Showing posts with label Sacrament. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sacrament. Show all posts

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

What Inspires My Theology? Part III: Vocation

When I started reading the works of John Henry Newman, on the road to becoming Catholic, I accidentally stumbled across the University of Queensland's Newman Society, the Catholic society on campus at UQ. I walked into their first meeting, and when the ice-breaker introduction came, I said quite clearly: I am not Catholic, I do not want to be Catholic, but I do need to find out more to know if I should be Catholic. Most of the people were fairly quiet at this, they just tried to continue on to the next person, since I was an atypical person to be in that meeting and in that sense I could make people uncomfortable. There were two exceptions: the president at the time, now a close friend of mine, seemed to be quietly excited about the idea of someone looking into being Catholic, even if it was true that I did not want to. The other person was UQ's chaplain at the time, the priest who would eventually receive me into the Church, and importantly, Fr Morgan Batt was (and continues to be) the Vocations Director for the Archdiocese of Brisbane.

Hence, the idea of vocation has been in my head since before I was Catholic, and it has not left since then. At the beginning, influenced as I was by the office that Fr Batt had, vocation for me was related to what one might call the sacraments of state, that is, Holy Orders and Holy Matrimony. A little later, and influenced now by the Second Vatican Council's clear teaching on the universal call (vocation) to holiness by virtue of baptism, I realised that baptism was a sacrament of state (of sorts). This remains the common usage of the term "vocation": priest, married, religious...? That is an important question to ask oneself, because it is indeed the subject matter of vocation. However, two other people have influenced me and made vocation into a central element of my theology.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's book The Cost of Discipleship is one of the most important books I have read this year, particularly the initial chapters, leading up to his exposition of the Sermon on the Mount. In it, he attacks cheap grace, replacing it with costly grace, the grace of the cross. Bonhoeffer presents costly grace as grace that demands something of us, namely ourselves, not to repay a debt, but because the debt cannot be repaid.

In reflecting upon this, I realised that the grace of God always implies a calling, a vocation. For instance, the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus is simultaneously the self-revelation of God acting in Christ, which is an action of grace, the imparting of that grace of conversion and the gift of faith, but at the very same time, and inextricably linked, it is the calling of Saul to be Paul the Apostle. For everyone, in fact, the hearing and believing of the Gospel is at once an act of grace on the part of God and the calling of God to the proclamation of the same Gospel.

Therefore, one's vocation, one's calling, is not just a gift of grace but a necessary element of any gift of grace. First and foremost, every Christian is called to holiness. Secondly, there may be a vocation to married life, to priestly life, to religious life, to consecrated single life... In terms of sacraments, the grace of Baptism is a call to holiness. Then follows the specific path to be taken, for which (if one is to be ordained or married) one receives that grace of office. It is not in vain that the sacrament of ordination is called Holy Orders, because the grace of the sacrament implies by its very nature the orders, the vocation, for the sake of which it is administered. In short, grace and vocation are inseparable.

Bonhoeffer, being a Protestant and not having the same sacramental theology of priesthood or matrimony, also challenges Catholics such as myself to think of vocation in broader terms, though this is not something he had introduced to Christianity. It is at the very least as old as the other influential figure that solidified the centrality of vocation in my thought, the spiritual master and one of the founders of the Society of Jesus, St Ignatius Loyola.

St Ignatius is most remembered for his Spiritual Exercises and as a master of discernment. Discernment is, in one sense, a Catholic version of decision making, but the theology that underpins it sets it aside from its secular analogue. Discernment is not so much about weighing up pros and cons of choices, rather, it is about figuring out (discerning) the will of God. The will of God and his calling are one and the same.

Yet discernment of the calling of God for St Ignatius does not stop when one figures out the state of life one is called to, it is a constant process. I must discern the will of God for me at all moments during my day, during my week, during my life. Discernment is not a matter for big decisions, it is a matter for all decisions. Yet if discernment is for all decisions, then that means that there is a calling of God in all decisions, which means that vocation is a term that encompasses the totality of our lives.

This has influenced me to make the bold claim that Christian ethics can be divided into two categories: general and particular. The general is aptly summarised in the words of Jesus when asked what the greatest commandment was:

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself,' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

The strength of this formulation is evidently its generality, but it hence is overly ambiguous in terms of choosing how to live out the commandment. Scripture abundantly testifies that not all are called to do all good works, that God wills that some dedicate themselves to one form of ministry, others to another. There is hence another way of formulating Christian ethics, in a way that makes note of the particularity and the uniqueness of the vocation given to each person. One could write it in an expanded form as:

The right thing to do is to employ one's charisms in lovingly living out own's vocation for the common good and the glory of God.

It is rough, somewhat academic, and most likely imprecise. It is not quite my intention to give an absolute statement that I would petition the Pope to define as dogma. Rather, I use this as a sketch-statement to show how vocation forms the basis for Christian ethics, and can be more specifically tailored to each person than a general statement about love.

All this implies that what seems good can be bad. St Ignatius talks about feelings of desolation arising because one has followed inclinations that seemed holy, but actually come from the false angel of light. What seems like a good action can be the wrong action if God calls us to do otherwise - indeed, what would be a good action in another circumstance could be the wrong action in this circumstance, because we are not called to do that action then. I wrote a little about how the converse can be true, what seems like a bad idea turns out to be the right action, when I discussed my own vocation here.

Applying the language of vocation to our decision making is important in making decisions about what we will do with our time. This is specially the case because of how many opportunities there are to do good: should we give our time and energy to homeless people, the elderly, the socially marginalised, the mentally ill? Sometimes these categories overlap, but not always, and we need to make decisions about who we are going to minister to. Should I commit to this ministry, or that other one? I know God calls me to do what is required of me in service of him, so how do I divide my time between my work duties, my study duties, and my ministry duties? How much time should I rest? How much time should I dedicate to fellowship with Catholic friends compared to non-Catholic friends?

All these questions are ultimately questions we must discern the answer to, because God has a calling for us that will answer these questions. As you can see, the language of ethics, of should and ought is the language of vocation and calling.

What Inspires My Theology? Part II: Incarnation

If I had to write an blog post on how the Incarnation affects my theology, my thought, and my life, I would rather have to write a book. All my theology is centred around Jesus Christ, who is incarnate - my prayer is incarnational (a point I made tangentially here), when I think of mission or ministry, it is incarnational. My perspective on a theology of creation is incarnational. My thoughts on grace, and how grace and nature intersect, are incarnational.

In short, most of my theology is Incarnational. But what does that mean? For me, the Incarnation is about three things: first, that God does not remain distant from our problems, but through Mary is incarnate and shares in our humanity. This was my point with incarnational intercessory prayer: that when we pray for others, we must take on their poverty as our own, and intercede before God on their behalf. Together with God reaching down to us in human flesh, however, is the elevation of our humanity that comes with it. As St Athanasius writes in his treatise on the Incarnation: "For the Son of God became man so that we might become God." The Incarnation is the concrete illustration of Jesus saying "I have become what you are so that you can become what I am."

Secondly, the Incarnation does not remove the divinity of Christ. It is the supreme example of the both/and approach to theology, where (as we confess in the Nicene creed) Jesus is true God and true man. Not half and half. Not a mix of divinity and humanity. Jesus is both fully God and fully human. The Incarnation is hardly the only instance of paradoxical unions: Catholic Social Teaching has that combination of solidarity and subsidiarity, soteriology has numerous paradoxical combinations, such as free will and predestination, or faith and works. Trinitarian has three persons in one God. Still, the Incarnation is such a special instance of this both/and principle that it is, after some thought, easy to see why so long was spent arguing about Christology, why so many councils were convened to discuss Christological dogmas. Christ is the self-revelation of God, so this very precise theological investigation of Jesus is fundamental to all theology. This unique combination of divinity and humanity means that Jesus Christ is the only mediator between God and humans. It implies with the full force of theological fact that "nobody comes to the Father except through [him]." 

Third, the Incarnation elevates the visible. Before the Incarnation, people were right to be sceptical about the divine being presented in any sort of image, and hence the Decalogue has its injunction against graven images. Yet with the Incarnation, what was invisible and spiritual became visible in Christ Jesus. He is the "image of the invisible God", and therefore we can no longer scorn the created order as bearing the mark of God, not only as Creator, but even to the point of representing God. This is exceedingly important for all sacramental theology, though obviously it is most obvious in that most blessed of Sacraments, the Eucharist, where the fullness of the Godhead dwells under the species of bread and wine. In short, there is a divinisation of all of creation, not only humanity. What is this, however, if not a general statement of the fact that grace builds on nature?

These are just three of the underlying principles of the Incarnation that make this doctrine so crucial to Christianity, so crucial to theology, and so crucial to me in particular. I began to understand this in the context of social outreach ministry, when reflecting on intentional community and the vow of poverty that I hope to be making in a few years time. Why do we become poor to help the poor? It is the way of Jesus Christ, as St Paul writes to the Philippians in one of my favourite canticles:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 

rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness. 

And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name, 
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.
(Phil. 2:5-11)

As I said, if I could come up with enough material to write a book on anything, it would be on the Incarnation. This, however, is only the briefest collection of points, to which I will add another small one that should merit much lengthier treatment: the Incarnation, in addition to highlighting both/and's in theology, endowing with special importance the visible created order as the means by which the self-communication of God took place, as well as being both and inheritance of our poverty and the exchange of it for riches, it becomes our own model not only insofar as Christ is our model in general, but also insofar as our ecclesiology centres around the Church qua the Body of Christ. One crucial mistake of those who "love Jesus but hate the Church" is that not only did Jesus start the Church, die for the Church, is the Bridegroom of the Church...the Church is also the mystical continuation of the Incarnation, which (though mystical) is still visible. 

Thursday, 21 November 2013

The Eucharist and Poverty

Spend enough time with Catholics from a broad enough background, and the issue of taking Holy Communion will pop up. Sometimes these discussions are very fierce. Broadly speaking, and I note that there is much more complexity and depth to what I write here, those who favour receiving our Lord on the tongue claim to do so in the name of reverence, and those who argue for receiving him in the hands do so in the name of freedom. There are lots of interesting commentaries on this issue, so I need not go into them.[1]

Historically speaking, faithful Christians have received on the tongue and in the hands. When receiving on the hands it was, traditionally, in a manner distinct to how it is received nowadays, but customs change, so this is not a necessary sign of invalidity. When receiving on the tongue, it was pretty much the same as these days, but again, not a necessary indicator that such a style must be normative.

The Eucharist makes the Church. The unity and essence of the Church is in Christ, and her participation in Christ is made possible first by Baptism, and then is nourished and renewed by the Eucharist – hence St Paul writes to the Corinthians: “The bread which we break, is it not participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of one bread.” Christ, who is the bread of life, becomes the basis for the Body of Christ, the Church.

Continually nourished by the bread of life, the Church exists for her mission, on which Pope Paul VI states: the task of evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the Church.” Evangelism is the proclamation of the good news. Were the Church to leave the good news (or gospel), she would leave her essence, and were the Church to keep silent the good news, then St Paul declares woe.

Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah to similar effect when he explains his own ministry: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” This good news is universal in scope, it affects everyone in the world – but in Jesus’ typical style, he is first and foremost concerned with those in need. So are we. Right after declaring that the Eucharist makes the Church (CCC 1396), the very next paragraph of the Catechism opens “The Eucharist commits us to the poor.”

What does poverty have to do with how we receive the Eucharist? A lot, actually. The poor are not a group alien to us, indeed, we are the poor: perhaps not in terms of bank accounts, but in terms of how we relate to God, we are poor. There is no way around it – God has given us everything we have, even our very existence is a free gift. When we receive the Eucharist, when we receive Jesus Christ – Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity – we receive the greatest treasure the Church has, or according to St Thomas Aquinas, the only treasure the Church has.

Cardinal Bergoglio handing out the Eucharist reminiscent
of how one hands out food to people in need.
Therefore, when we receive the Eucharist we must receive it in such a way that recognizes our poverty. This does not actually shed much light on how to receive Holy Communion, or perhaps it seems to indicate that in the hands is the right way to receive, for when does one actually feed a poor person by putting the food in their mouth? No, usually food is passed to them whilst they are standing, and in their hands.

We should receive the Eucharist in such a way expresses our spirit of poverty and both ways are appropriate within the poverty motif, as well as permissible by Church practice.[2] Jesus says something very important, however, when he talks about people coming to him: Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.

Children are one of the neediest groups of all: they are not fully formed, they are not well educated, they lack means and the maturity. Even more than a spirit of poverty, of which Jesus already said “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall inherit the kingdom of God,” we are told that also to the children does the kingdom belong to.

Is not the Eucharist more
nourishing than vitamin A?
It seems quite clear to me, when combining both lines of reasoning, how to partake of the Eucharist: I must receive this most Holy Sacrament as a child, as a poor child, as a child who cannot help themselves: on the floor and straight into the mouth. To do otherwise would be to make the appearance of having grown up and becoming self-sufficient – I can scarcely imagine a time in which a creature could say to God “cheers, mate, and thanks for all the fish.”

I suspect this issue is like vocation: one has a thousand reasons for why one pursues one course and not another, and hence can often lack any comprehension of why another would do differently. How to partake of Holy Communion is something the Church currently leaves up to individual preference – both ways are lawful, as they say, but perhaps not both ways are beneficial.

[1] For those interested, however, Danielle Bean commented in 2010 about the awkwardness involved in receiving on the tongue with Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion (see, Paul Kokoski wrote an essay for the Homiletic & Pastoral Review, in which he discusses the claims of the Archbishop of Karaganda (Kazakhstan), Athanasius Schneider, (see and I found the foray into history of I. Shawn McElhinney fascinating (which can be found here:

[2] Something being permitted is different to something being encouraged, I should note.