Creation, redemption, martyrdom: A Lenten reflection

A Lenten quiz: Which came first, God’s creation of the world or God’s covenant with Israel? If we think in terms of mere chronology, the answer is obvious. If we think theologically, however, we get a different answer — and the drama of creation, covenant, and redemption comes into clearer focus.

In Jesus of Nazareth – Holy Week, Pope Benedict XVI teaches that God’s covenant with Israel is not some sort of divine afterthought, an add-on or remedy for something that had gone wrong. No, the covenant and its fulfillment in the life, death, and resurrection of a son of Israel, Jesus of Nazareth, who inaugurates a new covenant including both Jews and Gentiles, are the very reasons why God created the world: “According to rabbinic theology, the idea of the covenant — the idea of establishing a holy people to be an interlocutor for God in union with him — is prior to the idea of creation and supplies its inner motive. The cosmos was created, not that there be manifold things in heaven and earth, but that there might be space for the ‘covenant,’ for the loving ‘yes’ between God and his human respondent.”

God creates and redeems the world so that God’s holiness might be shared by a people empowered by grace to live holy lives. God’s thirst for the holiness of his people is liturgically manifest on the Fourth Sunday of Lent in Jesus’s thirst for the faith of the Samaritan woman, from whom he asks a drink of water. And God’s thirst for a holy people with whom the Trinity can be in a covenant of love continues today. That is why the Church, the continuation of Christ’s presence in the world, is a communion of disciples in mission.

That mission often carries heavy costs, and it is appropriate to be reminded of that as the Church walks the Way of the Cross these last weeks of Lent.

During last year’s Synod in Rome, I had the good fortune to befriend a true missionary disciple who is also the Bishop of Mamfe in Cameroon, Andrew Nkea. During our work together, I discovered in Bishop Nkea a man of deep Catholic faith, wholly persuaded that the Gospel his people have embraced is the greatest liberating power in the world. I also found someone whose exceptional calm amidst horrific circumstances in his homeland testified to his conviction that God remains with the people he has called to holiness, even when he can seem far distant.

And God can indeed seem distant in contemporary Cameroon, a country beset by deadly civil strife in which the government is complicit.

During the Synod, Bishop Andrew told me of having to close 15 parishes in his diocese, because large gatherings of Anglophones were an excuse for Francophone government thugs to commit atrocities in the name of suppressing spurious “terrorism.” A few weeks after we said farewell in Rome, a 33-year old Kenyan Mill Hill missionary priest in Bishop Nkea’s diocese was the victim of a random, drive-through shooting by the quasi-military Gendarmerie Nationale in the village of Kembong, to which Father Cosmos Omboto Ondari had returned with hundreds of refugees after much of the village had been burned down by government forces.  Bishop Nkea was in Kembong the next day and counted 21 bullet holes in the church building in which the refugees were taking shelter and saw Father Ondari’s blood on the cement at the entrance to the building.

In my mind’s eye, it was not easy to imagine the bishop who was such an articulate, joyful proponent of the truth of Catholic faith in Rome standing where a priest he had welcomed into his diocese had just been murdered for no other reason than to terrorize the people Father Ondari served. Yet they were one and the same man, the Andrew Nkea I came to admire in Rome and the grieving but resolute bishop who demanded justice from a corrupt government while calling his people to intensified prayer for peace.

If the rabbinic theologians cited by Pope Benedict were right, Father Ondari and Bishop Nkea were “in the mind” of God before creation, embodiments of the holiness for which God thirsts in his people. Catholics in safer environments should ponder their example and live in spiritual solidarity with those who may sometimes think themselves forgotten by the world and the Church.


COMING UP: The high-priced spread, revisited

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Readers of a certain vintage (say, over 60) will remember the Imperial Margarine TV ad that dismissed butter as “the high-priced spread.” That image came to mind rather unexpectedly when I was addressing the parents’ associations of two prestigious Catholic prep schools several years ago.

No, no one threw a margarine-smeared dinner roll at me during my talk. The Q&A, however, was full of contention when I said that a first-class liberal arts education at a college or university with a strong Catholic identity would prepare their sons and daughters for anything. Absolutely not, parents insisted. The kid had to get into Harvard, or Stanford, or Duke — or some other academic version of the high-priced spread — lest his or her life be ruined.

When I pointed out that undergraduates at so-called “elite” universities are frequently taught by graduate assistants rather than by senior faculty, the parents were unmoved. When I reminded them that few, if any, members of the philosophy departments at elite schools are convinced that there is something called “the truth,” rather than just “your truth” and “my truth,” they didn’t budge. When I cited the experience of my daughters, who had gone on to premier graduate schools and successful professional careers after attending a small, demanding Catholic liberal arts college, I was met with blank stares.  When I asked why they were willing to spend north of a quarter-million dollars to send their children into a decadent environment in which corruption (chemical, intellectual, sexual, political, or all-of-the-above) was a real and present danger, the mantra continued: the kid must attend an elite school to have any chance in life, because that’s where you begin to “network.”

The morning after one of these events, I had coffee with several monks who taught at the school, and who thanked me for trying to break the parental fever about elite universities. They, too, had tried, to no avail. Did I have any suggestions? Yes, I said. Next fall, give the parents of every incoming senior a copy of Tom Wolfe’s novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons. It’s quite raw at certain points, I warned. But the story of how an idealistic, intelligent young woman who makes it into an elite school gets corrupted, first intellectually and then morally, ought to give pause to even the most overwrought parent.

I’ve no idea whether the monks took my advice. I hope they did, if only for the shock Wolfe’s prose would administer.

I was reminded of this absurd parental fideism about the high-priced spread (university division) when federal prosecutors indicted 33 upper-tax-bracket parents for allegedly using various scams — bribes, fake academic records, imaginary athletic achievements — to get their kids into Georgetown, Yale, Stanford, and other schools assumed to be essential ticket-punches on the path to success in 21st-century America. The kids are, one hopes, mortified. The parents are in serious trouble. And the schools ought to be profoundly embarrassed — if embarrassment is possible in the politically-correct animal house of elite American higher education today.

Fortunately, Catholic parents serious about real education and real formation have other options.

One of those options, the University of Dallas, just made an outstanding choice for its new president, selecting Dr. Thomas Hibbs, a first-class thinker who is also a committed Catholic, an able administrator, and a leader. Tom Hibbs joins a gallery of other Catholic college and university presidents — among others, John Garvey at the Catholic University of America, Michael McLean at Thomas Aquinas College, Stephen Minnis at Benedictine College, Timothy O’Donnell at Christendom College, Msgr. James Shea at the University of Mary, and James Towey at Ave Maria University — who are leading a renaissance in Catholic higher education. Their schools, and others, seek to prepare students for any post-undergraduate endeavor by giving them a firm grounding in the liberal arts, Catholic faith, the experience of Catholic community and public service. And they succeed.

I don’t doubt that, with some careful curricular navigation, by seeking out like-minded Catholic peers, and by getting involved in a vibrant Catholic campus ministry, well-prepared young people can survive, even flourish, at elite schools. I teach some of them every summer. But a sheepskin from those schools is not essential to a fruitful life and Catholic parents should resist blowing incense to the totem of the high-priced spread (university division), not least in light of this latest scandal.