Friday, April 17, 2015

In Memoriam and Appreciation: Cardinal Francis George, R.I.P.

April 17, 2015

This afternoon we received the sad but expected news that the recently retired Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago, Francis George, died this morning after a long battle with cancer.  He had submitted his letter of retirement to then-Pope Benedict XVI on his 75th birthday, January 16, 2012 (75 being the "standard" retirement age for Bishops according to Canon Law.)  Pope Francis named his replacement in September of 2014.

I have linked here the full bio on the website of the Archdiocese of Chicago, and you should read it.  Cardinal George was a fascinating man with a most impressive curriculum vitae, including nine years as a philosophy professor at various seminaries and universities, a twelve-year stint in Rome as vicar general of his priestly order, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, several advanced degrees in philosophy and theology, and service as Bishop of Yakima, WA, Archbishop of Portland, OR, and for 17 years as Archbishop of Chicago.  He was also Vice President for three years and President for another three years of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.  There's lots more in that bio; I say again, you really ought to read it.  The bio page also has links to numerous writings, speeches and homilies Cardinal George produced during his tenure in Chicago.  You could do a lot worse than browsing through those items as well, and reading as many as you can.  I promise you will learn some things, maybe a lot of things.

In my humble opinion, Francis Cardinal George was one of the giants of the Catholic Church, the value of whose service to Christ and his Church, not to mention the Archdiocese of Chicago, would be difficult, if not impossible, to overstate.  He was a powerful and tireless advocate for the Word of God and God's people, and a strong teacher and defender of the orthodox doctrines of the Church in matters of faith and morals.  For just one example, he rejected the disingenuous "seamless garment" argument of his predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who among other "Spirit of Vatican II" silliness sought to justify Catholics supporting pro-abortion politicians by equating the issue of abortion with so-called social justice issues. (Hence, the "seamless garment" metaphor--all Church teaching is one piece, all threads equal to one another.)  Cardinal George correctly, in my view, pointed out on numerous occasions that the ultimate social justice issue is the right of a baby to be born.  Without that right, all the rest of the Church's social teaching becomes moot.  Jesus clearly instructs us to care for the defenseless, the rejected, and the marginalized members of our society, and it's hard to imagine anyone more defenseless, rejected and marginalized than an unborn child being killed in the womb. 

But Cardinal George was far more than a pro-life advocate.  In addition to being a philosopher and theologian of the first rank, he knew how to bring to the people in a highly accessible way an understanding of the beauty, goodness and truth of Christianity from Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, the writings of the Church Fathers and Saints, and the wisdom of ancient philosophers like Aristotle and Plato.  By all accounts he ran the ship of his Archdiocese with firm integrity and great compassion.  He even had a direct and visible impact on all Mass-going Catholics in the United States, through the yeoman's work he did in his leadership posts at the USCCB to bring the beautifully updated translation of the Roman Missal to our parishes in November of 2011.

Time will tell whether Cardinal George's leadership of the Archdiocese of Chicago will prove to be just an interlude of orthodox wisdom or something more lasting.  I pray it will be the latter.

And so we say farewell to this giant figure, in the traditional words of the Church:

REQUIEM aeternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei. Requiescat in pace. Amen.
(Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.  May he rest in peace.  Amen.)

Laudator Jesus Christus.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Easter--An Under-Appreciated Feast

April 4, 2015

So, here we are.  The disciplines of the Lenten season are about to expire, and we Catholics began this evening, at Easter Vigils around the world, to celebrate the most important event in human history, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  Alleluia, He is risen!  Just typing that phrase gives me little chills.  But how different that is from the way I looked at Easter (not to mention Good Friday) for most of my life.

Growing up, I don't recall ever being taught much about the absolute necessity for the Resurrection as the foundation of our faith.  We kids were much more interested in Christmas, for all the obvious reasons, and even in the late 1950's, where my earliest memories lie, our culture seems to have pretty much relegated Easter to a distant second place, with bunnies and candy and eggs, and like that.  Maybe my Catholic friends back then took it more seriously than we did, but if so, they never talked about it with us non-Catholics.  Sure, we got Good Friday and Easter Monday off from school, even in the public schools, and I'm sure our Protestant ministers gave nice sermons on the importance of the Crucifixion and Resurrection on Easter Sunday, but to my recollection we just didn't hear much about it otherwise, and everyone still acted as if Christmas was the really big feast. 

Today, of course, we live in a post-Christian culture which is more and more willing to engage in outright persecution of anyone who takes Christianity seriously, (although, obviously, they haven't started killing us yet here in the good old U.S.A.; please pray for our persecuted brethren in the Middle East and Africa).  Most in public schools don't even dare mention Good Friday or Easter out of fear of "offending" someone, much less give kids a school holiday.  Instead, we have "spring break", which is just another week of vacation, or for many college students, something most resembling a pagan orgy. Religious significance is ignored or even actively suppressed.

So as I made my journey into the Roman Catholic Church ten years ago, I was for all practical purposes learning from scratch about the true importance, not only of Easter, but also the entire Paschal Mystery. As usual, the depth and breadth of Catholic Church teachings about the Resurrection bring marvelous rewards to those who plumb them.

As for the Resurrection itself, St. Paul makes the importance pretty clear in 1 Corinthians 15:12-19, as follows:
[12] Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?
[13] But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised;
[14] if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.
[15] We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised.
[16] For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised.
[17] If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.
[18] Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.
[19] If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.
That does get the point across, I believe!  Catholic theology has taught me that all of Salvation History is bound together as a single piece, most especially the events of Holy Week, from the entry into Jerusalem to the Last Supper to the Passion and finally the Resurrection, but without that last one, the whole thing loses its meaning.  We would all be like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke's Gospel, men without hope, sadly reflecting on what might have been (even though they had the "might have been" part wrong, as did most of Christ's followers, since they were looking for an earthly King who would open a can of you-know-what on the Romans and liberate the Jews.)  Without the Resurrection, the Crucifixion was just another Roman execution of a rabble-rouser.  Without the Resurrection, the Pharisees could have just gone back to being Pharisees, (which I guess they did anyway, but they wouldn't have had Christians to kick around), and the Sadducees would have gone on arguing with the Pharisees about whether there is an afterlife, instead of converting to Christianity in such large numbers that they basically ceased to exist as a major faction in Judaism.  Indeed, as Paul points out, absent the Resurrection, Christ Himself would be just another prophet, killed by the people to whom he was preaching. 

We Catholics, of course, get an added celebration every year at the Easter Vigil, when we welcome  all those who seek full communion with the Church that Christ founded, and who receive the Sacraments of Initiation:  Baptism (if not previously baptized using water and the Trinitarian formula set forth by Jesus in the last verses of the Gospel of Matthew), Confirmation, and the Holy Eucharist.  In these events, we celebrate souls receiving new life in Christ, the sealing of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the hope of eternal salvation, seeing in each of them the promise of the Resurrection itself.  It does help to keep the mind focused on the real-world impact of the central event, in addition to making us able to share the joy of these new Catholics and their families and friends as we all share in the joy of the Risen Lord's opening of the gates of Heaven.

And that, as St. Paul reminds us, is really the point.  The Resurrection of Christ in his glorified body gives us the hope of eternal life.  What else is there, really, to live for in this life?

As Catholics, it seems to me that we also bear in mind to a greater extent than most other Christians (except our Orthodox brethren, of course) that Good Friday always precedes Easter Sunday.  The burden of human sin had to be carried to the Cross and atoned for in our Lord's suffering sacrifice before the opening of Heaven could make any sense.  This is why we use the Crucifix, rather than an empty Cross, as a symbol of our faith: because we need to be reminded of the price of our redemption.  As St. Paul also said, "...but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles." 1 Cor 1:23.

One last point, which came as a great surprise to me upon my entry into the Church, is that the Catholic Church continues to celebrate Easter all the way to Pentecost, fifty days later.  Each day in the "Octave of Easter" is a liturgical Solemnity, and the equivalent, liturgically speaking, of Easter Sunday itself.

Yes, as I have learned, the Church takes Easter very, very seriously.  What a pity that so many Christians today, including many Catholics, no longer act as if they fully understand its true significance.

A happy and blessed Easter season to all!  Laudator Jesus Christus!