Homily for St. Stephen

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ! The day before yesterday, in the evening, and yesterday we celebrated Christmas, the feast of Jesus' birth. We contemplated the little child in the crib, sung "silent night", heard the tidings of peace for the world. And suddenly today, in stark contrast, we are clothed in blood-red vestments, we hear of the bloody death of Stephen, and of Jesus' warnings of persecution, death, and hatred for his name's sake. Is there a connection between Christmas and the martyr Stephen? How are we to understand this? Does it mean we shouldn't take the beauty and the peace of Christmas too seriously? It is a nice story, but the reality is different…?

This interpretation would be incorrect. The Church's long tradition of celebrating the memorial of St. Stephen after Christmas does not serve to demote Christmas, but to continue it, and to manifest more clearly an important meaning of the Christmas celebration. Jesus became man, became a child, so that he might also find a place in our hearts. We say that visually presented here, where the Christ child is lying in the heart… [regards the scene in the Church Cyrill and Method]. We fully understand Jesus' birth only in light of his being born in man's heart, in our heart. So after Christmas, the birth of the small Jesus, we contemplate also the birth of the Church, the Church as a child.

Now when Jesus comes to dwell in our hearts, that cannot remain without effect. It really makes a difference whether we let him in or not. When he who can do all things dwells within us, he transforms our hearts, and thus makes a difference in our attitudes towards one another and toward life. We see that in St. Stephen's life. As one of the first deacons he had a twofold task. He was assigned to the service of the tables, the "service of love" to the poor, so that the Apostles would have more time for preaching. But since he also the gift of preaching, he should also perform this ministry of truth. And Stephen, trusting in Jesus, devoted himself whole-heartedly to these tasks. He was stoned to death because his preaching of Jesus as the Son of God was considered blasphemy. Now, we might think that if Stephen, more considerate of the understanding and passion of his Jewish brothers for the oneness of God, had spoken more carefully about Jesus, he would not have been stoned, he could have continued to preach Jesus, he could have done more good….
But St. Stephen make no compromises concerning the truth. He proclaims the Jesus who revealed himself and whom he had come to know. But he does not proclaim this truth by way of violence or hatred, but in love and in self-giving. Until the last moment he forgives the men who kill him. As Jesus prayed for those who killed him, so St. Stephen prayed, “Lord, do not count this sin against them!” And his witness, his death was fruitful for the Church. The remembrance of this witness, for example, probably helped Saul later to accept Christ's message, and thereby to become the great Apostle Paul.

St. Stephen is an example to us of faithfulness to Jesus, an example of holding fast to the truth in love, of the way we all should and want to go. This way is not always easy. It is not always easy to avoid deviating too much in one or the other direction: to give up truth for the sake of love, or to give up love for the sake of truth. Sometimes one hears that faithful Christians, in order to be tolerant, must abandon the claim to truth, must not proclaim or hold the faith as truth or even as true, for that leads to intolerance and to hatred. But the example of St. Stephen shows us that the world needs the witness of the truth, and that it is possible to preach this truth in steadfast conviction and yet without violence, but in love and in self-giving.

Let us pray to Jesus, who came into this world as a child, that we have the courage and the wisdom to profess our faith in our family, in our workplace, wherever we are, in a convinced and convincing and loving manner, as St. Stephen did. Amen.

Summer Theology Program in Italy, 2012

The second summer program run by the Saint Albert the Great Center for Scholastic Studies will take place again in Norcia, Italy,  from June 18 to June 30, 2012.

The theme this Summer is biblical theology, focusing on the Gospels. Selections from commentaries by St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, and Joseph Ratzinger aim to lead to a deeper understanding of the Word of God and provide a starting point for discussion. Some lectures will be given on topics such as biblical inspiration, the use of the bible in the liturgy, and lectio divina. Again, a disputation in the scholastic style will be held during the program.

Holy Mass, the sung Latin Benedictine office with the monks, spiritual guidance and confessions are all readily available, and a number of optional excursions are offered.

Those who have or can make the time, and can afford the 675 Euro (at the moment just under $900 USD) plus the transportation to and from Norcia, are highly encouraged to consider this academic and spiritual program.

For much more detailed information, see the description of the program on the Center's own website.

Remedies for Gossip and Slander – St. Josemaria Escriva

Gossip and slander are frequently found even among those who consider themselves good Christians. Few things, however, are more harmful to a community. It can start innocently enough. One person makes a comment to a third person about something someone else did or said. Perhaps this first person doesn't even intend the comment to be negative. The person hearing the comment, however, sees it as reflecting badly on the person being spoken about. Instead of clarifying the situation, he passes on this juicy tidbit of gossip, possibly distorting it even more in the process. The telling of this rumor ceases to be merely gossip and becomes slander, that is, the making of claims detrimental to a person's reputation with reckless disregard for the truth, disregard for the fact that one possesses no substantial evidence for these defamatory claims. The whole process is deeply opposed to charity and very harmful to the relationships between people. The slide below illustrates the origin and spread of such malicious rumors:

Gossip turning into slander, causing mistrust

Such things are, regrettably, all too real and all too common.

 The biblical rules for dealing with the faults people commit are aimed to avoid this culture of gossip and slander.

 "You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reprove him openly, lest you bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev 19:17-18)

When one sees or believes that someone has done something wrong, one normally must talk to that person, and tell him so; one ought, of course to be open to the possibility that one has misunderstood the situation, and that this person in fact did not do anything wrong, as well as to the possibility or even likelihood that even if he made a mistake, it was not out of malice. This open talk with the person whom one feels has done something wrong hinders the bearing of a grudge, a violation of fraternal charity. It also decreases the likelihood of seeking an outlet for one's grievance by unnecessarily making it known to third parties, gossiping about it.

Christ lays down a similar rule, and further clarifies the way to proceed in such cases:

"If your brother sins [against you], go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector." (Mat 18:15-17 — The words "against you" are not present in a number of manuscripts.)

 To go to the person in private, if the situation can be then resolved, keeps other people from getting involved who do not need to know about the fault. It also avoids the danger of falsely accusing a person. When one goes to the person concerned, one may find out that one has misunderstood the situation. By going directly to him, one has avoided slandering him by passing on this defamatory misunderstanding to others.

Only if the situation cannot be resolved between the two persons should one bring others into the situation. And then one should if possible not immediately involve everyone, but bring only a third party or two in, who may help to bring more objectivity to the situation, at any rate as witnesses. Only if all such efforts fail need the sin be brought to the attention of the larger community to deal with it.

 Unfortunately, this rule of Christ, this rule of christian charity, is widely ignored. For various reasons (to avoid a confrontation with the person, to pass it on to someone more “capable” of dealing with it, to pass it on to an “authority”, to feel better about one's own faults by talking about the faults of others, out of a pleasure in gossiping, etc.) most of the time people do not talk with the person they believe committed a fault, but talk about him to others. How can someone break this vicious circle of gossip? He can of course refuse to pass on such negative gossip himself, he can indicate disapproval of it, etc. But that often is not enough to stop the pervasive culture of gossip. Nor does it rectify the injustice (the damage to a person's reputation) of which he has become aware, at least not in most cases.

 St. Josemaria Escriva's advice

St. Josemaria Escriva proposes a radical method to counter malicious gossip: Tell the person who is spreading gossip that you will speak to the person concerned about it, and then go and do just that; and do not say “someone told me,” but name that person, so that the one about whom such statements were being made can, if necessary, talk to that person himself.

"This is how you should answer a backbiter: 'I shall tell the person concerned' or "I shall speak to him about it."  (Furrow, 916)

"I can see no Christian fraternity in a friend who warns you: 'I've been told some terrible things about you. You shouldn't trust some of your friends.' I think it is not Christian because that brother has not taken the honest approach of silencing the slanderer first, and then telling you his name out of loyalty. If that brother does not have the strength of character to demand such behavior of himself, he will end up making you live on your own, driving you to distrust everyone and to be uncharitable towards everyone." (Furrow, 743)

This is illustrated by the following slide:

Breaking the chain of gossip

Of course, at this point the problems caused by gossiping are still not yet all resolved. Further steps would be necessary, such as e.g.:

Jen and Pat go on to talk to James, to clarify/resolve things with him.

Jen talks again to Randall, telling him he seems to have misunderstood the situation, and suggests Randall correct the mistake by talking to James and Pat and then to Tom to clarify Tom's statement that Randall had previously uncritically received (and possibly misinterpreted).

 

What do you think about this suggested procedure of St. Josemaria Escriva?

Ratzinger On the Pastoral Care of the Divorced and Remarried

In 1998 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger introduced the volume entitled 'On the Pastoral Care of the Divorced and Remarried', published by the Libreria in the dicastery's series. The third part of this introduction has been recently republished by the L'osservatore Romano. In outline, he makes the following points there:

(1) The possibilities of separation indicated in Scripture (the obscure case of porneia [Mat 5:32, 19:9], and division over faith [1 Cor 7:12-16]) do not justify relativizing Christ's restoration and elevation of marriage as a sign of the unconditional covenant of divine love.

(2) The patristic tradition clearly shows the teaching of the indissolubility of marriage, and does not supply grounds for a general pastoral practice at odds with this indissolubility.

(3) Epikeia cannot be applied to norms of divine law, and thus not to the indissolubility of marriage. Epikeia may, however, be applicable in the internal forum in some instances in which the external juridical judgment is mistaken (regarding, e.g., the validity of a first marriage). This question needs further study.

(4) The Church's teaching and practice is in full accord with and develops the teaching and personalistic orientation of Vatican II regarding marriage.

(4b) Further study is needed on the question regarding whether or not baptized persons who never or who no longer believe in God can truly enter into a sacramental marriage. "In other words, it needs to be clarified whether every marriage between two baptized persons is ipso facto a sacramental marriage." What is clear is that faith belongs to the essence of the sacrament. What remains to be clarified is what counts as an absence of faith that would hinder a sacramental marriage.

(5) A truly pastoral approach to marriage, including cases of divorce and remarriage, must remain faithful to the truth, which cannot be passed over or compromised. "In the end, only the truth can be pastoral."

Since this introduction is from Cardinal Ratzinger, at the time Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, I have added this introduction to the timeline in the earlier post The Church on Reception of Communion by Divorced and Remarried Catholics.