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11th Sunday after Pentecost: Soccer balls instead of doctrine? Not so much

We continue with this year’s focus on the Epistle, the first reading, in the Vetus Ordo of the Roman Rite. This week we hear from St. Paul in 1 Cor. 15:1-10.

Context remains important. Last Sunday we observed the Feast of the Transfiguration, which has its own proper readings. However, last Sunday was in the normal order the 10th Sunday after Pentecost. The Epistle last week was also from Paul’s first missive to the Christians of Corinth (1 Cor 12:2-11) in which he contrasts the gifts that come from the Holy Spirit with deceptive idols. On the 9th Sunday we also heard from 1 Corinthians. Before that, on the 8th and 7th and 6th Sundays Paul’s Letter to the Romans was featured.

I’ll share something from the author of The Church’s Year of Grace, Fr. Pius Parsch, a major figure of the 20th century Liturgical Movement.

In reviewing the Sundays of the Pentecost season, we should not try to seek for or to impose any systematic or artistic arrangement; for a priori schematic methods are alien to worship and liturgy. Nevertheless, no good reasons can be brought forward against an analysis of content; and analysis is often aided by a certain measure of classification, whether such classification was historically intended or not. At the beginning of the Pentecost sequence there occur three Sundays that can be called “Recruiting Sundays” (2nd, 3rd, 4th after Pentecost) because the Gospel each Sunday points out God’s efforts toward having souls enlisted in the kingdom of heaven (viz., the parables of the Great Supper, the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, the Miraculous Catch of Fish). The three most recent Sundays (8th, 9th, 10th) formed a trilogy with emphasis on sin (viz., the story of the unjust steward, faithless Jerusalem, the penitent tax gatherer). The present three Sundays likewise have a common theme; they form a triad treating the sacramental grace-life of the Church as related to a) Baptism; b) the healing power of the sacred mysteries; c) gratitude for spiritual purification. … [T]oday’s liturgy begins a series of three Sundays with stress on the primary sacraments in liturgical life. These three formularies break the “two ways” theme sequence proper to past Sundays (7th—10th).

Here is this Sunday’s Vetus Ordo reading in Revised Standard Version (RSV):

[Brethren] I would remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed. Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised.

Initial observations. In the first verse Paul says he has preached “tó euaggélionthe Gospel, good news” and not “a gospel.” The definite article connotes a specific content, not something random. The people “stand” on this content. Without it, they might as well fall into the void (an empty place… “vain”).

You’ll notice that this famous Pauline passage has a phrase which you might have heard in Latin, namely, “tradidi quod et accepi… I have handed on what I have received” (v. 3). This was the episcopal motto of Archbishop Marcel Lefevbre.

Paul is driving home the historical fact of the Resurrection, a foundational point of Christian belief in the face of doubt in their community. He stresses “according to the Scriptures,” which gives divine authority to the doctrine, as well as contemporary human witnesses (all male). The teaching of the Resurrection has sine qua non centrality: “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.”

The great Pauline scholar Ferdinand Prat points out that this cutting or pericope contains standard ancient catechesis both for candidates for baptism and for the recently converted who needed additional instruction. Prat believes that this instruction was uniform through many different communities, which makes sense. Paul wrote to the Romans, “thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed” (Rom 6:17). That “standard” is in Greek túpos, “pattern, exemplar.” Also, Paul says, “Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed” (v. 11). The Latin and the Greek are forceful: “Sive enim ego, sive illi, sic praedicamus et sic credidistis. … εἴτε οὖν ἐγὼ εἴτε ἐκεῖνοι οὕτως κηρύσσομεν καὶ οὕτως ἐπιστεύσατε.”  Note the plural “we” (praedica(vi)mus). That sic and that oútos are like hammers: “thusly, just so.”

We draw the conclusion that certain doctrines were being taught in a consistent and programmatic way and that the community, including those authorized to teach and preach, were to adhere to them without wavering. It makes sense that Paul, having been a brilliant student and teacher, would train well those whom he mentored to carry on in his stead as he continued his peregrinations. Furthermore, the standard doctrine, dogma, implied also a rule of life, of conduct. Can anyone seriously entertain that Paul didn’t leave a curriculum to follow? “I’m leaving. Go ahead and teach whatever you want when you want to! Don’t upset anyone. Just try to keep everyone happy.”

Contrary to the notions of some in the Church today, Paul and his cohorts of catechists and bishops didn’t focus on soccer balls instead of doctrine.

More evidence of a standardized “course” of catechism comes from the Pauline Letter to the Hebrews 6:

Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ [Greek: tés arches toú Christoú… the first word of Christ… word of the beginning…] and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, with instruction about ablutions, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits.

Again, Prat:

This was, in fact, by the very nature of things, and according to historical data, the most abbreviated early catechism used. It will appear less concise if it be remembered that the understanding of baptism and of confirmation necessarily pre-supposes a knowledge of the Trinity and of grace, and that the glorious resurrection substantially includes the work of redemption.

I’ll follow that up with a comment by Bl. Ildefonso Schuster, the late and great liturgist and Cardinal Archbishop of Milan (+1954).

The Epistle … which follows on that of last Sunday, contains a sketch in strong concise strokes of the primitive Christian catechesis, both in its dogmatic aspect and in that which concerns the life of Christ. It is based entirely on the doctrine of our Lord’s resurrection, which is attested in a hundred ways by the Scriptures and by the apostles themselves. The faithful are saved by means of this faith, which must not, however, be sterile and dead, but must be fruitful in good works in imitation of St Paul, in whom the grace of God did not remain inactive and lifeless, but, seconded by the co-operation of the Apostle, brought forth so much fruit that he who once persecuted the Church of Damascus was able, under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, to bear witness to the fact that he had laboured more for the diffusion of the Gospel than all the other apostles. “Abundantius illis omnibus laboravi.” Great and glorious is his pride—not in his celestial visions and spiritual favours, but in the labours and toils which he had undergone for the sake of the Gospel.

Abundantius illis omnibus laboravi…. I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me” (v. 10).

After his own “resurrection”, the consequence of Saul’s great sins against Christ and His Church were Paul’s mighty accomplishments in Christ and His Church.

St. Augustine of Hippo wrote in his Confessions that “the enemy suffers a worse defeat when he loses a man whom he had the greater hold of”  (conf 8.4 – new translation by Anthony Esolen to be released soon – HERE).

So, too, it can be with each one of us.

Perhaps we can take away two practical points.

Firstly, you can’t give what you don’t have, or in fun Latin, “Nemo dat quod non ‘got’!” Understanding your fundamental Catholic Faith from a solid catechism is of critical importance for your identity, your perseverance, and your vocation. Deepening that Faith is the process of a lifetime. Some people haven’t cracked a book to review their Faith since their last religion class in school or perhaps their marriage prep. Converts tend to be more diligent, but even they flag. You can’t believe what you don’t know and you can’t be shaped by what you don’t believe. If you love, you want others to have what you have. You can’t pass on what you don’t have.

Secondly, first there was Saul, then there was Paul. Recently I had the chance to visit the Field of Dreams movie-filming site in Dyersville, Iowa where the famous baseball diamond bordered by the cornfield is found. Hence, baseball movies are on my mind. It is interesting how many of them relate conversions of some sort. For example, in the 1951 super-Catholic Angels In The Outfield, filmed in the old Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, which I also lately visited, the irascible foul-mouthed manager of the Pirates… I digress. In The Natural, a great baseball movie based upon a mediocre novel by Barnard Malamud, the protagonist Roy Hobbs is down and wounded, regretting his past decisions. Years after he made stupid, life-changing mistakes Roy’s redemptive character, the woman he loved when he was young and naïve, says to him that we have two lives: the life we learn with and the life we live afterward.

While there is life in us, we can with the grace of God turn about and get on the right path. Our stories, too, have redemptive arcs. Reviewing frequently the fundamentals of the Faith can help us to shed scales from our eyes and direct them to look inwardly. Get back to the basics. Collectively we must make sure our feet are set on a foundation that is sure and stable.

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