God’s gift of peace in uncertainty

Archbishop Aquila

We are shortly approaching two events that this year stand in contrast to one another – the birth of Jesus at Christmas and the end of 2017. Christmas brings with it the peace and good news of our Savior’s birth, while a review of this past year reveals a time of uncertainty and cultural disarray.

This same reality was present when Jesus was born more than 2,000 years ago. Most scholars believe that Jesus was born roughly around the year 4 B.C., which was a particularly turbulent time in the Holy Land.

The ruthless King Herod the Great, who died soon after Jesus was born, contributed significantly to this upheaval. The historian Philip Jenkins described Herod as having “a long career that was bloody and paranoid even by the standards of Hellenistic monarchies. He ruled through tactics of mass terror and widespread surveillance that sometimes sound like a foretaste of the Stalin years.”

In the aftermath of his death, the historian Josephus recounts how various Jewish activists rallied in the streets of Jerusalem and the surrounding parts of Judea. This movement included three separate men being proclaimed kings in different cities by popular approval. One of these upstart kings was Judas, the son of Hezekiah, who took over the town of Sepphoris, which was located a mere four miles from Nazareth. The Roman governor of nearby Syria was alerted and he arrived with two legions, which burned Sepphoris to the ground and enslaved its inhabitants.

As Jenkins points out, “Some four miles away, there would have been living at this time a young couple named Joseph and Mary, who must have heard of these developments with terror. Just possibly, they had a newborn. Did those invading troops plunder Nazareth?” We don’t know if the Holy Family experienced this violent suppression, but we do know that the Prince of Peace was born into a time of upheaval and political tension.

This fact is worth reflecting on as we celebrate Christmas and bring 2017 to a close. This year has been one of political uncertainty, not only in the U.S. but around the world. We have also endured tragedies like the mass shooting in Las Vegas, the war in Syria and the resulting displacement of millions of people, a violent rise in racial tensions, the devastation caused by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, and the implementation of assisted suicide in Colorado, just to name some of the major events.

In the humble settings of a stable in Bethlehem, the Son of God brought hope, first to the lowly and then to kings. We live in a time of great spiritual poverty, despite our material wealth, and we need the lasting peace that Jesus brings to the lowly. The peace he offers is the restoration of our relationship with God the Father, the gift of a new identity as his adopted sons and daughters, and the healing of our entire person. This takes place through personally encountering God in the sacraments, in reading his Word, in silent prayer and in others.

No matter what your circumstances are, God the Father longs to bring you, your family and the world back into right relationship with him. And at Christmas he shows us that he always chooses to reach out to us in a humble and hidden way, calling us to himself when we are weak.

Mary and Joseph are perfect examples of God’s way of saving us. He chose an unknown but holy virgin in the small, insignificant town of Nazareth to bring his son into the world.

St. Joseph, a carpenter, was also humble. In his book, Theotokos: Preparing for Christmas with the Mother of God, Father Mark Toups proposes that St. Joseph might have resolved to quietly divorce Mary precisely because he realized she was carrying the Son of God in her womb and he felt unworthy. But God “knew exactly how Joseph felt and said, ‘do not be afraid,’” Father Toups adds. This same message is one that he speaks to us now at Christmas and at any moment we are willing to listen. It is worth repeating: do not be afraid, God is with us.

As we prepare for 2018, I encourage you to open your hearts to receive the peace and healing of Jesus as the firm foundation for your plans. Approach Jesus in prayer and ask him what he is inviting you to do in the coming year to bring his light into our confused and chaotic times. May God bless each one of you in the coming year and give you his peace!

COMING UP: Nothing about us without us

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The slogan “Nothing about us without us” was used by Solidarity in the 1980s in Poland, borrowing a royal motto from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the mid-second millennium. Then, it was expressed in Latin: Nihil de nobis sine nobis. Later, it appeared in Polish on the banners of 19th-century Poles fighting their country’s partition by Russia, Prussia, and Austria: Nic o Nas bez Nas. Today, it’s often used by disability activists asserting their claim to be fully participant in society.

“Nothing about us without us” also applies to the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, which will meet in Rome in October.

That Synod will involve seven bishops’ conferences from nine Latin American countries who will consider their pastoral situation under the theme, “Amazonia: new paths for the Church and for an integral ecology.” As is usually the case in these meetings, the bishops at the Synod will work with materials drafted in Rome. Early indicators from the Synod’s preparatory document suggest that the Amazonian Synod will be longer on environmentalism than on theology. International media attention will doubtless focus on the Synod’s discussion of climate change and its relationship to Amazonian deforestation.

Recent synodal history suggests, however, that more will be afoot at the Amazonian Synod than what its announced theme suggests.

The 2014 and 2015 Synods were called to consider the crisis of marriage and the family throughout the world. Yet they became the occasion for powerful churchmen to try to deconstruct Catholic moral theology and sacramental discipline, according to the tried-and-failed theologies and pastoral practices of the 1970s. The 2018 Synod, summoned to discuss youth ministry and vocational discernment, began with an effort by the Synod general secretariat to enshrine the world’s language of sexual plasticity (and the lame understandings of happiness that underwrite that language) into an official Church document. When that failed, Synod-2018 became the occasion for the Synod general secretariat to promote an ill-defined notion of “synodality” that struck more than a few bishops present as a prescription for local-option, choose-your-own-doctrine Catholicism on the model of the (imploding) Anglican Communion.

This pattern seems likely to continue at the Amazonian Synod. There, the deeper agenda will be the ordination of mature married men — viri probati — to the priesthood. Proponents will argue that this dramatic change in the Church’s longstanding tradition of a celibate priesthood (which, contrary to much misinformation, antedates the early Middle Ages by hundreds of years) is necessary because Amazonia is a Catholic area deprived of the Eucharist by a lack of priests. One hopes that the counterclaims — that Amazonia is mission territory requiring wholesale evangelization, and that Amazonia’s lack of priests reflects racial and class divisions in Latin American Catholicism that discourage priests of European pedigree from working with indigenous peoples — get a serious hearing.

Proponents of ordaining viri probati in Amazonia, including retired Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, OFM, have insisted that any such concession there would have no implications for the universal Church. That cannot be, however. Should the Amazonian Synod request the Pope to grant a dispensation from the discipline of celibacy for that region, and should he grant it, it will be just a matter of time before bishops conferences elsewhere — Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and Austria come immediately to mind — make similar requests, citing pressing pastoral needs. On what ground would those requests be denied?

In a year-end interview with Vatican News, the Synod’s general secretary, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, insisted that the Amazonian Synod would not discuss environmental issues only, but would also confront “ecclesial themes” — and would do so in a way that Amazonia could be “a model for the whole world.”

We can be grateful to the cardinal for his candor in, however unintentionally, letting the celibacy cat out of the synodal bag. Any decision to ordain viri probati in Amazonia would inevitably have major consequences for the entire Church. A decision of this magnitude cannot be taken by an unrepresentative segment of the Church and then turned into a “model” for everyone else.

That is why the principle of “Nothing about us without us” must apply here. Whatever else “synodality” may mean, it surely must mean that decisions bearing on everyone should involve as broad a consultation and as global a reflection as possible. Bishops who agree should make their concerns known now, not after the Amazonian synod meets.

Featured image by Vatican Media | CNA