To love Jesus more does not mean loving parents or family less. And we aren’t talking about emotion. We are talking about a conscious choice. If our family members are somehow leading us into a sinful way of life, we need to refuse to follow their lead. If we don’t follow the example of others — whether it’s smoking, having another drink, playing a sport, or anything else, sinful or not — they can feel rebuked, and they can resent it. But we mustn’t let them draw us into bad behavior. Because we still love them, this can feel like carrying a cross. What Jesus is telling us is simply that we don’t give up our Christian way of holiness even if someone we love wants us to.


We should want to be people who are received as representatives of Jesus, as righteous men and women, so that kindness to us is kindness to God. We don’t let others lead us away from Jesus, we lead them to Jesus.

Sunday Scriptures — Corpus Christi A, June 14, 2020

First Reading — Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 14b-16a

Second Reading — 1 Corinthians 10:16-17

Gospel — John 6:51-58 

The feast day formerly called Corpus Christi — and widely still called that — occurred on June 14 this year. In the Roman calendar, it is the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, but the bishops of the United States decided that it was so important to the faith of the people that they transferred it to the Sunday following Trinity Sunday so that all Mass-goers would share the celebration.  During my sophomore year at Georgetown, I was living in a dorm adjacent to the quadrangle where Dahlgren Chapel was. One day a freshman asked me if I went to Mass every day. When I said, “No,” he was amazed, and asked how I could fail to take advantage of the opportunity just outside my door to participate in the sacrifice by which we are redeemed and receive Jesus himself into my body and soul.

Church law requires us to attend Mass every Sunday (or the vigil Mass on Saturday) unless we have serious reason to miss — or we have a dispensation because of a pandemic or the like. But when we realize what a privilege it is to be able to participate in Mass and receive Jesus in Communion, the obligation will not feel like a burden. We want to be there, law or no law. Some of the reasons are found in our readings for today. I say some of the reasons because the Eucharist is so multifaceted, so meaningful, that one could speak for hours without exhausting the topic. But here are some things which the readings tell us.

Manna  When Jesus says he is the true bread which came down from heaven, he is reminding his hearers of what we hear in the first reading. After the Israelites had left Egypt, they wandered for forty years in the desert. What we heard today is part of Moses’ speech to them just before the end of their journey, as they were at the Jordan River, just east of Canaan. Twice he tells the people not to forget  all that the Lord has done for them, and twice he reminds them of the miraculous food God provided for them, a food called manna, which had never been known before. They were absolutely dependent on God for their existence in the desert and fir their arrivsl st the promised land.

Bread of Life  It is the same with us. Jesus tells us that his flesh is true food, and his blood true drink. This is a food previously unknown. Cannibals can eat someone’s body once, but Jesus’ body and blood are made available over and over to the whole world. But unlike the manna in the desert, which sustained physical life, this food gives eternal life. We need this food to reach end end of our journey, life in God’s presence. It’s important to note what Jesus says about those who have the eternal life conferred by eating his flesh and drinking his blood: he will raise us on the last day. We will have a bodily resurrection. People sometimes wonder how this is possible, but we should realize that our bodies are not the same aggregation of atoms and molecules through our life. Atoms come and atoms go,but we are the same person. And the God who created the whole universe can seurely recreate or bodies and join them to our souls.

We sometimes use the phrase, “Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity” to emphasize how completely we receive Jesus in Communion. Jesus only speaks of flesh and blood, but the fact is that it is impossible to separate them from his soul and divinity: in him humanity and divinity are inseparably joined in one person. We receive the entire Jesus in Holy Communion. And this is also why we receive his blood as well as his flesh in the sacred host: the two are inseparable joined in Our Lord’s risen body.

One Body  St. Paul draws out one consequence of our consuming the body and blood of Jesus. We are made one. The Eucharist creates unity among us, creates community. This isn’t just with our fellow parishioners. We are one with the Church around the world. We need to live that basic unity even if we legitimately disagree about questions which the Magisterium of the Church hasn’t settled, or if we disagree about secular issues. The Body and Blood of Christ make us one.

Our unity is necessary because, like the Israelites in the desert, we can’t make it alone. We don’t consecrate the Body and Blood of Christ ourselves; we need the ordained priesthood. We support one another in our difficulties and celebrate our joys. We need to be in community. We need others, and they need us.

There is much more that could be said about the sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood, but what we have in these scriptures make clear what a privilege it is, what a joy it should be, to be able to participate in the Mass and receive the sacrament. It makes us a community, it sustains us on our way to heaven, it gives us resurrection and eternal life. How could anybody prefer something else? We should always remember what God has done and continues to do in this wonderful sacrament.

Sunday Scriptures — Trinity Sunday A, June 7, 2020

First Reading — Exodus 34:4b-6,  8-9

Second Reading — 2 Corinthians 13:11-13

Gospel — John 3:6-8


The most appropriate readings the Church could find to set before us on the Solemnity of the Holy Trinity deal with peace, mercy, kindness, and salvation for eternal life. Although there are other passages which speak more explicitly of the three persons of the Trinity, and we hear some of them in other years, this year’s readings seem to direct us to think about what this God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit means for our lives.

We Can’t Understand

But for starters, lets just look at some of the ways the doctrine has been formulated through the centuries, as recounted by Wikipedia.

In Trinitarian doctrine, God exists as three persons or hypostases, but is one being, having a single divine nature.[81] The members of the Trinity are co-equal and co-eternal, one in essence, nature, power, action, and will. As stated in the Athanasian Creed, the Father is uncreated, the Son is uncreated, and the Holy Spirit is uncreated, and all three are eternal without beginning.[82] “The Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” are not names for different parts of God, but one name for God[83] because three persons exist in God as one entity.[84] They cannot be separate from one another. Each person is understood as having the identical essence or nature, not merely similar natures.[85]
According to the Eleventh Council of Toledo (675) “For, when we say: He who is the Father is not the Son, we refer to the distinction of persons; but when we say: the Father is that which the Son is, the Son that which the Father is, and the Holy Spirit that which the Father is and the Son is, this clearly refers to the nature or substance”[86]
The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) adds: “In God there is only a Trinity since each of the three persons is that reality — that is to say substance, essence or divine nature. This reality neither begets nor is begotten nor proceeds; the Father begets, the Son is begotten and the holy Spirit proceeds. Thus there is a distinction of persons but a unity of nature. Although therefore the Father is one person, the Son another person and the holy Spirit another person, they are not different realities, but rather that which is the Father is the Son and the holy Spirit, altogether the same; thus according to the orthodox and catholic faith they are believed to be consubstantial.”[87]

The doctrine of the Trinity is mind-boggling. But we believe it because Jesus said to baptize people in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. And we realize that our minds are limited. Here as elsewhere in speaking of God, we can say things which are not false, but even when we say things that are true, they can’t fully express the truth, and often, we can’t even fully understand them.

So what can we say beyond, “We can’t understand”? We can say what John says in his first epistle: God is love. And that’s what we see in the readings of today’s Mass. We see a God who is merciful and will accompany us despite our disobedience. We see a God who comes into the world to save, not to condemn. We see a God of peace who calls us to live in peace.

Sunday Scriptures — Pentecost A, May 31, 2020

First Reading — Acts 2:1-11

Second Reading — 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13

Gospel — John 20:19-23

We are sent by Jesus with the power of the Holy Spirit to accomplish the work he has given us as a Church and as members of the Church.

The Descent of the Holy Spirit

The story in the first reading of the descent of the Holy Spirit at the first Pentecost, with the loud sound and the tongues of fire, is familiar to most of us. We are familiar with everybody being able to understand them, despite any language barrier. There are a couple of details that I hadn’t paid much attention to. The first detail isn’t even stated in the text. But they were in the house when they received the Holy Spirit. Then the people who gathered at the wind-like sound heard them speaking. They must have gone  out from the house. The Spirit moved them. It may have been only a few steps, but they were no longer closed in. They had gone out on mission.

The second detail, which gets lost in the amazement that everyone can understand them in his or her own language, is that they were “speaking … of the mighty acts of God.” Can we doubt that those mighty acts were the resurrection and ascension of Jesus as well as his teachings and miracles?

Something similar happens in the gospel, and again I’m paying attention to a detail I had tended to overlook. There is an appearance of the resurrected Jesus in his glorified body, no longer subject to the limitations of matter. He confers the Holy Spirit on the disciples and empowers them to forgive (or retain) sins. But tucked in between those things are his words, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” The disciples now have Jesus’ mission as their own. Perhaps forgiving sin could be one way of summarizing it, but it surely involves “speaking of the mighty acts of God.”

Different Gifts — One Spirit

The passage from Corinthians extends what we learned from Acts and the gospel. The Holy Spirit gives different gifts to different people so that each one can do something worthwhile. Let’s remember that Paul isn’t writing to the people who received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The apostles aren’t the only ones who have gifts for some benefit. He’s writing some decades later to the community of converts at Corinth. It’s not just the leaders of the community, but “we were all given to drink of one Spirit.” Everybody in the community has a gift. Perhaps the most important gift is what he says at the beginning of the reading: being able to say “Jesus is Lord,” which is also a way of “speaking of the mighty acts of God.”

Our Pentecost

What Jesus said to the disciples, he says to us, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” We receive the Holy Spirit at our baptism with specific gifts at confirmation. It’s not just clergy and other church leaders who have the Holy Spirit. The gifts of the Holy Spirit aren’t limited to those who serve in church ministries or on committees or on staffs. The differing gifts of the Spirit are also given to those who spend their days at work and their evenings at home and their weekends relaxing. I hope they make it a priority to pray regularly and come to Mass and send their children to religious education, because those thing are very useful in building up the community of believers. But just considering oneself a believer, considering oneself a Christian, amounts to saying “Jesus is Lord.” That self-image is a precious gift from God which has been received and accepted.


Our job today is not to judge how well others are doing with their gifts. We are invited to be consciious of what a great gift it is to have the Holy Spirit living in us, enabling us to do something in the world, something that Jesus sends us to do with the power of the Spirit making it possible.

Sunday Scriptures — Fifth Sunday of Easter A, May 10, 2020

Better late than never, I hope, here are some thoughts about the Mass readings for May 10.

After two Sundays in which the first reading, from Acts, gave portions of Peter’s address to the people on Pentecost, today we skip forward — past the healing of the cripple and Peter and John’s subsequent run-in with the Sanhedrin — to the event which is generally regarded as the establishment of the diaconate. Acts 6:1-7. There are several elements to consider.

  • The initial duty of the deacons was “to serve at table.” Feeding the hungry is one of the “corporal works of mercy” which gain one entry into he kingdom of the Father, according to Matthew 25:35.
  • The duty of overseeing the distribution is an item of control over community goods. In subsequent centuries, deacons came to be responsible for administering the goods of the Church. From their intimate knowledge of church administration, they were often considered ideal candidates to succeed deceased bishops (including popes).
  • But the first deacons also had to be “reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom.” These qualities led Stephen to proclaim the gospel of Jesus as Messiah boldly and irrefutably, leading to his martyrdom Acts 6-7. Philip also evangelized, and he baptized the Ethiopian eunuch. Acts 8:4-8, 26-40.

Eventually, the diaconate came to be treated as the final step of preparation for priesthood. When the Second Vatican Council called for the restoration of the diaconate as a permanent ministry, the primary focus was on the ministry of service (but not broader administration within the Church). The ministries of word (including proclaiming the gospel at Mass and at least occasional preaching) and sacrament (baptizing, ministering Communion, serving at the altar during Mass, and presiding at weddings and funerals outside Mass) were also part of the restored diaconate. It is tempting to read “serve at table” expansively to include serving at the altar table.

For the other readings, I’ll quote what I wrote about the three years ago.

In the second reading — 1 Peter 2:4-9 — we have a metaphor of stones. Christ is a living stone, and we too are to be living stones built into a “spiritual house,” the Church, with Jesus as the foundation. As parts of the Church, we are not inert. Being living stones, we are to be a priesthood, offering sacrifices to God. Of course the most important sacrifice is the one in which we join with the Church as the Church unites with Jesus in offering the sacrifice of Calvary. Beyond that, through Christ we can offer our personal sacrifices to the Father by enduring sufferings and obeying God’s will as we understand it.

The gospel — John 14:1-12 — presents a scene at the Last Supper. First,  Jesus promises that he will prepare a place for the disciples (and us) in his Father’s house and he will take us there. He tells Thomas that he is the only way to the Father, the truth, and the (eternal) life. He assures Philip [not the deacon we read abut in acts, but the apostle] that his identification with the Father is so close that to see him is the same as seeing the Father.

Although Jesus is the sole way to the Father, we are told in Matthew 25:31-46 that explicit faith in him is not required. Works of mercy toward his least brothers are sufficient.

The Father is in Jesus and Jesus in the Father, so that he is the image of the Father. In the same way, the parable of the vine and the branches, John 15:1-10, tells that Jesus is in us and we are in Jesus, which makes us images of him and, by extension, of the Father, which is what imposes on us the duty of loving one another and letting our love overflow in service to our neighbors.

Looking at Libertarians (on Twitter)

Someone tweeted to the effect that government protection of public safety is tyranny. I responded, initiating a couple of days of sporadic back-and-forths with tweeters who called themselves libertarians. The context was the defiance of restrictions on public gatherings, which was happening in various ways in California, Texas, and Michigan.

First, I mentioned that promoting safety is an object for which the Declaration of Independence (=Thomas Jefferson) says people organize their governments. Tweeter said it wasn’t in the Declaration, so I gave him the link and told him where to find it. Properly chastened, he noted that it isn’t law. So I gave him law. Multiple quotes from the Massachusetts Constitution (drafted by John Adams). My point, of course, was that protection of public safety was clearly part of the police powers of government according to the political philosophy of the founders and the form of government they established.

At this point others joined in. State law didn’t matter. States couldn’t ignore the Constitution. They seemed to think that States’ powers are granted by the Constitution (or at least to be found in federal statute). So I pointed out that the federal government didn’t create the States or give them their powers. States already existed and had their powers before the Constitution was adopted. But they reminded me that the States were bound by the First and Second Amendments. I noted offhand that it was a Supreme Court interpretation, not an explicit text, which found that those Amendments applied to the States.

Someone suggested that I didn’t know the purpose of the Second Amendment, so I quoted its opening words, “A well regulated Militia.” Apparently some tweeters don’t believe what the Constitution says, because they continued to “like” the tweet that said I didn’t know the purpose of the Amendment. Here we encounter the belief — never expressed directly but apparently behind their viewpoint — that the right to bear arms was intended to enable the people to overthrow a tyrannical government. Actually, as I learned by looking more closely at Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, one of Congress’s powers is to call forth the Militia, organized by the States, to “suppress insurrection.” The discussion petered out after I called that to their attention.

Meanwhile, though, there were some further tweets from me about the difference between poor judgment in the exercise of lawful powers, and tyranny; about the availability of remedies other than insurrection, such as court cases and elections; about the difference between their ideology verging on anarchism and the founders’ belief in government providing for ordered liberty. Early on, I told two of them, “I’ll take Jefferson and Adams over you any day of the week and twice on Sunday.”

Somebody said he had never consented to the Constitution. To which the basic answer is, if you don’t like it you’re free to leave, but if you don’t leave, you have no right to overthrow what the rest of us consent to.

There was also the person who complained that he needed to be free to earn a living to support his family. First I mentioned the bailouts enacted by Congress. I could also have mentioned unemployment insurance and food pantries. I.e., there is no need for his family to starve. But instead, I went full on sarcastic and reminded him that for decades people have been saying you need to prepare to survive on your own. If he’s still unprepared to go into the forest and shoot a deer, he has been pathetically irresponsible.

At the end a tweeter from California “followed” me. I checked out his tweets and found him pretty balanced, so I decided to follow back. I also commented that unfortunately “nobody” understands or cares about Federalism, limited government, or separation of powers any more; and the gun nuts only know one word of the First Amendment, “assemble” and two words of the Second, “bear arms.”