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April 1, 2004 Edition

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Notes from the Vicar General
Fr. Ronald Rolheiser
The Catholic Difference

Holy Week retreat theme:
Who do you say that I am?

photo of Msgr. Paul J. Swain
Notes from the 
Vicar General 

Msgr. Paul J. Swain 

Next week we will recall the Passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Through the powerful and moving liturgies of Holy Week, we are offered a spiritual retreat. As we do so, perhaps our retreat theme might be the question Jesus asked of his disciples: Who do you say that I am?

Jesus first asked the disciples who do people say that I am. Their response was, people were suggesting that he was John the Baptist, or Elijah returned, or another of the prophets. Then he personalized it: who do you say that I am. It is a question each of us can answer only for ourselves. The answer must come from our heart.

Not who people say

There have been many answers over the centuries and remain in our day. Some say he is a myth or a psychological prop created in our minds to make us feel better about a world full of suffering and sin. Some say he was simply a great man who lived a compassionate life and taught ethical principles worthy of thoughtful reflection. Some say he is a political icon whose words can be used to advance any number of political ideologies.

In the Gospels, Peter responded: You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus praised him for this insight that could only come from God.

But when Jesus told him what was about to happen, the events we will recall during Holy Week, it was clear Peter did not fully understand the meaning of his answer. Peter said no way and tried to get Jesus to change his travel plans. Jesus responded that Peter was now thinking like a limited human being.

Peter understood more fully after the events we will recall next week, after the Resurrection, and after being empowered by the Holy Spirit. Peter did become the rock on which Christ built his Church, and suffered a martyr's death.

Yet even St. Peter cannot answer that question for us. There are times when we too think as frail human beings and would like to change the travel plans God has for us.

Who do you say?

When I was in seminary there was a difficult period when I doubted that I was really being called to priesthood. I recalled with nostalgia how stimulating was practicing law, how comfortable was owning a house, how satisfying was enjoying secular pursuits. I shared my doubts with a friend who responded simply, It doesn't seem like you trust God very much. Whack. Of course I do, I responded. I just wanted him to change my travel plans.

On my days of wonderment and doubt, when I feel a little sorry for myself, I recall that challenge: It doesn't seem like you trust God very much, and I shape up.

You see, every Holy Week I make a spiritual retreat contemplating on the same theme: Who do you say that I am? The answer is always the same: You who rode into Jerusalem in triumph; you who washed the feet of the Apostles as a sign of service; you who instituted the Holy Eucharist for our sake; you who suffered so; you who hung from the cross and forgave; you who gave us your mother as our mother; you who rose from the dead and brought light out of darkness; you who bring hope and the promise of eternal life; You are the Christ, the son of the living God.

It comes from my heart, and that is all I need to know.

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Agony in the Garden:
Place to ready ourselves for ordeals

Sixth in a seven-part Lenten series.

photo of Fr. Ronald Rolheiser
The Garden of Gethsemane 

The Place of Transformation

Fr. Ronald Rolheiser 

Luke's account of Gethsemane says this of Jesus: "And being in a certain agony (agonia), he prayed more earnestly."

This word, agonia, doesn't just describe the intensity of Jesus' suffering, but also his readying of himself for the painful task that awaits. How?

An athlete doesn't enter the arena of competition without first properly warming up and, at the time this text was written, a serious athlete would warm up for a competition by first working himself or herself into a certain intense sweat, a lather, an agonia, so that he or she wouldn't enter the competition with cold muscles.

Spiritual arena

Gethsemane teaches that to enter the spiritual arena, one too must first be properly warmed up. Cold muscles are a hazard here as well. We cannot walk from self-pampering to self-sacrifice, from living in fear to acting in courage, and from cringing before the unknown to taking the leap of faith, without first, like Jesus in Gethsemane, readying ourselves through a certain agonia, that is, without undergoing a painful sweat that comes from facing what will be asked of us if we continue to live the truth.

'Die before we die'

Mary Jo Leddy once commented that in order to live in real courage we must die before we die. In any situation that is dominated by fear, she asserts, we need to be living the resurrection already before we die.

This means that choosing not to die is not always the same thing as choosing to live. Rather, we need to choose truth, integrity, and duty even if it means pain and death; otherwise, the deep instinct for self-preservation will forever cause us to be more concerned about our own safety and comfort than about anything else and fear will always dominate our lives.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus dies before he dies and in that way readies himself for what awaits him. The next day, when Pilate threatens him with death, Jesus stands in a freedom and courage that can only be understood if we understand what happened to him in the garden.

When Pilate says to him: "Don't you know that I have power over you, power to take your life or to save it," Jesus answers: "You have no power over me whatsoever. Nobody takes my life; I give it over freely."

In essence, Pilate is threatening a man already dead. No big threat. Jesus had already undergone the agonia. In great anguish he had given his life over freely the night before, and so he is ready for whatever awaits him.

Speaking the truth

We see something similar in Oscar Romero, martyred in 1980. When Romero was first named an archbishop, he was a good, sincere man, but also someone who lived in timidity and fear.

However, as he met with the poor and let them baptize him with the truth, he began to experience a certain agonia; namely, it became clearer and clearer to him that he was on a collision course which would eventually force him to choose between backing away from the truth so as to save his own life, or speaking the truth and being killed for it.

Understandably, he began to sweat a certain blood; a certain spiritual and emotional lather began to warm his spiritual muscles. At a point, he had to speak the truth and, in doing so, assured his own death. But he had readied himself. He had already suffered his agonia in Gethsemane and could now act with courage because he had already given his life away and thus no longer lived in the paralyzing fear that someone might take it from him.

Martin Luther King, Jr., in his memorable speech, "I Have A Dream," says the same thing. Choosing self-preservation is not necessarily choosing life.

Sometimes we need to accept opposition to choose community; sometimes we need to accept bitter pain to choose health; sometimes we need to accept a fearful free fall to choose safety; and sometimes we need to accept death in order to choose life. If we let fear stop us from doing that, our lives will never be whole again.

Facing our fears

We have nothing to fear but fear itself; easily said, but mostly our lives are dominated by it. We may be sincere and good, but we're also fearful. Fearful of pain, of losing loved ones, of misunderstanding, of opposition, of sickness, of shame, of discomfort of all kinds, and ultimately of death. Deep inside us is a powerful pressure to do whatever it takes to ensure our own lives, safety, and security.

And so it's not on the basis of nature that we give our lives away or move toward real courage. Like an athlete preparing for a tough contest, we must train for this. Like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, we must die before we die, we must experience a courage-inducing agonia so that, already having given it all away, we no longer live in the paralyzing fear that someone might take it from us.

Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser is a theologian, teacher, and award-winning author of several books on spirituality. He currently serves in Toronto and Rome as the general councilor for Canada for his religious order, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

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Election 2004: Nation-defining event

photo of George Weigel
The Catholic 

George Weigel 

Not all presidential elections are equal. It made a lot of difference to America's future that Andrew Jackson beat John Quincy Adams in 1828, that Abraham Lincoln bested Stephen A. Douglas in 1860, and that the 20th century's two most influential presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, topped Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, respectively.

Conversely, it's not easy to see that the Republic was decisively affected by James Polk's victory over Henry Clay in 1844, Samuel Tilden's disputed loss to Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, or the seesaw between Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison in 1884, 1888, and 1892.

Fork in the road

The presidential election of 2004 will be another nation-defining fork in the road, a decision with enormous historical consequences.

Beneath the blizzard of rhetoric in recent months, two issues of grave importance have surfaced. The parties, the candidates, and the American people seem deeply divided on them; the coveted "middle ground" is going to be hard to find. (I remember something I first heard in Texas: "The only things in the middle of the road are yellow stripes and dead armadillos.")

The first great issue in this election is the choice between the world imagined by "September 10 people" and the world imagined by "September 12 people."

September 10 people

For September 10 people, what happened on September 11, 2001, is best understood as a crime - crime on a vast, unprecedented scale, to be sure, but crime nonetheless. On this analysis, the appropriate response to the crime of September 11, and the way to prevent such criminal acts in the future, is through more vigilant and effective police work.

Al-Qaeda and similar terrorist organizations should be dealt with in the same way we deal with international criminal organizations: through enhanced intelligence, interdiction strategies, and use of international legal institutions.

September 12 people

For September 12 people, September 11 was an act of war. Its purpose was to break the opponent's will and thus force the opponent to surrender. The appropriate response to an act of war, September 12 people argue, is war: the use of proportionate and discriminate military force to defeat the aggressor and those who support aggression, to deter future predators, and to restore the necessary minimum of order to world affairs.

September 12 people agree with September 10 people that the U.S. needs better intelligence-gathering and analysis; but September 12 people are inclined to use that intelligence to take the battle to the enemy.

Nature of freedom

The second great issue involves the nature of freedom. Is freedom a means to satisfy personal "needs"? Or does freedom have something to do with moral truth - with goodness?

Is freedom doing things "my way"? Or is freedom doing the right thing for the right reasons in the right way, as a matter of habit (another name for "virtue")? Again, the parties, the candidates, and the nation seem sharply divided.

The abortion debate, the struggle to define moral and legal boundaries for the development of biotechnology, and the question of a Federal Marriage Amendment are all expressions of this more fundamental division.

If the argument for freedom as personal willfulness ("my way") prevails, it seems likely that abortion will remain unrestricted, the biotech industry virtually unregulated, and "marriage" will mean, eventually, any configuration of consenting adults.

If the argument prevails that freedom means freely choosing what we can know to be morally good, there may be a real chance to accelerate the building of a culture of life in America.

In President Kennedy's last speech, the morning before he died, he told the people of Fort Worth that America is "the keystone in the archway of freedom." Forty years later, the two great questions before the Republic are, what is that freedom, and how shall we defend it? A lot of 21st century history will turn on how the American people answer those questions on Nov. 2.

George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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