Thoughts on Ascension Day: gratitude for the Roman Catholic witness

Thursday, May 5, 2016

On this Ascension Day I am posting a moving reflection by my new friend Robert P. Imbelli, Ph.D. (Yale), associate professor emeritus in theology at Boston College, and priest of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of New York. A prolific author, his most recent book is Rekindling the Christian Imagination: Theological Meditations for the New Evangelization (Liturgical Press, 2014). Fr. Imbelli loves the visual arts, and this book from Liturgical Press is beautifully designed and sensitively illustrated. 

Full disclosure: when Fr. Imbelli wrote a discerning and appreciative review of my new book in the respected Catholic magazine Commonweal, I emailed him and was able to meet him at the lovely neighborhood church in the Bronx where he is in residence every month or so (he lives in Boston). He is a very interesting and flexible thinker who calls himself a man of Vatican II yet deeply understands and appreciates the theological writings of Benedict XVII.

It was striking, to me, to see up close the role that the parish church played in the life of the neighborhood. Protestant churches do not typically play this role, with doors open to all sorts of people with all sorts of needs all day long. It felt like family in a sense that one sees occasionally, but not typically, in Protestant settings. When I was in Paris recently I noticed that there were a good many Catholic churches attracting significant numbers of ethically diverse people. It is therefore all the more sad that so many neighborhood Catholic churches in New York City have been shut down. It is truly tragic that the neglect of victims of sexual abuse over a period of many decades has resulted in such a serious impoverishment of the church’s influence and the church’s funds for strengthening its ministries.

In this time of serious trial for the Roman Catholic church, I would like to offer my support. Like many Protestants, I have become more and more appreciative of many Catholic manifestations, especially the seriousness about theology and its role in shaping Christian teaching and Christian living. As a committed daughter of the Reformation, I don’t share everything–not, for instance, the Mariology, the veneration of relics, and the continuing lack of emphasis on expository biblical preaching in the Protestant tradition (despite the attempts of Fr. Imbelli’s friend, my revered professor and mentor Raymond E. Brown). But in the commitment to classical Christology, to the teaching of the church Fathers (especially Augustine), to the sense of Jesus living among us, to the seriousness about Christian living, we may be everlastingly grateful.

The link to Fr. Imbelli’s reflections is below, with a painting by John Singleton Copley. He takes great care to illustrate his pieces thoughtfully and with an artistic eye. I would not have thought an 18th-century American artist could have produced such a powerful picture of the Ascension. Note the varying postures of the disciples as they react to the cosmic event:
P.S. Speaking of Mariology, I just finished reading Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, a luminous portrait of two Catholic missionaries in New Mexico, who developed a deep love for both the Mexicans and the Navaho. I loved the book and was swept up in it–but there is a lot more passion for Mary in it than there is love for Jesus. Nevertheless, I can’t help being deeply thankful for the Catholic evangelization of Latin America (yes, I know, I know…but…) and for what it means for the United States today with its huge and growing Latino population. May God bless them and guide us all in the xenophobic atmosphere around us.

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