Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Bible in America—reasons for hope, cause for concern

Recently, Pope Francis—speaking both figuratively and literally—suggested that people keep a Bible on hand to consult with the same alacrity with which they turn to their smartphones for entertainment, news, or keeping up with the goings on of friends and family.

For sure, there are plenty of Bible smartphone apps that make this a reasonable and practical idea for just about everyone. In terms of outreach to millennials and teens, such tools are golden. At the same time, the Pontiff put his finger on a troublesome issue that is, or ought to be, a concern for Christian Churches of all stripes: Engagement with and appreciation of the Bible as the objective embodiment of the Word of God is declining across the West and across all age groups.

This trend is true in particular among those who rarely attend worship services or have stopped going to church altogether. It is especially the case, of course, for those—young and old—who regard the Scriptures as simply man-made storytelling or, still worse, as a source of oppression in terms of homophobia and other forms of alleged denials of human liberty.

The Barna Group—in partnership with the American Bible Society — has performed an extraordinary service with its publication of “The Bible in America: The Changing Landscape of Bible Perceptions and Engagement,” a compilation of comprehensive research that is the fruit of 14,000 interviews with American adults and teenagers over the past six years. The study features extensive demographic segmentation, from teens to baby boomers and seniors, recording the views of both believers and non-believers, churchgoers and “de-Churched” believers, with respondents belonging to the Catholic tradition as well as to both the mainline and non-mainline Protestant Churches.

These findings, derived from an extensive and highly nuanced probe of attitudes and perspectives regarding the Bible and its role in private and communal life, should prove to be a power tool for American Church leaders in their urgent task of stemming a definite and alarming decline in Bible engagement in the United States.

Let’s be clear: love and use of the Bible has remained steady among Church-goers and committed believers. In fact, thanks in part to a revival of the ancient practice of Lectio Divina among both Catholics and Protestants—a method, ultimately, of reading the Scriptures as a gateway to contemplative prayer and mysticism—the Bible has become still more rooted in countless people’s lives.

Much credit and deep gratitude go to the American Bible Society  for giving me the opportunity to produce a multi-lingual series of Lectio Divina manuals during my extremely fruitful years heading the ABS Catholic Ministries department. Though Catholics continue to trail Protestants in Bible engagement, the Catholic Church has made huge strides since Vatican II.

Yet, the Barna research sounds a dire warning: in 2016, the number of American “Bible skeptics” has grown to 22 percent, with the percentage of “Bible engaged” Americans standing at 17 percent. Back in 2011, just 1 in 10 Americans was skeptical of the Bible and 45 percent of respondents confirmed that “God regularly speaks to them through the Bible.” That is a huge shift, although one tempered by the finding that, in 2015, 61 percent indicated that they “wish they read the Bible more.” In 2016, 53 percent of Americans believed politicians could do a better job “if they read the Bible more often.”

Nonetheless, the Barna research finds there is a decline in Bible engagement in the U.S. that is most dramatic among the young, millennials and teens in particular, especially the un-Churched. In his preface to the study, Jason Malec, managing director of ABS’s Mission U.S., does not mince words. Confirming that the Bible “has had a more profound impact on our culture than any other book,” he warns that “if the current trends continue, the Bible will certainly lose its place as our leading culture-shaping factor.”

Barna Group President David Kinnamon attributes the decline in use of the Bible and an attendant drop in Bible literacy to increased skepticism about the “origins, relevance and authority of the Scriptures” and, according to what he calls “a new moral code,” more people (even including Christians) who “embrace self-fulfillment as the highest good.” This orientation makes the culture more resistant to Bible-based faith that espouses “God’s moral order leads to human and societal flourishing” rather than an all-consuming pursuit of self-determination and self-improvement.

On the bright side, Kinnamon notes that “digital access” is a boon in the form of “new tools and technologies that are making the Bible… more accessible than ever before.” Of course, access without accompanying education and guidance is no guarantee of a deepening of Biblical faith and engagement.

“If these trends hold steady,” the report warns, “there will be continuing downward pressure on the number of people (especially young people) who see the Bible as sacred” and the source of the deepest wisdom about life and the nature of ultimate reality. The heart of the problem is that, “increasingly, Americans are rejecting external sources of moral authority, both spiritual and civic.” Still, “2 out of 32 millennials and 7 out of 10 teens hold an orthodox view of the Bible,” the report finds. Yet, lack of time prevents one-third of millennials who practice their faith from reading the Bible.

The study presents a checkered landscape. Again and again, problematic findings are punctuated by hopeful signs. For example, 68 percent of U.S. adults “strongly or somewhat agree”—whether they regularly read the Bible or not—that the Scriptures are a “comprehensive guide to a meaningful life.” Notably, this conviction is strongest among African Americans, stronger among women than men, and strongest—not surprisingly—in the South, and weakest on both the East and West Coasts.

Despite the contradictory findings, the report notes that “many Americans seem to experience little cognitive dissonance between their acceptance of the new moral code [endorsing the pursuit of self-fulfillment] and their view of the Bible as a guide for life.” One could argue, of course, that these particular respondents’ actual grasp of Scripture—beyond a broad, if vague sense of appreciation for the Bible as a patrimony of Judeo-Christian civilization to be valued and respected—is rather superficial.

What can compel people, regardless of age, to seek greater engagement with the Bible? When asked, the number one response is coming to an understanding that reading and studying the Bible is “an important part of my faith journey,” followed by a “difficult experience in my life” and a “significant” event in life, such as marriage or the birth of a child.

For ministers, pastors, and lay catechists, these are teachable moments that must be seized proactively, windows of opportunity to demonstrate the power of Scripture that often quickly close again. Church leadership must be more vigilant than ever before. Above all, writes ABS President Roy Peterson, the teachers of the flock “must be actively engaging” the Bible themselves, “creating daily opportunities to be shaped and guided by God’s word of life.” Only then will they “become living witnesses to the power of Christ to transform the human heart.” Meanwhile, the Barna Group and American Bible Society have given Church leaders a formidable arsenal of actionable research.

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Monday, March 20, 2017

Take Courage (Jn 16:33)

1.-The human being: seeker of happiness ...
There are many concepts with which we philosophically seek to define and embrace the entirety of the human being. One of these concepts describes the human being as a tireless, permanent, eternal seeker of happiness because in the daily minutia of everything we do and experience, we want to be happy. Everything we live, then, is conditioned, has meaning, courage and truth in so much as it makes us happy.

2.- The Christian religious experience is, then, for the happiness of the human being ...

Particularly, religious experience, as a model of the mission, vision and values ​​in the lives of human beings and social institutions, plays an important role in this search for happiness. The different religious experiences and institutions must help to make the follower and believer happy. The Christian religious experience, therefore, must help us, the believers in Christ, to be happy. This must happen so that the life and mission of Christ has, then, validity for his disciples.

Twenty centuries of the Church’s evangelizing work in the world has not succeeded in showing and establishing the synonymy and coincidence between salvation and happiness, between eternal life and happiness, between the full and abundant life that Christ brings us and the happiness that every man and woman seeks while they live.

This explains the inconsistencies, hypocrisies and the permanent divorce between our faith and our daily life. For, on the one hand and in the margins of our personal, family and social histories, we seek the salvation that Christian religious faith offers us and, on the other hand, further away and almost always in contrast with our religious experience, we seek happiness.

This divorce, these inconsistencies, and hypocrisies disappear from the lives of Christ’s disciples when we discover that the health, salvation and eternal life offered by God through His Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, fundamentally coincide with the ceaseless yearning for happiness that every human being experiences; when we discover  that, as was beautifully expressed in the Second Vatican Council, "the truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.” (GS22); when we discover that our life is illuminated and interpreted from and in the life of Christ; when we discover that our search for happiness and humanization finds in Christ and in his Gospel "the Way, the Truth and the Life" that makes us happy, that is, that saves us; when we discover that our choices, works, loves, sacrifices, renunciations, crises and achievements are understood and acquire meaning from the life, the options, the passion, the cross, the death and resurrection of this same Christ.

Thus, one can form an understanding of the human and ceaseless search for happiness from this beautiful and wise definition given to us by Saint Augustine: "You have made us, Lord, for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.”

3.- The search for happiness and religious experience is lived in  context ...

But the pursuit of happiness and Christian religious experience, like all religious experience, is lived in time and in space, not in a bubble; that is to say, in historical, social and cultural context. The pursuit of happiness is experienced by each person in the here and now of their personal, family and social conditionings and historical-social circumstances. That historical-social context is different and changing in the history of each human being and of all humanity and, therefore, produces and introduces nuances, interpretations, changes, and variations in the notion of happiness.

4.- Our current historical-social context: transition from modernity to postmodernity ...

To those who are here, to the inhabitants of the planet Earth of this time in which we live in a context that we call: the transition from modernity to postmodernity, it is a context and a historical moment with globalized characteristics that make us how we are, think as we think and act as we act today, unlike how our ancestors lived, felt, thought, acted and hoped.

We can succinctly say that the man of today seeks happiness by exercising power that tramples, crushes and oppresses. That today, we confuse happiness with the pursuit of the pleasure of the senses as the absolute beginning and end and regardless of the means to achieve it. We achieve this power and pleasure by accumulating material possessions, goods, riches in a network of interpersonal, social and regional relationships in which one’s power and pleasure grow as the money one boasts of, manages, and accumulates increases. All this stands in total and absolute opposition to the principles and values
​​that emanate from the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth who taught us that we are brothers, children of the same Father, who understands power as service, finds pleasure in the generous surrender of one's own existence at the service of our most helpless brothers, and who has the capacity and ability to share whole-heartedly, compassionately, and harmoniously.

We find ourselves in a historical-social context, moreover, that is characterized and lived in the middle of conflicts and crises of the following types:

·       Personal (especially, the loss of absolute truths and with it, the meaninglessness of life),
·        Family (especially divorces, separations, and new family models),
·        Social (problems in politics, labor, health, education and housing, injustice and inequality, administrative corruption in governments and a thousand forms of violence, inefficiency in public services, etc.)
·        Regional, national and international (clashes between different political, ideological, governmental and economic models, internal violent conflicts and bellicose conflicts between nations, migration conflicts, displacements, famines, etc.)
·        Natural (earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, tsunamis, etc.)

All these circumstances of our current historical-social context push our beliefs, our faith, our hope, our Christian religious experience to begin to be lived less by tradition and more by conviction; less as a set of external rites and displays divorced from our everyday reality and more like a lifestyle - according to the gospel of Jesus Christ - that permeates our personal and family lives and relationships and our social, political, cultural, economic, national, and international institutions.

Our historical-social context pushes and conditions us, here and now, so that our search for happiness-salvation through our Christian religious experience is "like one who is going to construct a tower or who is marching into battle..." (Lk 14:28ss). That is, a reasoned, reasonable, free, informed and intelligent Christian religious experience that allows us to "always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks us for a reason for our hope" (1 Pet 3:15). Christian experience that becomes in us a fundamental option of life for the person, the life and the gospel of Jesus Christ, until we can shout like Paul of Tarsus. "I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me" (Gal 2:20).

5.-Christian Happiness-Salvation ...

Throughout these reflections, I have been showing what forms the notion of happiness for the disciples of Christ: to live their own life, to live daily the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. To live each moment of our lives as children of God and brothers of all in order to establish personal, family and social relationships that enable and build "abundant happiness and life" (Jn 10:10) for all. ...

6.- An invitation: to live the Christian experience without fear, without apprehensiveness ...

The historical-social context described above, in which we are pilgrims and live our faith and our Christian hope is, due to those who seek controversy or do not believe in the Gospels, challenging. For "the harvest is abundant but the laborers are few" (Lk 10:2).

What do we do as Christians in today's world and before the panorama so briefly described here? Are we to become disheartened, discouraged?

Press on today, listen, one more time, to the voice of Paul that encourages us, telling us: "We are persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed… (2 Cor 4:9),  because it strengthens our certainty of happiness-salvation in Christ, who tells us: " Take courage, I have conquered the world” (Jn 16:33).

I invite you to return to our first Christian vocation: that of being a light in the midst of darkness and salt (Mt 5:13) in the midst of our current circumstances made unsavory by inhumanity.

I renew your invitation so recently made to all of today’s disciples of Christ by Pope Francis in the Apostolic Exhortation "Evangelli Gaudium”: to live a newly happy, joyful and rejoicing Christian experience. To be witnesses to the happiness-salvation that Christ gives us in the daily routines of our personal, professional, family and social lives. To live without fear of our baptismal commitment. To live with the joyful trust of the children of God and, consequently, to be able to establish relationships of compassion and mercy - as God loves us - with all the men and women within our lives. To live as missionaries of the joyful hope and good news of the gospel in the world today, as daily witnesses of the happiness-salvation that we find in Christian life. As men and women who are happy and transformed in Christ, with vision that - from and through the gospel - allows us to see everything with the joyful confidence and hope of those who know that "the bridegroom is with them" (Mt 9:15), "always until the end of the age" (Mt 28:20).

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Francis: Four Stars in His Soul

March opens the fifth year of the Pontificate of Pope Francis. Four years of a brief but eventful Pontificate have passed, a Pontificate that has been innovative, fruitful, renovating, and transforming.

How can we summarize the personality and the Pontificate of Francis? What can we say about the First Latin American Pope in the millennia-long history of the Catholic Church?

We should start by acknowledging and celebrating that he is a human being, very human, deeply human – with all the meaning defined by and contained in "human" and "humanity." That is to say, Francis is a human being who, in his deep humanity, reveals his deep divinity, a human being who reveals the image and likeness of God, the imprint of our existence.

Countless deeply human gestures and words have defined his life and work – words and works through which he has been a vehicle of the divinity in his humanity and for all humanity. In Francis, we have a Bishop of Rome and Head of the Church who is above all else a "human" man. He is as human as that man from Assisi, recalled in the name our Pontiff chose for his Pontificate.

His profound human experience and humanity lead him - like Jesus - to approach the weak, the most needy; to address the causes of the marginalized and to raise his voice in favor of peace for justice, peace for solidarity and merciful respect for all, especially for the impoverished and neglected on Earth.

This profound humanity reveals the "style" of Francis and, like the philosopher Protagoras, we can say of Francis "the style is the man." His style is the measure of all things, the measure, character, and seal of everything he is and does, of his entire Pontificate.

Francis is a Christian man. He is convinced of the causes of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which spring from the recognition of God as Father in whom we are all brothers and sisters, with a fraternal, merciful and universal love, in the way the good Father in Heaven loves us. The authenticity of his Christian life is not an addition to his person. On the contrary, the Gospel is the essence of his being and is revealed in all his human behavior.

In the life and missionary work of Francis, humanity and Christian life are not an incoherent, self-righteous, and hypocritical juxtaposition. No. Francis is a human being animated by the Gospel of Christ, a Christian in his deep humanity.

Francis is a Christian who has dedicated his life to pastoral and priestly ministry, first as a Jesuit priest, later as a Bishop in Argentina, and now as a successor of Peter in the Catholic Church. His ministerial, priestly, and pastoral works have demonstrated his life as deeply human and, therefore, truly Christian.

In our historical moment, the style of Francis is novel, contradictory, and shocking; the Gospel is always novel, because the life of the Gospel in the world engenders contradiction and because the logic of the Gospel clashes with the logic of the world.

The novelty of the Pontificate of Francis - here and now - is explained by the evangelical nature of his Pontificate, by the honest attachment of his papal ministry to the logic of the Gospel against the logic of the world.

This evangelical authenticity has rapidly made Francis a spiritual and moral reference for all humanity. This is evident in his vast influence in just four years as Pope, in the interest he arouses around the world, in different societies and social groups, in the media, in his interactions on social networks, and in every public appearance.

Francis reminds us that the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth remains in force and - without having participated as a council priest - that the Second Vatican Council - like the Gospel - is about to be premiered, especially in this transition period of Modernity to Postmodernity, a period so in need of the human and merciful behavior of Jesus, of the logic of the Gospel and of the proclamation of the Gospel in a genuine, simple, straightforward, and unambiguous manner, as Jesus did and taught in his time.

As I said earlier, the style of Francis is a shocking style. The style of his Pontificate raises blisters because it purifies, renews, ignites, and burns; it neither marries itself to the status quo nor to an age-old, immovable, petrified tradition, nor - as he himself has denounced – is it corrupted by the need for movement, light, clarity, and renewal in the Gospel of Christ.

In his famous parable, the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard tells of a clown who found it impossible to convince the inhabitants of a nearby town of a fire in his circus. Due to the clown’s manner and dress, the countrymen thought it was a joke meant to attract them to the circus. The circus burned.

Today, everyone agrees that, with the style of his evangelizing work, Francis overcame the problem posed by Kierkegaard, because Francis comes and convinces. His task is credible because it is consistent. Francis has shown that it is possible to break the old, obsolete, and antiquated molds in which the Gospel has been transmitted with the “smell of sheep,” in order to approach the men of our time, especially those on the geographical, social, institutional, and ideological peripheries. With Francis, it is evident that new wine requires new wineskin, new ways of thinking, and minds and hearts that are sincerely open and willing to embrace the ever-new light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who renews everything, who changes everything, who transforms everything.

The substance and extraordinary richness of this Pontificate are evident in the prolific  works  Francis has produced in such a short time. It suffices to list here only a few milestones of his Petrine ministry:
  • An Encyclical: Lumen Fidei (on the faith).
  • An Encyclical Letter: Laudato Si (on care of the environment).
  • A Papal Bull: Misericordiae Vultus (to summon the Holy Year of Mercy).
  • An Apostolic Letter for the Year of Dedication to Consecrated Life.
  • Two Apostolic Exhortations: Evangelii Gaudium (on the joy of announcing the Gospel) and Amoris Laetitia (on love in the Family).
  • The formation of a Council of Cardinals for the reform of the Roman Curia.
  • An Extraordinary Synod on the Family.
  • Countless apostolic journeys followed by multitudes.
  • A Motu proprio, "On the Jurisdiction of Judicial Authorities of the Vatican City State in Criminal Matters," published on July 11, 2013.
  • A Motu Proprio, "For the Prevention and Countering of Money Laundering, the Financing of Terrorism, and the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction,” published on August 8, 2013.
  • Three Consistories.
  • Canonizations.
  • The Apostolic Constitution Vultum Dei Quaerere (the search for the face of God) on the contemplative life of women.
We give thanks to God for giving us Francis as Pope in this time and under these circumstances. As we begin the fifth year of his Pontificate, our hearts and the bells of the Catholic Church rejoice. Why do our hearts rejoice and why do the bells ring? Let us reply with the word of the poet: "For a man who is a blacksmith, he is a soldier and a poet. For a man who carries three stars in his soul: work, energy and dreams – the work that gives strength, the energy that gives audacity, and dreams that give glories."

We thank God for giving us, in Francis, a renewed model of humanity in Christian life. We rejoice because, in Francis there appears, for our time, a model of divinity in humanity. We congratulate ourselves because Francis shows us - in a simple way - that the life of Christ in us is possible, a challenge that calls and challenges all. Francis reminds us daily of the value of the Gospel, the value of Christian life, and the importance of "always returning to the sources" to illuminate our lives and the life of the world with the values ​​of the Gospel.

Francis has again made the Gospel credible in the life of a man for all men. With his way of being and acting, with his Petrine ministry, the Argentine Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as Pope Francis, has become, in these four years of his Pontificate and as the great playwright Bertolt Brecht said, one of those "indispensable ones" for all mankind. He is one of those men who validate, who make credible and kind being part of humanity, Christianity, and the Catholic Church.