For this 5th Sunday after Easter we are still moving through John 16 and the Lord’s Last Supper Discourse as well as the Letter of James.
Our Gospel readings are inexhaustible and there are always manifold treasures to unlock. At the same time and for the sake of brevity, we will entrust ourselves to the clarity of Christ’s words to the Apostles about His ascent to the Father, when they exclaimed “Ah, now you are speaking plainly, not in any figure!” (v. 29 RSV).
That “speaking plainly” is expressed by the Greek parrhésia, which means here, “without ambiguity or circumlocution, without the use of figures and comparisons”. Parrhésia also means, especially in modern Church parlance, “freedom in speaking, unreservedness in speech, free and fearless confidence”. The Catechism of the Catholic Church 2778 gives us this definition:
“straightforward simplicity, filial trust, joyous assurance, humble boldness, the certainty of being loved”.
Especially earlier during his time in Rome Francis urged people to speak with parrhésia, even to “make a mess”. He seems to view this as a positive, though rocky, road to working things out eventually for the better.
Let’s speak plainly. I am sure that the two surviving “Dubia Cardinals” have for these last few years felt filial trust for having submitted their questions in straightforward simplicity. Surely, Card. Zen, who sent Francis a long letter about the plight of Catholics in China, feeling much the same, especially after his recent arrest and the lack of comment from the Holy See. I am pretty sure that those whom Traditionis custodes was aimed at are still basking in “the certainty of being loved” when their pleas are raised to their bishops. No, really! All the indications of pastoral concern and love are really there, you just have to look for them, really hard.
Parrhésia is a Christian quality of expression that is sometimes characterized by the confidence with which we as children pray in the Our Father: It is simultaneously direct and humble, confident without presumption.
Last week, we focused on the reading from the letter of James. I concluded that column with, “Alas, the reading ends there and does not go on with verses 22-27”. And then I quoted them… just like this.
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if any one is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who observes his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But he who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer that forgets but a doer that acts, he shall be blessed in his doing. If any one thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is vain. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
Of course, this is the Epistle reading for this week’s Holy Mass. It is a continuation of last week’s reading and my comments last week still pertain. However, we find now a few elements which can be broken into with profit.
The obvious thing for us to see here is that, as mentioned last week is that we are not “faith alone” Christians, as formed by the erroneous teachings of Martin Luther and the other “reformers”. We Christians must live an action-informed faith. James tells us several ways that this is done, how we can live have religion which is “pure and undefiled before God”.
Stop for a moment and consider that phrase: “religion that is pure and undefiled before God”.
God can neither deceive nor be deceived as we state in the classic Act of Faith. God is closer to ourselves than we are to ourselves. God is clearer about what we really think and feel than we are. We are completely open books to God. We cannot hide anything, bury something, keep a secret, from God. It is folly to even think that we could do so. However, sometimes in our tininess and our weakness, we imagine that we can. Would that we might all take this to heart especially in preparing to make a good confession. It may be that our chief pastors aren’t interested in our parrhésia, but our 99.99% of our confessors sure are. It could be that those who dwell high atop the thing give lip service to the need for parrhésia, but our loving Father wants it all. This is where that stellar description in the CCC really shines: clarity and boldness from the “certainty of being loved”.
Speak with parrhésia in the confessional. That means good preparation. Good preparation means daily examination of conscience. If we want to get good at something, we do it over and over, not just once in a while. The next time, before confession, you might start with the starting point, asking the question: Does God see in my “religion that is pure and undefiled”?
Going back to our reading from the Letter of James, for the Apostle true religion has several aims. He uses the word in Greek threskeía, which Jerome rendered into Latin as religio. There is a vast body of reflection in the Church’s treasury about what we call the virtue of religion. Briefly, we are bound to render unto other persons what is due to them. When this is applied to human persons, the virtue is called justice. But the divine Persons of the Trinity, though Persons, are qualitatively different from us. Hence we have a separate virtue by which we render to God what is due to God: religion. The main way that we express the virtue of religion outwardly is by proper worship, as individuals, but also collectively as a Church. If we get this aspect wrong, individually and collectively as a Church, our individual lives and collective lives are going to get very deeply screwed up. This is what we are seeing in our times in the Church: we have not been fulfilling well, to any great extent, the virtue of religion through sound liturgical worship pleasing to God. This is a sine qua non for a healthy spiritual life, both for individuals and as a Church.
James takes us to the next, logical step, the other side of the coin of religion. There are our outward acts of worship given to god, and there are our acts of charity toward neighbor, orphans and widows especially named by James. James is not shunting aside the outward expression of “vertical” worship, but rather fusing it throughout with care of the the powerless and vulnerable. Religion that is pure and undefiled involves good works. Moreover, if it is to be pure and undefiled, it must also be free from sinful aspects of the world, warned against for example by the Apostle John (who is not this James’s brother.
As you sit with your Bible open to James sometime before Sunday Mass, to read the first part of James, mark with your finger also 1 John, especially chapter 2:
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides for ever.
Religion involves a way of life, namely, leaving that which defiles and embracing that which purifies. For most of us, I dare say all of us, this is a lifelong project. But as Samwise Gamgee’s ol’ gaffer used to say, “It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish”. Life, as it goes on year by years, seems to get shorter and shorter, faster and faster. However, God knows us better than we know ourselves. He provides us with what we need to reach the bliss of Heaven. He isn’t going to do the work for us, but He will provide all that we truly need to get it done. We have to be willing to do it.
As a final point of motivation, I leave you with the question I implicitly popped, above: Your “religion”, your way of living before God and neighbor: it is truly “pure and undefiled before God”?
Convert from Lutheranism, ordained to the priesthood in 1991 by St. John Paul II in Rome for the Suburbicarian Diocese of Velletri-Segni. Classics at University of Minnesota. Licence and Doctoral studies in Patristic Theology at the Augustinianum in Rome. Formerly a collaborator of the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei,” moderator of the Catholic Online Forum, columnist for The Wanderer and the UK’s Catholic Herald, Fox News contributor. Speaker. Blogist. fatherzonline.com @fatherz