Friday, October 31, 2014

Church as Tradtion

While a presumed and essential part of God’s revelation to man, pinning down a clear and succinct definition of the nature of Tradition has been a centuries long process. By looking at the character, modality, content, effects, and most importantly the subject of Tradition, the beginnings of a definition will arise following the promptings of the Second Vatican Council when it says that what the Church hands down (its Tradition) is omne quod ipsa est, omne quod credit.[1]

Looking first as the character of Tradition, its distinguishing mark, Tradition is, particularly when compared with Scripture, unwritten. This mark of Tradition has been of great importance even from the beginning. Finding this unwritten Tradition primarily in the oral traditions of the Apostles and their successors, Irenaeus makes it very clear against the Gnostics that if there were some other set of secret truths that the Apostles only taught to a few, “they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the Churches themselves,”[2] that is, to their successors. In order to demonstrate this, Irenaeus outlines the succession of Apostles for one of those Churches, the most prominent one, that of Rome, at which point he says of one of the successors that he had “the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes.”[3] Irenaeus even gives a sort of personal testimony to his own inheritance of this primarily unwritten traditio when he recounts his own apostolic heritage leading back to St. John via Polycarp.[4] Yet, he highlights this characteristic mark of Tradition as unwritten in a most compelling manner when he speaks of the barbarians “who, in the absence of written documents, have believed this faith.”[5] Indeed, he lauds the faith of the barbarians in the face of the Gnostics saying that were they to listen to the preaching of such heresies, they would “at once stop their ears, and flee as far as possible.”[6]

This understanding of Tradition as primarily unwritten stood as the defining mark of its character even up through Trent: “this truth and discipline are contained in the written books, and the unwritten traditions which, received by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself, or from the Apostles themselves, the Holy Ghost dictating, have come down even unto us, transmitted as it were from hand to hand.”[7]

This notion of Tradition as unwritten was particularly characteristic of how the Protestants understood the Roman Catholic Tradition. John Henry Cardinal Newman in one of his works prior to his conversion made it clear that the distinguishing mark of Roman Tradition is that it was not in scripture, i.e. not written. Giving the various options for the origins of religious truth, he says, “Either there is no definite religious information given us by Christianity at all, or it is given in Scripture, in a direct and covert way, or it is indeed given, but not in Scripture…the third is the ground of the Roman Church.”[8] And while this is certainly not unhelpful particularly in delineating Tradition from Scripture,[9] it certainly does not do tell us what Tradition is. Indeed, it indicates what it is not and suggests what it may be or at least its mode of being, but being unwritten does not clearly define its nature.

As an unwritten heritage, Tradition has its own proper modality. Indeed, as the word traditio suggests,[10] an essential part of Tradition is the act of “handing over” or “passing down.” This new modality as Yves Congar says can be understood as a means of communication; “Tradition is the transmission of the whole of Christianity.”[11] Yet in understanding Tradition as a mode or means of communication, we must not reduce Tradition down to its mark or character, for it is less about an oral transmission of unwritten teachings than of a “transmission of the very substance of the Christian faith, which surpasses any written statement.”[12] Indeed, it is the very “heritage of the apostles”[13] as Irenaeus would want to say. In fact, Irenaeus as mentioned earlier gave room for this broader sense of “handing over” when he mentioned the traditions still being in the eyes of those successors.[14] Tradition as a form of communication is something observed or, as Congar continues to develop this modality, learned: “Tradition, like education, is a living communication whose content is inseparable from the act by which one living person hands it on to another.”[15] Here we are drawn to the suggestion given by the Second Vatican Council in Dei Verbum when it speaks about the way in which Jesus manifested Himself so as to proclaim by “words and deeds” our salvation.[16] Thus, Tradition in its proper modality is the act of “handing over,” an instructive means of communication in which the whole of the faith is given over, not simply as an unwritten message or by word of mouth, but as the entire heritage of the believer.

While certainly the content of Tradition is primarily not written down, its contents and their importance exceed simply its mark or modality. As just mentioned, it is the “handing over” of the very substance or entirety of Christianity. Irenaeus was acutely aware of the completeness of the content of Tradition,[17] for the Gnostics disputed this very point, considering themselves the wiser “not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth.”[18] But this is impossible, since they have received via this apostolic success “a certain gift of truth.”[19] Irenaeus’ logic is clear: if the apostles possessed “perfect knowledge” (and they did), then so do we, their successors.[20]

To this effect, Congar speaks at one point of Tradition “as the transmission of the reality that is Christianity: this is really the tradition.”[21] While in another place Congar specifically says that the content of the Tradition is typically thought of in terms of faith and morals,[22] I think this “reality” or as in another place “substance” of Christianity is more helpful in the sense that it captures not only the specific doctrines, disciplines, and ceremonies,[23] but also the inheritance of every Christian, the very life which the Apostles, like St. Paul, were trying to communicate to others. Thus, Tradition can be said in its content to be the very handing over of life in Christ.

As a radical transmission of new life, the Tradition produces a particular effect in the believer. Congar speaks of this effect particularly in light of the crucial role that liturgy plays in Tradition: “The fruit or result of what might be called the sum total of tradition…is what the Fathers and the Councils have often termed the “Catholic spirit” or the “mind of the Church.”[24] While this “Catholic spirit” has proved somewhat ambiguous in recent years being claimed or even hijacked by some as the “spirit of the council” to the exclusion of its letter, understood properly this is simply that sentire cum ecclesiam the characterizes the best of all Catholic theology. In this “Catholic spirit” placing one’s head near the heartbeat of Mother Church, there is as Blondel says a transformation “by reflection from ‘something lived implicitly into something known explicitly.”[25] In other words, the Catholic mind having given the ascent of faith seeks and finds understanding, which was previously present in that hearing (auditus) yet inchoate in its articulation (intellectus).

It is here that we happen upon the very subject of Tradition. This unwritten “handing over” of the reality of Christianity thereby producing a Catholic mind or spirit finds its protagonist, its very subject in the Church. Irenaeus was acutely aware of this, always speaking of those bearers of the Apostolic Tradition as those who are “in the Church,”[26] or more clearly saying that this truth is “handed down by the Church.”[27] Newman seems to have made room for this claim (ultimately leaving room for his conversion[28]) in that he places the proper understanding of scripture in this implicit sense[29] which in many ways could be called the Tradition.[30] Yet, in his conclusion, Congar makes the claim very clear saying that “The Church is in Tradition as its human subject.”[31] In his work Tradition and Traditions, Congar gives us an insight into why by nature the Church as mother is the very subject of Tradition:

“We may even discern a feminine and maternal touch in the vital aspect of tradition. A woman expresses instinctively and vitally what a man expresses logically. The man is the logos, the external agent. The woman is the recipient, the matrix and fashioner of life. She creates the surroundings in which life will retain its warmth; one thinks of the maternal breast, of tenderness, of the home. She is fidelity. The man is intended for the hazards of the struggle outside, where he may receive wounds and be at the mercy of adventure and inconstancy. In the Woman he finds again the one who waits, keeping intact the warmth and intimacy of the home.”[32]

Clearly there is reason in calling the Church mother and home of the faithful in the image of Mary, the Mother of God. In fact, the Second Vatican Council gives credence to this cultivation of Tradition within the Church, saying that the Tradition “comes from the Apostles develop[s] in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit.”[33]

Yet, I would conclude that if the Church is the very subject of Tradition, then it could be said that the Tradition is the very Mystical Body of Christ, living, breathing, and growing through the ages. For if the Church hands down “all that she herself is, all that she believes,”[34] she is the very Tradition herself. Much in the way a mother gives of herself to her new born child, the Church nourishes and feeds her children with her very essence; she hands over all that she is. In giving over herself as the Body of Christ, she creates a saving encounter with the Risen Lord. This is why Tradition was enough for those barbarians which Irenaeus held up as so exemplary, not because they had diligently learned the various doctrines of the Church (although they clearly did), but rather because they had encountered the Risen Lord through His body the Church, receiving the saving reality of the Gospel, that adoption for which we were destined in Christ, sons of God the Father.

[1] Dei Verbum, 8.
[2] Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses), Bk. III chap. III.1
[3] Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses), Bk. III chap. III.3
[4] Cf. Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses), Bk. III chap. III.4
[5] Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses), Bk. III chap. IV.2
[6] Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses), Bk. III chap. IV.2
[7] Council of Trent, Session IV: Decree Concerning the Canonical Scriptures
[8] John Henry Cardinal Newman, “Holy Scripture in its relation to the Catholic Creed,” Discussions and Arguments on Various Subjects,” (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1907), Lect. 2.1
[9] Yves Congar, “Traditions and Traditions,” The Meaning of Tradition, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2004), 15-16.
[10] Congar, “Traditions and Traditions,” 9-11.
[11] Congar, “Traditions and Traditions,” 15.
[12] Congar, “Traditions and Traditions,” 20.
[13] Congar, “Traditions and Traditions,” 22.
[14] Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses), Bk. III chap. III.3
[15] Congar, “Traditions and Traditions,” 25.
[16] Dei Verbum, 4. Congar mentions in this vain St. Thomas Aquinas’ reason why Jesus did not Himself write, for He was the absolutely perfect Teacher (“Traditions and Traditions,” 20, citing ST, IIIa, q. 42, a. 4).
[17] A question arises here regarding whether or not Tradition is materially and/or formally sufficient. It seems fair to say that Irenaeus thought Tradition was at the very least materially sufficient by his testimony regarding the barbarians. While his claim that the successors of the apostles have “perfect knowledge” is suggestive, it is not clear if he thinks that Tradition is formally sufficient. Congar seems to think that Tradition is materially sufficient since he claims that Scripture is and that Tradition has everything that Scripture contains: “totum in Scriptura, totum in Traditione. All is in Scripture, all in Tradition” (“Scripture and Tradition in Relation to Revelation and to the Church,” 410-411). And his claim that Tradition is the handing over of the “reality that is Christianity” could be taken to mean such, he, like Irenaeus, does not make clear claim regarding the formal sufficiency of Tradition.
[18] Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses), Bk. III chap. II.1
[19] Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses), Bk. IV chap. XXVI.2
[20] Cf. Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses), Bk. III chap. I.1
[21] Congar, “Traditions and Traditions,” 44.
[22] Cf. Congar, “Traditions and Traditions,” 45.
[23] Congar highlights what he calls the “monuments” or “witness” of Tradition, namely the Word of God, the Texts of the Magisterium, the Liturgy, and the Fathers of the Church. Yet while enlightening, they still do not define the nature of Tradition. The words Conger chooses here admit this in that monuments and witness recall or recount the event or person. They are not the event or person itself. Cf. “The Monuments or Witnesses of Tradition,” The Meaning of Tradition, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2004), 129-155.
[24] Congar, “Traditions and Traditions,” 32.
[25] Cited in Congar, “Traditions and Traditions,” 27: Tradition brings to the surface of consciousness elements previously imprisoned in the depths of the faith and of its practice, rather than expressed, expounded and reasoned.”
[26] Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses), Bk. IV chap. XXVI.5
[27] Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses), Bk. III chap. III.4
[28] Cf. John Henry Cardinal Newman, “Holy Scripture in its relation to the Catholic Creed,” Note in Lect. 2.
[29] Cf. John Henry Cardinal Newman, “Holy Scripture in its relation to the Catholic Creed,” Lect. 2.
[30] Congar cites refers to Johann Evangelist von Kuhn’s claim that “This Tradition consists in the genuine understanding of Scripture” (Tradition and Traditions, part II, chap. 5: “Scripture and Tradition in Relation to Revelation and to the Church” (Wheathampstead: Anthony Clark Book, 1966), 378).
[31] Congar, “Scripture and Tradition in Relation to Revelation and to the Church,” 423.
[32] Congar, “Traditions and Traditions,” 25.
[33] Dei Verbum, 8.
[34] Dei Verbum, 8.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Dawkins, Gnosticism, and Dark Passages in Scripture

If we want to understand the Church Fathers in such a way that their teachings, faithfully and authentically developed over the centuries, are a source of renewal, we must also understand those teachings which the Fathers opposed such that we can recognize their presence in new and varied ways today. In the case of the Fathers’ understanding of Sacred Scripture, particularly its unity and various senses, their writings answer the prevalent gnostic and Marcion heresies of their day. While the specific teachings of the innumerable groups and sects are not worth repeating here, it is in fact helpful to consider the underlying motivation or driving force that unites them. Confronted with the colorful drama of salvation history, the believer seeks an explanation, an understanding that might alleviate him of the discomfort or even embarrassment of the various “‘calumnies’ directed against Scripture and the Christian faith.”[1] In other words, at stake for the believer is the ease of mind and release of tension created by these so called “dark passages” in the Scriptures.

In order to resolve this tension, the Gnostics created “from elements of ancient Greek tradition, oriental, and Egyptian doctrines of redemption, and reinterpreted episodes and words from the Bible” what Hans Urs von Balthazar called “the myth of the second century.”[2] This myth was a set of “symbolic secret doctrines, a spiritual expression of a privileged race of higher human beings,”[3] that could only be expressed to others in simple inchoate ways much like a parent might rationalize things to a small child. For the gnostic, then, knowledge (gnosis) of these secret doctrines saved; redemption was found in the understanding of these hidden truths.[4] While this decision was ultimately the tragedy of human pride,[5] it seems that this saving knowledge shared amongst spiritual men provided a blanket of security and reassurance from the discomfort of the aforementioned “dark passages” in Scripture.

Particularly for Marcion, this meant the rejection of the Old Testament as divinely inspired, or rather the rejection of its being inspired by the same God as the New Testament. While Marcion admits that the Old Testament may function as a history and even a decent code of righteousness, its author was a Demiurge, not the God of love revealed by Jesus Christ in the New Testament.[6] As such, Marcion would easily be able to avoid the personal and public struggles with the Christian heritage found in the Old Testament.   
Ironically, this insight into the gnostic heresy—the tragic resolution of tension present between the Old and New Testaments—sheds much light one of the most popular of threats to the Christian message in Richard Dawkins. While in no way does Dawkins want to salvage the difficulties of the Christian message with a myth (indeed, he plays on these difficulties to create disbelief in the Christian God[7]), he does attest to what I would call “Neo-Gnosticism.” Like Marcion, Dawkins applies the popular intellectual tendencies of his day with great vigor to his understanding of Scripture (or religion in general). For Marcion, this meant adopting the gnostic myths of the pleroma and adapting it in a most extreme way such that he identified the evil demiurge of the gnostic myth with Yahweh of the Old Testament.[8] For Dawkins, this means accepting Enlightenment thinking, progressivism, and scientism and applying them fiercely to the Scriptures, identifying what I might call the backwards and oppressive “cruel ogre” of religion with the God of the Old Testament.[9] In other words, Marcion’s condemnable evil Demiurge of the Old Testament is now Dawkins’ arch-type for religion as a whole. And Marcion’s redeeming knowledge of the God of love proclaimed by Christ in the New Testament is the salvific faith in science proclaimed by Enlightenment thinkers such as Darwin; the Greek, oriental, and Egyptian myths of Gnosticism are replaced by scientific theories and enlightened speculation.

In sight of this mounting refutation of the Christian faith Pope Benedict XVI calls for scholars and pastors to help people approach and understand these “dark passages” in such a way that their meaning shines forth in the paschal mystery. For “it would be a mistake,” he says, “to neglect those passages of Scripture that strike us a problematic.”[10] For the formulation of a response, Benedict XVI gives two directions in which both scholars and pastors might begin.

He begins saying that “it must be remembered first and foremost that biblical revelation is deeply rooted in history. God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages, and despite human resistance.”[11] I might call this the argument from Divine Pedagogy. This teaching is already clearly presented and developed in the Fathers, particularly Irenaeus. Irenaeus speaks of the unity between the two testaments as the unity between two covenants as seen in the progressive fulfillment of the law foretold by the prophets and revealed in Christ.[12] Indeed, Irenaeus says specifically that it pleased God to reveal the new covenant in this way “that they might always make progress through believing in Him [Jesus Christ], and by means of the [successive] covenants, should gradually attain to perfect salvation. For there is one salvation and one God.”[13] Later on Irenaeus shows the continuity of the two covenants in a more specific way by demonstrating the continuity of the new commandment Jesus gives and the Mosaic Law.[14] He does this by showing that the first and greatest commandment of each testament are in essence the same: “Moreover, He [Jesus Christ] did not himself bring down [from heaven] any other commandment greater than this one, but renewed this very same one to His disciples, when He enjoined them to love God with all their heart, and others as themselves.”[15] He then concludes that if the command is the same, the author must be the same, the same Father of both new and old covenants.[16] Interestingly, Irenaeus completes his explanation of the continuity of the two laws by proving that they both instruct man to follow Christ. Here, Irenaeus points to the “ascending series (velut gradus) before those who wished to follow Him, the precepts of the law, as the entrance into life.”[17] In short, Irenaeus forges a clear argument for the unity of the Scriptures and the unity of its author, God, by putting His actions in the context of a loving pedagogy which prepared men to receive their Savior, His Son Jesus Christ.

Building off this first direction, Benedict XVI indicates a second aspect by which these “dark passages,” particularly the lack of condemnation of such “dark deeds,” can be explained by historical context. Yet, he says, such passages require “a degree of expertise, acquired though a training that interprets the texts in their historical-literary context and within the Christian perspective, which has as its ultimate hermeneutical key ‘the Gospel and the new commandment of Jesus Christ.”[18] This argument I would call the argument from sensus plenior. Here we find precedence for such a method in the typological master, Origen, who himself acknowledges the difficulty of seeing all of Scripture as inspired: “while some [passages of Scripture] show themselves most plainly to be works of providence, other are so obscure as to appear to afford grounds for disbelief in the God who with unspeakable skill and power superintends the universe.”[19] Yet he insists that just as God’s providence is not thwarted by our ignorance, “so neither is the divine character of scripture…abolished because our weakness cannot discern in every sentence the hidden splendour of its teachings.”[20] It is our part, then, through increased faith and knowledge to seek out in spite of our weakness that sensus plenior, something Origen says will only come to light after the advent of Jesus.[21] A similar notion is captured by Henri de Lubac when he speaks of the full sense of Scripture given by the Holy Spirit. He says that progress in our understanding of the spiritual sense will require on our part a joint effort by both scientific exegesis and faith, learned men to deliver us from ignorance and spiritual men to provide the gift of discernment.[22]

Yet this method of spiritual exegesis must be carried out in such a way that the supernatural difference is most clearly present, that such an interpretation is not as De Lubac says simply “the consequence of an evolution of minds”[23] as may be seen in other religions. Indeed, the historical exegete must avoid any sense of expressing a “prophetism of progress,” recognizing clearly that “the history of revelation also offers the spectacle of a discontinuity that has no equal , which makes the traditional idea of allegory…irreplaceable.”[24] In point of fact, to fall into such a fallacy would be to agree to the same delusion in which Richard Dawkins and the like find themselves.



[1] Henri De Lubac, S.J. Medieval Exegesis, vol. I, chp. 5: “The Unity of the Two Testaments,” Edinburge: T & T Clark, 1998, p. 244.
[2] Hans Urs von Balthasar, “#98 People of the Church: Irenaeus,” The Von Balthasar Reader, New York: Crossroad, 1982, p. 382.
[3] Hans Urs von Balthasar, “#98 People of the Church: Irenaeus,” 382.
[4] Cf. J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, London: Adam & Charles Black, 1968, p. 26.
[5] Hans Urs von Balthasar, “#98 People of the Church: Irenaeus,” 383: “The Word of God unmasks the myth: it is the desperate pride of human beings who will not bend under God and thus forges their own paths to heaven. The final result of this attempt is just as grotesque as it is tragic…the deity that the myth-maker pretended to comprehend in its plenitude (pleroma) is ultimately unveiled as silent emptiness and anonymity, as the empty depth of humanity itself from which rise…the anxiety filled swarm of thoughts, fantasies, and addictions cast monstrously, demonically, and crazily against the wall of the Absolute.”
[6] Cf. J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 67.
[7] Cf. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, London: Random House Group Ltd, 2006, p. 51: “The god of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleaner; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
[8] Hans Urs von Balthasar, “#98 People of the Church: Irenaeus,” 381.
[9] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 283
[10] Cf. Pope Benedict XVI, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation: Verbum Domini, 42.
[11] Verbum Domini, 42.
[12] Cf. Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses) IV. 9-12, 25-26 in The Ante-Nicene Fathers vol. I the Apostolic Fathers---Justin Martyr---Irenaeus, Edinburge: T & T Clark, 1989, pp. 472-477, 495-498: “Now, without contradiction, He means by those things which are brought forth form the treasure new and old, the two covenants; the old, that giving of the law which took place formerly; and He points out as the new, that manner of life required by the Gospel” (IX:1).
[13] Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses), IX:3.
[14] Cf. Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses), XII.
[15] Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses), XII:2.
[16] Cf. Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses), XII: 3.
[17] Irenaeus, Irenaeus Against Heresies (Adversus Haereses), XII:5.
[18] Verbum Domini, 42. Clearly the Holy Father is restating the words of the Second Vatican Council when it says: “To search out the intention of the sacred writers, attention should be given, among other things, to ‘literary forms.’ For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture. For the correct understanding of what the sacred author wanted to assert, due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the patterns men normally employed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another,” 12.
[19] Origen, On First Principles (De Principiis), book II, chp. 4. 1-2 & book IV, chp. 1, New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1966, IV:1.7
[20] Origen, On First Principles (De Principiis), IV:1.7
[21] Origen, On First Principles (De Principiis), IV:1.6: “after the advent of Jesus that the inspiration of the prophetic words and the spiritual nature of Moses’ law can come to light.”
[22] Cf. Henri De Lubac, S.J., “The Unity of the Two Testaments,” 266-267.
[23] Henri De Lubac, S.J., “The Unity of the Two Testaments,” 228ff.
[24] Henri De Lubac, S.J., “The Unity of the Two Testaments,” 234-235.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A Difficult Message on Good Shepherd Sunday

Reflection for Mass
St. Vincent de Paul Parish
Easter IV Sunday
May 11, 1014

A Tough Task: Jesus Speaks to the Pharisees
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, today we have before us a most difficult task. For today Jesus brings to light a difficult reality, a hard truth. What, you may ask, could be so difficult or challenging? It is “Good Shepherd Sunday.” ‘Sean, did you not hear the responsorial psalm?’: The Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing I shall want. Fresh and green are the pastures, where He gives me repose (Ps 22). Indeed, the Lord Jesus is our shepherd. He will lead us and guide us along the right path. But be careful. Today’s parable is directed at the Pharisees. And dare I say that Jesus’ words to the Pharisees are neither flattering nor consoling, but rather convicting and challenging.

What, then, is the analogy? Jesus uses the image of a sheepfold, which is some sort of pin or fenced off area where the shepherd can leave the sheep for the night. As a home or place of refuge, those who do not enter through the front door, where the shepherd lay guarding the entrance, are presumably thieves and robbers, seeking to steal and to destroy the sheep. We even see this truth when we joke that someone had “to break” into their own home after being locked out, sliding in through an unlocked window or back door. Indeed, only those welcome or wishing well enter the house through the front door.

To this Christ makes it perfectly clear that He is the gate to this sheepfold, the door to this house. Yet, what is the sheepfold and who are the sheep? As a place of refuge and safety we see clearly that it is the Church and we the sheep. In fact, St. Augustine says “Keep hold of this, that Christ’s sheepfold is the Catholic Church.”[1] And in another place: “Certainly they were Catholics. If they were faithful Catholics, they were sheep.”[2] If, then, Christ is the door to this house which is the Church and we are those sheep (Catholics) who have entered through Christ into the fold, Jesus is making it perfectly clear to those Pharisees that one cannot enter into the safety of the fold unless he pass through Him; salvation, that is, can only be attained through Christ, the way, the truth, and the life (Jn 14:6). We can see this very truth incarnate in our Church building with the Baptismal font at the entrance to the Church. Indeed, baptism is traditionally called the door of faith through which one enters truly into the Church.[3]

Difficult Reality; Rereading the Parable: It is here that we must delve into that difficult reality confronted by Christ in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus says that all who come apart from him[4]are thieves and robbers looking to steal, slaughter, and destroy. In other words, all those who try to enter this blessed house, the Church, without entering through the door, who is Christ, come with mal intent, wishing harm upon those sheep, we who believe. And while these dangers might seem a bit farfetched or intense—could there really be people or ideas out there with such mal intent?—I think we can understand them better if we think of a household and our mothers. For not only is it Mother’s Day, but the Church, as seen in Mary, is our mother, Holy Mother Church. She is the one to whom we always return when times get tough. Indeed, like that child at the playground who comes running back to mom after bumping his head or scrapping his knee, we come back to Mother Church looking for a sweet and gentle kiss of grace that will make things all better.

Worries and Concerns of Mothers: Now all mothers know that there are a great many threats to her children. First, there are those dangers who try to enter our homes from the outside. These people or activities dare not enter through the doorway for they know that mom and dad will not approve. So they enter apart from the parents, working their way in through the TV, computer, iPhone, radio, etc… These influences—you know, the drugs, sex, and rock’n roll stuff—creep into our homes looking to steal our children’s innocence, and destroy the safe haven of a loving home. Likewise, Mother Church knows these dangers that try to enter apart from Christ, her spouse. These dangers primarily consist in the temptation to simple pleasures. In our weakest moments, these thieves and robbers find us and offer to us a quick fix, a short term distraction from the present difficulty or trial. But what do such “highs” really mean for those sheep that already have eternal life through Christ? Yet do to our own negligence and individualism, they dare to enter through the cracks and gaps left in our Church. So be vigilant, brothers and sisters, and help one another. Look out for those among us who struggle with addictions of any kind, whether they be drug related or simply found at the click of a mouse. For there is a sheep being taken by a thief, a brother or sister robbed of the abundance of life offered by Christ.  

Yet all mothers know that the dangers are not limited to those who want into our homes, but there are those who try to draw our children out away from the home; strangers who seek to steal the love and affection of our children by mimicking the care of us parents, thereby destroying our own influence and care. These dangers consist in popular role models whom our children follow, imitate, and desire to emulate. Likewise, Mother Church must guard her children from those dangers, which stand outside her walls. These dangers mimic the voice of Christ, her spouse, stealing the love and affection of her children and destroying her influence over them. These offer a new home, or a different mother who is more “hip” or entertaining, more with the times than our own. Such dangers can be “mega churches,” and other Christian alternatives which offer a powerful emotional experiences and even coffee during their services; or extra-curricular activities. This latter is the hardest. Can we honestly say that we have more love and affection the Church than these extracurricular activities? Again, help each other out. Many of you participate in the same activities. Help each other get to mass on Sundays no matter where you are. Help each other tell coach, teacher, instructor that practice is good, but there must still be time for Church and religious education. How many children leave the fold of the Church confused by these alternative activities which have won their love and affection away from the Church!

Yet what is more is that a mother knows that such dangers are not limited to the outside. There are those within the family who have listened to these outside voices and are taken by them. Like sheep within the fold who linger next to the fence, they listen and learn from these outside dangers, and, then, considering them good and non-threatening, they go around spreading such destruction from within, fracturing the family. A brother or sister, aunt or uncle, even a spouse or one of our own children already won over by these dangers can work against us parents to lead our kids astray. Here within the home can often be the greatest battle of all. How do you protect your children from the influences of one’s own family? The pain of separation and breaking up the family, which this causes, can be excruciating. Likewise, Mother Church has her fair share of children who have listened and succumb to these outside influences. And while they still desire to be a part of the family, they spread false teachings and destructive counsel around, confusing and fracturing the Church. Here are politicians advocating laws contrary to our faith, big name Catholics living a witness inconsistent with the faith, catechists and teachers shying away from difficult topics, and priests and religious dissenting. How many inner sects and groups within the Church are created by such individualism and selfishness? So again, really for the love of God help each other out. Do not give into to the temptation to say: ‘Well I would never do it myself, but who am I to tell someone how to live their lives?’ Help each other live out the truth in charity, that we all might remain faithful to the flock in which we find eternal life.

Make Light; Hope: Well, Sean, it is your last weekend. And what a way to end it: what a downer. Ah, but there is hope. Mothers, although you worry to no end over your children, you always retain a bit of hope. But like any good mother, your hope does not consist in a sort of hush-hush, hope against all odds that the children will turn around and return to her loving care. No, the hope consists in speaking about it openly with your children, trusting and hoping in their goodness and ability to recognize your loving voice. Here is the hope of the Church, that by consistently and thoroughly proclaiming the saving message of Christ, the sheep will indeed recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd. And that the sheep will not follow a stranger, and will run away from these dangers because they do not recognize their voice.


[1] Commentary on Gospel of John Tractate 45, 5
[2] T. 45, 11
[3] Cf. Porta Fidei, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI
[4] While NAB translates this phrase as “before” which clearly reflects the Greek προ and Latin ante, as St. Augustine points out it is better understood as “apart from” or praeter (Tractate 45, 11).