CHARLESTON — Bishop Robert J. Baker achieved two publishing milestones this month with the release of his first pastoral letter, “The Redemption of Our Bodies,” and a book, “When Did We See You, Lord?” co-authored by Franciscan Friar of the Renewal Father Benedict Groeschel (Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor, 2005).
The pastoral letter gives an affectionate reverence to the memory of Pope John Paul II as it seeks to explain his “theology of the body.”
The letter uses Romans 8:23 for its title and opening presentation. The bishop explains: “I have been working on this letter to you … because I have wanted you to be clear about the vision and hope which [the theology of the body] holds out for us.”
He addresses the confusions in our society “about human sexuality, the nature and relationship of genders, chastity, marriage, and celibacy.” Bishop Baker uses these areas of concern as an outline for the teachings of the pastoral letter.
In 20 pages and 11 sections, the bishop of the Diocese of Charleston submits a general synthesis of the theology of the body. This is a renewed anthropology which highlights the role of the body in the holistic reality of the human person. Using developed theological insights, the theology of the body gives a fresh perspective to the Church’s traditional doctrine on the body. It also gives a systematic application of these teachings to the Christian’s life of love and sexuality. Bishop Baker writes: “For the good of the Church and the environment in which our children are being raised, we must mature in our understanding of these teachings in all their richness and depth.”
Following John Paul II’s theology of the body, Bishop Baker discusses the Church’s views on sexuality within the context and vision of the beauty and mystery of the human person. He argues that life must be seen as a gift and that the full teachings of the Church must reflect the nature and meaning of the human person, bodily integrated and whole, created in God’s image and likeness. In this time of confusion, the bishop asserts that the human body is not a haphazard fluke of evolution but is, itself, a revelation of love and goodness. He defines love as a faithful, self-donation of one person to another. Echoing John Paul II, he explains that this truth about love cannot be separated from the language of the body. He continues that the body and human sexuality must be lived in a manner which is equal to its meaning and dignity.
Following this explanation, Bishop Baker thoroughly and sensitively approaches the issues of gender identity, homosexuality, birth control, marriage and family life, abstinence and chastity. He acknowledges that achieving the “fleshy holiness,” which necessarily involves sexuality, requires a lifetime of effort from the Christian. In concluding the pastoral letter, Bishop Baker states: “I believe the theology of the body is the most profound explanation of human sexuality the Church has yet seen.” He elaborates and expresses his further belief that this developed theology will assist in overcoming some of the wounds “which confusion about human sexuality has visited upon all western civilization.”
“When Did We See You, Lord?”
In this work, Bishop Baker and Father Groeschel, provide a beautiful and formative synthesis of their spiritual insights, theological explanations, and pastoral experiences, of serving Christ in the many disguises of those in need. The book makes the argument of identifying Christ with all who suffer. It attempts to provide the reader with “the keys to finding Our Lord” in the poor and to “overcoming barriers” which might prevent him or her from “responding to His call.”
The book uses the Last Judgement scene and the traditional corporal works of mercy from Matthew, Chapter 25, as its framework. Each work of mercy: feeding the poor, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, and visiting the imprisoned, stand as their own chapter. Each chapter is developed by applying the seven capital sins to the work of mercy. Considered the “narcissistic drives,” within the person and the “enemies” to the spiritual life, pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust, are exposed as deadly hindrances to seeing and serving the poor Christ in others.
Each of the book’s six chapters consist of an introduction by Father Groeschel on the highlighted work of mercy. The introductions include insights and stories, such as his recent car accident. Each introduction is followed by seven meditations by Bishop Baker on each of the capital sins, and how they could prevent that particular work of mercy from being done by the Christian. Each of these 42 meditations are enfleshed and made real by personal stories and experiences. For example, Bishop Baker shares the heroic walk of his brother Jim, who is suffering with prostate cancer. He also explains his own direct encounters with the poor and those in prison. In addition, such universally known figures as Pope John Paul II, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and Dorothy Day have stories which are given as examples of service. Figures who are known by their local communities, such as Carmen Caudron, Msgr. Thomas Duffy and Sr. Patrick Theresa O’Leary, have stories which are presented as further examples of service to those in need. The work of organizations like Catholic Relief Services, the Children’s Water Fund, and the soup kitchens of St. Francis in Gainesville, Fla., and Our Lady of Mercy in Charleston are provided as examples. Each chapter uses these stories to illustrate and emphasize its specific work of mercy and the numerous lessons about it from the Gospel.
In its 175 pages, the book labors to direct the attention of the Christian to Christ, who can be found in any person who is suffering. Using the last judgment scene, the book argues that the spiritual life of Jesus’ disciples consist largely in their ability to recognize him and serve him in those who are in need. Such recognition, and action coming from it, can give the Christian happiness in this life and in the next. The book concludes with affirming that Gospel charity is not “an elective procedure.” In order to encounter the living Christ and to live the Gospel without compromise, charity must be taken seriously and acted on through prayer and service.