The CNN Belief Blog, which has graciously featured a few of my pieces, just celebrated its first anniversary, and for the occasion, its editors reflected on ten things that they’ve learned in the course of the year. The one that got my eye was this: that atheists are by far the most fervent commentators on matters religious. This completely coincides with my own experience as an internet commentator and blogger. Every day, my website and YouTube page are inundated with remarks, usually of a sharply negative or dismissive nature, from atheists, agnostics, and critics of religion. In fact, some of my YouTube commentaries have been specifically targeted by atheist webmasters, who urge their followers to flood my site with “dislikes” and crude assessments of what I’ve said. And one of my contributions to the CNN site—what I took to be a benign article urging Christians to pray for Christopher Hitchens—excited literally thousands of angry responses from the haters of religion.
The Church has just celebrated one of the most important days on the liturgical calendar, the feast of Pentecost, the feast of the Holy Spirit. There are three great symbols classically associated with the third Person of the Trinity, namely, water, fire, and wind; and each of these has a negative connotation, for the Holy Spirit is dangerous.
The feast of the Ascension of the Lord, which the church celebrates at the end of the Easter season, is, I admit, hard to explain to a lot of contemporary people. Jesus passed, in bodily form, from this world to heaven? Wouldn’t his body still be in some identifiable place within the solar system or the galaxy? I’m sure that the traditional formulation of the doctrine strikes many today as hopelessly pre-scientific and mythological. And even if we were to admit the possibility of such a transition happening in regard to Jesus, how would this in any way affect us spiritually?
This May 24th, I will celebrate my 25th anniversary as a priest. This past quarter century—just shy of half my life—has been joyful indeed, and I have never once regretted my decision to become a priest. The priesthood has taken me all over the world and deep into the hearts of people I’ve been privileged to serve. Some warned me long ago that I would be lonely as a priest, but I have never found this to be true. On the contrary, the priesthood has connected me to an incredible number of people in a wide variety of contexts. My life as a priest of Jesus Christ has been unconventional, creative, energizing, unpredictable, and exciting.
I was in Rome the past couple of weeks, giving lectures at the North American College, the great seminary for Americans, Canadians, and Australians at the Vatican. One morning, toward the end of my stay, I met with my good friend, Fr. Paul Murray, the Irish Dominican spiritual writer, and we headed to the Vatican Library, where we met a colleague of Fr. Paul’s who works there in the manuscript section. Fr. Murray had secured permission to view some “autographs” of St. Thomas Aquinas, that is to say, some writings in Thomas’s own hand. I was approaching this appointment with enormous enthusiasm, for Thomas, the church’s greatest theologian, is my hero, my patron saint, the person who, more than any other, had directed me toward the priesthood, and the scholar whose work I have been studying and writing about most of my adult life. I was not disappointed.