Mission time

The Office of Readings for the solemnity of the Ascension offers a lovely excerpt from one of St. Augustine’s sermons “de Ascensione Domini,” in which the learned Bishop of Hippo takes as his text Colossians 3:1-2: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated, at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”

A familiar enough text, right? But then Augustine, as is his wont, gives it a striking twist: “For just as he remained with us even after his Ascension, so we, too, are already in heaven with him, even though what is promised us has not yet been fulfilled in our bodies….While in heaven he is also with us; and we while on earth are with him. He is here with us by his divinity, his power and his love. We cannot be in heaven, as he is on earth, by divinity; but in him, we can be there by love.”

There are something on the order of 70 million Catholics in the United States. How many of us think of ourselves as being “already in heaven” with the Lord? And if we really believed that – if we really believed that the most important part of our being was united to Christ and thus incorporated into the life of the Holy Trinity – how would we comport ourselves here on earth?

We‘d be on fire with a sense of mission.

There are many reasons to deplore the change in liturgical nomenclature for the weeks after the Easter Season, from Sundays “after Pentecost” to Sundays “in Ordinary Time.” As has been noted previously in this space (perhaps to be point of reader-tedium!), there is nothing “ordinary” about time after the Resurrection and Ascension. For, as that Colossians text suggests and Augustine makes explicit, human “time” has now been drawn into the divine life through the mystery of Christ’s return to the Father and his being seated “at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:3) as Lord of history. History, in that sense, is “inside” the Godhead.

And there is nothing ordinary about that.

Sundays “after Pentecost,” by contrast, reminded the Church that the first outpouring of the Holy Spirit, celebrated on the 50th day after Easter, continues in the Church throughout history, so that the Church can continually bear witness to “that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands” (1 John 1.1) – the Risen Lord, who offers us, in our friendship with him, a participation here-and-now in the life of God himself.

The Pentecost Season (if you’ll permit a lapse into a relevant bit of liturgical antiquarianism) lasts from Pentecost itself through midday of the Saturday before the First Sunday of Advent. It is the longest of the Church’s seasons; it is the season of hope (hence the green vestments); it is a season for lengthening the stride of the spiritual life, in a steady rhythm of pilgrimage toward the Kingdom where our hearts already rest because they rest in the Lord. But it is also, and above all, the season of mission. Because Pentecost is not simply about celebrating the gift of the Spirit to the Church; as the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles illustrates, Pentecost is about giving that gift away.

The Pentecost Season is when those who truly believe that “we are already in heaven with him” offer others the possibility of living like that. The offer is made in many ways: in acts of compassion and charity; in acts of explicit witness to Christ; in explaining why the Church believes what it does. If, as St. John Paul II and Pope Francis propose, the quality of our discipleship is measured by our commitment to giving others the gift we have been given, the lengthy weeks of the Pentecost Season are divinely ordered to that gift-giving.

About which, there is nothing “ordinary.”

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash