Executions of criminals is not the first topic that springs to mind for a column reflecting on Advent and the Nativity of the Lord, but they provide, in my view, a lesson to be learned.
First, as a faithful writer for Our Sunday Visitor, keeping our policies in mind, I begin by admitting my bias regarding capital punishment. Quick and simple: I am opposed to it. I have opposed it for a long time.
My interest in the subject began decades ago when I edited the diocesan weekly newspaper in Nashville. The bishop of Nashville at the time, now gone to God, was Bishop Joseph A. Durick. He had a special interest in ministry to the incarcerated. In fact, he spent some years of his retirement as a Catholic chaplain in a prison.
Being interested in the American system of corrections necessarily requires attention to the death penalty. While states vary in their use of capital punishment, and the U.S. government has its own take on the subject, the majority of Americans still support the notion that by killing persons convicted of serious crimes some good somehow is achieved.
Here I take my stand. If any good is achieved, it is offset, at least for Christians, by powerful counter-indications. No stronger voice for this view more recently has been heard than that of Blessed Pope John Paul II. He was instrumental for the insertion into the Cathechism of the Catholic Church a clear moral reservation about, if not rejection of, the death penalty. So, I have admitted my bias in this regard. Several events in the fall just past suggest that more attention to the question is in order, and perhaps The Priest will enable such review of the matter in the coming year.
This column, however, primarily is not about capital punishment. It is about the birth of Jesus, as the child of Mary, conceived by the grace of the Holy Spirit, in Bethlehem of Judaea just over 20 centuries ago.
I mention capital punishment because of an incident in my experience that illustrates an important reality in the fact of salvation and, furthermore, provides both insight and hope for all us to marvel at. In this insight and in this hope, Christmas becomes not just an anniversary, however wondrous and mysterious in itself, but a personal opportunity.
Several years ago I preached at an Advent penance service in a local parish. A few days earlier, I had watched on television a special about the Nuremburg trials following the World War II. These trials occurred as the victorious Allies sought to cope with the magnitude of the horrors brought upon the world by the 12 fearful years that Adolf Hitler and his philosophy dominated Europe. Casualties in the war aside, he and his philosophy were responsible for the violent death of millions, literally.
Indeed, six million Jews perished, before we even begin to count all the other victims. Beyond the number of persons who were slaughtered, additional millions suffered awfully, and this is not referring to people whose homes were bombed, and whose lives were disrupted, by the cross-fire of opposing armies.
In the Nuremburg trials, the allies brought before a panel of judges, chosen from and by the victorious powers, the principal officials of the Hitler government, and the chief propagandists for its thinking, and tried them for “crimes against humanity.”
This television special ended with clips from the executions of over 20 of these figures, all of whom had been convicted of terrifying crimes against innocent human beings. Each convict was hanged — individually. A number of them were led to the gallows accompanied by a priest. Priests climbed the steps with the prisoners and stood beside each of them as the rope was laid around the convict’s neck. The priest was praying as the trapdoor sprang open.
In so many respects, it was a horrible sight. Looming so vividly in the background were the ghastly crimes for which these German leaders had been responsible. The executions themselves represented not only the horror of the circumstances but hopelessness. It was hopeless since, in the view of the world, and of the legal systems of the conquering powers, nothing else could be done other than to kill the perpetrators.
The presence of the priests, however, was a reminder that, in the mind of the Church, in the view of the Lord, there always is time to repent, and always people are people, God’s children, in God’s image and likeness. God always extends redemption to them. God always is ready to forgive. God always loves.
I used these scenes in the Advent homily to say that no matter how evil the sin, no matter how long the separation from God, there always is time to repent. God always will forgive. This great truth of our belief occurs only in the context of the Incarnation, the term by which theologians describe Jesus, the Son of God, Second Person of the Holy Trinity, co-equal and co-eternal with, and one with, the Father and the Holy Spirit, but also human.
We take the Incarnation for granted. It is profound in its implications, overwhelmingly and intensely personal for every human at any time and in any place.
St. Paul compellingly and often writes of the Incarnation. The Lord’s human nature, acquired in human conception and birth by the Virgin Mary, creates a bridge with which each human can link with Jesus, and in Jesus with God. It creates a union with the Lord. Grace builds upon, and enhances, this union.
So, fittingly, we celebrate Christmas. At Christmas, the Incarnation fully became real. Dec. 25 is an anniversary. Appropriately, we remember. It is our day as well, the day celebrating our access to life with God, and all that this life means. It is our day of beginning the process, hopefully if we so choose, to solidify and affirm our bond with Jesus, our brother, the Son of God, the son of Mary.
Articles by Barbara Beckwith, Father William C. Graham, Father Donnell Kirchner, C.Ss.R., and, of course, the homily columns will give food for thought about the Incarnation. Reflect upon the Incarnation. In it, fully manifested at Christmas, is our own hope and our joy. We are with Christ.
On Jan. 1, the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a new year will begin. We have been planning for the new year.
The Gospel of St. Mark will be used extensively in the Sunday liturgies in 2012, so we are projecting a series of articles on various aspects of this Gospel, and we believe that they will give readers added insight into the message of Mark.
Preparing these articles will be Sulpician Father Ronald Witherup, currently Superior General of the Fathers of St. Sulpice, but a Scripture scholar with much experience in teaching biblical courses in American seminaries. The first of Father Witherup’s articles appears in this edition. (Our popular homily series, by Father Edward Steiner, will continue.)
Quite troubling, and increasingly so, is the possibly developing clash between government and the Church regarding freedom of conscience. Closely associated with this possible dispute is a similar confrontation between professional and institutional authorities and persons who hold certain Catholic ethical views.
These differences have serious consequences. For example, will an employer who stands with the Church on matters such as abortion or sterilization be able to withhold from her or his company’s health care package for employees benefits that provide immoral procedures?
Will students in medical schools be able to expect, or demand, respect for their ethical views and refuse to sit in classes, or participate in clinical activities, that violate what they believe?
Will physicians and other health care providers, by the same token, be able to expect, or demand, respect for the beliefs that they hold when it comes to actual professional practice? This question includes Catholic hospitals. Catholic hospitals account for a quite high percentage of health care in this country. The chilling indication already is that some in the society will attempt to see that these Catholic facilities are compelled to offer services judged immoral, or at least be severely harassed in the process.
The new year brings, like it or not, cultural changes. Some are not new. Others are coming onto the scene. Same-sex unions are on the agendas of dozens of legislatures. Same-sex marriage is being debated. Likely the Supreme Court will enter the picture. The topic well might be an issue in the elections of 2012.
Then, there is the question of cohabitation, and there are the multitude of scientific and medical issues occasioned by advances in science. Public funding of government, and taxation in particular, are on the lips of millions in this society. Where is Catholic teaching in all this.
The Priest in 2012 will publish several articles on these topics, presented specifically to allow readers an opportunity better to understand the moral principles involved in each.
Are priests happy? Msgr. Stephen Rosetti, who has spent years in service to priests and their emotional and spiritual well-being, has just published a book insisting that the majority of American priests are happy. In 2012, he will capsulize his findings in The Priest.
Pope Benedict XVI has called for a New Evangelization among Catholics. A World Syond of Bishops will address this matter in the fall. What does it mean? Father James Wehner, rector of the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, and a capable theologian with a special interest in this new evangelization will be writing for us.
Beginning in February, coinciding with the beginning of Lent, Father Benedict Groeschel, C.F.R., will offer each month a reflection that hopefully will serve as a mini-spiritual conference for readers, hopefully to enable them more closely to be near the Lord.
We will continue our interest in priestly life, in vocations, and in happenings in the Church and the world that have impact upon priestly service and priests. TP
MSGR. CAMPION is editor of The Priest and associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor. He is a former president of the Catholic Press Association and the Vatican’s ecclesiastical adviser for the International Catholic Union of the Press.