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Posts Tagged ‘Gospels’

Here are some images from beginning-of-Lent related material from a couple of my books.

The entry on “Ashes” from The Loyola Kids Book of Catholic Signs and Symbols. 

The beginning of the account of the Temptation in the Desert – always the Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent – from The Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories.

Remember, those stories are arranged in sections according to the liturgical season in which one would normally hear that particular Scripture narrative. So, this is in the “Lent” section.

 

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Be bloody, bold, and resolute.
Laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth.

Well, that’s not appropriate, is it? Okay, not really, but it’s what naturally popped into my head when I learned about today’s saint and what his name means…

Born in Spain in the 13th century, yet “not born” – the meaning of his nickname, nonnatus. How could that be? Because he was taken from mother, who had died in labor, one month prematurely. The meaning of “born” was via the birth canal, hence emerging via Caesarean section would not come under the strict definition of “born.” (Sorry for the Macbeth spoiler, there.)

Raymond, once an adult, joined the Mercederians:

The Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy is an international community of priests and brothers who live a life of prayer and communal fraternity. In addition to the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, their members take a special fourth vow to give up their own selves for others whose faith is in danger.

The Order, also called the Mercedarians, or Order of Mercy, was founded in 1218 in Spain by St. Peter Nolasco Raymond Nonnatusto redeem Christian captives from their Muslim captors. The Order exists today in 17 countries, including Spain, Italy, Brazil, India, and the United States. In the U.S., its student house is in Philadelphia, and it also has houses in New York, Florida, and Ohio.

Today, friars of the Order of Mercy continue to rescue others from modern types of captivity, such as social, political, and psychological forms. They work in jails, marginal neighborhoods, among addicts, and in hospitals. In the United States, the Order of Mercy gives special emphasis to educational and parish work.

****

According to the most reliable Mercedarian tradition, Saint Raymond was born in the town of Portello, situated in the Segarra region of the Province of Lérida at the dawn of the thirteenth century. He was given the surname of Nonnatus or not born because he came into the world through an inspired and urgent incision which the Viscount of Cardona made with a dagger in the abdomen of the dead mother. In his adolescence and early youth, Raymond devoted himself to pasturing a flock of sheep in the vicinity of a Romanesque hermitage dedicated to Saint Nicholas where an image of the Virgin Mary was venerated. His devotion to the Holy Mother of Jesus started there.

He joined the Order of Mercy at a very early age. Father Francisco Zumel relates that young Raymond was a “student of the watchful first brother and Master of the Order, Peter Nolasco.” Therefore, Raymond was a redeemer of captives in Moorish lands. In a redemption which took place in Algiers, they had to stay behind as hostages. It was then that he endured the torment of having his lips sealed with an iron padlock to prevent him from addressing consoling words to Christian captives and from preaching the liberating good news of the Gospel. After he had been rescued by his Mercedarian brothers, Pope Gregory IX appointed him Cardinal of the Church of San Eustaquio. Summoned by the Supreme Pontiff, Raymond was on his way to Rome when he met death in the strong and rocky castle of Cardona in 1240

The image above is from our visit to the Museo de Bellas Artes in Seville – a statue of San Ramon Nonato, as it would be in Spanish. 

He is invoked as a patron of childbirth expectant mothers, midwives, the falsely accused and others.

Here’s a pdf  with more detail about his life. 

Some other interesting facts:

A few years ago, Pope Francis declared a “Year of Mercy.”  It might be helpful to consider that this “beating heart of the Gospel”  – the merciful love of God – has been lived out, shared, expressed and embodied in countless ways over the past two thousand years, not least in the ordinary, amazing thing that happens thousands of times every day in every nation, in which Christ meets us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

It is helpful to study and reflect on the creative and courageous ways in which the saints have reached out to the peripheries and margins with God’s mercy and freedom, risking their own physical lives for the sake of the souls of others.

So here, we have an entire religious order (not the only one) established to share God’s mercy in a particular apostolate, and today’s saint willingly and joyfully devoted his life to this – mercy.

 

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First, from The Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories.

(What is below is the end of the story. The structure of every story is the same – a retelling, then an specifically Catholic application, Scriptural references, a reflection prompt and a prayer.)

amy-welborn3
Bellini Transfiguration
It is indeed good to be here, as you have said, Peter. It is good to be with Jesus and to remain here for ever. What greater happiness or higher honour could we have than to be with God, to be made like him and to live in his light?
  Therefore, since each of us possesses God in his heart and is being transformed into his divine image, we also should cry out with joy: It is good for us to be here – here where all things shine with divine radiance, where there is joy and gladness and exultation; where there is nothing in our hearts but peace, serenity and stillness; where God is seen. For here, in our hearts, Christ takes up his abode together with the Father, saying as he enters: Today salvation has come to this house. With Christ, our hearts receive all the wealth of his eternal blessings, and there where they are stored up for us in him, we see reflected as in a mirror both the first fruits and the whole of the world to come.
Sermon of Anastasius of Sinai. Office of Readings

 

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The Greater one…

Patron of Spain and pilgrims.

Let Benedict XVI give you the basics:

We are continuing the series of portraits of the Apostles chosen directly by Jesus during his earthly life. We have spoken of St Peter and of his brother, Andrew. Today we meet the figure of James. The biblical lists of the Twelve mention two people with this name: James, son of Zebedee, and James, son of Alphaeus (cf. Mk 3: 17,18; Mt 10: 2-3), who are commonly distinguished with the nicknames “James the Greater” and “James the Lesser”.

These titles are certainly not intended to measure their holiness, but simply to state the different importance they receive in the writings of the New Testament and, in particular, in the setting of Jesus’ earthly life. Today we will focus our attention on the first of these two figures with the same name.

The name “James” is the translation of Iakobos, the Graecised form of the name of the famous Patriarch, Jacob. The Apostle of this name was the brother of John and in the above-mentioned lists, comes second, immediately after Peter, as occurs in Mark (3: 17); or in the third place, after Peter and Andrew as in the Gospels of Matthew (10: 2) and Luke (6: 14), while in the Acts he comes after Peter and John (1: 13). This James belongs, together with Peter and John, to the group of the three privileged disciples whom Jesus admitted to important moments in his life.

Since it is very hot today, I want to be brief and to mention here only two of these occasions. James was able to take part, together with Peter and John, in Jesus’ Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane and in the event of Jesus’ Transfiguration. Thus, it is a question of situations very different from each other: in one case, James, together with the other two Apostles, experiences the Lord’s glory and sees him talking to Moses and Elijah, he sees the divine splendour shining out in Jesus.

On the other occasion, he finds himself face to face with suffering and humiliation, he sees with his own eyes how the Son of God humbles himself, making himself obedient unto death. The latter experience was certainly an opportunity for him to grow in faith, to adjust the unilateral, triumphalist interpretation of the former experience: he had to discern that the Messiah, whom the Jewish people were awaiting as a victor, was in fact not only surrounded by honour and glory, but also by suffering and weakness. Christ’s glory was fulfilled precisely on the Cross, in his sharing in our sufferings.

This growth in faith was brought to completion by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, so that James, when the moment of supreme witness came, would not draw back. Early in the first century, in the 40s, King Herod Agrippa, the grandson of Herod the Great, as Luke tells us, “laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the Church. He had James, the brother of John, killed by the sword” (Acts 12: 1-2).

The brevity of the news, devoid of any narrative detail, reveals on the one hand how normal it was for Christians to witness to the Lord with their own lives, and on the other, that James had a position of relevance in the Church of Jerusalem, partly because of the role he played during Jesus’ earthly existence.

A later tradition, dating back at least to Isidore of Seville, speaks of a visit he made to Spain to evangelize that important region of the Roman Empire. According to another tradition, it was his body instead that had been taken to Spain, to the city of Santiago de Compostela.

As we all know, that place became the object of great veneration and is still the destination of numerous pilgrimages, not only from Europe but from the whole world. This explains the iconographical representation of St James with the pilgrim’s staff and the scroll of the Gospel in hand, typical features of the travelling Apostle dedicated to the proclamation of the “Good News” and characteristics of the pilgrimage of Christian life.

Consequently, we can learn much from St James: promptness in accepting the Lord’s call even when he asks us to leave the “boat” of our human securities, enthusiasm in following him on the paths that he indicates to us over and above any deceptive presumption of our own, readiness to witness to him with courage, if necessary to the point of making the supreme sacrifice of life.

Thus James the Greater stands before us as an eloquent example of generous adherence to Christ. He, who initially had requested, through his mother, to be seated with his brother next to the Master in his Kingdom, was precisely the first to drink the chalice of the passion and to share martyrdom with the Apostles.

And, in the end, summarizing everything, we can say that the journey, not only exterior but above all interior, from the mount of the Transfiguration to the mount of the Agony, symbolizes the entire pilgrimage of Christian life, among the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God, as the Second Vatican Council says. In following Jesus, like St James, we know that even in difficulties we are on the right path.

Hmmm…that might be a good start for a discussion, yes? It’s got some good content, then veers over into some personal reflection. What a good idea!

Back when he was giving these addresses, various publishers collected them into book form and sold them. You can still find those, but of course, since all these talks are online, you don’t have to pay a dime for them. You also don’t have to pay for a study guide on these talks on the Apostles – the one I wrote for OSV is available here in a pdf form.

The unapologetic reflex of Catholic parishes to charge fees for religious education is unfortunate and a hindrance to evangelization. One answer is to encourage a culture of parish stewardship that says, “We don’t want to charge anyone a fee for catechesis or formation. Let’s all give enough so that we don’t have to.”  Another is to find quality free source materials…and here you go.

 

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From: The Loyola Kids Book of Catholic Signs and Symbols

 

And here we go with chapter 4 of Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legends and Lies.  This chapter covers the earliest stages of patristic thinking about the saint. It’s shorter.

(Why do this? Because her feast is Monday – July 22.)

I hope what you notice that one of the things I try to do here (and in everything I write along this line, as well) is to help the reader understand not only Mary Magdalene herself, but broader  epistemological matters as well. How to read the Bible. How to understand early Church History. It’s one thing to throw factoids at people. It’s important in the long run, however, to open them up to the greater issues of, not just what to know, but how to know – especially about religious matters – in a culture in which they are told, repeatedly, that all knowledge, especially about religion, is fundamentally uncertain, relative, and ideological.

For previous chapters:

Chapter one: Introducing Mary Magdalene in the Bible

Chapter two: Mary Magdalene at the Resurrection

Chapter three: Mary Magdalene in Gnostic writings

For the entire book, available for Kindle for .99 – here. 

While Gnostic writers were — or perhaps weren’t – – writing about Mary Magdalene, favored student of the Gnostic Jesus, orthodox Christian writers had a few things to say as well during those early centuries of Christianity.
She didn’t dominate the scene, but a few thinkers found her an intriguing figure, helpful in understanding the nature of faith and redemption. She’s represented in art from the period as well, most often in her role as “myrrhophore” — one of the women bringing oils and spice to Jesus’ tomb.

It’s that theme that we see most frequently: Mary Magdalene as faithful disciple and witness to the empty tomb, and then, digging a little deeper, Mary as the New Eve and Mary as the Church, symbolized with power and passion in the Old Testament Song of Songs.

Those who think that the Gnostics were more appreciative of Mary Magdalene than were orthodox Christians who were perhaps busy demonizing her might be in for a surprise. Many early Church Fathers had no problem identifying Mary Magdalene in quite exalted terms: “Apostle to the Apostles” and “Equal-to-the-Apostles,” titles which may be now neglected in the West, but which remain her primary identification in Eastern Christianity to this day.

‘Come, My Beloved’

It might be helpful, before getting to Mary herself, to set the scene. When we talk about the “early Church” and the “early Church Fathers” and their writings, what exactly do we mean?

For the purposes of this chapter, “early Church” means Christianity up to the late sixth century, at which point we start creeping into the early Middle Ages, or the Dark Ages, as they are quite unfairly called.

During this period, Christianity spread throughout the Middle East, into Africa, far into Europe, and even into India. The time began, of course, with most of that area (with the exception of India) as part of the Roman Empire, where Christianity was illegal. By the time the sixth century rolled around, the old Roman Empire had collapsed, new kingdoms and empires had taken shape, and Christianity was not only legal in all of them, but was the established religion in most as well, a situation that would last until the rise of Islam in the eighth century.

By the end of the first century, a basic church structure of presbyters (priests) and bishops was beginning to evolve (we can even see this in the New Testament: for example, in the First Letter of Paul to Timothy). The religious landscape was not the same as it is today: there were no seminaries, no universities, and of course, no publishing houses or religious newspapers. But there were theologians, spiritual writers, and bishops, who wrote and preached. Many of their works have survived and are available in English — even on the Internet — today.

Most commonly, the texts that we can read that give us an idea of what these Christians were thinking and how they believed and practiced their faith are:

  • Defenses of Christianity against skeptics and heretics.
  • Commentaries on Scripture.
  • Catechetical instructions.
  • And not coming from individuals but from church communities were liturgies and,beginning in the fourth century,
  • decrees from gatherings of bishops.

So you see, although there is much we don’t know, a great deal of evidence has survived that gives us an excellent picture of Christian life in its first five centuries of life. It is not as mysterious and ambiguous as some claim. Christian thinkers were seeking to deepen their understanding of the Gospel, in the context of a culture that was extremely hostile to them, as well as intellectually and religiously diverse.

There’s a good reason people still read the writings of these early Church Fathers. Their situation was not that different from ours. They were dealing honestly and tenaciously with the most fundamental aspects of Christian faith, and they were trying to make them understandable to a world that, while skeptical, was obviously deeply in need of Christ. Two thousand years is a long time — but not long enough for human nature and humanity’s need for Christ to change.

These early Christian writers viewed the literal truth of Scripture — in which they firmly believed, by the way — as a starting point. From that factual level, they routinely set off exploring nuance, making connections, and discovering useful analogies and allegories. Patristic writing is extremely rich in that way.

So for them, Mary Magdalene was more than a woman at a tomb, just as Jesus had been more than a man on a cross. In Jesus, all of history is redeemed and all of creation is reconciled to God.

Into this richness step ordinary men and women like you and me, people like Peter, Levi, John, and Mary. As they live and move in Jesus’ shadow, listening and responding to him, they, too, become more. Their actions evoke other figures’ responses to God’s out-stretched hand. Their doubt, faith, sin, and redemption become more than just their own, as we look at them and see echoes of our own lives and, in fact, of the whole human story.

So, for example, when some of these writers meditated on Mary Magdalene, they saw her responding to the Good News of redemption and eternal life — in a garden. It recalled another scene, at the beginning of salvation history, also in a garden in which a woman and a man disobeyed God, and humanity fell. And so, for some, Mary Magdalene became a sort of New Eve, long before the title had attached itself to the Virgin Mary.

For example, St. Cyril of Alexandria, who lived in the fifth century, said that because of Mary Magdalene’s witness at the empty tomb, all women were forgiven of Eve’s sin (Haskins, p. 89). St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, and St. Gregory of Nyssa also made the connection:

“She is the first witness of the resurrection, that she might set straight again by her faith in the resurrection, what was turned over by her transgression.” (St. Gregory of Nyssa,Against Eunomius3.10.16, quoted in The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament, by Jane Schaberg [Continuum International Publishing Group, 2002], p. 87).

The image of a woman grieving and waiting in a garden evoked another image for Christians: that of the great love poem in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Song of Songs (also known as the Canticle of Canticles or Song of Solomon).

The third-century Christian writer Hippolytus made a great deal of this in his own commentary on the Old Testament book. He brings in not only Mary Magdalene but also the other women reported at the tomb in the various Gospels, and sometimes in confusing ways. The female image, rooted in specific figures, becomes more generally symbolic but, with Mary Magdalene as one of them, echoes the deep desire of the bride in the Old Testament book, her desire for her beloved, as they seek Jesus at the tomb:

“ ‘By night, I sought him whom my soul loveth’: See how this is fulfilled in Martha and Mary. In their figure, zealous Synagogue sought the dead Christ. . . . For she teaches us and tells us: By night I sought him whom my soul loveth.” (Hippolytus,third century, quoted in Haskins, p. 61)

Finally, writers during this period cited Mary Magdalene for her witness at the tomb and sharing the Good News with the apostles. Hippolytus, who was also a bishop, referred to her as “Apostle to the Apostles.” Other Church Fathers also praised Mary for her role as a witness, some holding that through her example, all women are honored and, in a sense, redeemed.

A fourth-century Eastern poet named Ephrem used this image, although, confusingly to us, he conflates Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the following (as we saw in the last chapter, this was a characteristic of Syrian Christianity in this period):

“At the beginning of his coming to

earth A virgin was first to receive him, 

And at his raising up from the grave

To a woman he showed his resurrection.

In his beginning and in his fulfillment

The name of his mother cries out and is present.

Mary received him by conception

And saw an angel at his grave.”

(Quoted in Haskins, p. 90)

In this early period of Christian reflection, theological and spiritual writers worked in a relatively simple garden. Scripture — both Hebrew and Christian Testaments — was their primary source. Their sense of who Mary Magdalene was and of her importance for Christians was derived completely from that. She was historically significant because she was the first to see the empty tomb and the Risen Christ. Her role evoked other women in other gardens, and another layer of reflection was woven, celebrating Mary Magdalene as a New Eve or as representing the Church as the expectant bride seeking her bridegroom, Christ — but all because of what the Christian tradition had testified about her role in the events of the Resurrection.

The story of Mary Magdalene obviously does not end here, for at this point — the fifth and early sixth centuries — some images, quite familiar to us today, have not yet appeared. What of the penitent Magdalene? The prostitute? The evangelizer of the French?

Where these came from we shall soon see, as we enter the Middle Ages, a period of intense creativity and legend-building, in which the evidence of Scripture was revered, but popularly viewed as only the beginning to far more interesting tales.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Why did early Christian thinkers refer to Mary Magdalene as the “New Eve?”
  2. Why did they connect Mary Magdalene to the Song of Songs?
  3. What do you think of this approach to interpreting Scripture? Do you find it helpful or not?

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EPSON MFP image

From the Loyola Kids Book of Catholic Signs and Symbols

Her feast is coming up next Monday.

As I’ve done for the past couple of years, I’m going to offer a daily excerpt from my book Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legends and Lies, now available as an e-book for .99.

Remember, that the book was written in the context of the Da Vinci Code fever, so I pay particular attention to the gnostic writings that Brown and others whose work he used depended on for their claims.

Not many people may be looking to DVC as anything but an artifact on the remainder table (we can hope), but as is always the case with these, er, teachable moments – it remains a teachable moment. How do we understand the Gospels? How do we understand the complexity of tradition?  Mary Magdalene is a good way to enter into those discussions.

So.

Chapter 1:

Before the legends, myths, and speculation, and even before the best-selling novels, there was something else: the Gospels.

The figure of Mary Magdalene has inspired a wealth of art, devotion, and charitable works throughout Christian history, but if we want to really understand her, we have to open the Gospels, because all we really know for sure is right there.

The evidence seems, at first glance, frustratingly slim: an introduction in Luke, and then Mary’s presence at the cross and at the empty tomb mentioned in all four amy-welborn-book2Gospels. Not much to go on, it seems.

But in the context, the situation isn’t as bad as it appears. After all, no one besides Jesus is described in any detail in the Gospels, and even the portrait of Jesus, as evocative as it is, omits details that we moderns are programmed to think are important. Perhaps, given the context, the Gospels tell us more about Mary Magdalene than we think.

Trustworthy?

Before we actually meet the Mary Magdalene of the Gospels, it might be a good idea to remind ourselves of exactly what the Gospels are and how to read them.

The word “Gospel” means, of course, “good news,” or evangel in Greek, which is why we call the writers of the Gospels evangelists. The four Gospels in the New Testament have been accepted as the most authoritative and accurate writings on Jesus’ life since the early second century. Even today, scholars who study early  Christianity, whether they are believers or not, know that when studying Jesus and the early Christian movement, the Gospels and other New Testament writings are the place to begin.

Sometimes in my speaking on this issue, I have fielded questions about the reliability of the Gospels. A questioner will say something like, “Well, they were written so long after the events, how can we trust them to tell the truth?”

In addition, even those of us who have received some sort of religious education might have been taught, implicitly, to be skeptical of the Gospels. We’re reminded, right off, that the Gospels are not history or biography, and that they tell us far more about the community that produced them than about Jesus himself.

In short, all of this gets distilled into the conviction that when it comes to early Christianity, all documents and texts are of equal value in telling us about Jesus. You can’t pick the best according to historical reliability, so you pick the one with the “story” that means the most to you. So, if the Gospel of Mark displeases you, you can go ahead and create your Jesus from what you read in the Gospelof Philip or the Pistis Sophia.

Sorry, but it just doesn’t work that way. As we will see in more detail when we get to the Gnostic writings, there is simply no comparison between the four canonical Gospels and other writ-ings. The canonical Gospels were not written that distant from the events described — forty or fifty years — and were written in an oral culture that took great care to preserve what it heard with care; the community’s history depended on it. When you actually read the Gospels, you see comments here and there from the evangel-ists themselves about what they were trying to do, and part of that involved, according to their own admission, being as accurate as possible (see Luke 1:1-4, for example).

No, the Gospels are not straight history or biography in the contemporary sense. They are testaments of faith. But they are testaments of faith rooted in what really happened. The evangelists, and by extension, the early Christians, were not about making up stories for which they would later, oddly, give their lives. They were not cleverly presenting their inner psychological transformations in the form of concrete stories. They were witnesses to the amazing action of God in history, through Jesus. amy-welborn-book3They are testimonies of faith, yes, but faith rooted in the realities of God’s movement in the world.

It’s also good to listen to modern Gospel critics carefully. More often than not, those who disdain the Gospels are quick to claim some other text as “gospel,” as the source of truth. Their choice of what to believe usually has far less to do with historical reliability than it does with other factors.

So, no, not all historical texts are equally reliable. When it comes to Jesus and the events of the mid-first century, the canonical Gospels are really the only place to begin.

Now, on to Mary Magdalene.

Magdala

Luke introduces us to Mary Magdalene in chapter 8 of his Gospel:

 

“Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, preach-ing and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out,and Joanna,the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.” (Luke 8:1-3)

So here she is: a woman from whom Jesus had driven seven demons, joined with other women, also healed by Jesus, who had left their lives behind to follow him.

Mary is mentioned first in this list, as she is in every list of female disciples, in every Gospel, similar to the way that in lists of the twelve apostles Peter’s name always comes first. The precise reason for Mary’s consistent preeminence is impossible to determine, but we can guess that it might have much to do with her important role related to the Resurrection, as well as to recognition of her faithfulness to Jesus.

These women “provided for them out of their means.” This might mean one of two things, or both: that the women assisted Jesus and his disciples by preparing meals and so on, or that they supported them financially. The second explanation is supported by the presence of Joanna, the wife of a member of Herod’s court, on the list. Perhaps some of these women were, indeed, wealthy enough to give Jesus’ ministry a financial base. (Some legends about Mary have played off of this, as we will see later, suggesting that she was quite wealthy and actually owned the town of Magdala.)

What stands out about Mary is that she’s identified, not by her relationship to a man, as most women would be at that time, but to a town. This indicates that Mary wasn’t married, and perhaps even that she had outlived her father and other male relatives: she was a single woman, able to give support to Jesus out of gratitude for what he had done for her.

Magdala was located on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, about four miles north of the major city of Tiberias. Today, it is a village with a few hundred inhabitants, some abandoned archaeological digs, and only the most inconspicuous memorials to its most well-known inhabitant.

“Magdala” is derived from the Hebrew Migdal, which means “fortress” or “tower.” It was also called “Tarichea,” which means “salted fish,” a name which reveals the town’s primary industry during the first century, the salting and pickling of fish. Excavations led by Franciscans in the 1970s revealed a structure that some think was a synagogue (others a springhouse), as well as a couple of large villas and, from later centuries, what might be a Byzan-tine monastery. Magdala is described by Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, as having forty thousand inhabitants, six thou-sand of whom were killed in one of the battles during the Jewish Revolt (A.D. 66-70), but most modern historians believe those numbers are far too high.

Jewish tradition suggests that Magdala was ultimately destroyed as a punishment for prostitution, and another strain holds that in ancient times Job’s daughters died there. Pilgrim accounts from the ninth through the thirteenth centuries report the existence of a church in Magdala, supposedly built in the fourth century by St. Helena, who discovered the True Cross in Jerusalem.

By the seventeenth century, pilgrims reported nothing but ruins at Magdala.

Possessed

Mary — like Peter, Andrew, and the other apostles — walked away from life as she knew it, abandoned everything to follow Jesus. Why?

“. . . from whom seven demons had gone out.”

Exorcism is an aspect of Jesus’ ministry that many of us either forget about or ignore, but the Gospels make clear how important it is: Mark, in fact, describes an exorcism as Jesus’ first mighty deed, in the midst of his preaching (1:25). Some modern com-mentators might declare that what the ancients referred to as pos-session was nothing more than mental illness, but there is really no reason to assume that is true. The “demons,” or unclean or evil spirits, we see mentioned sixty-three times in the Gospels were understood as forces that indeed possessed people, inhabiting them, bringing on what we would describe as mental problems, emotional disturbances, and even physical illness. The symptoms, however, were, to the ancient mind, only that: symptoms. The deeper problem was the alienation from the rest of the human family and from God produced by this mysterious force of evil.

In the world in which Jesus lived, seven was a number that symbolized completion, from the seven days of creation (Genesis 1:1-2:3) to the seven seals on God’s book in Revelation (5:1) and the seven horns and eyes of the Lamb in the same vision (5:6). Mary’s possession by seven demons (also explicitly mentioned in Mark 16:9) indicates to us that her possession was serious and overwhelming — total, in fact. She was wholly in the grip of these evil spirits, and Jesus freed her — totally.

So of course, she left everything and followed him.

It’s worth noting now, even though we’ll discuss it more later, that nowhere in the New Testament is the condition of possession synonymous with sinfulness. The “sinners” in the Gospels — the tax collectors, those who cannot or will not observe the Law, the prostitutes — are clearly distinguished from those possessed. Some Christian thinkers have linked Mary Magdalene to various sinful, unnamed women in the Gospels because of her identification as formerly possessed. There may be reasons, indeed, to link Mary to these women, but possession is not one of them, because the conditions — possession and sinfulness — are not the same thing in the minds of the evangelists.

Disciple

The evangelists used the texts, memories, and oral traditions they had at hand to communicate the Good News about Jesus. Because they were human beings, their writing and editing bears the stamp of their unique concerns and interests. Just as you and a spouse might tell the same story, emphasizing different aspects of it to make different points — perhaps you want to tell the story of your missed flight as a warning about being organized and prepared, and he wants to tell it as a way to highlight the need to go with the flow — the evangelists shaped the fundamental story of Jesus in accord with what struck them as the most significant points of his life and ministry, what their audiences most needed to hear.

In the eighth chapter of his Gospel, Luke has finished introducing Jesus, and is ready to really help his audience understand what being a disciple means. He begins by describing who is following Jesus — the Twelve and the women — and then offers a general description of what Jesus’ ministry is about. Jesus then tells his first parable (the parable of the sower and the seeds, which is the first parable Jesus relates in all of the Gospels), then quickly calms a storm, performs another dramatic exorcism, raises a little girl back to life, and in the midst of it tells his followers, firmly, that his blood relations are not his family, but rather those who “hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21).

So that’s the context of the introduction of Mary Magdalene and the other women — not just to set the stage, to complete the cast of characters, because Luke, like all of the other evangelists, didn’t have vellum to spare to do such a thing. Every word he wrote had a purpose, and it was very focused — here, to set before us, in quick, strong strokes, what this kingdom of God was all about. What do we learn from the presence of the women?

First, we learn that women are present, period. Women were not chattel slaves in first-century Judaism, by any means, but neither were they often, if ever, seen leaving their ordinary lives to follow a rabbi. In fact, scholar Ben Witherington describes this conduct as “scandalous” in the cultural context (Women in the Ministry of Jesus [Cambridge University Press, 1984]):

“We know women were allowed to hear the word of God in the synagogue but they were never disciples of a rabbi unless their husband or master was a rabbi willing to teach them.Though a woman might be taught certain negative precepts of the Law out of necessity,this did not mean they would be taught rabbinic explanations of Torah. For a Jewish woman to leave home and travel with a rabbi was not only unheard of, it was scandalous. Even more scandalous was the fact that women, both respectable and not, were among Jesus’ traveling companions.” (Witherington, p. 117)

And not just any women, either. As we noted earlier, Mary Magdalene was once possessed by seven demons. In this culture, those possessed were ostracized — one man Jesus exorcised is described as living in a cemetery (Luke 8:27). Mary Magdalene, formerly at the margins of society, has been transformed by Jesus and is now welcomed as a disciple. The barriers of class, too, are broken, Luke hints, with the presence of Joanna, the wife of a per-son of stature. In God’s kingdom, Luke makes clear, the world we know is being turned upside down.

Just as every phrase and scene in the Gospels is carefully chosen under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so are the parts of the Gospel related. We meet Mary Magdalene here, but we will not see her again for many chapters — until the Passion narrative begins. But when we do encounter her — again, with the other women — here’s what she will be doing: she will be standing near the cross, she will then be preparing Jesus’ body for burial, and later she will see and witness to the empty tomb, and encounter the risen Jesus.

Mary will be serving, still. She serves, watches, and waits, the only remaining link between Jesus’ Galilean ministry, his Passion, and the Resurrection. She is introduced as a grateful, faithful dis-ciple, and that she will remain, a witness to the life Jesus brings.

 

Already, there’s a sort of mystery: what were these demons? What exactly happened to Mary? The evangelists don’t tell us, perhaps because they and Mary herself knew that life with Jesus is not about looking back into the past, but rather rejoicing in God’s power to transform our lives in the present.

 

Questions for Reflection

 

  1. What do we know about Mary Magdalene’s life from the Gospels?
  1. What does her presence in Jesus’ ministry tell you about the kingdom of God that Jesus preached?
  2.   How has God acted in your life with power? How do you respond to that? How would you like to respond?

MORE

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As I’ve mentioned several times, the Loyola Kids Book of Bible Storiespublished in 2017, presents Scripture to children and families in the way most Catholics encounter the Bible: through their placement in the liturgical year.

Generally. 

Because, as you know, there are going to be exceptions. But in general – for example – we hear the messianic prophecies of Isaiah during Advent. We hear account of Jesus’ temptation in the desert on the first Sunday of Lent. And somewhere in the beginning of Ordinary Time, we’ll hear this:

After he had finished speaking, he said to Simon,
“Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.”
Simon said in reply,
“Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing,
but at your command I will lower the nets.”
When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish
and their nets were tearing.
They signaled to their partners in the other boat
to come to help them.
They came and filled both boats
so that the boats were in danger of sinking.

So this narrative is in the section – surprise – “Ordinary Time.”

I’ve included the first and the last page, so you can also get a sense of how I wrote each story. (Click on the images for larger versions)

 

The bulk of it, of course, is just a retelling of the Scripture.

And then, after the narrative, I tie the Scripture into some aspect of Catholic faith and life – as you can see here, the role of the apostles in the Church, as well as the call to all of us to follow Christ. And each entry ends with a suggestion for thinking and conversation, as well as a prayer.

Presenting the Bible to children is not a simple task. I really think that in this – as is the case with so much catechesis – it’s a good idea to trust the experience and presence of the Spirit in the Church and organize our Scriptural catechesis according in line with that experience: putting the Psalms at the center of our daily prayer life with children – instead of constantly inviting them to make up their own prayers, or offering them our weak, pedantic efforts – as well as letting our Scripture reading be guided by how the Church lives with God’s Word. Yes, the contemporary lectionary has flaws – including selective editing of passages that make modern people uncomfortable – so, yes, it’s good to start with what’s in the lectionary, but then turn right to the Bible itself to get the whole picture. But even with that weakness, it’s far more sensible to use Scripture  – especially in catechesis and formation – according to the experience of the Body of Christ instead of presenting it as a handy personal guidebook to be cherry-picked according to my Feelings of the Day.

Go here for more information on the Loyola series, including this book.

 

 

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— 1 —

It’s the second of September’s Ember Days. Go here for more information on what that means. 

Today’s the feast of St. Matthew.

A few St. Matthew links for you.

From B16,back in 2006:

On the basis of these simple observations that result from the Gospel, we can advance a pair of thoughts.

The first is that Jesus welcomes into the group of his close friends a man who, according to the concepts in vogue in Israel at that time, was regarded as a public sinner.

Matthew, in fact, not only handled money deemed impure because of its provenance from people foreign to the"amy welborn"People of God, but he also collaborated with an alien and despicably greedy authority whose tributes moreover, could be arbitrarily determined.

This is why the Gospels several times link “tax collectors and sinners” (Mt 9: 10; Lk 15: 1), as well as “tax collectors and prostitutes” (Mt 21: 31).

Furthermore, they see publicans as an example of miserliness (cf. Mt 5: 46: they only like those who like them), and mention one of them, Zacchaeus, as “a chief tax collector, and rich” (Lk 19: 2), whereas popular opinion associated them with “extortioners, the unjust, adulterers” (Lk 18: 11).

A first fact strikes one based on these references: Jesus does not exclude anyone from his friendship. Indeed, precisely while he is at table in the home of Matthew-Levi, in response to those who expressed shock at the fact that he associated with people who had so little to recommend them, he made the important statement: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mk 2: 17).

The good news of the Gospel consists precisely in this: offering God’s grace to the sinner!

Elsewhere, with the famous words of the Pharisee and the publican who went up to the Temple to pray, Jesus actually indicates an anonymous tax collector as an appreciated example of humble trust in divine mercy: while the Pharisee is boasting of his own moral perfection, the “tax collector… would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!’”.

And Jesus comments: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk 18: 13-14).

Thus, in the figure of Matthew, the Gospels present to us a true and proper paradox: those who seem to be the farthest from holiness can even become a model of the acceptance of God’s mercy and offer a glimpse of its marvellous effects in their own lives.

From today’s Office of Readings:

There is no reason for surprise that the tax collector abandoned earthly wealth as soon as the Lord commanded him. Nor should one be amazed that neglecting his wealth, he joined a band of men whose leader had, on Matthew’s assessment, no riches at all. Our Lord summoned Matthew by speaking to him in words. By an invisible, interior impulse flooding his mind with the light of grace, he instructed him to walk in his footsteps. In this way Matthew could understand that Christ, who was summoning him away from earthly possessions, had incorruptible treasures of heaven in his gift.

What strikes us about the story of Matthew is the immediacy of his response. Invited by Jesus, he simply leaves his sinful life behind. No ambiguity, no parsing of matters of subjectivity and objectivity. This perhaps is not something we are all capable of at every moment, but it is certainly a response we recognize as the ideal one, articulated by Jesus himself (Mark 10:29) and lived out by people like Matthew.

The spiritual life is a never-ending, fascinating and mysterious dynamic, it seems to me, between finding God in all things and if anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother…cannot be my disciple. 

 

 

 — 2 —

This, of course, is from one of his GA talks on the apostles and which were collected in book form by various publishers, including OSV. Back in the day, I wrote a study guide for these collected talks to be used either by individuals or groups in parish discussion settings. Here’s the section on Matthew. Feel free to use!

 

— 3 —

 

Speaking of St. Matthew and speaking of parish adult religious education, maybe consider this Loyola Press Six Weeks with the Bible book on the Passion accounts in Matthew:

 

— 4 —

This came across one of my social media feeds, as things do, and it was very striking and sobering: “27 Photos that prove that depression has no face or mood.”  Photographs  – random, candid photos – of people smiling and having a great time, people who just a day or two after the photo was taken, committed suicide. 

Well worth pondering and prayer, and a reminder to be aware, be kind, be open and never assume. Anything.

 

— 5 –

Something surprising and sad: one of the earlier Catholic bloggers, Zippy Catholic, died this week in a bike accident. 

 

 

— 6 —

Here’s something: a secret Reformation-era chapel in Amsterdam: 

One of the oldest continuously operating churches in the Netherlands is hidden away in an attic not far from Amsterdam’s infamous red-light district.

The story of how the chapel came to be starts with Jan Hartman, a German Catholic living in Amsterdam during the Reformation.

During the 17th century, Hartman, like all Catholics, was prevented from exercising his faith in public following the rebellion of the majority-Protestant Low Countries, encompassing parts of modern-day Belgium and the Netherlands, against the Catholic king Philip II of Spain. This led to hostility towards Catholics in the Dutch capital. All Catholic churches were turned into Protestant ones, and many Catholics fled the city to pursue their religious freedom.

But instead of fleeing, Hartman came up with an innovative solution to continue practicing his faith. He brought the two properties on each side of his own home and turned the attic in one of them, at Number 40, Oudezijds Voorburgwal, right near the infamous red light district, into a secret Catholic church. Fellow Catholics could access the “schuilkerk” (literally “clandestine church”) through a spiral staircase hidden behind a fake door in the living room. They would often resort to code language to share news about Mass and other services. F or instance saying “I am going to the parrot” was a way to say that Mass was going to be celebrated.

— 7 —

Finally, here’s a story about spiderwebs enveloping a Greek town, notable, not only for the very fact of it, but for this quote, which I would like to frame:

“The spiders will have their party and will soon die.”

I mean….is there a more succinct summary of life on earth?

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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She was, after the Blessed Virgin herself, the most widely-venerated saint of the Medieval period, and July 22 is her feast day. Yes, it’s a Sunday – so we don’t celebrate it. But we’ll celebrate anyway.

As Pope St. Gregory the Great said of her (as is quoted in the Office of Readings today)

 We should reflect on Mary’s attitude and the great love she felt for Christ; for though the disciples had left the tomb, she remained. She was still seeking the one she had not found, and while she sought she wept; burning with the fire of love, she longed for him who she thought had been taken away. And so it happened that the woman who stayed behind to seek Christ was the only one to see him. For perseverance is essential to any good deed, as the voice of truth tells us: Whoever perseveres to the end will be saved.
  At first she sought but did not find, but when she persevered it happened that she found what she was looking for. When our desires are not satisfied, they grow stronger, and becoming stronger they take hold of their object. Holy desires likewise grow with anticipation, and if they do not grow they are not really desires. Anyone who succeeds in attaining the truth has burned with such a great love. As David says: My soul has thirsted for the living God; when shall I come and appear before the face of God? And so also in the Song of Songs the Church says: I was wounded by love; and again: My soul is melted with love.
  Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek? She is asked why she is sorrowing so that her desire might be strengthened; for when she mentions whom she is seeking, her love is kindled all the more ardently.
  Jesus says to her: Mary. Jesus is not recognised when he calls her “woman”; so he calls her by name, as though he were saying: Recognise me as I recognise you; for I do not know you as I know others; I know you as yourself. And so Mary, once addressed by name, recognises who is speaking. She immediately calls him rabboni, that is to say, teacher,because the one whom she sought outwardly was the one who inwardly taught her to keep on searching.
I wrote a book about St. Mary Magdalene, rather horrendously titled De-Coding Mary Magdalene (an allusion to the previous DVC-related book…I argued against it, but…lost)…but I did enjoy researching and writing the book – the history of MM’s cultus is quite revealing about both Western and Eastern Christianity. The Da Vinci Code moment has mercifully past, but I hope St. Mary Magdalene’s hasn’t.
Our Sunday Visitor took the book out of print, but I’ve republished it in digital form under the title Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legends and Lies. You can purchase it for .99 here. 
Over the past week, I’ve excerpted portions of the book. Scroll back to see those excerpts.

Mary Magdalene was an enormously important figure in early Christianity. She was, after the Blessed Virgin Mary, the most popular saint of the Middle Ages. Her cultus reveals much about medieval views of women, sexuality, sin, and repentance. Today, Mary Magdalene is experiencing a renaissance, not so much from within institutional Christianity, but among people, mostly women, some Christian, many not, who have adopted her as an inspiration and patron of their own spiritual fads, paths, and fantasies.

Mary Magdalene is the patron saint of contemplatives, converts, pharmacists, glove makers, hairdressers, penitent sinners, perfumers, sexual temptation, and women.
This book is a very basic introduction to the facts and the fiction surrounding Mary Magdalene. We’ll unpack what Scripture has to say about her identity and role in apostolic Christianity. We’ll see how, very soon after that apostolic era, she was adopted by a movement that remade her image in support of its own theological agenda, a dynamic we see uncannily and, without irony, repeated today.

We’ll look at the ways in which both Western and Eastern Christianity have described, honored, and been inspired by her, and how their stories about her have diverged. During the Middle Ages in the West, Mary Magdalene’s story functioned most of all as a way to teach Christians about sin and forgiveness: how to be penitent, and with the hope of redemption open to all. She made frequent appearances in religious art, writing, and drama. She inspired many to help women and girls who had turned to prostitution or were simply destitute. She inspired Franciscans and Dominicans in their efforts to preach reform and repentance.

It all sounds very positive, and most of it, indeed, is. That’s not, however, the idea we get from some contemporary commentators on Mary Magdalene’s historical image.

Many of you might have had your interest in the Magdalene piqued by the novel The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown. In that novel, Brown, picking up on strains bubbling through pop culture and pseudo-historical writings of the past fifteen years or so, presents a completely different Mary Magdalene than the woman we meet in the Gospels and traditional Christian piety. She was, according to Brown, Jesus’ real choice to lead his movement; a herald of Jesus’ message of the unity of the masculine and feminine aspects of reality; a valiant and revered leader opposed by another faction of Jesus’ apostles led by Peter; the mother of Jesus’ child; and in the end, some sort of divine figure herself. Mary Magdalene is no less than the Holy Grail herself, bearing the “blood” of Jesus in the form of his child.

A glorious figure, indeed, was this Mary Magdalene, but one that a patriarchal church could not permit to flourish. So, the story goes, a new image of Mary was created: that of the penitent prostitute. This Mary Magdalene, degraded and demeaned, was the tool of a conspiracy to degrade and demean women in general, and to bury the “truth” of Mary Magdalene’s leadership in early Christianity once and for all.

…….

The Magdalene-Spouse-Queen-Goddess-Holy-Grail theories are not serious history, so, frankly, we are not going to bother with them until the final chapter, and then only briefly. What we will be looking at — the history of the person and the imagery of Mary Magdalene — is daunting, rich, and fascinating enough.

The contemporary scholarship on Mary (and, indeed, on much of the history of Christian spirituality and religious practices) is growing so fast and is so rich that all I can do here is simply provide an introduction. A thorough, objective introduction, I hope, but the fact is that the burgeoning scholarship on Mary Magdalene is quite vast, and much of it, particularly that dealing with the medieval period, is not yet available in English. I have provided an annotated bibliography at the end of this book for those readers interested in pursuing this subject in more depth.
Our brief survey will undoubtedly be revealing, as we rediscover how deeply Mary Magdalene has been revered, used, and yes, misused and misunderstood by Christians over the centuries. The story, I hope, will be provocative in the best sense. For the fact is, the greatest interest in Mary Magdalene in the West today comes from those outside of or only nominally attached to the great course of traditional apostolic Christianity. Roman Catholics, in particular, seem to have lost interest in her, as, it must be admitted, they have in most saints.

Lots of people are listening to a Magdalene of their own making, a figure with only the most tentative connection to the St. Mary Magdalene of centuries of traditional Christian witness.

May the story recounted in the book play a part in reclaiming Mary Magdalene, so that we may hear her speak clearly again, as she does in the Gospels: for Jesus Christ, her Risen Lord.

***

From Pope Benedict XVI:

The story of Mary of Magdala reminds us all of a fundamental truth: a disciple of Christ is one who, in the experience of human weakness, has had the humility to ask for his help, has been healed by him and has set out following closely after him, becoming a witness of the power of his merciful love that is stronger than sin and death.

****

In 2012, we went to Mass a couple of times at La Madeleine.  Here’s a post on it, and below is a lousy photograph of the the altarpiece, St. Mary Magdalene being transported to heaven:

 

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Are you interested in the dynamic between the French Third Republic and Catholicism as played out in colonized lands?

No??

Well, too bad.

This week’s meaty read was An Empire Divided by Stanford historian J.P. Daughton. I’ll just borrow a summary:

Between 1880 and 1914, tens of thousands of men and women left France for distant religious missions, driven by the desire to spread the word of Jesus Christ, combat Satan, and convert the world’s pagans to Catholicism. But they were not the only ones with eyes fixed on foreign shores. Just as the Catholic missionary movement reached its apex, the young, staunchly secular Third Republic launched the most aggressive campaign of colonial expansion in French history. Missionaries and republicans abroad knew they had much to gain from working together, but their starkly different motivations regularly led them to view one another with resentment, distrust, and even fear. 

In An Empire Divided, J.P. Daughton tells the story of how troubled relations between Catholic missionaries and a host of republican critics shaped colonial policies, Catholic amy-welborn5perspectives, and domestic French politics in the tumultuous decades before the First World War. With case studies on Indochina, Polynesia, and Madagascar, An Empire Divided–the first book to examine the role of religious missionaries in shaping French colonialism–challenges the long-held view that French colonizing and “civilizing” goals were shaped by a distinctly secular republican ideology built on Enlightenment ideals. By exploring the experiences of Catholic missionaries, one of the largest groups of French men and women working abroad, Daughton argues that colonial policies were regularly wrought in the fires of religious discord–discord that indigenous communities exploited in responding to colonial rule. 

After decades of conflict, Catholics and republicans in the empire ultimately buried many of their disagreements by embracing a notion of French civilization that awkwardly melded both Catholic and republican ideals. But their entente came at a price, with both sides compromising long-held and much-cherished traditions for the benefit of establishing and maintaining authority. Focusing on the much-neglected intersection of politics, religion, and imperialism, Daughton offers a new understanding of both the nature of French culture and politics at the fin de siecle, as well as the power of the colonial experience to reshape European’s most profound beliefs.

Does it seem obscure? Perhaps – but then consider this. It’s a story of men and women in various lands living their lives of administration, mission, and whatever daily pursuits are theirs. They’re doing what they’re doing in a certain context that they both create and by which they are created.

Which is exactly what you and I are doing, and someday, someone will write a history of, say, the interplay between Christianity and the United States of Trump or Obama or in the context of early 21st century globalism, and while it might seem an academic question, you see now that it’s not – for it’s where you’re living and all of what’s swirling around in the air is shaping how you and I think about everything, including faith.

That’s why history interests me so much. I’m just taken up with curiosity about human motivation and choices and the dynamics that move us in one direction or another – as individuals and en masse. I’m the person standing at the edge of the crowd studying everyone and (probably) eavesdropping. Reading history is just staring and eavesdropping from a distance, therefore much more politely.

And as regular readers know, I’m particularly interested in histories that promise to bust up a narrative and question received wisdom. Those are my favorites.

An Empire Divided does some of that. What Daughton takes on is the tendency of historians of colonialism and imperialism to at best misunderstand and at worst ignore the role of missions. He hones in on three areas in order to make his case: Indochina, French Polynesia and Madagascar.

Some of the interesting and important points:

  • The Third Republic was, of course, anti-Catholic and the conflict between the Church and the Republic tends to define late 19th century French history. This conflict culminated in early 20th century laws that severely limited the Church’s role in French society. The fascinating irony, as Daughton points out, is that even as Republicans were fulminating against the Church at home, abroad, they were finding that their imperial aspirations were deeply dependent on….Catholic missionaries. C’est un problème!
  • For, of course, French Catholic missionaries had been present in these areas before French administrators. Their presence was vital in helping the French colonizers establish their foothold and often in keeping peace. And of course, it was mostly Catholic male and female missionaries who ran the schools, hospitals and orphanages. So the rabidly anti-Catholic French Republicans found themselves in a bit of a quandary out in the field.
  • How they dealt with this was largely dependent on the political winds back in France. At times there was an understanding relationship, but at times, things went south – as they did in Polynesia, when eventually, the government took over all the Catholic establishments and kicked the missionaries – mostly religious women – out of their roles. Another point: the stronger the role Freemasons had in local government, the greater the hostility to the Catholics was – not surprisingly.
  • In Madagascar, the situation was made even more complex by the presence of Protestants. This was fairly convoluted, and related to the earlier presence of the English on the island before the French took it. English Protestants and Quakers had great success in evangelizing Madagascar before the French decided they wanted it. Their continuing presence contributed to tensions which French Protestants thought they might help alleviate – but as it turns out, no one on any side wanted them. Of course the French Catholic missionaries (mostly Jesuits) didn’t want them around. Most of the time, the French administration didn’t want them because they suspected them of being allied with the English (which the French Protestants vigorously attempted to dispute, consciously aligning themselves with French Revolutionary and Republican ideals) and even the English Protestants didn’t want them because their ministry was mostly with indigenous peoples hostile to French rule…so more French speakers, no matter how Protestant, wouldn’t help. Quite interesting.
  • The other major thread running through the narrative focuses on the impact of French Republican ideals and practices on Catholic missions. For the first part of the period, Catholic missionaries saw their role as purely religious, with no connection at all to French aims, not even culturally. The French were constantly irritated with the Catholic missionaries in Indochina and Polynesia, for example, because they balked at teaching the indigenous peoples French. The narratives that the missionaries provide for this period are focused on matters of salvation and moral life and are at the very least, indifferent to colonizers and at most extremely hostile to them and the destruction and harm they brought to the people whom they were serving. (This is a common theme in mission work, and a tension worth remembering.)

So:

Sisters, however did not see officials or the effects of colonialism in such benign terms. Envisioning their schools as sanctuaries from corrupting colonial influences, teaching sisters were critical of official policies contemptuous of the administration, and disdainful of the colonial expansion that brought white men in close proximity to their girls. More than a love or a hatred of all things French, Catholic sisters instilled in their students of French men

amy_welborn8

 of all kinds: merchants marines colonists and officials. In missionary sisters’ eyes, the very administrators who came to inspect their schools were symbols of moral debauchery that quite literally threatened the lives of their students….Though teaching sisters were practical and inexpensive, officials’ particular esteem for them became increasingly fraught with paradox…

…Nonetheless, just as republicans in France were calling for the “separation of Church and schoo,” administrators in Polynesia (and elsewhere across the French empire) were asking missionaries to play an important role in civilizing colonial subjects. (143-44, 150)

  • But over time, in almost all cases, the French Catholic missionaries shifted their tone and began to present themselves as part of the French colonial enterprise to the world. Mostly, one can assume, for reasons of self-preservation.
  • Daughton’s evidence for this is in the voluminous and popular magazines and almanacs published by French missionary societies, which over time began to present missionary efforts as an important and necessary element of the light that France was bringing to a darkened world.
  • But then, of course, irony of ironies – how it all worked out:

Across the former colonial world, the most imposing structures — be it in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, or in the port of Papeete — are often the spires of the century-old French churches. Today, in many regions of the world once under the French flag, Catholicism has often endured and even flourished where liberal, republican ideals have faded and where French has become an archaic tongue. Considering how deeply religion shapes people’s lives and defines their communities, the most profound legacy of French republican imperialism may well be, ironically, Christianity. (266)

Finally, Daughton points to an apostolic letter of Benedict XV, Maximum Illud, published in 1919 to help Catholics refocus on mission aims in the wake of the devastation of the Great War. There’s a section he takes to be a reference to the direction French missions had been taking over the previous two decades:

  1. It would be tragic indeed if any of our missionaries forgot the dignity of their office so completely as to busy themselves with the interests of their terrestrial homeland instead of with those of their homeland in heaven. It would be a tragedy indeed if an apostolic man were to spend himself in attempts to increase and exalt the prestige of the native land he once left behind him. Such behavior would infect his apostolate like a plague. It would destroy in him, the representative of the Gospel, the sinews of his love for souls and it would destroy his reputation with the populace. For no matter how wild and barbarous a people may be, they are well aware of what the missionary is doing in their country and of what he wants for them. They will subject him in their own way to a very searching investigation, and if he has any object in view other than their spiritual good, they will find out about it. Suppose it becomes clear that he is involved in worldly schemes of some kind, and that, instead of devoting himself exclusively to the work of the apostolate, he is serving the interests of his homeland as well. The people immediately suspect everything he does. And in addition, such a situation could easily give rise to the conviction that the Christian religion is the national religion of some foreign people and that anyone converted to it is abandoning his loyalty to his own people and submitting to the pretensions and domination of a foreign power.
  2. We have been deeply saddened by some recent accounts of missionary life, accounts that displayed more zeal for the profit of some particular nation than for the growth of the kingdom of God. We have been astonished at the indifference of their authors to the amount of hostility these works stir up in the minds of unbelievers. This is not the way of the Catholic missionary, not if he is worthy of the name. No, the true missionary is always aware that he is not working as an agent of his country, but as an ambassador of Christ. And his conduct is such that it is perfectly obvious to anyone watching him that he represents a Faith that is alien to no nation on earth, since it embraces all men who worship God in spirit and in truth, a Faith in which “there is no Gentile, no Jew, no circumcised, no uncircumcised, no barbarian, no Scythian, no slave, no free man, but Christ is everything in each of us” (Colossians 3:12).

 

It’s clear, not just from this slice, but from the rest of Catholic history as well, that even those most dedicated to the Gospel face the tension of how to do that, as Pope Benedict XV says, within the context of their terrestrial homeland. The pressure to conform to this world and to allow the priorities and values of the principalities and powers to define us is always – always present and powerful, and we are fools to ignore it and worse than fools to be complacent, let down our guard and assume that we are beyond all that in this present moment.

Now, missionary histories were rewritten to show the triumphs of republican colonialism. The readiness and speed with which missionaries reconfigured their venerated spiritual traditions are evidence of the power of the modern nation-state – especially through the experience of colonialism – to demand patriotic conformity from all quarters of the population, even traditionally nonnational organizations like Catholic missionary orders. Within a few fleeting years Catholic missionaries found it impossible to see their work in purely spiritual terms. The politics of religion in fin-de-siècle France required missionaries to work for their patrie on earth or else risk giving up their service to their God in heaven. (256) 

 

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