Went down to my local parish, St. Camille, this morning for Mass as I frequently do. It is what is called “Trinity Sunday”, where the readings and sermon deal with the question of divine identity and the Church does its best to convince its faithful of the notion of “One God in three Persons,” that has been Christian orthodoxy since the 4th century CE. Scripture, having been written in the 2nd century CE at the latest, and a good deal of it (the Old Testament) dating back to the 6th or 7th century BCE, presents a variety of different theological constructions. The earliest Jewish scriptures are henotheistic: “You God, are the only God worth worshipping, all the other gods are weak and foolish compared to You. It is an abomination for the children of Abraham to worship those other Gods and their cults should not be allowed to exist in our land.” You see a lot of this in the Psalms, the oldest part of the Bible. By the time the religious caste of Israel were living once again in Palestine after the return from the Babylonian captivity and the Persian conquest (the Persians were notoriously open-minded about religion for their time), the Jewish religion had become explicitly and strictly monotheistic: “all the gods of other men are but stone and wood, carved to satisfy people’s vanity. Only our God is to be worshipped, all those other things are illusions and tricks of the devil, and even those other folks might be better off if they understood this because our God is the only real God.” With the Jesus movement, during Jesus’s life and the succeeding decades up until the destruction of the Second Temple in 67 CE, the believers thought that Jesus was the Messiah, a human being charged by God to restore Israel and perhaps bring about the end times. After his death, stories of his resurrection and ascension into heaven were taken as proof that he was as great as Moses and Elijah, who had also been taken up into heaven, putting his teachings on a par with the Torah (of Moses) and the prophetic literature (that Elijah started and to some degree stands for). Between the time when the Gospels were written, around the end of the 1st century CE, and the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire, a variety of different ideas about Jesus’s divine and human nature circulated, with probably a majority taking the story of the baptism of Jesus by John as a moment of apotheosis for Jesus: He became God at that moment through adoption, or recognized his Godhood, or something of that nature. These beliefs were called Arian, not having anything to do with Hitler but named after Arius, the Bishop of Alexandria in the 2nd century, and a principal defender of this idea. Arian Christianity laid great stress on the teachings of Jesus during his life and is more decentralized and individualistic than the Trinitarian; it was very popular among people outside the Roman Empire and in the Greek-speaking world of the Eastern Mediterranean. The currently widely accepted idea was a minority view, held more strongly in the western part of the Roman Empire and especially among the community of Christians (a tiny minority) in the city of Rome. The concept was supported by some passages of the Gospels and letters of the early Church and contradicted by others. It was only the adoption of Christianity by Constantine, and then the further tightening of the screws of orthodoxy under Theodosius in the 380s that consolidated the Church’s position around the idea of the Holy Trinity: three Persons, each separate in their selfhood but united in their Godhood, like the leaves of the shamrock in St. Patrick’s famous symbolic gesture. People who believed other things found themselves kicked out of their bishoprics, sent to monasteries under harsh conditions as a penance, and ultimately condemned and punished, sometimes fatally, as heretics. There are still plenty of heretics around today, though. A few Christian churches explicitly preach non-Trinitarian ideas. The most famous is the frankly-named Unitarian Church (some of whose members have continued the reduction of divine entities from one to zero), but Jehovah’s Witnesses are like those early Christians who see Jesus as a human being who became divine, while the Mormons have a very complex theology that sees Jesus as more explicitly the Son of God. The notion of the Trinity is really hard for people who go to officially orthodox Christian churches to understand though. It is philosophically complex and every year pastors and priests find themselves having to explain and defend it to people in the pews many of whom probably don’t fully subscribe to it. Today, for the first time in Burkina Faso, the Creed, or statement of faith, used in the service was the Nicene Creed, which fully lays out the Trinitarian idea. Normally, they use the Apostle’s Creed, which is older than the Nicene and leaves open some possibilities of Jesus being something else than a co-equal member of the Trinity, existing alongside the other two Persons from before time.
Trinity Sunday is the week after Pentecost, and Pentecost is a common occasion for baptisms and reception of converts into the Church. Last Sunday’s service at St. Camille was about three hours long, enlivened for me by the baptism of a teenaged kid from my neighborhood who is among the kids who come to play on the swing in my courtyard from time to time. He was one of 28 baptisms that day. Baptism is a big deal, you have to go through two years of training before they let you get baptized. Also, your family has to put on a big party. Therefore, people delay baptism. My little friend was among the youngest to be baptized last week and this week, they started the new class of people preparing for baptism, the catechumens, and they were pretty much all full-grown and a few had grey hairs. There were about thirty or forty in each class, impressive numbers for any parish in the US.
Talk about burying the lede: now I can get to the point about the coming of the Pope’s new message on the family to St. Camille parish, Ouagadougou. It was during the church announcements at the end of the service; I normally doze through them, but today I was paying attention because I wanted to hear if the Church had anything to say about the municipal elections taking place today. Last December, on the Sunday of the national presidential election, the priest read a whole letter from the Archbishop telling people that it was their duty to participate in the elections and use their conscience, informed by the social teachings of the Church, to select those candidates who would best reflect their values and bring justice and peace to the country, or words to that effect. Today, nothing along those lines apart from an anodyne prayer for peace and just government in the prayers of the people, but two announcements, following each other directly and most likely intended to be taken as one message, informed interested parties that a group was forming, to meet this coming week, for those living “in a situation of cohabitation”, and that copies of the Pope’s newest exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, in French translation, were on sale at the parish bookstore. The Pope wanted to open up participation in the sacraments of the Church to people who had divorced and remarried without going through the Church-approved process of annulment. He ran into a buzz-saw of opposition from conservatives, and ultimately issued this letter as what is called an apostolic exhortation. In the letter, he said that he was open to priests and bishops using their pastoral judgement on this issue, while at the same time reiterating that marriage can only happen once, and that it lasts for life (the Church’s annulment process basically says that the couple weren’t actually married because there was some impediment like having an imperfect understanding of marriage or not having a real intent to get married on the part of one or both participants).
There are lots of people in Burkina Faso, including many Catholics, who are “in a situation of cohabitation” in the Church’s view. For one thing, even more than baptism, marriage requires a marriage feast. People will delay marriage for long periods until they have the resources for a big multi-day party. The mother of my young friend, who sells fruit and peanuts from a stand along the street, just got married a month or so ago; she and her husband have four children, the oldest of whom is 13. My neighbor on the other side has recently broken up with the father of her children, the oldest of whom is in her 20’s and a mother herself; they never married, which is causing all sorts of problems for the single mom as you might imagine. Both the mothers are practicing Catholics, seemingly quite devout. But because of their irregular living situation they were at least in principle not supposed to receive communion (though the woman who has broken up with her partner would not be prohibited once she confessed and was absolved of her earlier violation). The Pope obviously wants to be able to reach out to these people and bring them into full communion with the Church, as does Cardinal Archbishop Ouedraogo. It is unclear what the actual effect of the compromise of Amoris Laetitia will be here. I don’t have any reason to go to the meeting so I won’t be informed. However, some variety of “pastoral judgement” will no doubt be exercised.
They aren’t lacking for people who want to get married, anyway. Along with the announcements cited, I also was awake to hear the Banns of Marriage proclaimed. Before you can get married, somebody has to announce your intentions three times on successive Sundays. There were 30-some couples who are going to get married in the next couple of weeks at this one parish. June is a high season for weddings here, as elsewhere in the world. Still, even in the middle of winter the announcements would drag on for several minutes. There never was a week, except in the middle of Lent when nobody gets married except in emergencies, when there were no banns to be published. In addition, a happy note for this seminary professor, this week they announced the names of four young men from the parish who are going to be ordained priests in the coming weeks. That’s four from one parish.
And on the way out, this guy was leaving on this magnificent white stallion. I love the way the Burkinabè are with their equines, all the way from the trash guy Oumar with his little Zizi all the way up to this dashing young fellow, one of six people who rode their horses to church this morning:
Just a blanket and reins, I think there was a bit, no saddle or stirrups needed.