Thursday, August 30, 2012

Sunday 22B: "True Religion" - Blessed Cardinal Alfredo Schuster

Burgos Cathedral, Spain: Peter's Vision at Joppa that all foods are clean

Twenty-second Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year “B”) - September 2, 2012

[Deuteronomy 4.1-2, 6-8 [Psalm 15]; James 1.17-18, 21-22, 27; Mark 7.1-8, 14-15, 21-23]

In the early church, the disciples of Jesus struggled for several decades with the issue of whether and under what conditions Gentiles might become participants in God's covenant. Those Jews who had been and still considered themselves members of the faith community of Israel asked themselves whether the Gentiles who came to believe in Jesus had to become observers of the Jewish religious and dietary rules. In effect, the question was whether the Gentiles had to become Jews before becoming Christian.

Were Gentile converts to be told that they had to be circumcised? Did converts to faith in Christ have to follow Jewish food laws? Were those dietary prescriptions distinguishing kosher (permitted) and non-kosher (forbidden) foods still in effect? These were some of the issues that concerned the apostles and elders gathered at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 14.27-15.35; cf. Galatians 2.1-21).

The passage from which today's gospel reading is taken addresses some of the underlying issues, but does so in a rather polemical way. Still the matter is settled for Mark and his community and, as we shall see, has been done rather decisively!

By contrast, when we come to the end of Matthew's account of this controversy (15.1-20), the resolution of the matter seems far less decisive.

For his part, Luke drops the matter entirely within the sequence of his gospel narrative, preferring to recount instead, in Acts 10.9-16, the story of a dream had by Peter that serves to communicate the same truth.

Three times Peter was told that “what God has made clean, you must not call profane” (10.15). Since the Gentile Cornelius and his companions had come knocking on his door at the very same moment, Peter grasped that God's cleansing of all foods (through the death of Jesus, we assume) implied the admission of the Gentiles to the community of believers without demanding of them circumcision or ritual and dietary observances (Acts 10.17-11.18).

As the conclusion to the controversy in Mark, Jesus articulated the startling truth that, “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile”. Next, the disciples again enter the house (in Mark, the place where Jesus gives them private instruction) and ask Jesus to explain his puzzling statement.

First, Jesus expressed surprise that the disciples had not understood His parabolic saying (“do you also fail to understand?”). We will see this motif recur in subsequent weeks as the disciples' incomprehension becomes a pervasive leitmotif.

Then Jesus helped them see the import of his dictum, that “whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer”. After this rather crude biological account of what happens to the food that humans eat, Mark observed “thus he declared all foods clean”.

This abolition of the distinction between clean and unclean foodstuffs radically redefined one of the main distinguishing marks of Jewish. Dietary laws severely limited the contacts Jews could have with those outside Israel. By annulling these, Jesus moved the spotlight onto sinful desires that sully the human heart.

The thirteen vices Jesus mentioned spell out the “evil intentions” lurking in hearts (the place where humans take decisions). It is a sad commentary on what humans are capable of. Other such lists are found in the New Testament (e.g. Romans 1.29-31; Galatians 5.19-21; 1 Timothy 1.9-12; 2 Timothy 3.2-5) and in contemporary Jewish-Hellenistic literature.

Meditating on these vices (and their opposite virtues) points us to what true religion ought to be. So too does reflection on the message of Psalm 15, which offers believers the characteristics of a person called to live in God's presence.

The qualities enumerated are both positive, to “walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from the heart...”, and negative, not to “slander with their tongue”.

The psalmist's instructions may be generic, to “do no evil to...friends”, or specific, to “stand by their oath even to their hurt”...and not to “take a bribe against the innocent”.

As a prophet of social justice in the early church, James listed some typical examples of “pure and undefiled” religious practice: “to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world”.

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One of the heroic bishops of the twentieth century was the man who died on this day in 1954, Blessed Alfredo Ludovico Luigi Schuster, whose feast day is observed in some places today. 

Schuster was born in Rome of Bavarian immigrants on January 18, 1880. At 11 years of age, he entered the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Paul outside the Walls taking the name Ildefonso in 1896; he professed solemn vows in 1902. Philosophy studies were done at Sant'Anselmo and theology was studied at Saint Paul's where he was ordained a priest on March 19, 1904.

Service to the monastic way of life, besides the daily opus Dei (the praying of the Divine Office), included scholarship, the role of novice master for 8 years, prior of the monastery for 2 years, procurator of the Cassinese Congregation of the Benedictine monks for 12 years and abbot-ordinary of Saint Paul outside the Walls from 1918 until 1929. He was President of the Pontifical Oriental Institute from 1919 to 1922.

On June 26, 1929, Pope Pius XI nominated him the Archbishop of Milan and two weeks later created him a cardinal on July 15. In 1933, the Order of Malta honored Schuster with the Grand Cross for his service to the Church.

Beginning his ministry, in his own words as "errand boy" of the Ambrosian Church, he gave priority to catechesis and promoted the role of the laity in the parish and in Catholic Action.

He was the first Italian Bishop, following the Concordat, to swear allegiance to the King. He denounced Fascist interference in Catholic Action. Later, he refused to solemnly bless Milan Central Station, obliging both the King and Mussolini to be absent from its inauguration. He condemned the racial laws in 1938: "A kind of heresy has been born in foreign countries which is spreading everywhere ... it is called racism". He championed the cause of the poor during the Second World War and after it founded the Domus Ambrosiana, inexpensive housing for newly-married couples.

He closely followed the growth of the Catholic University, founded the Institute of Ambrosian Chant and Sacred Music and the Ambrosianeum and Didascaleion cultural centres. He also blessed the Mary Immaculate Institute for priests, and contributed articles to the daily, L'Italia. Above all, he proposed holiness as a goal for all, and the only means to human happiness.

A few days before he died, he withdrew to Venegono Seminary. His last, moving words were to the seminarians: "You want something to remember me by. All I can leave you is an invitation to holiness...". He died on August 30, 1954. 

In 1957, Cardinal Giovanni Montini --later Pope Paul VI-- introduced Schuster's cause for canonization. It is said that upon opening Schuster tomb on January 28, 1985, his didy was found incorrrupt; he was beatified on May 12, 1996 by Pope John Paul II.

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Almighty God, who through your grace, the Blessed Alfredo Ildefonso, by his exemplary virtue built up the flock entrusted to him, grant that we, under the guidance of the Gospel, may follow his teaching and walk in sureness of life, until we come to see you face to face in your eternal kingdom.

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