(Continued thoughts and reflections from the 2012 Eastern Catholic Encounter held in the LA area)
The second main session speaker at the 2012 Encounter was Abouna (Father, for the non-Arabic speaking folks among us) Justin Rose. Abouna Justin is the pastor of St. Philip Melkite Mission in San Bernardino, California. I have heard him give talks in the past, and was excited to see how he would address a larger audience.
Like my previous post, I would like to focus on three points with which I find great agreement, and then offer some thoughts about an area which could be improved or clarified.
A key point that Abouna Justin made throughout his presentation was the relationship between the New Evangelization and the Year of Faith, which we are celebrating now at the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council.
In reflecting on technology, Abouna Justin noted that the Roman Roads were constructed to enable the Roman Empire to flourish, and yet at the same time it was this technology which facilitated the good news of the Gospel to be spread by the Apostles. Without the Roman Roads, the Apostles would not have reached as many people. Later in the talk, he noted that water itself can be deadly if it drowns someone, and yet this same physical matter is life-giving when used for Holy Baptism. Technology is dangerous but offers a powerful opportunity for good. In that sense, we should reach out to the world with the truth of our Faith and incorporate technology in our efforts.
But these efforts must not be mechanical or done out of mere obligation. Instead of feeling that our life in the Church is like stamping a time card, we should be people of constant conversion and repentance. Abouna Justin cited the closing statement from the Synod on the New Evangelization, which states:
The encounter with the Lord, which reveals God as love, can only come about in the Church, as the form of receptive community and experience of communion; from this, then, Christians become its witnesses also in other places. However, the Church reasserts that to evangelize one must be evangelized first of all… (Emphasis added)
This message of embracing the new evangelization was then contrasted with many thoughts on ways which this has been abandoned. He noted that this lack of calling can come from things like a ghetto mentality, a lack of cooperation among Eastern Catholics (his side note on us needing to appreciate each other’s music was wonderful), and other deficiencies in our mindset, which leads to the second point-how can we live and share the new evangelization?
Abouna Justin argued that one chief way evangelization can be lived out is to realize that we all share in a priestly vocation, particularly in our life in the domestic church, which is the family. He spoke of the fact that the miracle of love in the home is a mystical construction of a family altar. He recounted wonderful stories of one mother who always made the sign of the cross on the foreheads of her family members each night. Rather than thinking that “blessing is for Priests only”, this mother saw her baptismal vocation and her calling as a mother to be a source of blessing to her family. Likewise, he shared that another mother made it a point to collect large amounts of holy water at the Feast of the Theophany so that each meal which she prepared would have holy water added to it. Again, her “mundane” task of cooking could be seen as only an earthly or natural duty, but this mother saw and appreciated her vocation to be a blessing to the world. With all of these points, Abouna urged us to move beyond a clergy/laity distinction which would somehow denigrate that call to be a blessing.
A third chief area of focus in Abouna Justin’s talk that I want to highlight here deals with his studies on ministry which center around comparing a modernist mindset with a postmodern mindset. After comparing the standard modernist views on morality, Abouna Justin emphasized the ways in which postmodernism has influenced our American culture, with its emphasis on being relational vs. being right (or wrong). Despite the fact that Christians hold truths to be permanent, which appears to harmonize more with modernism than postmodernism, Abouna Justin made the fascinating comparison of the 4th chapter of the Gospel of John to this postmodern relational emphasis.
First, there is Christ’s priestly compassion for the anxiety and angst of the woman at the well. Despite her sins, he showed this compassion, and spoke the truth in love. He challenged us to ask whether want we do this with our postmodern non-Christian interlocutors, or not. Next, there is the fact that Christ did not only offer the Samaritan woman forgiveness, He also asked her to share what He had done for her. With a modernist mindset where degrees, eloquence, and “qualifications” are all-important, we must also ask whether we would choose the Samaritan woman to be an evangelist. That would be quite unlikely, if all we thought about were her studies and winsomeness as a speaker. Nevertheless, Jesus used her to spread the truth more with her experience, which speaks to the lacking qualities of modernism, and may speak well to the facet of the postmodernist mindset which would value her relationship to Jesus.
Abouna Justin then argued that St. Photini (the Traditional name for the Samaritan woman at the well) could be rightly considered the Patron of Postmodernism and the New Evangelism. Her authentic encounter with Christ, and her authentic life experience, makes her qualified in the sense that matters most to so many people in our society today.
To close, I would like to offer a thought on an element of Abouna Justin’s talk which could be stated more clearly and/or improved. At several points in the talk, he argued that some of the flaws with our Churches rest in a lack of proper emphasis. One way it was put forth was that we need fewer social events and more diakonia (service). Another way it was expressed was through saying that we do not need programs, but prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. Both of these calls for good things (diakonia, prayer, almsgiving and fasting) seem to devalue other good things (social events and programs) too much. It could be that this is a false dichotomy; after all, the Encounter Program where Abouna was speaking was itself a “program”.
All in all, this was a great talk and it reminds me of the importance of this Year of Faith. May we live it out and grow in Faith and Evangelism of our heritage as Eastern Catholics!