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Self-Emptying and Identity in a Secular World

The Gregorian (my current university’s Jesuit rival just around the corner) has been hosting a lecture series this semester on Religion and Identity, featuring speakers from a number of countries speaking on a variety of related topics. While some of my housemates made it to most of the program (Eveline, Rezart, and Esra especially), I had conflicts most days and only made it to one.

Prof. Harvey Cox

As I was walking across the garden on my way out, I ran into Monsignor Dick Liddy, a priest from Seton Hall University who was staying at the Lay Centre this week along with the rest of the New Jersey school’s “core faculty”. Upon inquiry, I told him I was headed to a lecture entitled “Kenosis and Identity in a Secular World” with an American theologian Harvey Cox.

“Harvey Cox? He was big around here when I was a student!” …which was in the late 60’s.

Thus was my introduction to the man shortly thereafter presented at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome as the “most renowned contemporary American theologian”. I have to confess, though the name rang a bell because of my post-academic reading in Pentecostalism and postmodernism, I cannot honestly say I encountered his work in four years at Notre Dame, or in two at CUA. It is possible, there was a lot of reading and it is hard to remember every author I encountered. I certainly never read his 1965 landmark work, The Secular City, much to the shock of my north-European colleagues here: “It’s THE book of our age! How could you not have read it?” said one.

Seems I have more to read than thesis material this summer.

Still, it is impressive to meet someone whose work was already so influential 45 years ago, and is still not merely alive and well, but actively teaching and writing!

The key message of his presentation was this: is it ever truly dialogue if we are guaranteed to “emerge safely”? That is, if we know we will emerge unscathed, unchanged, untouched by dialogue, have we actually engaged in dialogue at all? We have to empty ourselves to engage the other, be open to being convinced by the other while being true to our own identity.

His frequently engaged image was that of an anchor. While most of us think of the anchor as the ultimate brake, the best way to stay stuck in one position to ride out the storm, there is another use. Lest we think we must drop anchor and wait til the “storm” (of modernity, postmodernity, society, whatever) passes, we are called to remember the other use for this ancient symbol of our faith – assistance staying upright and navigating the rough seas while on the move to a destination.

[Again, I have a disclaimer, I am writing these up a month behind, and I do much better reading a text than listening. And anyone who has ever seen my handwriting knows that even taking notes without my computer does not help much!]

Indulgences as Ecumenical Barometer

Prof. Michael Root

Leave it to a Lutheran to research and understand indulgences to the point that he probably knows more about them than any Catholic other than the Major Penitentiary himself. Not just any Lutheran, of course, but Professor Michael Root, a lay ecclesial minister and theologian-ecumenist of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I have had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Root and listening to him on a few occasions – at Oberlin for the F&O anniversary, in Graymoor for a USCCB institute, and at a NWCU or two over the years.

He was in Rome to teach an intensive course at the Gregorian on eschatology in ecumenical perspective (which the Angelicum ecumenism students never heard about until after the fact) and he spoke at the Centro Pro Unione this afternoon. For as high-caliber a presentation as this was, attendance was dismal, I am sad to say, perhaps because of good weather combined with the laissez-faire approach to communication in the Eternal City (“Why is it called the Eternal City? Because that’s how long everything takes!”)

Nevertheless, Professor Root presented a finely honed bit of research on the development of the idea of indulgences in the Catholic Church, its perception and reception in ecumenical encounter and dialogue, and suggested that some of the most recent language of the Church on indulgences is palatable even to Lutheran seminarians! We have come a long way since the Reformation.

Despite these deep changes in indulgence theology, one can still find holy cards printed with actual numbers of “days off” of purgatory for each indulgence, as if time exists in eternity! Most people, Catholic and Protestant alike, probably know nothing about the theory of indulgences that represents theology any more recent than the Reformation. Trent, if we are lucky.

In preparing for the Great Jubilee of 2000, Pope John Paul II had called together an ecumenical commission to advise on the preparations for the Jubilee. One of the points raised was the fact that another planning commission had announced a plenary indulgence for the Jubilee before considering its ecumenical impact, and apparently without applying the pope’s own theology of indulgences to the practice! It was what might be called a catechetical moment for some of the Jubilee planners, and the spark that ignited Prof. Root’s interest in the topic.

A small example of the development in indulgence theology and its slow reception was raised by a member of the audience. The Council of Trent banned the sale of indulgences more than 400 years ago, but even in the run up to the Jubilee 2000, the pope’s own Cathedral, San Giovanni Laterno, had prepared worship aids which included something along the lines of “the purchase of indulgences can be done through the following means…” Though there was no actual sale of indulgences, the language still reflected this idea some four centuries after it had been forbidden by the Catholic Church itself!

The text of the lecture itself will be far more valuable than my month old notes on it, but it does not seem to be online yet. Perhaps in the next copy of the Centro Pro Unione Bulletin. I will repost when available. It will be worth the read!

Angelicum Quote of the Day


Thomas F. O'Meara, OP

One of my favorite professors from Notre Dame, an owlish Dominican ecclesiolgist named Tom O’Meara, published an autobiography a few years ago. I had noticed a copy for sale at the Angelicum bookstore the last couple weeks, but have not been inclined to buy too many extra books while here in Rome. Today, however, I discovered an entire table full of clearance priced texts as they get ready to wind down the academic year, including this paperback at about 85% off the previous price.

Randomly flipping through the book as I logged it into my library inventory, I came across this page describing his first days in Europe in the late summer of 1963:

“I spent my first days in Europe at the Angelicum, the Dominican graduate theological school and seminary. It was named after Thomas Aquinas but called the Angelicum because Aquinas’s theological acumen had resembled that of an angel. With a few eccentric scholars, some inedible meals, primitive toilets, officious porters and sacristans, the “Ange” lived up to what I had heard of it from my teachers who had studied there. A year or two before it had been an almost obligatory school to which Dominicans came from all over the world to gain expeditiously a doctorate. The study of dogmatic theology rarely ranged far from collecting passages from Aquinas on some major or minor topic and ignored other theologians from Origen to Maurice Blondel. Historical contexts and contemporary problems were neglected, for this was a citadel of a strict neo-Thomism where the salvation of Jesuit Suarezians was in only a little less doubt than that of Protestant Hussites. On the eve of the Council, one of the Dominican professors at a meeting of advisors to the Vatican had bemoaned the variety and looseness of theological opinions tolerated by the church, views held even in Rome, views such as those of the Redemptorists in moral theology or the Jesuits in the psychology of grace. He devoutly hoped that the Council would proclaim lists of clear positions on canon law and doctrine so that those vagaries opposed to the Dominican school of Thomism would end. Most of my teachers in the Midwest had received their doctorates from the Angelicum in philosophy, theology, and canon law. What soon amazed me was that American Dominicans had lived in Rome without becoming interested in history or art. Their graduate studies had been repetitive, boring, more memorized scholasticism, and the two years were physically and psychologically difficult, the life of prisoners whose goal was survival. Sadly, poverty, isolation, and rigidity of daily schedule – even in a cloister arranged around a fountain and palm trees and perched above the Roman forum- had for most blocked out the history and beauty around them.”

Thomas F. O’Meara, OP, A Theologian’s Journey, 70.

Quote of the Day

Visible union with the Catholic Church does not mean absorption into a monolith, with the absorbed body being lost to the greater whole, the way a teaspoon of sugar would be lost if dissolved in a gallon of coffee. Rather, visible union with the Catholic Church can be compared to an orchestral ensemble. Some instruments can play all the notes, like a piano. There is no note that a piano has that a violin or a harp or a flute or a tuba does not have. But when all these instruments play the notes that the piano has, the notes are enriched and enhanced. The result is symphonic, full communion. One can perhaps say that the ecumenical movement wishes to move from cacophony to symphony, with all playing the same notes of doctrinal clarity, the same euphonic chords of sanctifying activity, observing the rhythm of Christian conduct in charity, and filling the world with the beautiful and inviting sound of the Word of God. While the other instruments may tune themselves according to the piano, when playing in concert there is no mistaking them for the piano. It is God’s will that those to whom the Word of God is addressed, the world, that is, should hear one pleasing melody made splendid by the contributions of many different instruments.

William Cardinal Levada
Five Hundred Years After St. John Fisher: Benedict’s Ecumenical Initiatives to Anglicans
Delivered at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario
March 6, 2010

Mar Bawai Soro

One of my intensive courses this semester is “The History of Aramaic Christianity”, taught by Mar Bawai Soro, a bishop of the Chaldean Catholic Church whose name is probably familiar to anyone who has been involved in ecumenism the last few years. He was also our guest for dinner at the Lay Centre this evening. (And though he did not share this, he was the person who, during the Jubilee Year 2000, recieved from Pope John Paul II the cross carried at the Stations of the Cross at the Colosseum. The pope carried it to the first two stations, handed off to Bishop Bawai for the second two, who then handed it off again.)

History of Aramaic Christianity, Angelicum, 2010

In most church history classes I have taken or taught, the focus is usually on the history of the Church within the Roman empire, and subsequently the nations were in direct succession from that Empire. Sometimes it gets even more eclipsed if the focus is purely on the Latin Church, the churches directly associated with the ritual and patriarchal patrimony of the church of Rome itself (ie, the Roman Catholic Church). It is sometimes news enough for people to realize there were four other apostolic sees within the Roman empire besides Rome! But we have often forgotten entirely the church in Asia, beyond the borders of the ancient Roman Empire.

The focus of our studies for this course have been on that Church of the East – not the Eastern or Oriental Orthodox Churches, but further east, in Mesopotamia and what was part of the Persian Empire at the time of Constantine. This church never enjoyed the status of being an official religion of the empire, as did the church in the empire of Rome and Constantinople. In fact, persecution only increased after Christianity became associated with the enemy to the west. To this day, being Christian in this area makes you suspect of collaboration with the “West” – whether that is Emperor Constantine or President Bush, and whether the dominant religion is Persian Zoroastrianism or Shi’a Islam.

This was the church of refuge for the Nestorians and the theological School of Antioch, driven across the border in the aftermath of the Council of Ephesus in 431, and a place where the theological battle between Monophysites and Nestorians was waged for centuries. The first stopping point for the missionary activity of the Apostle Thomas, the Mesopotamian church was the mother church of the earliest Christians in India, still known as Mar Thoma (St. Thomas) Christians. Missionaries of this church had reached Mongolia and China by the sixth century, and some scholars have suggested communities as far as Japan.

The current heirs to this tradition include:

  • The Assyrian Church of the East, with about 250,000 members, traditionally centered in Iraq
  • The Chaldean Catholic Church, with about 750,000 members, centered in Iraq
  • The Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, with about 4 million members centered in the state of Kerala, India

Mar Bawai Soro

Much of the Church of the East’s history has been marked by political and ecclesial isolation – first by being the Christians outside the Roman empire, then ecclesially, and throughout by being more or less constantly a persecuted minority in Zoroastrian Persia, or Muslim Arab and Mongol rule. Several times in the last six centuries dioceses and other groups of the faithful would resume full communion with Rome. The first, in 1445 was the archbishop of Cyprus and his diocese, who after a couple generations were unfortunately Latinized and assimilated into the Latin (Roman) Catholic Church. A couple others only lasted for a century or so, eventually leaving communion again. Finally, the Patriarch (one of two rivals, anyway) and his cohort came in to full communion in 1830, giving us the current Chaldean Catholic Church. The rival patriarchal line and those in communion with it remain today as the Assyrian Church of the East, though they were the line which had been in Catholic communion for a century or so during the 16th and 17th centuries.

For 20 years, Bishop Bawai served this church as a bishop and as their top theologian and ecumenical officer (a sort of Ratzinger-Kasper combo, if you will), and participated in the Assyrian-Catholic dialogue from its inception, through the Common Christological Declaration of 1994 and the preparation of the Common Sacramental Declaration that was to follow.

For those who wonder about the products of ecumenism, it only took 8 years of dialogue to resolve the Christological issue that split the church 1500 years ago, and confess together that : 

Our Lord Jesus Christ is true God and true man, perfect in his divinity and perfect in his humanity, consubstantial with the Father and consubstantial with us in all things but sin. His divinity and his humanity are united in one person, without confusion or change, without division or separation. In him has been preserved the difference of the natures of divinity and humanity, with all their properties, faculties and operations. But far from constituting “one and another”, the divinity and humanity are united in the person of the same and unique Son of God and Lord Jesus Christ, who is the object of a single adoration.

This is why there is always hope!

Of course, that hope is always needed. The reality of the impending full communion with the Catholic Church provoked some nervousness. Understandably, I suppose: Comparatively, we are beyond huge (4400 Catholics for every one Assyrian Christian), and the prospect of the Patriarch becoming a mere cardinal, as some bloggers have put it, was uninviting. Their decision was to suspend the dialogue, and to suspend the bishop.

After finding no appeal, Mar Bawai and about 5000 faithful, including 30 deacons and a half dozen priests, came into full communion with the Chaldean Catholic Church in 2008.

Quote of the Day

It is not possible for the Lord to agonize over the unity of His disciples and for us to remain indifferent about the unity of all Christians. This would constitute criminal betrayal and transgression of His divine commandment.

Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople
Patriarchal and Synodal Encyclical on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, 21 Feb 2010

(and for your viewing edification, 60 Minutes interview with the Patriarch a couple months ago)

New Semester in Rome

It is hard to believe my first semester is already finished! That is ¼ of the way through for the two years of my Fellowship and the S.T.L. – and a good time for a general progress report!

I had hoped to return to grad school and maintain a perfect GPA, since my undergraduate and first round of grad school grades were moderately good, but not great.

(That’s the problem with being so involved in extracurricular activities, you tend to forget important details like deadlines! I calculated, near the end of my time at ND, that my cumulative GPA would have been .5 higher if I had just turned everything in on time!)

The Roman academic system grades on a 10-point scale, rather than a 4-point scale. According to our Order of Studies, they look like this:

  • 10-9.75 Summa Cum Laude (Highest Honors) = 3.9-4.0
  • 9.74-8.51 Magna Cum Laude (High Honors) = 3.4-3.89
  • 8.50-7.51 Cum Laude (Honors) = 3.0-3.39
  • 7.50-6.51 Bene (Good/Acceptable) = 2.6- 2.99
  • 6.50-6.00 Probatus (Probation) = 2.4-2.6
  • 6.00-0.00 Fail

Another difference between the Roman system and the American version that I am more used to, is that while the Roman system (at least at the Angelicum) tends to have less required reading and papers, your entire grade for a semester can depend on one 15-minute oral exam, or a single written in-class final.

There is a two-week break between classes when all the exams are supposed to take place, but with our Jerusalem seminar in the middle of that period, most of mine were done when the exam period started.

The second semester is already shaping up to include a bit more reading and more balanced variety of assignments. Here is the list of my courses for the rest of the year:

  • Acting Acts: Survey on the Pentecostal/Charismatic Movement
  • Catholic Understanding of Interreligious Dialogue
  • Christ Beyond the Church
  • History of Aramaic Christianity
  • Methodology of Biblical Interpretation and its Significance for Jewish-Catholic Understanding
  • Ministry of the Ecumenical Officer
  • Philosophical Elements in Catholic-Protestant Dialogue
  • Reformation Theology in Context
  • Sacramental Character

So the perfect 10 I was aiming for? Missed it, with just one class – and I do not know what I got wrong on the final! Ah well, at least it leaves room for improvement! Other good news, is that when i met with the dean to register for the second semester, he pointed out that with the credit i have been given from my previous academic work and experience, i could finish the License early – i only have a couple seminars left, the thesis and comprehensive oral exam.

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