jonmsweeney

Archive for November, 2011|Monthly archive page

Was Jesus Born into a Broken Family? A Reflection for Advent

In Uncategorized on November 30, 2011 at 12:44 am

If you pay any attention to ads this time of year, you might think the holidays are made exclusively for satisfied husbands and doting wives, children who always try their best in school and always come home at the end of the day, and families that are healthy, wealthy, and happy. The ideals of the traditional family are felt most of all at Christmastime—and perhaps most of all by those of us who don’t entirely fit the picture.

My friend, Dave, feels alienated and alone this time of year. He is single, and just the word, “single,” he thinks, sounds incomplete. The company party is rough. All of the other managers are married, or at least coupled, and he feels at odds especially when they go out of their way to make him feel included. Dave also has to figure out what he’ll do or where he’ll go on Thanksgiving and Christmas days—something that many a married person hasn’t had to consider for years.

Can it be that the story of Advent and Christmas holds less meaning for the single, separated, and divorced? I don’t think so – not if we look at the facts. What would it mean if the Holy Family—the way that Christian tradition refers to Mary, Joseph, and Jesus—represented something quite different from today’s “ideal” family? Let’s take the biblical characters out of the crèche and imagine the real circumstances of their lives. What if they were actually examples of what we might call today a non-traditional, or even, broken, family? The truth is, today’s single-parent, multi-generational, dysfunctional, non-traditional families are as much a mirror of the family of Jesus as are homes with a Norman Rockwell or Frank Capra husband and wife with two-and-a-half kids.

Look at what we know from the account in the Gospel of Luke: Mary was pregnant and unwed; the father of her child was not the man to whom she was betrothed; and Joseph’s role is blurry at best. Joseph does not even appear to be the holy child’s father until together with Mary they are heading from Nazareth to Bethlehem, Joseph’s hometown, for the census. Even then the text is unclear on Joseph’s role: “He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son.” (Luke 2:5-7; NRSV) Her child. Her firstborn son. Mary sounds a lot like what we would call a single mom. And Joseph sounds like a man who has yet to adopt his wife’s child. Only when bringing Jesus up to the Temple does the text for the first time use a plural pronoun, “they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.” (Luke 2:22)

Mary, it seems, was much stronger and more independent than the crèche figures ever communicate. After the flight from Herod into Egypt, Joseph makes no appearances in Matthew’s gospel. There’s no mention of him at all in either Mark or John. And in Luke, the last mentions of Joseph come when Jesus was twelve years old and staying behind in Jerusalem to talk with the teachers, and then a brief mention when Jesus’ ancestry is chronicled after his baptism. It appears to be Mary, and only Mary, who tutored the boy Jesus, raised him, and then later, watched him die with the courage of a woman at her son’s execution.

So when you look at the crèche this year, try considering that the Holy Family was not ideal. None of our families are.

Only one pope in history has ever walked away…

In Uncategorized on November 26, 2011 at 11:11 pm

As the Middle Ages wound to a close there lived three men, each powerful and stubborn, each extraordinarily skilled at the life and work to which he seems destined from birth. Most important of them all was Peter Morrone, a monk and a hermit, a reformer, the founder of a religious order, and depending on who talk to, also an instigator, prophet, coward or saint. He would become Celestine V – the only Pope in history who has ever quit.

Beside Peter, supporting and corrupting him, was Charles II of Anjou, the ingratiating King of Naples, who kept this hermit pope on a tight leash.

And then beside both of them was Cardinal Benedict Gaetani, one of the eleven electors who picked Peter as pope. Born as Benedetto, the son of Gaetani, he was a true Roman, high-born into a prominent family. Trained as a lawyer, Gaetani became a member of the papal curia at the age of twenty-nine. For the next thirty years, he gained a reputation as a legate who could represent the Holy See in confronting heresy and spiritual rebellion in places like England and France. A skilled canon lawyer, he would become the trusted, conniving advisor who helped Pope Celestine V resign from office – only to himself take the Chair eleven days later.

Theirs is the story I tell in The Pope Who Quit: A True Medieval Tale of Mystery, Death, and Salvation, coming March 6, 2012 from Image Books.

Why Would Anyone Go to Confession?

In Uncategorized on November 16, 2011 at 8:02 pm

I find that I’m only able to put my spirituality into practice when I am willing to enter into what I find to be most strange. This happened when I used beads to help me in prayer, and icons, and special feast days of saints that are precious to me. Most of these things were strange to me at first, really strange, in fact, given the rationalism I was raised with.
This is not spiritual tourism—or at least it doesn’t have to be. I’m not just “trying these things out” before moving on to another set of unusual spiritual practices. What I’m actually trying to do is move beyond tourism and dive head-long into what might make me at first feel uncomfortable. I find my faith becoming deeper the more that I am able to do that.
Eamon Duffy, an Irish scholar of religion, once wrote: “[My childhood] Catholicism was also mystery: the competent mutter and movement of the priest at the altar, the words of power half-understood, the sense of being in touch, literally in touch, with holy things, with Holiness itself.” Yes, I understand the appeal of that.
Holiness is necessarily evocative. Mutter and movement, words only half-understood, the sensuous as a path to the divine—I used to dismiss these out of hand—but I know realize that my faith has always grounded itself in these things whether I admitted it or not. I don’t know nearly as much as I used to think I knew, and I now know that it doesn’t particularly matter.
But going to confession is a whole different animal. Why do it? Why would it be necessary to confess one’s sins to another, let alone to a clergyperson?
The first time that I went to confession, I was in another country. I was 32, in London on business, and felt safe in the knowledge that no one would know me. I can’t explain where the desire to do it first came from. But I know that I never could have brought myself to enter a confessional in my own hometown.
It was a Friday, a popular day for the sacrament in Catholic churches, and I cheered myself through it by thinking I was mostly curious to see if the conversation would go as it does in the movies. I imagined myself to be a Michael Corleone-type character, but nothing could have been further from the truth.
The night beforehand, I sat on my hotel bed and began to think of what I would confess to the priest. Nothing came to me. So I grabbed a pen and notebook in order to stimulate the brain and prompt a list of sins. Still, nothing came. I have never believed myself perfect, but pressed for specifics, I was a blank slate. After an hour or so of this, I finally went to bed. The next morning I ducked into the confessional booth with a short list of general faults and sins from years earlier, because I was so out of the habit of considering my own unrighteousness. By going through the process of trying to go to confession, it had become clear to me that it was something I sorely needed.
So that’s the first reason why anyone would go to confession: It might force you to realize that you are not perfect.
Secondly, Catholics confess their specific sins to someone else because they need to say them out loud, heal, and move on. Humans heal best when they allow others to help them. And we cannot heal unless we can actually recall and name what we need to heal from. As G. K. Chesterton said,

[W]hen a Catholic comes from Confession, he does truly, by definition, step out again into that dawn of his own beginning and look with new eyes across the world…. He believes that in that dim corner, and in that brief ritual, God has really remade him in His own image. He is now a new experiment of the Creator. He is as much a new experiment as he was when he was really only five years old. He stands, as I said, in the white light at the worthy beginning of the life of a man. The accumulations of time can no longer terrify. He may be grey and gouty; but he is only five minutes old.

What Did Saint Francis Look Like?

In Uncategorized on November 6, 2011 at 10:01 pm

Have you ever seen Saint Francis smile? Neither have I, and that’s unfortunate because according to his biographers, he was one of the most joyous of men. Francis was the merry leader of a band of brethren who were self-named, “God’s jugglers,” as they worked and played and sweat and laughed with men in the fields and towns, before they ever preached to them. This sunny disposition also showed itself in the ways Francis located God in some startlingly “new” places according to the thirteenth century worldview: not just in women and men who are trying to be faithful, but in lepers and outcasts, ravenous wolves, fish and birds, the sun and the moon, even bodily pain and death. This is a man who rolled in the snow; who stripped naked in order to demonstrate to his father how joyfully he had renounced owning rich things; and who preached in his underwear to show humility. Still, we never see him smile. What a shame that is.
Blame it on the iconographers – the artists and painters who have rendered Saint Francis’ image since his death in 1226. There are thousands of paintings of Francis. The world’s most popular saint is also, after Jesus, the most painted figure in history. It seems that, at least occasionally, we should see him smile. Instead we usually see him caught in the serious actions of his life story, as told by his biographers.
You might say that there is a “top three” in the history of art of the most important paintings of Saint Francis. First would have to be the fresco on the wall of the chapel of Saint Gregory in the Sacro Speco (English, “sacred grotto”) in Subiaco, a city in the province of Rome. The Subiaco grotto was made famous centuries earlier by Saint Benedict of Nursia, who retreated there and founded the Benedictine order within its walls. Francis’s fresco hangs to the right of the entrance to the cave and is inscribed as painted during the second year of the pontificate of Pope Gregory IX. That dates the painting to late 1228 or early 1229, making it the earliest surviving painting we have of Francis. Many scholars assume that the man you see in that fresco should be as close of a depiction we will ever have of the real Francis. He is wearing the rough habit of his order, a knotted cord about his waist, his hands are pre-stigmata, and he’s barefoot.
Second among the most important paintings of Saint Francis would be Cimabue’s famous portrait that hangs in the right transept of the Lower Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi. The Francis you see, there, appears shorter, swarthier, than the man we see at Sacro Speco. He is showing his stigmatized hands to the painter with downcast, humble eyes. Some biographers prefer this image as the most faithful of the early ones precisely because it seems to show a less idealized man. This feels like the Francis we know from the many of the stories in The Little Flowers and the biographies about him written by Thomas of Celano.
The third most important painting of Saint Francis is certainly the most reproduced image of him: Giotto’s famous fresco, also from San Francesco in Assisi, depicting “The Preaching to the Birds.” This is scene fifteen in the narrative cycle located around the nave of the Upper Basilica. You’ve probably seen it on postcards, coffee mugs, holy medals, in books, films, and on your hotel and tour brochure if you ever visited any town in Umbria, Italy. Each of the images from the famous fresco cycles at San Francesco – just like similar cycles in other Franciscan basilicas throughout Italy – depict the notable scenes from the biographies of Francis. Like any good storytelling of a saint, they show Francis on his way of conversion toward heaven.

The Pope’s Soldiers

In Pope Benedict XVI, Pope John Paul II, The Catholic Church--meaning of on November 1, 2011 at 11:29 pm

It turns out that the military aspects of modern papal history are quite interesting.  Julius II, in the early sixteenth century, may have been the last Pope to lead his own troops into battle, but popes ever since have used military sources and resources. For instance, the Vatican had more than 2,000 soldiers as recently as World War II and they actually came under fire. Check out David Alvarez’s new book, The Pope’s Soldiers: A Military History of the Modern Vatican.

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