This Advent, the Church entered a Year of Grace. For some at Christmas, God seems hidden in our long silent night, but even at the heart of suffering, grace abounds.
“O come, O Key of David, come, and open wide our heavenly home; Make safe the way that sets us free, and close the path to misery.” (O Come, O Come Emmanuel, verse 5)
These Stone Walls has a presence on the pictorial social media site, Pinterest. I can’t describe it because I have never actually seen it, but one of the Pinterest boards is called “Catholic News on These Stone Walls.” I don’t know a lot about how Pinterest works, but you may wish to click “Follow this Board” [the “+” button] and share it if you visit it.
But first, a disclaimer that I have made before: In the world of Catholic news, I write from the Oort Cloud, that castoff field of our Solar System’s debris out beyond the orbit of Pluto. Sorry for the astronomical analogy, but you get the point.
In an age of political correctness, I would be long forgotten by our Church if not for These Stone Walls which, ironically, you can see and I cannot. My contribution to Catholic news comes from beyond the periphery of our Church. This is why writer, Ryan MacDonald once called These Stone Walls “A Voice in the Wilderness.” But from here, I have a panoramic view of things.
And what I see from the wilderness this Christmas is troubling. In just the last decade, our culture has traveled down a darker path. In waves of upheaval from traditional values, the desires of individuals have come to outweigh the common good. The Church is thrown off course in a politically correct tempest of moral relativism, gender politics, and a cultural civil war. I wrote recently in “A New Advent, a New Beginning, and Renewed Hope”:
“This is a tough time for a lot of you. For some of us, our politics and our spirits have descended to new lows, and sometimes our society seems to be on a fast track toward self-destruction. Signs that God is indeed with us can seem fleeting and far between.”
You may think that Christmas is not a good time to air this, but it may actually be the best of times. As a society, we are in trouble, and a lot of good, faithful, conscientious people are deeply affected by it. We are entering a new dark age morally, culturally, politically, and spiritually.
It’s an age not at all unlike the one into which Christ was born. The great Advent hymn that has opened my recent posts – “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” – expresses our tenacious grasp on hope. “Emmanuel” in Hebrew is an affirmation of “God with us.”
It seems that Cardinal Raymond Burke agrees with me (or I with him) about the course we are on. He also chose this moment to bring up the state of affairs in our Church and world. When Advent began, Cardinal Burke was interviewed in a prophetic article by Paolo Gambi, an editor of The Catholic Herald (U.K.). The December 1, 2017 interview is entitled, “Perhaps we have arrived at the End Times’: an interview with Cardinal Burke.”
Like a lot of what is happening in our Church, nation, and world, I found Cardinal Burke’s interview to be both incisive and troubling. I had admired him long before reading this article. I admire him much more after. The article is brief, and very much worth our time as we struggle to see the true meaning of Christmas in a culture hell bent on suppressing it.
(One small favor, please: If you want to read the article later, come back here to click on it from TSW. It may not be lost on The Catholic Herald editors that readers are coming to it from These Stone Walls.)
THE ADVENT OF PROPHETIC WITNESS
Two years ago during Advent, I received an encouraging personal letter from Cardinal Burke. In his gracious letter, he asked that I offer some of my unjust suffering as a share in the suffering of Christ for our Church. His letter remains close to my heart because it is a model of generosity. But I did not see it that way at first.
If you have followed Catholic news this past year, then you may know that Cardinal Burke has been an outspoken advocate for the causes of fidelity and integrity in the Church. “Integrity” may seem a strange word to use. Its first meaning is “soundness of moral character” and of course our Church has moral character even when the human adherents within it are flawed – some more than others.
But there is a second meaning that refers to wholeness and unity. To have integrity in this sense means to contribute to the good of the whole, and to refrain from promoting division. After reading the interview with Cardinal Burke, I am convinced that he does not stand in opposition to anyone. He certainly does not oppose Pope Francis.
Cardinal Burke is opposed to division and its impact on the integrity of the Church. Along with other cardinals, he has since written and published his famous “Dubia,” imploring Pope Francis to respond to concerns that division and confusion are entering the Apostolic witness of the Church. His request for my prayers is for unity of faith and purpose.
His letter to me at first seemed such a bizarre thing at an equally bizarre time. Here we were – my friend Pornchai Moontri and I – buried at Christmas in a dungeon, with chaos reigning all around us, when Cardinal Burke asked me to offer my plight for the integrity of the Church – for the healing of divisions and the promotion of wholeness for an institution that threw me to the litigious wolves.
To be transparent and honest, at the time the letter arrived I felt quite divided from the leadership of our Church. Like many of “the accused” I was cast into a long silent night beyond the Church’s periphery. I have not dwelled on this at These Stone Walls, but rather I tend to keep my disgruntled thoughts to myself for the same reason Cardinal Burke is concerned about some of the direction Pope Francis has taken. I do not want to create division.
Most legitimate animosity is built upon righteous indignation, and you can find hints of mine between the lines in posts like “Opus Bono Sacerdotii Heroic Witness for a Heroic Vocation.” I had been feeling thoroughly let down by the accommodations of some of our leaders to the new political correctness.
That feeling was heightened in the Year of Mercy when bishops extended their outreach of mercy to everyone but accused priests. It’s cold out there in the Oort Cloud. So as the Year of Mercy commenced, that was my Christmas gift from Cardinal Raymond Burke: to suffer for a Church that cast me silently adrift. Thanks, Your Eminence! Next year just send me a nice tie.
But after some clearer reflection, I saw Cardinal Burke’s letter very differently. I came to see it as a gesture of mercy and Catholic prophetic witness. When a person asks for such a sacrifice, not for what some assume is his cause, but for what he, himself, knows is his purpose – to restore and preserve unity – that is generosity and virtuous witness.
That letter is among the best Christmas gifts I have received out here among the Church’s debris, and it came as a source of grace, a sort of awakening. What follows may be the most important sentence in this post: There is no greater service to those who suffer than to give meaning to what they suffer.
A few months after I received Cardinal Burke’s letter, a bishop came to this prison to offer Mass on Divine Mercy Sunday. Our friend, Pornchai Moontri and I were among the fifty Catholic prisoners gathered in the prison chapel for Mass. You know well that Divine Mercy Sunday is a very special day for us.
After the Mass, as we filed out, the Bishop grasped my hand and said something very strange to me. He had obviously been reading These Stone Walls. As he took my hand, he bent forward a bit and said quietly but forcefully, “You area prophet! YOU are a prophet.” There was no further exchange.
As we descended down the long flights of stairs outside, my friend, Pornchai said, “Wow! That was\ weird. What do you think it means?” I responded sarcastically, “If the Church is consistent, it means my head is about to be lopped off!” Our prophets do not fare very well.
In Scripture, some were thrown into prison. The Prophet Jeremiah was stoned to death. According to legend, the Prophet Isaiah was sawed in half. The Prophet Jonah was thrown overboard. John the Baptist was beheaded. Saint Paul was shipwrecked, beaten, imprisoned, and finally martyred.
As the great Saint Teresa of Avila once said to God in prayer, “Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, it’s no wonder that you have so few!” If I write anything on These Stone Walls that sounds even remotely prophetic, please don’t tell me.
CHRISTMAS IN A YEAR OF GRACE
It is a very hopeful thing that Pope Francis chose this year to inaugurate a Year of Grace. It began after Evening Prayer II of the Vigil of the First Sunday of Advent. I haven’t seen much Catholic news about it, and not a word of it was mentioned in the parishes of a few friends when I asked about it.
But this Year of Grace is real, and really important. If I can convey no other thought at These Stone Walls this Christmas, the one drumbeat I must continually sound is that grace is real, and it is to be discovered even out beyond the periphery. Grace is a very great Christmas gift, but it isn’t always as nicely wrapped as we might hope and expect.
What exactly is grace, and what does a “Year of Grace” mean? Verses one to four of the grand ole’ Gospel hymn, Amazing Grace, were written by John Newton in the late 1700s. Verse five came later and is anonymous. We’ve all heard these verses many times, and most of us have winced at the “saved a wretch like me” part. But verse four is, I think, the apex of the hymn:
“Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come ‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
I find that verse to be important because it serves as a reminder that we are not at home. We are merely passing through this life. As we pass, we can become so wrapped up in the affairs and chaos of what goes on here that we lose sight of home.
Polarized politics have become familiar turf, and divisions our comfort zones. For many Americans, Hillary and Trump took up more mental space last year than God. Here is a good starting point for the Year of Grace. Resolve to never disparage the Lord’s name – not even when talking about Hillary or Trump!
Some form of the word “grace” appears 350 times in Scripture. “Mercy” appears 364 times. The Hebrew word for grace in the Old Testament is “hanan” while the word for mercy is “hesed.” I once wrote about their connection in “Angelic Justice: Saint Michael the Archangel and the Scales of Hesed.” Our capacity for mercy is contingent upon grace, and along with our souls it is weighed upon the Archangel’s scales.
Grace is the supernatural gift bestowed by God to those who accept their adoption. You could argue that all creation is in a relationship with Him, and that is true, but grace is a special aspect that enters that relationship when it is no longer a one-way street. It comes down to what and Who you serve. “You cannot serve both God and mammon.” (Matthew 6 :24).
In the New Testament, the notion of grace is rooted in a relationship with Christ. My favorite Christmas post is “Joseph’s Dream and the Birth of the Messiah.” The angel of the Lord who appeared to Joseph in a dream urged him not to fear taking Mary as his wife. This assured that Jesus is tied by paternal adoption to the lineage of King David. By that same adoption, we inherit the grace of God through Christ.
There is a ground-shaking assurance from Saint Paul in his Letter to the Romans that gives some perspective to our doubts and anxieties about this age: “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” (Romans 5:20)
You are not hearing this from someone for whom life has been a joy to awaken to each day. You are hearing it from someone in prison, and unjustly so. But grace is real, and this Year of Grace is important. Expect it. Be thankful when you see it. We have known grace even in exile, and I still have my head!
Note from Father Gordon MacRae: A blessed Christmas to all! Please visit our…
And please visit and share these other Christmas posts:
- Joseph’s Dream and the Birth of the Messiah
- Christmas in the Valley, and on the High Places
- Upon a Midnight Not so Clear, Some Wise Men from the East Appear
The photos below were taken in the New Hampshire State Prison Visiting Room on Saturday December 16. The top photo is our friend Pornchai Maximilian Moontri with his friends Viktor and Alice Weyand and Mike Fazzino. Viktor and Alice traveled from Traverse City, Michigan to be with us for an annual family Christmas party for prisoners. Viktor is a founder of Divine Mercy School in Bangkok, Thailand and he learned of Pornchai while visiting Thailand. He is now Pornchai’s contact with Divine Mercy Thailand.
The second photo is me with Mike Fazzino who drove up from the New York City area to join us. Mike is friend of These Stone Walls who helps with my writing by sending printed materials to me. It was wonderful to spend a few hours with these good friends who wanted us to share these photos with you.
With Christmas blessings,