Christmas: The gift of tender particularity Print
From the Diocesan Administrator
From the Diocesan Administrator column

Following is the homily at the Cathedral Parish of St. Raphael in Madison given at Christmas Midnight Mass by Msgr. James Bartylla, diocesan administrator.

There is often an accusation made against Christianity that is called the "Scandal of Particularity". In its essence, it emphasizes the difficulty of believing a single man (Jesus) could be the Savior of all mankind and the only way to the Father.

It argues that it is "unreasonable" or "fanciful" to believe in this salvific universality of Jesus Christ. After all, he was born in Bethlehem, during a census by Caesar Augustus, under the governorship of Quirinius, and raised in Nazareth? How could the Savior of the whole world, including Rome, Greece, Persia, and Africa, and for all time, be from little Bethlehem?

To give you a modern analogy to this in our own diocese, how could the Savior of the whole world be born in Montello, during the tax season, under the governorship of Scott Walker, and raised in McFarland? How could the Savior of the whole world, including China, India, and Madagascar, and for all time, be from a small area in Wisconsin?

However, love knows no other way than particularity, its tender gift. After all, we are not called to love a neighborhood; we are called to love our neighbors. We are not called to love a world; we are called to love each person in it.

God's forgiveness of us needed particularity to act; in fact the sweep of salvation history paused in its key moment for the particular response of a virgin girl named Mary in a little rural town. The Christmas Proclamation from the Roman Martyrology tonight is a testament to the gift of particularity.

Particularity of the garden

Let me give you three examples of the Lord's tender gift of particularity. First, there is the particularity of material creation; let's call it the particularity of the garden.

I recently read that researchers Mark Stoeckle of Rockefeller University and David Thaler at the University of Basel in Switzerland reached a striking conclusion after analyzing the DNA "bar codes" of five million animals from 100,000 different species. The bar codes are snippets of DNA -- mitochondrial DNA -- which mothers pass down.

Stoeckle and Thaler's discovery is that something happened roughly 100,000 years ago that created entirely new populations from long-existing species. The last major extinction event we knew about, the one that snuffed out the mighty dinosaurs, happened 65 million years ago.

However, their research shows that all humans alive today are the offspring of a common father and mother -- an Adam and Eve -- who walked the planet 100,000 to 200,000 years ago, which by evolutionary standards is like yesterday. Moreover, the same is true of nine out of every 10 animal species, meaning that nearly all of Earth's creatures living today sprang into being recently from some seminal event.

Earth's creatures tend to stand and fall in unison, like the rising and falling of the tides. It has a biblical aspect to it; in today's desire for knowing our ancestry, let's call it www.ancestry.ONE.

Particularity of eternal life

Second, there is the particularity of eternal life; let's call it the particularity of the communion of saints.

I recently watched a documentary television show during November (the month of the dead) on EWTN (Catholic television) about a former Anglican minister with a wife and children who entered the Catholic Church in 1988 under a special provision and who is now a married Catholic priest with children.

He has had many experiences with the souls of the dead appearing or being present to him by the providence of God. The priest told the story of little Daniel, a nine year old boy, whose father is a good Catholic deacon and whose mother is a catechist in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. The flu was going through the siblings in little Daniel's family and one morning it was Daniel's turn. He woke up in the morning with the flu. By 6 p.m. that evening, he died at the hospital.

The married priest I mentioned had been called and went immediately to the hospital. Daniel was already on the respirator, and soon thereafter little Daniel was gone. The family was in shreds and devastated. They had five kids, and they taught all the kids you never leave the house without telling mom, so she knows where you are.

The priest went home and was at a loss as to what he could say to the family at the funeral. The priest's wife was in Florida visiting her sister at that time, and he was alone. He prepared a TV dinner and sat down to eat and watch the TV news that second evening.

Immediately, he knew Daniel was standing in the room to the right of the TV set during the start of the 6 p.m. news. However, Daniel wouldn't say a word. The priest asked, "Daniel, what do you want." There was no answer, and Daniel left. The next night, the same thing occurred at 6 p.m. Daniel came back to the priest in the same room, said nothing, and left.

At the funeral, as the priest drove up, he was wondering what he could say to the family. The priest came in one door, and the family came in the other. The mother came right to the priest as they entered. She said, "Father, you'll never believe what happened to me. The night after Daniel died, at 6 p.m., I was in the kitchen cooking for the family. Daniel stood right in front of me". The priest asked her if she saw him and she said, "No, but I know my son." Those are powerful words of a mother.

She said Daniel wanted permission to leave, and she told him "no" and started crying. She said he came back the next evening at 6 p.m. She said he asked her the same question, "Can I leave?", and she told him "yes" this time. Then Daniel was gone; the soul of the boy needed permission from mom to leave the house in a continuing relationship of mother and son. Particularity endures.

Particularity of salvation

Third, there is the particularity of the Church; let's call it the particularity of salvation. Probably 25 years ago, in New York City, I had the opportunity to meet briefly the Venerable Francis Xavier Nyugen van Thuan. He was the Archbishop of Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City. He was appointed Archbishop of Saigon when all of Vietnam fell to the communists after the U.S. military pulled out. He was imprisoned for 13 years from 1976 to 1989. He spent nine of those years in solitary confinement. He fashioned a pectoral cross out of wire. He used a few drops of wine (requested for his "stomach ailment") and some crumbs of bread to celebrate the Holy Mass.

He smuggled over a thousand small letters out of solitary confinement to his flock in Vietnam. He taught his guards religious hymns in Latin; they were praying to the Virgin Mary without realizing it. The guards and warden became his friends during his years of confinement, and some converted to the faith. On his release, he forgave them all.

In New York City, I, as a young man who was simply becoming more interested in Catholicism and possibly in the seminary, attended a small Catholic speaking event without knowing who was necessarily speaking. However, I witnessed Vietnamese faithful come into the room and weeping as they met the beloved archbishop. Some prostrated and kissed his feet as they wept. Their great long-suffering and holy archbishop had returned to them, and they wept in profound joy at the mere sight of him! I saw unfold before me the Church's unique gift of particularity.

Amidst all the scandal and crisis in the Church, Holy Mother Church still produces her gifts of particularity, often quietly and many times under suffering, not unlike the gift of the incarnation of Our Lord and Savior and His birth in the stable in the midst of the tragic crisis of man's acute need for redemption in the sweep of salvation history.

No doubt we feel the loss of our dearly beloved Bishop Morlino in this Christmas season; not only of his position, but of him, his special gifts, and his attention to us. In that loss, we subtly pay homage to the gift of particularity that yields not only incarnational love, but also our redemption.

May you and your families have a blessed Christmas in the peace of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world.