The Triumph of Weakness
Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, August 15, 2016
Why did Pope Pius XII decide in 1950 to declare the Assumption of Mary’s body into heaven a revealed dogma of faith? The doctrine had been taken for granted in the Church for centuries. No one was disputing it. What is so special about the fact of Mary’s Assumption, and does it have special meaning for our times?
The Entrance Antiphon begins, “A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman….” And that is what the Assumption is: a sign given by God for all times that is especially needed in ours. A sign that says God has chosen to give sinful human beings an active part in their own salvation; to win the victory over sin and death through defective human cooperation; and to give human weakness a share in the fruit of that victory: release from the consequences of sin and death. The message of the Immaculate Conception was that God can make us all as free of sin at the end of our lives as Mary was at the beginning of hers (see the reflection for December 8, 2009). The message of the Assumption is that, just as the “power to preserve” (Mary from all sin) is the “power to purify” (us from all sin), so the “power to prevent” (the disintegration of Mary’s body in the grave) is the “power to restore” our bodies after they have disintegrated. And also to restore society and the Church.
In the (alternate) Opening Prayer we say to the Father, “All creation rightly gives you praise, for all life and all holiness come from you. We put no more than conditional trust in human beings to respect, protect, or even spare our lives. And we don’t count on any human to be holy. But we also know that God can and does enhance our lives through humans, and that God can make humans holy. We hope for the best from humans and give our love to all; but our faith and hope depend only on God. Mary’s body, just as subject to disintegration as ours, but miraculously preserved and assumed into heaven, is a sign and a reminder that God triumphs in, through, and sometimes in spite of human nature.
Revelation 11:19 to 12:1-10 shows us a woman, symbol of the Church, threatened by a dragon who “dragged a third of the stars from the sky” and wanted to devour her child. But her child was to “rule all nations,” and the woman escaped, while a voice shouted from heaven, “Victory and power and empire for ever have been won by our God, and all authority for his Christ.”
In our day we have seen the dragon of child abuse, aided and abetted by ecclesiastical cover-ups, sweep from the sky those we had assumed were shining like stars in their holiness as bishops, priests, vowed brothers or nuns. Certainly far less than “a third of the stars,” but still appalling numbers, first in the United States, and now in Ireland. Michael Kelly, of The Irish Catholic newspaper, says that although 47 percent of people in Ireland still attend Mass on Sundays, the Church has already lost many in the younger generation. He does not expect a blanket rejection of the Church but quotes a 20-year-old speaking for youth:
The revelations [of abuse] were the straw that broke the camel's back. Looking at the Catholic Church as a whole, I just don't see its relevance to anyone of my age, and I don't see the relevance to the vast majority of people living in Ireland today It's had a profound effect on people. …My friends say things like they are never going to Mass again.
It is distressing to see the Irish youth, who have a reputation for intelligence, unable to distinguish between the clergy and the Church of Jesus Christ. Anyone who believes in the Church because of priests and bishops should be denied Communion! We believe that “all life and all holiness” come from the Father. Our faith in the Church is based on Jesus Christ and confirmed by the Holy Spirit. If it isn’t, we have fallen victim to the curse of “clericalism” that soothes with false assurance before it murders.
Kelly has a positive outlook:
My hope, my desire would be that Irish Catholics can develop the ability to critique the church… to think about their faith… to approach things with a little bit of reason and the ability to question church authorities" (from www.npr.org).
Not to do this is to fall into the sin of clericalism, defined by Father (later Cardinal) Avery Dulles, S.J., as an attitude that:
views the clergy, especially the higher clergy, as the source of all power and initiative [in a] pyramidal pattern in which all power is conceived as descending from the pope through the bishops and priests, while at the base the faithful people play a passive role and seem to have a lower position in the Church... (The Catholicity of the Church, Clarendon Press - Oxford, 1987 p. 161-2, referring to Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church, parag. 12).
Underlying clericalism is the deadly assumption that priests and bishops are “holier” than the laity, and somehow representative of what a good Christian should be. This is a grave mistake. No one is naïve enough to think that a politician must be a model American or a police officer above breaking the law. Most probably are, just as most priests and bishops are good Catholics, but nothing in their position guarantees that. When we think that ordination makes one a model Catholic, we are set up for disillusionment and loss of faith.
When we see the stars being swept from the sky, the ”Responsorial (Psalm 44) calls us to look up and see that “The queen stands at your right hand, arrayed in gold.” Jesus reigns, and the Church in all her weakness is with him.
In Luke 1:39-56 Elizabeth sees in Mary a confirmation of faith and hope: “Blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.” The promise made to us is victory over sin and death. Mary assumed into heaven is a confirmation and sign of it.
During the Viet Nam war a young marine named Philip Caputo entered a village where he saw a heap of bodies disintegrated by death. He later wrote in his book A Rumor Of War that his spontaneous reaction was, "These bodies will not rise again." And he gave up faith in God.
Caputo was being just as illogical as the Irish youth quoted above. Any body long dead is just as decomposed as what he saw. But what eviscerated his faith was the emotional horror of it. What he knew intellectually before was now real to him. Wrong as his reaction was, no one who has never been in combat should cast the first stone. In the same way, when people who know in the abstract that priests or others they look up to can sin like anybody else actually experience it with searing personal trauma, it is understandable that they should look with horror on the Church as a whole. At the root of this, however, is the clericalism we have all unfortunately fostered by clothing the clergy in presumed holiness without rating them on their conduct like everybody else. It is imperative and urgent that we stop this. It is good to have respect for the sacrament of Holy Orders. When we make use of the ministry of a priest or bishop, “blessed are we” if we believe “that the promise made to us by the Lord” will be fulfilled. But we need to be precise about what that promise is. The promise is that what the sacrament offers will be given regardless of the holiness or sinfulness of the minister. It is dangerous devotion to receive the sacraments from a priest or deacon just because we think he is holy, and deadly to refuse to receive them because we think he isn’t.
An answer to disillusionment is the celebration of the Assumption, which declares: “A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed in the sun” — glorious — “with the moon (symbol of everything transitory) beneath her feet,” and identified as the Church by “a crown of twelve stars” matching the twelve courses of stones that represent the Twelve Apostles, the foundation of the Church (Revelation 21:14). In good times and in bad, Mary’s body, assumed into heaven without passing through the disintegration of the grave, is a sign that in the Church Jesus has triumphed, is triumphing, and will continue to triumph over sin and death. And he is doing it in us, his sinful, saved, and saving Body on earth.
“Thy Kingdom come”
1Corinthians 15:20-27 urges us, regardless of everything, to wait in hope for Christ to come in triumph. For the end will come, “when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power.” The fact is, “Christ has been raised from the dead,” but he is just “the first fruits of those who have died.” All of us “will be made alive in Christ,” all who “belong” to him. Until then, he is using us in our weakness, human beings simultaneously sinful yet sanctified by grace, to minister to one another. Blessed are those who can accept Jesus ministering in his sinful body, because until the day of his coming, it is the only body he has on earth!
Can you distinguish between the holiness of the priest and that of his ministry?
Initiative: Give God’s life:
Make an explicit commitment to the Church based on faith, not clericalism.