The One Thing Necessary

I was speaking in California about a year ago, and after my talk, an older couple came up to me with a question: What book would I recommend they give their adult children, all of whom no longer practiced their faith? They wondered if The How-To Book of the Mass, a book that I had authored might win them back to the faith. Although tempted to recommend my book, I realized right away that what their adult children needed, was not a deeper understanding of the Mass, but a deeper relationship with the one who instituted the Eucharist and founded the Church—Jesus Christ. So I highly recommended to them, Pope Benedict’s book Jesus of Nazareth.

In Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict reintroduces us to the Jesus who has inspired millions to leave all and follow him. Somehow this Jesus often gets lost in our popular culture and sometimes even among those who claim to be his followers. Everything that we Catholics do only has meaning if we remember who it is we are following. Young people and old who leave the Church, often do so, because they have forgotten Jesus Christ, and sometimes even those who don’t leave the Church can forget that the Church is all about Christ, because the Church is the Body of Christ.

I confess that I am one of those people.

Last week I was in Chicago attending the International Catholic Stewardship Council’s annual conference. At that conference attended by Catholics from around the world, I was in a conversation with a pastor of a large church, over a morning coffee when a new insight hit me.

The pastor was sharing his frustration with the diocesan mandated programs for couples preparing for marriage in his diocese. Essentially he had an ideological problem with the content of the program, a view point that I didn’t share. But listening to him, a revelation of sorts came to me: When we have the opportunity to win people, whose faith isn’t the strongest, back to Christ and the church, namely when they come to the church seeking the Sacrament of Matrimony for themselves or the Sacrament of Baptism for their child, what do we present them with at that moment?

Is it Christ?

There are many things engaged couples need to hear, but what they need most of all is not a “thing” at all, but a personal relationship with Jesus. A young family seeking the baptism of their child needs to recall why baptism is so important to them and be coaxed to look at their relationship with Christ again.

As tempted as I am to suggest this solution or that to all that ails us as a church, I realize the only solution is my relationship with Jesus, as the “one thing necessary” in life. Once I am rooted in Christ, all that he teaches through his church makes sense to me—but as he told his disciples “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). I need to be reminded of that often, are you like me?

The Presence of God in History

Pope Benedict’s Address to the Synod:

Dear brothers and sisters, working on my book about Jesus has provided ample opportunity to see all of the good that comes to us from modern exegesis, but also to recognize its problems and risks. 

The [conciliar constitution] “Dei Verbum,” section 12, offers two methodological guidelines for adequate exegetical work. In the first place, it confirms the necessity of using the historical-critical method, and briefly describes the essential elements of this. This necessity is the consequence of the Christian principle formulated in John 1:14: “Verbum caro factum est.” The historical fact is an essential dimension of the Christian faith. The history of salvation is not a myth, but real history, and for this reason it must be studied with the methods of serious historical research. 

Nevertheless, this history has another dimension, that of divine action. In consequence, “Dei Verbum” speaks of a second methodological level necessary for proper interpretation of the words, which are at the same time human words and the divine Word. Following a fundamental rule for the interpretation of any literary text, the council says that Scripture is to be interpreted according to the same spirit in which it was written, and consequently indicates three methodological elements fundamental for the purpose of taking into account the divine, pneumatological dimension of the Bible. What this means is that one must: 1) interpret the text while taking into account the unity of all of Scripture; today, this is called canonical exegesis; at the time of the council, this term had not yet been created, but the council says the same thing: the unity of all of Scripture must be taken into account; 2) one must also keep in mind the living tradition of the entire Church, and finally 3) one must observe the harmony that exists between elements of the faith. 

It is only where these two methodological levels are observed, historical-critical and theological, that one can speak of theological exegesis, an exegesis suitable for this Book. While current academic exegesis works at an extremely high standard with regard to the first level, the same cannot be said of the second. Often this second level, the level constituted by the three theological elements indicated by “Dei Verbum,” seems almost completely absent. And this has rather serious consequences. 

The first consequence of the absence of this second methodological level is that the Bible becomes a book only about the past. Moral consequences can be drawn from it, history can be learned from it, but the Book as such speaks only of the past, and exegesis is no longer truly theological, but becomes pure historiography, the history of literature. This is the first consequence: the Bible remains in the past, it speaks only of the past. 

The second consequence is even more serious: where the hermeneutics of faith indicated by “Dei Verbum” disappears, another kind of hermeneutics seems to be necessary, a secularized, positivist hermeneutics, the fundamental principle of which is the conviction that the Divine does not appear in human history. According to this hermeneutics, when it seems that there is a divine element, it must be explained where this impression comes from, and everything must be reduced to the human element. 

In consequence, interpretations are proposed that deny the historicity of the divine elements. Today the so-called “mainstream” of exegesis in Germany denies, for example, that the Lord instituted the Holy Eucharist, and says that the body of Jesus remained in the tomb. The Resurrection is no longer seen as an historical event, but as a theological view. This takes place because of hermeneutics of faith is missing: a profane, philosophical hermeneutics is therefore asserted, denying the possibility of the entry and real presence of the Divine within history. 

The consequence of the absence of the second methodological level is the creation of a profound gulf between scientific exegesis and “lectio divina.” It is precisely from this that there sometimes arises confusion over the preparation of homilies. Where exegesis is not theology, Scripture cannot be the soul of theology, and vice versa, where theology is not essentially the interpretation of Scripture within the Church, this theology no longer has any foundation. 

For this reason, for the sake of the life and mission of the Church, for the future of the faith, it is absolutely necessary to overcome this dualism between exegesis and theology. Biblical theology and systematic theology are two dimensions of a single reality, which we call theology. 

In consequence, it seems desirable to me that one of the proposals [of the synod] should speak of the need for exegesis to include the two methodological levels indicated by “Dei Verbum” 12, which speaks of the need to develop an exegesis that is not only historical, but also theological. It will therefore be necessary to broaden the formation of future exegetes in this sense, in order to truly open the treasures of Scripture to today’s world, and to all of us. 

World Series Tickets on Sale

In St. Petersburg, FL today! From the St. Pete Times “Wonder Boys” by Gary Shelton:

 As they rushed toward the field, finally, it did not matter that you had seen their dance before. The sight of this level of joy never grows old.

The darnedest team you have ever seen, the underdog of all underdogs, was bounding across the artificial surface of Tropicana Field. Once again, the Celebration Boogie had taken hold of the Tampa Bay Rays — as familiar by now as the twist or the Macarena — and on a fairy-tale night, the Wonder Boys danced on.

By the time the music stops, they will be in the World Series.

Imagine that.

The Rays won their Sunday night showdown in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series 3-1. Despite the dryness in your throat, despite the dampness in your palms, despite your fraying nerves and your nagging doubts and the superb Jon Lester, the Rays turned out the lights on the stubborn Red Sox. At last.

You thought it was slipping away, didn’t you? You thought these Rays were doomed to be remembered not by a turnaround but by a meltdown. Admit it. A team spends enough time teetering on a cliff and you cannot help but worry about the jagged rocks below. If this felt like an upset, it was because two out of three voices you heard before the game seemed convinced the Rays were going to lose.

All of which is where this Rays team seems to want you, isn’t it? If you have paid attention to it at all, you are aware that being surrounded by doubt is its natural habitat. If you know nothing else about the Rays, it seems that they have to be counted out before they can be counted on.

As it turns out, the Red Sox will not be an everlasting nightmare after all. The Rays won the series, which means that seven-run lead they blew in Game 5 is no more than a backstory. Leave it to Boston fans to discuss what went wrong.

It was minutes before midnight, and Rays owner Stuart Sternberg stood on the infield dirt, champagne and cheers dripping off him, the American League championship trophy cradled in his arms. Sternberg stared into the upper reaches of Tropicana Field and grinned at the sight of fans still there, still roaring.

Sternberg was asked if, all things considered, it was better that the series worked out the way it did instead of the Rays ending it earlier.

“Absolutely,” he said. “The things that are the most important always take the longest road to get there. And we always take the long road.”

Think of it like this: If the Rays had closed out this series instead of blowing the Game 5 lead, the critics would have written off Boston as an aging opponent. If they had won in Game 6, it would have been because of Josh Beckett’s injury.

This way? This way, the Rays won a game that every one of them will remember on their deathbeds.

“Is it better?” vice president Andrew Friedman said. “You mean better for my heart, or for the story line?

“No question, this is better. All year long we’ve responded when people counted us out. It seems like we want that chip on our shoulder.”

Add “contrary” to the list of descriptions of the Rays. Already you have “resilient” and “amazing” and “surprising.” From now on, you can crack open the thesaurus and let the adjectives spew like champagne. Describe manager Joe Maddon as bold (for inserting rookie pitcher David Price with the bases loaded in the eighth, for instance). Describe the Rays as deep (Rocco Baldelli and Willy Aybar, hitting stars?). Describe them as gritty (Matt Garza, seven innings of two-hit baseball).

Also, describe them like this: World Series-bound.

It seems surreal to say it out loud. The Rays, the team of pinched nickels and blurry blueprints, have won the American League pennant. The Rays, the team of Wilson Alvarez and Danny Clyburn, of Ben Grieve and Vinny Castilla, are going to the playground of Reggie Jackson and Kirk Gibson, of Babe Ruth and Joe Carter.

Considering that, is anything in sports still impossible?

When it was over, the Red Sox seemed stunned. Lately, the Rays seem to have that effect on opponents. They keep beating back the doubts, and then someone raises the stakes, and they beat back the new doubts, and on and on.

A winning season? Check. A playoff berth? Check. The AL East title, and the division series, and the American League pennant? Check, check and check.

The World Series? Four more victories and you can call it checkmate. Also:

Dance Fever.

Never has a franchise redefined itself so quickly. In the blink of an eye, the Team That Didn’t Matter has come to mean so much to so many.

To the fans, the Rays are proof that money doesn’t always buy victory, that higher ground can be reached from low beginnings, and that no matter how bad it looks, perhaps tomorrow will be better after all. In a tough time economically, in a noisy time politically, this team has given a region a reason to smile.

To the small-market teams of baseball, the Rays represent hope that results are not based solely on economics, that if a team is intelligent enough and determined enough, if it finds the right players at the discount rack, it is possible to climb the standings in even the toughest of divisions.

To the players, from the talented kids who rose up through the system to those who came in search of a second chance, there is the possibility of falling in with the right team at the right time.

More than anything, that’s who these players are. They are indeed the Rays of hope.

There are impossible dreams, and then there are the ones you do not even say out loud. Oh, let’s admit it. We all knew the Rays were going to be better this year. None of us suspected anything like this.

This is history’s greatest turnaround, better than the 1969 Mets and the 1991 Braves, better than North Carolina State and Villanova, better than the 2001 Patriots. Better than the Bucs. Better than the Lightning.

Odd. This was supposed to be the lily pad year, remember? This was the year the Rays were supposed to finally be better, but it wasn’t supposed to be the year they got ripe. Instead, it was like watching the movie Big; the trick was that the Rays grew up all at once.

Overnight, it seems, the Rays have become the smartest organization in baseball. They are the best defensive team in the game. They have great starting pitching, great relief pitching and — who saw this coming? — bats made of magic lumber. They are young, they are hungry, and for some reason, they think the spotlight is kind of pretty.

And now, they have this World Series thing coming up.

Think about that for a minute. Let the phrase roll over your tongue. Savor the thought of it. Ponder the improbability.

From here, one dance is left.

From here, only a few steps are left to take.

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