Catholic Herald staff
As the Jubilee Year of Mercy nears, Benedictine Fr. Gabe Baltes encourages Catholics to view liturgy as a warrant, or license, for merciful service.
The former director of the office of worship for the Diocese of Superior returned Friday, Oct. 23, to give morning and afternoon keynote addresses at the 53rd annual Fall Conference in Rice Lake — a gathering for teachers, catechists and clergy.
Fr. Baltes worked in the diocese for almost 11 years — “Eleven of the happiest of my life,” he called them. He returned to St. Procopius Abbey, Lisle, Illinois, in 2008 to aid brother monks in his aging community. He is currently the pastor of St. Joan of Arc Parish, Lisle.
‘Connecting the dots’
Fr. Baltes described himself as neither a scholar nor an original thinker, but as someone who would try help others “connect the dots.” Designed to correspond with the Year of Mercy, his talks offered a biblical argument for propelling Catholics into merciful service beyond the walls of a church.
Liturgy, which literally means “manifestation” or “revelation,” is “a place where we can find God’s mercy manifested,” Fr. Baltes said.
“The liturgy isn’t the only manifestation of God’s mercy,” he continued. “I think sometimes we get into too much trouble …when we expect it to do too much. It’s one possible way, the most important way, I would argue, that we can experience God’s mercy.”
In his bull proclaiming the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis describes mercy as a mystery – “not something that is not capable of being understood,” the monk clarified, but mystery in its original military sense, meaning “the army’s logistical battle plan.”
“So it’s something that’s been made known,” he added, “not something that’s incomprehensible.”
Sacraments, or sacred mysteries, derive from the same root; mercy, as Pope Francis taught in his Jubilee of Mercy bull of indiction, is also a mystery.
“We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy,” the pope wrote. “It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it.”
We could interchange “mystery” with “liturgy,” Fr. Baltes observed, because the liturgy also bridges the gap between God and man.
A warrant for mercy
The monk chose the parable of the Good Samaritan from Luke’s Gospel to establish liturgy as a warrant for mercy.
The story begins with “a certain man” being robbed, severely beaten and left naked on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem.
“A certain man” denotes an everyman, Fr. Baltes said. It could be anyone – without clothes, his social status is indeterminate.
“His only claim is that he is a person in need,” he added. “It’s a vivid story, because people could picture it very easily. To this day, the road from Jericho to Jerusalem is very rough.”
The first two passersby, a priest and a Levite, both religious figures, leave the man where he lay, and even cross the road to avoid him.
“Before we get too righteous about this … this could have been a trap, and they knew that,” Fr. Baltes explained. Contact with a corpse or blood would have rendered them ritually impure and would have required a trip to the temple for purification.
Secondly, they were most likely married with children, and jeopardizing their own health could endanger their families.
Finally, religious figures are easy targets, as Fr. Baltes himself was told when he moved up north – “if you’re driving alone at night and you see a broken-down vehicle, be very judicious about stopping.”
“Assisting this man, as noble as we think this should have been, had its own price,” he added.
The shock of the story is when the Samaritan stops to help.
“The religious leaders didn’t stop, but the person they most hated did,” Fr. Baltes said, noting Jews had a natural distrust of Samaritans, comparable to how one would view members of a terrorist group today.
The story describes the Samaritan as “moved with compassion,” but that is a weak translation, according to the monk. Literal meaning of the Greek word is the Samaritan has “an explosion in the bowels.”
He gets diarrhea, essentially.
“It’s that visceral,” Fr. Baltes continued. “It’s that powerful.” The Greek word is used strategically and sparingly in the Bible – it’s also in the parable of the Prodigal Son at the moment when the father sees his son again.
“It’s a unique word, and it carries with it very strong, physiological overtones,” he said. “The totality of his person is moved.”
Then, the Samaritan tends the victim’s wounds, pours on oil and wine, and takes the victim on his own animal to an inn – at the time a very dangerous place, comparable to a Wild West-style saloon.
“These inns, they were like brothels,” he added.
The Samaritan, a hated figure, took out his money in public – “like going to some corner, some inner-city gang territory, and taking out your purse” – and pays for the man’s care.
“An amazing gesture here,” Fr. Baltes concluded. “When it’s all done, Jesus throws the question out, ‘Who’s the neighbor?’”
Yes, the Samaritan – but the neighbor could be the victim, who had to learn how to be a neighbor to the Samaritan, the monk added. The priest, the Levite, the bandits, travelers – all could be the neighbor.
“I’d say in the end …. the neighbor is anyone who is in need,” he said. “At times, maybe we’re all those people, but all of them, at some time, were in need.”
Returning to the elements of oil and wine, “this parable is a warrant for looking at the liturgy,” he said. “These two elements we could quickly overlook I think are essential.”
Oil was a healing agent used for athletic contests, but also for anointing kings and prophets. Wine symbolized joy and gladness, as well as eucharistic rites.
“There is a new dawn here for him (the victim). He’s being brought back to life … because of this explosion of compassion in the Samaritan.
The parable, he added, is extending it outwardly.
“I think that’s why the elements are so prominent,” he continued. It’s happening out on the road, “not in the temple, not in the synagogue” – in the ordinary places.
“That’s what I’m calling the warrant for these acts of mercy,” he said, raising the question, “How safe do we have the right to be as Christians? As a follower of Jesus, as somebody who’s looking at this Samaritan, how safe do we have a right to be?”
A sensitivity to gestures
Liturgy is about revelation, and “every little thing in the liturgy can have meaning,” Fr. Baltes said in his afternoon address.
He likened the unveiling of the chalice, the screening of the sanctuary, to this revelation.
“All that stuff that is hidden is deliberate, so it can be opened. So it can be revealed. It creates an atmosphere of mystery and beauty,” he said. “It would be nice to reclaim, if we’ve lost it. I hate to see everything go so rote.
“If the liturgy is an epiphany, a manifestation of God, what do we want to understand that to be?” he asked.
The Gospel of John begins, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.”
“It’s like an overture to a symphony, and many scholars believe it was a hymn that was sung in the early church,” Fr. Baltes said.
Dabar is the Greek word used, “not just a word that was spoken, but a word that was spoken into action … the spoken word is a word of dynamic movement.”
“What does God want to say, if God is the word, if God’s very nature is to be a constant …. communication with that which is not God?” he asked.
Love is the answer, he said. Love and mercy.
“There was no better way for God to communicate that than by God becoming it,” he added.
Jubilee of Mercy
In his afternoon presentation, Fr. Baltes noted the root of “jubilee” is yobel, which is Hebrew for horn. The instrument announced the start of a jubilee year, when debts were canceled, prisoners were freed, families were encouraged to return to their homelands, and fields were left uncultivated to replenish the soil.
“It was a time of starting over, beginning again,” he said.
The Catholic Church’s first jubilee was in the 1300s, and popes have called them every so often since then.
“They become great times of prayers, good works,” he added.
Fr. Baltes links it to “thin times” in Celtic tradition – the belief that at certain times, the veil between this world and the next are thinner. The costumes of Halloween originated as a means of scaring off spirits during the thin time around All Saints’ Day.
Jubilee could be a thin time, he said, “because in those thin times, anything can happen.” Mercy “could happen with greater facility, with more ease” in the coming year.
When Pope Francis opens the Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica on Dec. 8, the jubilee will begin, and dioceses around the world will open their own holy doors to pilgrims.
“The doors are open,” he said, “and now anything can happen.”