Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Vision to the future

The following is my pastor's pen for this upcoming weekend:

The direction of a successful person’s life is determined by the vision they have or the goals they set for themselves.   Having  set goals, the person will have to adjust their actions, redetermine their priorities,  figure out how these goals can be paid for or achieved, and make the sacrifices necessary to make these goals a reality.  The successful person also knows that these goals cannot be reached without the help of others.
    Keep this all in mind when we speak of the Church at large and the parish more locally. What is a parish to be?  What is its reason for existence?  Jesus, Himself, set THE goal for the Church.  From the Pope to the local parishioner, the goal is exactly the same: “All power in heaven and earth has been given to me.  Go, therefore, and make disciples of the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit., teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:18-20)That is THE goal of every person who has ever passed through the waters of baptism.  Our participation in this mission is the standard by which we will be judged.  The Church is the ground upon which and from which this mission springs; this is true for the universal, the diocesan, the parochial, and the domestic Church.
    The point of setting goals or having a vision  is that we want something that can be measured in concrete terms of results, actions, and , ultimately, success.  Christ set the goal, He gives us the grace and the tools to make that goal come to fruition.  He instructs each of us, regardless of whether we happen to be lay or clergy, to the same end.  How do we engage ourselves in this and encourage others to do so as well?
    This is what 2020 is about.  It is an internally created and driven set of concrete goals by which we live out the command of Christ. It is driven by 4 question: in the year 2020 1) what do we wish to see when we evaluate our parish of St. Clement?, 2) How do we get there?, 3) How do we pay for it? and, 4) Who does it?  There are elements of our call that we need to cooperate with God’s grace so as to advance.  For example: Only about 45-50% of our registered parishioners come to Mass at all.  How do we get that percentage up?  We continuously either squeak by or fall short financially, something that makes some goals we might set as undoable.  How do we rectify this situation so that money does not become an excuse why we do not forge in a particular area that we need to engage? Can we make fledgling programs like our new youth ministry and Friends of St. Martha not merely survive, but thrive?  How do we recruit and support the next priest and religious from among our own?  Between our school and PSR program, we have only a percentage of our children in any form of faith formation.  How do we up those percentages as well?  This is, by no means, a exhaustive list of questions or potential goals.  This is why more than merely pastor has to set a vision for how we carry out our call.
    The vision we set must be in union with Christ.  Any other vision is doomed to failure.  Too many times we approach ‘setting a vision’ in the parish or diocese as an exercise of fantasizing about reshaping the Church into what I personally feel it should be or come up with a crop of excuses as to why nothing can be done or at least why I should not have to be a part of it.  2020 is not about rescinding Vatican II, nor is it about holding our breath till Vatican III or until the church ‘wises up’ and sees some it teaches are inconvenient.  2020 is about seeing how we as fellow members of St Clement parish can cooperate with God’s grace and do our best to wildly thrive at doing that for which we receive any of the Sacraments at all.
    Some , no doubt, will wonder why we have to do this all.  We didn’t do it in the past.  Why is it so urgent that we do it now?  I would wager that because we didn’t do this in the past, it has led to most of the problems we have in the present.  There was time when 90-95% of our parishioners went to Mass,  Sure, it was decades ago, but it still happened.  Our school had a much bigger student body.  We used to have more registered families.  We used to have active youth programs.  I am sure if we looked at the parish in former days, we will find that we used to do and be more.  No doubt  a litany of excuses that prove ourselves helpless to stem the tide will gush forth.  How bad do things need to get, though, before we are finally provoked into engaging ourselves in the mission of Jesus Christ?  Holding our breath and waiting for what I feel are the ideal conditions (example: all the Masses go back to Latin, we ordain married men and women, the church changes its teachings on_______) only ensures our continued downslide.  No excuses!  No complaining and whining from the sidelines! It is time to engage!
    On Thursday, November 3rd, those who volunteered for the steering committee will meet.  What we are wanting to do is neither simple or easy.  This steering committee is always open to new members.  We will eventually move to town halls to further set concrete goals and a path to get to these goals.  The more involved, the better.
We will meet in the parish youth room.
    Let me be blunt: Indifference and apathy do not help, in fact, they are our major foes.  The idea of ‘let someone else do it’ has been the major reason we are experiencing our problems.  Each of us has a simple choice: We can be part of the problem or part of the solution:  Which of the two do you want to be able tell Jesus you were on the day of judgment…He’ll be asking.  This has to be embraced by the parishioners and lived there first and foremost; pastors come and pastors go, we can not tie a vision to any pastor; vision cannot be a result of a cult of personality.  Parishes cannot simply rise and fall by whoever happens to be living (or if we do nothing) or not living in the rectory. If we pull this off ( and I believe if we are in union with Christ, we will), St. Clement can become a prototype for other parishes and a sign of hope that cooperating with Christ bears concrete rewards.  It is our decision, though, to engage or go on with business as usual.  All things must start with prayer if we are authentic to our call as Christians.  I ask you to pray not only for the wisdom and guidance we will need to do this correctly, but to pray earnestly in how you and you family should be involved.

Pater Noster: Part 3: Hallowed be thy name

In continuing with our discourse on the Our Father, we come to the next point, 'hallowed be thy name'.  Hallowed, is a older English word for 'holy'.  The word 'holy' has slightly different meaning depending upon whom it is applied.  When in reference to God, it means 'wholly other', in other words, that God is wholly unlike anything of this world, something beyond our comprehension.  When applied to us or any other material matter, it connotes, 'being set apart for God's use.'  Dr. Hahn, in his treatment of this phrase, goes back to the original language of the Old Testament, Hebrew, and the words used for holiness/holy.  they tell us something of why this phrase is here and how it relates to the words before and after it. 

The first is the word kiddushin, which is also the Hebrew word for marriage.  God is a god who draws us into a covenant.  The entirety of the Scriptures likens the bond between God and us in the terms of a marital covenant  In fact, in catholic teaching ( and scriptural as well), marriage is the foretaste and visible sign of the relationship that is to exists between a God who is wholly other, yet wishes out of love to come to us and we who have been set apart through the waters of baptism.  Yet go back to the pronoun,'our' again, he deals with us as a community in covenant and as individuals who belong to that community.  In coming into the covenant relationship by our own free will, we do so in the Lord's name.  This is no small thing!  To take the name of the Lord faithfully in the covenant relationship is to share in its blessings; to be unfaithful to that name and hence unfaithful to the covenant relationship is court being cursed.  Why?  To  break the covenant relationship is to willfully remove ourselves from God's love and protection and thus be at the whims and cruelty of the world; much like the prodigal son who is used and abused by the world once he has left his father's home, so do we leave ourselves open to use and abuse once we have pushed God away from all or part of our lives.  If we are to live this covenant relationship, then it is recognizing the holiness of God and that we are called to be holy as well.

This leads to the second Hebrew word, segullah, a word that connotes belonging to king and hence enjoying his protection.We are holy when we live willingly and joyfully with Him who is holiness in its perfection. Because God wishes to draw us into a relationship based in His own holiness, then that holiness becomes the identification not only of God, but of us as well.  Whereas God lives that holiness always and everywhere, not ever breaking His covenant through Christ, so we are called to make that holiness our own through our cooperation with the holiness of God.  Hence, 'hallowed be your name' is more than merely our saying something true about God, but our committing ourselves to that truth of holiness in the way we live and in the choices we make.  As no element of God is separate from holiness, so too no part of us is to be absent that holiness.  'Hallowed be thy name' is more than expressing an attribute of God, but a pledge to live in that attribute as those bound in a covenant relationship.

Thus when we pray this, we are either acknowledging our faithful covenant relationship with God our Father, or we contemptuously mock it through a life that negates this profession of faith.  The more we go through this simple  prayer, the more dangerous it becomes for us to merely say it without acting it.  Rather than shy away in fear from saying it, we should seek God's grace to authentically live this prayer.

Pater Noster: Part 2: ..who art in heaven...

As my Adult Education group keeps going through the Our Father, accompanying the reflections of Dr. Hahn on this greatest of prayers, we come to the the second point: who art in heaven.  Recall, that in merely referring God as Father, and proclaiming Him to be Our Father, we set the foundation of this prayer in the terms of relationship, specifically, familial relationship.

This relationship, though, is unlike any other relationship of which we have experience.  Since we are dealing with a relationship with God, who is neither limited to time and space, the depths of that relationship are mind-boggling.  When we call God 'Father', we may allow the diminished images of fatherhood we are familiar with to color, warp, if not destroy, who God as Father is.  We can take all of the warped images provided in our media, a  media who actively rebels against a positive description of fatherhood. WE can see the fathers in our own lives and their foibles and imperfections.  We can see the priests whom we call 'father' who fail to live up to that awesome responsibility.  We might even see those fathers, both paternal and religious, who were good men and tried their best. All of that said, God, our 'Father' is the perfection of fatherhood and far greater than even the greatest of our dads might be.  He 'is in heaven', He is the prototype and image of what fatherhood is to be about.  As He is in heaven (not to the exclusion of being among us), He is eternal in His fatherhood and it is His Fatherhood that is perfect.  Like an earthly father, he creates and brings forth life.  Unlike earthly fathers, whose love is imperfect or altogether gone, His love for us knows no bounds or limits.  As we see in the parable of the Prodigal Son, though, the fullness of his gifts depends upon our submitting to his will and protection.

That our Father is in heaven also tells us of whose home we belong.  Our eternal home lies not of this life nor existence.  This passing home, though, is where we make the decision whether we truly want God as our Father.  We make our choice here as to which kingdom we belong.  Since God created us not be mindless robots incapable of loving Him as He loves us, he allows us to choose whether we will attach ourselves to His household.  When we pray "Our Father, who art in heaven", we are at least vocally saying to whose home we wish to belong.  But our commitment to God must be more than words; our lives must proclaim that we belong to the household of God.  Fr Larry Richards, in his book "Be a Man", reminds us that when we call God 'our Father', we are saying to God, "Father, I am your son/your daughter."  We bind ourselves to a loving Father and that which belongs to Him.  Again, the ideas of relationship (especially familial relationship) are in fill play.  What a tremendous act of faith and promise to relationship we make in saying just these words: Our Father who art in heaven!   

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Pater Noster: Part 1

For the past few weeks, my adult education group and I have been doing a study of Dr Scott Hahn's "Understanding the Our Father".  Not only the book, but the pursuant discussion and reflections (many coming from our applying a lectio divina style of reading and praying about the text) have been wonderful.  I believe that sharing those insights on this blog can spread the wealth of those discussions.  For all of us who have been in this group, the reaction has been the same: we realize for as many times as we have said the Our Father, we never really realized the full depth of what we were praying for and are coming a deeper appreciation of why Jesus gave us this prayer as the prototype of all prayer and the perfect summation of all prayer.  I hope my readers will find these reflections as useful and good for the deepening of our faith as we have.  As I begin, a thank you to Dr. Scott Hahn for writing this wonderful book and a big thank you to by 20 or so parishioners who have shown up over the course of these adult education classes.

To the reader: when I do adult education (including RCIA) I view it as I would dating.  This might seem an odd analogy.  When I dated, as a young man, I used that time to get to know the young lady.  I wanted to know things about her: what was she like, what was her background, what did she like and dislike, what gave her joy, what hurt her, what were hopes, her aspirations, and dreams. I did this, especially as I got older, because I was looking for someone who I wanted to spend the rest of my life loving.  When we do theology, we delve into the truths of our faiths, we do so not so that we might merely learn data, but because that data tells us something about God and the relationship He wants withr us.  We learn about God so as to deepen the relationship we are called to have with God.  God reveals himself to us because He wants an eternal relationship with us.  This is so central to the prayer that Jesus, Himself, gave us.

From the openings words of the prayer, we are immersed in the verbiage of relationship. First, Jesus instructs to call God, the 1st Person of the Trinity, Abba.  We translate it as 'Father', which is a bit stuffy of a translation, but it is not as informal as 'daddy' either.  It is the word a child would call their dad.  It connotes the kind of deep relationship that a dad has for their child and vice-versa.  This term, dad, has become problematic in our time.  Fatherhood has been under assault for many centuries and has been extraordinarily harsh in our own time.  So much of our population does not know who their dad is, have dads who do not live in the home, or have had abusive dads.  So many times, those images get transferred to God.  The sobering fact is that men in this country need to be transferring the image of God as Father into how they are dads.  Any word we use to talk about God is going to be limited, for no word can fully capture the totality of who God is.  'Abba', though, is picked for a specific reason.  All that we would hope the perfect dad would be can be found in God the Father.  If we were to pick the traits we would want from the perfect dad, I am sure we would pick words like provider, protector, loving, fair, compassionate, and such.  We are given a glimpse of what type of father God is in the powerful parable of 'The Prodigal Son'.  In this parable we see a father who gives his ingrate son not only what is not rightfully his, but affords the young man freedom to do as he wishes with that property knowing full well he might well squander it.  We then see a heart-broken father, who does not hold anger toward his wayward son, but a deep longing to be re-united with him.  We get the image of a father who scans the horizon everyday waiting for his son's silhouette to break that horizon.  He does not force the son to come home, but desperately wants it.  This is an image of what type of father we have in God.  In essence, we have a Father who desperately wants what is good for us, now and for all eternity, but allows us to freely choose to be His son.  He does not force the familial bond upon us; he wants us to freely choose it.  Calling God 'Father', as Jesus directs us, gives us insight into what God wants for us.

When I taught grade school, I repeatedly had to remind students that pronouns matter.  Jesus doesn't merely tell us to begin this prayer with 'Father', He places the 1st person plural possessive pronoun to modify the word 'Father'; He places the word 'our' in front of it.  The word is not 'my' but 'our'; there is another relationship dynamic that comes into play just into the first two words of this prayer. The 'our' implies a familial bond not just with God, but with each other as well.  If I refer to God as Father and you refer to God as Father and he or she refer to God as Father then there is the rational understanding that we are brothers and sisters.  In the discussion, a lady (perhaps the last person in the group I would have expected this from) broke into the chorus of "We are Family" and smiled.  My answer, after shaking off the initial amusement, was "Well, actually, yes". The 'our' and the fact we are addressing God as 'Father' does imply just that.  It certainly flows from our ecclesiology ( the study of the church) and is well within the constant barrage of familial terms scattered throughout the New Testament when referencing the followers of Christ.  As in the use of father, we must lay aside the often dysfunctional vision of the family that exists in today's society.  Ideally, the family is were one finds those most concerned about your welfare, those quickest to offer support, those who are willing to correct with kindness, those who are willing to endure sacrifice for you, and those for whom you can show the same care and reveal the fullness of who you are.  We know where a family shows that kind of mutual support, mutual care, mutual mercy, and mutual concern for the path one travels, it is there we find the strongest of families.  It is this type that we as a church are called to be.  Think of just what is being prayed in those two words and the explosive dynamic present in those two words!  If we really mean those two words when we pray them, then how we live, how we view and treat others, how we live as a child of God all are radically transformed!

Thus we use these two words to come to know something of who God is and what He created us to be.  It is all wrapped up in a real and eternal relationship.  To pray those two words is a profession of faith of how we wish to live.  For me as a priest, that means I must model how I am a 'father' to my parish on the fatherhood of God.  To those who are biological fathers, your responsibility does not begin and end with ejaculation and impregnation: your responsibilities from that point on are to be modeled after the fatherhood of God.  It is for this reason that there is much to the saying :Any idiot can impregnate a girl, it takes a man to be a dad.  It also has a incredible point to make about how we approach one another, especially within the Body of Christ. While we do not and can not harbor wrong teaching, neither can we approach those who are purveyors of it with anything less than the same compassion of the prodigal son's father.  All the more, that means we cannot break into little tribes attached to a particular ideology within the Church and view each other as the competition, the other side, or worse yet, as the enemy.  The Roman Catholic Church cannot look like the 1968 DNC Convention! Remember the prayer of Jesus Christ on the night before he died: Father, may they be one, as you and I are one.  It is seeking union, not domination, that we answer this prayer and cooperate with the grace of God to actually make this prayer so.  It is doing this, that when we say 'our', we can actually mean it.

These few paragraphs are not an exhaustive exegesis of these two words.  I invite others to share what reflections they might have in the comments.  I will try to respond so that comments are not left up in the air as to say every view point is a valid viewpoint.  But, I do believe the greater our appreciation and understanding of just these two words become, the more dynamic the faith we live and thus the fuller the relationship we live with God our Father and consequently with each other.


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

...and Mammon failed.

I have been watching, with some interest, the unfolding of the events with the Occupy Wall Street crowd and its like movements throughout the major cities of this country.  They claim to be the 99%. The 99%, as far as I can tell from their websites, are the overwhelming amount of Americans who are not members of the banking, insurance, mortgage industries, who have to foot the bills and barely make it.  For them, the other side are greedy, self-serving parasites of society who live off of the misery of others.  On the other side is a group called the 53%, a group who say the represent the 53% of Americans who actually pay taxes every year (or are supposed to). For them , the other side are greedy, self-serving parasites of society who live off of the hard work of others.  I would imagine in either group there are some who would fit that bill.  Both sides, though, represent an increasingly evident truth, we are unhappy as a nation, afraid of the future, frustrated with the status quo, and looking for answers and finding none.  Why?

I have thought and prayed a great deal about this.  Over the past few years, bracing for impact of what the future held, I dumped almost all my debt (by the end of the year I will be completely out of debt) and started to embrace a life of simplicity (which Canon Law says I as a priest should do anyway).  It means I had to make a lot of hard decisions.  It also means I had to really start taking my faith seriously.  It was a harsh reality for me that in some venues of my life I had not taken my faith seriously.  I cannot point a finger at anyone and chide them for being materialistic as I have been there myself as a priest.  I had been at the altar of Mammon.  When I started simplifying my life, I gave a lot away.  To my shame, as I packaged things to go to the local clothes shelter and to a pro-life yard sale, I realized I was packing things that I had never used but 'just had to have'.  I packed clothes with the labels still on them, CDs and DVDs I never listened to or watched, books I never read.  The list goes on and on.  I felt rather ashamed.  Not only had I bought all this stuff, I did it on credit.  I racked up quite the bill.  I worried about those bills and my ability to pay them off.  Spiritually, I became pre-occupied with these things.  I moved into my current assignment with a 17 foot U-Haul.  I once thought that this was awesome, now, I am deeply ashamed of it.

Truth be told, though, I am not the only one at the altar of mammon.  It is human nature to associate wealth with security and happiness.  We possess within us a desire to be free of want and the fear it brings.  In this country, and in the western world, we have amped this association on steroids! Because of this, we have the rumblings of class warfare, something that has never historically achieved anything positive.  One side accuses the other of greed whilst the other side accuses their rivals of envy.  There is truth in both, but at the end of the day it is greed that underpins the whole thing. We live in such a wealthy society that we simply believe if 'I want' thus "I should have".  Furthermore, we believe that I want it now thus I should have it now! Questions about whether 'I need' or that 'I need to wait' or 'can I afford' no longer apply.  Furthermore, we do not want to deal with the prospect of having to suffer the consequences of poor choices.  It is not without irony that there are enough I-pads, I-Phones, various recording devices, and such rolling around the Wall Street crowd (each side) as to one wonder whether one has happened against a revolt about corporations or a celebration thereof!   I know those things are expensive.  I know, because I have priced them and decided that I didn't want it enough to pay that kind of price for something that I have managed to live 46 years without already. Having been one caught in the trap, I can say that I know what it is like to tacitly believe that wealth and belongings equate happiness.  By the grace of God, though, I realized how much Mammon failed me.

We posses an emptiness inside that we desperately want filled.  It is longing for completion and purpose.  I liken it to what I have heard happy married couples say about their spouse: in their spouse they feel a part of them wanted and waited for and felt complete once married.  That is fully appropriate as the marital bond is the image of the relationship God wants with us.  We have this longing that refuses to be satiated by the things of this world.  People will spend their entire lives searching through the things of this world looking for that one thing that fills the gap.  They try wealth, power, pleasure, ease, reputation, and fame.  When these do not work, they fall into addictions to alcohol, narcotics, sex, food, and other stimuli to numb the gap that now has turned into an emptiness.  They become the type of wealthy who believe if they hoard enough of the world's goods, they will eventually find happiness.  There is never enough.  There is a too grand of a scale.  For the have-nots, it is a burning belief if only they had more they would find joy and contentment.  Both place their hope in Mammon and both have nothing left but greed and envy...for them Mammon failed.  The definition of insanity is to engage in the same behavior and expect a different outcome.

AS one of my favorite songs said when I was child "If you're tired of the same old story, turn some pages."  For me, that meant be faithful to the covenant God made with me and I with Him: A covenant sealed in Baptism and Confirmation, strengthened though Confession and Eucharist, and cemented in a special way through Holy Orders. That meant I could not go chasing after Mammon and still presumed I was faithful to God.  As I embraced this new found simplicity, I realized that I had been Mammon's slave.  Where God sought a marital bond with me, Mammon only sought me to be its slave.  God did not create me to be anyone's slave.  God created us to be His partner as we hear he created Eve for Adam.  God wants my good.  He knows what will bring me true happiness.  He knows that happiness will never be found in slavery.  Because of that, I have neither the fear of the hoarders, nor the envy of the have-nots.  I do pray for those on both sides and mourn their self-inflicted misery.  I, like ancient Israel, am between the enslavement of Egypt and the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey (heaven: the end result of the covenant relationship).  To make it there means I will have to live and rejoice in that bond the Christ willingly gave His life to forge. It is not easy.  It beats enslavement.  The temptations are always there to turn back (believe me, I know that!).  But as one who starting to enjoy that freedom, I can only show my appreciation for that freedom by wanting it for others as well.

To those in the streets: you seek something from a source that will never give it to you.  You will not be able to have enough hand-outs, free rides, wealth, and prosperity to fill the hole within.  To those hoarding: obviously the accrual of wealth has not brought you what you hoped for and now you fear losing it...your hole, too, has gone unfulfilled.  As one who has been in both of your shoes, there is another way.  Equality and peace do not come through the distribution of wealth, they come from not being beholden to wealth to find peace, happiness, and joy.  As a former occupant of the hole you are now in, there is a way out that requires neither fear nor loathing...it only requires a willingness to give of oneself for one's brothers and sisters and a willingness to live a covenant relationship with  a God who desperately loves you.  You need not be Mammon's slave, when you can be God's own.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Pull Them In!!! Catholics and evangelization

On April 15th, 1912, in the early hours of the morning, the luxury liner the ‘Titanic‘ hit an iceberg and sank in the North Atlantic Ocean.  Of the 2240 passengers and crew aboard the vessel, 1514 died that night.  One of the main problems was that the vessel did not have near enough life boats.  When inquiries happened as to why more life boats were not available, the main reasons were that the builders had such great faith in the technology of the time and  had such great faith in the strength of the vessel,  that they thought it unnecessary to have the needed number of lifeboats to accommodate the entire manifest of passengers and crews.  When the lifeboats were launched that night, many were two thirds full.  After the Titanic sank, only two of the boats went back to pick up any survivors whose groans could be heard in the now stillness of the night.  Many died that night of hypothermia in the ice cold waters of the North Atlantic.  While many would not be able to be saved, some could have been, but as the majority of lifeboats stayed away, we will never know who would have survived after being pulled out of the water.
    For many centuries humanity has become enamored by its own power, wealth, and wisdom.  In our society, we are continually chasing after the newest technology, the newest research, the newest gadget, all in the hopes that these things will someone how make us better, safer, and happier. Faith is seen as a crutch, the spiritual equivalent of a security blanket, for those who have not yet grown to maturity and is regulated to the status of a pious hobby.  Like the builders of the Titanic, we believe our wisdom is sufficient to the task and that it will keep us from harm.  Yet, this society is one of the most dysfunctional in history.  There are so many who are wandering, floating, and even drowning among us.  So many, upset with the hole left when the money and power are either not forthcoming or are unable to fill the emptiness, will numb that emptiness with sex, narcotics, alcohol, risky behavior, and other such things that leave them ‘damaged goods’.  Sometimes, those wanderings have taken them to very dark places and the scars and mistakes are readily visible.  It is easy to look from our perch in the lifeboat and wonder if we want ’that type’ in the boat with us.  It is easier to focus so much on me and Jesus that we forget that when He was asked to teach us how to pray He directed to us to pray OUR Father.  No one was created to be outside the lifeboat; no one was created to be condemned.  We should be no more comfortable leaving these people floating out in the harsh world than we would be comfortable in letting a person float in the North Atlantic.
    The major reason why the boats stayed away from the survivors was fear.  Based on testimony after the fact, the reason the other 16 boats didn’t go back to pick up survivors was for fear than they would be caught in the suction of the sinking ship as it plummeted to the ocean floor and out of fear of being swamped by desperate survivors who knew they were only moments from death if they remained in the ocean.  Fear can prevent us from doing what is foolish but, more often than not, prevents us from doing what is necessary as well.  As followers of Christ, we are never to be ruled by any fear of anything of this world.  When we see someone struggling with life, we respond as Christ would: with hand outstretched.  So many times we back away from the job of evangelization, that is, the spreading of the Gospel, because we are scared of the response.  We may fear rejection.  We may fear anger.  We may fear getting in one of those “you Catholics…(worship Mary and the Saints, believe you earn your way into heaven, are led by nothing but pedophiles) and either feel we lack the knowledge or just don’t want to get into a fight.
    There also has to be a country club mentality that needs to be defeated.  On the Titanic, those who were of lower classes and rode in 2nd and 3rd class died in far greater numbers and percentage than those in 1st class.  While 63% of the 1st Class passengers survived, only 43% of 2nd class, and 25% of 3rd Class (which compromised 2/3 of the total passengers) survived.  It is easy to look at those outside our faith or who have dropped away and see them in a way that asks whether their joining/re-joining actually adds to who we are.  It is easy to treat those who are related somehow better than those who are not.  This is just human nature: we prefer to stick to the familiar and shun away from that which is different.  In the Scriptures, Jesus did not pick and choose who got to hear His message.  He healed all who asked.  He frequented the homes of sinners, tax-collectors, and other assorted riff-raff by the standards of His day.  He showed no fear in calling all those who were in need of His help and grace.  As Catholics, we must reach out for all in need of a home.  Like Christ, we don’t reach out for people so as to leave them there, but to lift them up from the ashes into a new life infused by God’s grace.  It does not matter whether they come from the right families, the right socio-economic class, the right race, or whatever else we use as separating influences to sort the invited from the uninvited.  Evangelization isn’t about picking the ‘right ‘people as if were picking pledges for a fraternity; it is about reaching out for all who are seeking, letting them know that we have a Father who desperately wants them home.  Because we are called to mimic the love of Christ in all things, we can never see anyone as beyond help or beneath us to help.  We cannot be in a lifeboat who will not go back to pick up the drowning because it is captained by fear.  By the grace of God, we are called to be better than that!
    My questions to each one reading this are simple: who will you give the chance to join us?  Who will be part of our faith because of your outreach?  How will you be the way that God reaches out to a lost soul?  Who will you invite?  Who gets into the lifeboat because you reached out?  Fear nor disinterest are options for those who follow Christ.  Only looking to my own salvation is unbecoming for those who have received the gift of new life from God.  By God’s grace you have been pulled into the boat.  Maybe you are one who needs to be pulled into the boat.  Either way, in the lifeboat you and those around you belong.  This is something we can measure concretely.  There is no shortage of those flailing in the sea drowning in the emptiness of materialism, sin, and addiction.  It is to such that God reaches out.  In the task of evangelization, a task we are given by virtue of our baptism, the target is anyone who seeks, anyone who needs to find their way home, and anyone who needs the safety and security of being pulled into the lifeboat.  Identify them.  Pray for them.  Model the faith for them.  Invite them!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A True Legacy for our Youth

A few days back I saw the following posting on Facebook, which I reposted, and have thought a great deal about consequently: " We need to teach our daughters how to distinguish between a man who flatters her and a man who compliments her .... a man who spends money on her and a man who invests in her .... a man who views her as property and a man who views her properly ..... a man who lusts after her and a man who loves her ..... a man who believes he is God's gift to women and a man who remembers a woman was God's gift to man.....And we need to teach our boys to be THAT man.”  It captured a pre-occupation that I have had for several years now.  We live in a society that teaches our young men that women are something to be manipulated into sexual activity, dominated in life, and discarded when it is no fun anymore.  It has started teaching young women the same thing about how to treat young men.  Furthermore, it teaches women that they merely have to settle for the best that they can hope to get and, if anything, treat their boyfriend or spouse to be as a reclamation project, the human equivalent of a fixer-upper.  I have rarely seen this end well.  As I have told young couples in marriage preparation, “Marriage is not a magic wand that makes all the deficiencies of your future spouse evaporate into the ether.”    By the same token, a man who would not make a good husband will not make a good priest either.
    Our children get swamped with the negative messages about human relationships and sexuality.  The way to reverse the damage is a two pronged approach: to point out and limit their diet of a poisoned message and replace it with a healthy life giving message.  Our parish and our families must act in union with each other to accomplish this.
    On the parish level, we are doing the following.  As all our 9th graders are boys this year, we are using the book, “Be a Man” by Fr. Larry Richards as the text for their education this year.  The book is a great study on what being a Catholic man is about and how being a Catholic man directly effects everything, including how we, as men, treat and view women.  It encourages an embrace of manly virtue and a courageous and selfless lifestyle.  With our confirmation students, we are using Theology of the Body for Teens with Chris Everet to talk about the same issues in a way that they understand that their being a good Catholic reflects in every avenue of their life.   We gave the parents the parents’ handbook so that they may follow up what we do in class.   I cannot encourage this enough.  I am contemplating getting the Theology of the Body for Jr. High, so that we may be able to begin this positive life affirming message earlier.  If anyone would like to help pay for the program, which would be several hundred dollars, and help buy a copy of it for the parish library. I would greatly appreciate it.  The Theology of the Body for Teens is already in the parish library and is frequently out.  Each have a 10-12 lessons set of DVDs, parents guides, and workbook for the youth.  I started using the Theology of the Body for Marriage as the primary tool for our engaged couples.  I really believe that this positive message paired with what I have been saying from the pulpit will hopefully at least provide a lot of seed which we hope will take root.
    On the diocesan level, we began summer camps for our young men and women (camps Maccabee and Siena, respectively) to help our youth understand what it means to be a young Catholic woman or man.  The topic is often brought up in our youth rallies and Confirmation Reflection Days. We believe, as a diocese, that every cent invested in our diocesan youth is a cent invested in the well being of our youth and their futures.  The well being of their future directly effects all of us as these youth will provide the next generation of priestly, religious, and lay leaders.  Giving them all that we can to promote a healthy self-identity and a healthy way of treating one another only bodes well for our collective futures.
    As I alluded to earlier, parents must be partners with the Church in this.  When your children were baptized, you vocally accepted the responsibility of bringing them  in the ways of the faith.  This is more than giving them a set of data to memorize, but instructing them in a relationship based in the love of God and neighbor.  Parents should be and can be the most effective teachers in their children in the ways of the faith.  What is provided in the home will be one of the primary nourishments of our youth.  This means several things.  First, I would assume no loving parent would purposely feed their children poison, even if that poison tasted good.  Poison is poison regardless of the way it tastes. We have to monitor what our children ingest in this culture as most of it is poisonous.  For example, I can think of two shows off the top of my head that are or were very popular: Two and Half Men and Sex and the City, both built on the premise that the opposite sex is something to be manipulated, used, and dumped at will.  So many shows on TV have the same message as do many of our movies.  The same message is dominant in music, regardless of the genre.  A steady diet of these things does have an effect on our youth in showing them what the world considers normative behavior.  It can be no surprise that our youth will act out on these premises and find out that the consequences of that acting out cannot be wrapped up quickly and without lifelong harm.  I know it is not popular, but parents must be as vigilant with what their children entertain themselves with as much as they would with what their child eats.  Poison should be recognized for what it is and dealt with accordingly.
    Along these lines, we should make sure that our youth are warned about the great scourge that is pornography.  Pornography, by its very nature, teaches to reduce another human being to a thing for self-satisfaction.  It is a cancer.  Because of the internet, it is also all too readily available.  Pornography isn’t bad because the human body is something ugly and sinful, it is wrong because the human body is good and beautiful; pornography debases that beauty, robs the dignity of another (even if they are offering up that dignity), and teaches the person to turn themselves and others into nothing more than a means of pleasure.  It is a devastating lesson that has horrible long term results.  Parents should treat porn with the ferocity they would treat a criminal trying to break into their home to harm their children.  Porn can have no harbor in any Catholic home!  I know they may not like it, but monitor what your child sees on the internet.  There are far too many wolves more than happy to expose your children to truly awful things.
    What we teach our children is the legacy they will pass on to their children.  We should want what is best for them and protect them from what would harm them.  Let us work together towards this common good so that we raise godly young men and women.  No woman or man should have to settle for anything less that the dignity that God has created them to experience.   Let us protect that dignity and raise our youth to do the same.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Triumph of the Cross

This is taken from my Pastor's Pen for this coming weeknd:
This last week we celebrated the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross.  To our ears, the words triumph and cross being in the same phrase and in relation to one another does not seem odd.  In the time of Jesus, these words would have seemed as foreign to each other as if we were to say ‘the triumph of the gas chamber’ or ‘the triumph of the firing squad’; we would not assume the executed had triumphed, but that the executioner had triumphed.  Crucifixion is a form of capital punishment.  In fact, it was devised to be an extraordinarily slow and painful form of execution meant to terrify anyone from crossing the Roman government or any other empire that used it.  In the time of Jesus, crucifixion was primarily used against those who rebelled against the Roman Empire.  Were one to say ‘the triumph of the cross’ in the time of Jesus, it would have been understood as the triumph of Roman execution over those who wanted freedom from them.  This, of course, is not what is meant when we say it, and what we mean by it is not spinning a defeat into a win, as we see so often in this world, especially in politics.
    For Christ, the Cross was not to be avoided, but to be embraced.  He came into this world for one reason, to set us free from our enslavement to sin and death.  Unlike the Jews of Jesus’ time who had been conquered by a foreign empire they had fought, sin and death had been invited in and had been submitted to by those who invited it in.  We had not had our freedom ripped from us, rather, we had surrendered it on the false promise of getting to be our own god.  Our turning from God surrendered what our relationship with God has entailed; we surrendered the temporary for the eternal, that which could be destroyed for that which was indestructible, that which seeks our destruction from that which sought our eternal good.   Humanity willfully enslaved itself and brought upon itself its own death.  Were God not a loving God, He could have left us to our destruction, turned away from our enslavement with nothing more than a dismissive caveat emptor to us who had chosen so foolishly.  However our God is a loving God and would not abandon us to our enslavers.  He would purchase back His fallen creation at the steepest of prices; he exchanged His only Son for the slaves and allowed His Son to suffer the wrath due us.  The triumph of the Cross is that we are gathered back at the cost of God’s love for us displayed by the crucified Christ.  We are the benefactors of the triumph!  Not by anything we did ; in fact, very much contrary to what we did.  God gathered back to Himself what had been estranged through sin.  Christ triumphs over sin and death by the supreme act of selfless love in submitting Himself to the cross, enduring its sacrifice and suffering out of love for each one of us!
    This has direct implications for us.  We should not surrender that which has been gained for us through the cross of Christ!  To willfully sin is to surrender what Christ has done for us. To willfully sin is to try to rob the cross of its triumph.  I say ‘try’ in that the sacrifice of Jesus, done once and for all, can never be undone by human choice ever again; however we do have the power to exclude ourselves from the triumph of the cross by willfully sinning.   Why?  Because all sin is antithetical to the cross; the cross is the ultimate act of selfless love, all sin is an action of selfishness.  The cross, the form of execution of a rebel, opened the gates of heaven to those who had rebelled.  How foolish it would be to embrace rebellion again after so hard a fight and victory as had been engaged by Christ!  To share in the triumph is to share in its freedom from sin and death.
    Another implication of the Triumph of the Cross is in sharing the vision of each other that led God to send us Son and in His Son’s willingness to lay down His life.  The Gospel today (John 3:12-17) reminds us that the Father sent the Son into world not to condemn it, but to save it.  Think about the implications of that in how we are to view one another.  Several weeks back, I wrote Pastor’s pens regarding the damage that could be done by the seven deadly sins and their virtuous antidotes.  There were three I have not covered: lust, wrath, and envy.  These three deal with how we view one another.  These three drive us to diminish the humanity of another, to attack the dignity of another, and to see each other as worthy of only scorn, judgment, and revenge.  These sins pit us against each other and coerce us into a very different vision of humanity than that which God has. God never reduces the person to being an end for selfish pleasure as lust does.  Nor does God seethe with envy at what we have and wish to destroy us for it.  Were God interested in wrath, that is revenge, the Son never would have come into this world.  There would be no triumph of the cross because the cross could not happen as an act of divine vengeance.  The triumph is a triumph of divine selfless love over revenge and wrath.  The triumph of the cross is a triumph that tells us God wants to pull our dignity to Himself despite the fact that we so often surrender that dignity to sin.

    This final aspect of the Triumph of the Cross beckons us to see ourselves and those around us with the eyes of the Father; to live as those who share in the triumph of the cross.  We share in that triumph every time we choose to be selfless and heroic.  We share in the triumph whenever we look at ourselves as salvageable and worthy of God’s love, not by what we have done, but by what God chooses to do.  We share in the triumph when we widen that same vision upon those around us.  When we choose to see what is good about a person before we see what we do not like.  When our vision of others is not truncated by race, socio-economic status, political leanings, educational levels, and the myriad of others differences we choose to put before what is to be loved, respected, dignified, and reinforced in the goodness of another.  When we seek truth over ambition and wish for that which is truly good for others, then we share in the triumph of the cross.  The cross was not a weapon by which God condemns man, but a means by which He saves humanity. Mimicking the love of the cross which embraces sacrifice and suffering for the good of another is what speaks to that noblest  part of us which is created in the image and likeness of God.  To attach ourselves to the cross is to attach ourselves to its victory.  Thus we must see past the sin and dinginess of humanity to that which God saw as worthy of His love and worthy of His Son’s life.  God did not use the cross to enable our sinfulness but to give us the means to rise above it.  Let us use, then, that same cross to live the truth and in doing so, to allow the grace of God to raise each human person to share in the triumph that the cross bears to this world.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Lessons of 9/11:What have we learned?

We are coming upon the 10th Anniversary of the attacks of September 11th, 2001.  How one responds to tragedy say much about the individual.  For example, I have buried young men and women whose deaths were caused by drinking and driving.  Some of their friends learn from the tragedy and refuse to drink and drive; some, believe it or not, will mourn the death of the individual or celebrate the life of the individual by engaging in the same exact destructive behavior that killed their friend!  Tragedy is a part of life.  It is what we take from that tragedy and the lessons learned that are important; tragedy can change us for the better or can leave us reeling.

So what do I think are the lessons of 9/11?  First, radicalized forms of Islam despise us.  We can theorize why for years to come.  But the fact of the matter is that militant radicalized Islam hates us.  We did not need 9/11 to drive home that point; the World Trade Center was attacked before, there were the embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam, the bombing of the USS Cole, and about a million US flags regularly burned across the Islamic world that would have told us that the resentment and hatred run deep. 10 years later and 2 ongoing wars, we are still hated, maybe even more.  Hate runs deep and doesn't need to be reasonable.  It is not easily cured nor can be as long as those that hate wish to keep hating.  We cannot control another person's hate, but we can control ours.  But human nature is that we want to control another person's reaction and give free reign to ours. Initially we controlled out hate.  We didn't go out and mow down every Muslim in this country we could find; we didn't burn their homes or businesses; we didn't demonstrate in their neighborhoods.  We have not yet.  This speaks well for us.  However, as a society, we are more divided than ever amongst ourselves.  The infernal bickering and infighting that left us weakened before exists even more strongly today.  We need to remember that our strength comes from our unity; not a forced unity, but a willingness to look beyond the plethora of divisions we soothe day in and day out.  A divided country makes for an easy target.  The lesson to be learned in this is that if we expect to effectively ward off the attacks of those who hate us, then we will have to pull together, despite our differences of opinion, and see ourselves as fellow countrymen before we see ourselves as liberals or conservatives, or whatever other divisions we exploit amongst our own in this country.  We were able to do that immediately after 9/11, perhaps we need to make that a more permanent fixture in American life.

We also learned on 9/11 that all our power and wealth could not save us.  The terrorist were intentional on their targets: the World Trade Center, a towering glory to our financial wealth and power, the Pentagon, a testament and symbol of our unmatched military power, and presumably the White House (the presumed target of flight 93), the symbol of our government.  The message was simple, "Your power, wealth, and might cannot and will not save you."  Recently, the head of an atheist association, remarking on his objection of the Ground Zero cross's presence in the 9/11 memorial, said that how could we want a symbol of a mythical god who obviously didn't exist because if he had, then 9/11 would not have happened.  The problem with that is that we switched gods many decades ago, driving God out of the public square in the name of cultural diversity and political correctness, replacing him with the god we worshiped anyway...money and power.  It was that idol that let us down.  It continues to do so.  We cannot push God's hand away and still expect His protection.  God is not some servant that we beckon when we need something and then dismiss from the conversation when guests come over.  Unfortunately, as a country, that is what God has become for us.  It is prevalent in our society.  We blame God when things go wrong and otherwise ignore Him.  God has let us make our choice, if we choose money and power, then that is what He will let us have until it shoots out of our collective noses.  Even though these idols have an extremely poor track record, worship them we will anyways.  This lesson has not been learned by most.  After 9/11, many people went to Church for awhile, but it dissipated rather quickly as they discovered why they quit going to begin with: they went for themselves, to be entertained, to be inspired, etc.  They didn't go to worship THE God, they went expecting the God to worship them...He didn't and they left again. Change was short lived and back to our over consumption we went.  I remember President Bush telling us to go out and consume after 9/11 to prove that the terrorist couldn't collapse us and our economy.  I remember thinking that certainly we proved our resilience when our brave cops, firefighters, EMTs and their chaplains rushed towards the collapsing towers to save who they could even if it meant they gave their lives.  I thought we did that when we withheld taking revenge in our own streets against our own Muslim population.  I thought we did that when , for a moment, we put apart all our petty differences aside as acted as a people. Bravery, mercy, and unity should be what defines us...and oddly enough each of these are supposed to be defining qualities of Christianity. These traits are seen in every young man and woman who signs up into the military knowing full well they will be putting themselves in harm's way.  Our nobility as a people comes not from our wealth or power, but in our courage, self-control, selflessness, and the actual living of our faith.  Our nation cannot continue its reckless pursuit of empty idols and expect any different result.

"They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."  There is debate as to whether Benjamin Franklin said this or not, but the words still ring true. We have learned that, complain though we might, in the end we are willing to surrender a great deal of privacy and liberty in the name of security.  Security lines at the airport have all the modesty of a peep show anymore; we remove items of clothing, allowed ourselves to zapped with radiation so that images of our naked torsos could be seen, limited what we could bring on a plane, and suffered other indignities at the hands of those who say they are protecting us. Big brother now has the ability to literally look in every nook and cranny of whomever they please.  Historically this has never ended well.  It will not this time either.

The sad fact is that America looks very much the same after 9/11 as it did before, except with a undercurrent of paranoia.  This Sunday we will remember the events of 9/11.  We will commemorate those who died...and we should.  We will remember the selfless sacrifice of the first responders...and we should.  We will hopefully pray for healing...and we should.  The best way though, I believe, to commemorate 9/11 is learning the lesson of 9/11 and becoming better people because of it. If we can pull together as a people, remember who is the God that actually does save, and become a people united in our bravery, strength, generosity, self-control, wisdom and virtue, then, and only then, can we rightly repay the bravery shown on 9/11.  Tragedy can either show our strengths or expose our weaknesses; it is our choice. For future generations, we would do well to chose wisely.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Thoughts arising from an untimely death

This morning, we did at our school what we do every 1st Friday.  WE move the Blessed Sacrament from the Adoration Chapel were it sits waiting for those to come in for Perpetual Adoration, into the main church and onto the main altar.  During that time we make the opportunity for Confession for our grade school students as they come to spend some time in Eucharistic Adoration.  Since I take the visiting priest’s confessional, as a courtesy to the other priest that comes to help, I have only the option of anonymous (behind the screen).  Occasionally, a student will come in and step around the screen.  That happened more than a few times today.  One of the young men came around and stared right into my eyes the whole time.  I was a bit taken aback.  It was nothing he did.  Last night I read an obituary of a young man from a former parish who had died in a freak tractor accident.  They had a picture of the young man, and I swear, the boy standing in front of me could have been him 10 years ago.  My head has been in the wake service of the young man to which I went a few days back.  I had this sudden urge to take the boy, wrap him in bubble wrap, and tell his parents to never let him out of their sight.  This preoccupied my mind as each student came in.  The young man who had died had been in my instruction at one time.  He was a fine young man who was mature and wise beyond his years more often than not. When I looked into the eyes of his parents at the wake and saw two people who had just lost their only son and just looked weary, it broke my heart.  When I saw his grandmother, a very dear sweet woman, who also looked so very tired, and saw his aunt, who couldn’t stop crying, it just was heart wrenching.  Although the pastoral care of this family belonged to another, these were people I cared about and to see them in such pain was troubling.

Of course, we can’t bubble wrap our children and keep them forever at our sides.  They grow.  We always pray that they grow strong and wise and live up to their full potentials as human beings and as people of faith.  We have to count on their learning those lessons well and being ready to answer for  how they lived their lives when their day comes to pass from this world.  We will fidget and groan as we watch them make mistakes and even mess their lives up entirely.  But there is always a hope that tomorrow they will come to their sense.  As this death this week reminded me, as does every funeral I have, all of us will come to a point where today is the last day of our life.  So what do we do with it? We’ll not be able to pass though our days here without experiencing some pain, disappointment, and grief.  It is part of life. It occurred to me this evening as I was pray Evening Prayer that while do not have any real control over when or how we die, we do have tremendous control over how we live.  I got to thinking about what I would say to every student I have had over the years.  It would go something like this.

I really believe that every single person that has ever been born has the deep inset desire to be remembered; a consequence of having made one’s mark in the world.  What will be your mark?  Will it be positive, negative, or barely visible?  Will it change other people’s lives for the better or will other people be sorry they ever met you?  I do not think anyone wants to be the person that makes other people’s lives hellish, but so often will do so because it is easier that make another person’s life better.  You were born into this world, created by God, to make other people’s lives better and be a positive force for good.  I know that is hard because it requires you to be selfless and exhibit self-control.  I know the temptations to be selfish and out of control are overwhelming.  I  cannot speak to being a young lady, but I can to being a young man.  I know the temptation to strip the dignity away from a woman is ever present.  I know society expects you to be promiscuous even if it later condemns you for doing so.  I know you are told over and over again that you have to rely on your physical prowess in sports to get anywhere in life.  I know you are told that religion is for the stupid, for children, or for the women…but that men do not need a God other than themselves.  I know you are tempted to party hard, drink hard, ingest whatever mind altering substance happens to be around.  I know you are told to ignore whatever emptiness might come from this.  I know as you get older that the definition of success comes from the accrual of power and wealth. I know you struggle with wanting to be a real man in a world that is quite content for you to remain a boy.  Boys are easy to control.  I know it because I have been there or still get tempted towards these things.  I know it sucks and that it easier to give into rather than rise above it.

Remember, though, each of us is only given one chance at this life.  We don’t get to redo it.  What we have at the end of our lives is the finished product of our lives; an accumulation of our choices.  Choose wisely, knowing that you are held responsible for what you do.  Be selfless, courageous, and strong.  Do not waste your life on numbing it.  Make your mark in such a positive way as to make a permanent positive change.  God gives you so many graces, charisms, talents, and abilities for this purpose; He expects a return on His investment.  Be thankful for the blessings in your life; never allow envy or greed be what motivates you.  Protect the dignity of those around you, don’t rip it away through lust.  Treat your life and your faith as the precious gifts they are.  While you gave neither of these to yourself, you are responsible for how you develop them. Please stay away from risky and dangerous behavior!  In 14 years I have buried far too many young men and women and had to witness the crushing and haunting look of an inconsolable parent, mourning the loss of their child.  I can assure you, that look will stay with you for awhile.  So many times the deaths were completely avoidable.  There are many people out there that actively care about you and are concerned for your well being; people who want to see each one of you grow up into a great and strong adult.  I know, because I am one of them.

You have to want this for yourself. I know this.  I have tried to fill the void we are born with so many things that the world says will work, but don’t.  I have tried money, power, drinking, and other things to fill the void and they failed.  I know faith has provided for me not only a firm foundation from which I can weather any storm and find comfort in the bleakest of moments, but helps me to become all that I am created to be.  The man who has faith has nothing to fear, not even death.  Faith is all that we get to take with us past this life, where our faith is and how we actively allowed it to be developed will be shown in how we acted.  Choose well.  May each person who reads live a long happy life. Be all that you are created to be and do not allow any fear of any person rule you.  In the end you are answerable to God and God alone.  May each of you hear when that time comes :“Well done my good and faithful servant.”

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Cry Havoc and let slip the dogs of war!

I find it interesting that so many times a blogger or really anyone will give an opinion about a politician, athlete, entertainer, or some other public figure and both the defenders and inquisitors will come rushing out, weapons drawn, in a free for all that makes the Battle of Agincourt look like a game of checkers.  Okay, maybe that is a bit of hyperbole, but at times, not much.  Even of Catholic sites, a scorched earth policy will reign in the comments section of a post...try critiquing Michael Voris, Mark Shea, or any other pundit and watch the pandemonium ensue.  Go onto any site and make a comment about Obama, Ron Paul, Sarah Palin, or..well you get the picture...and it's Gettysburg all over again with such ferocity that it makes one wonder if this country can ever pull itself together.  Not every opinion needs to be cause for screaming and battles.  We rarely seem to be able to merely say, "Well, that's your opinion and that is how you see it."  No, No! You must see things the way I see it!!! If you don't then you are a fool, an ingrate, or a whole host of other slurs.  Were people as fierce apologist about faith as they were about politics or punditry, we would be much better off.  If we do come across something that is objectively wrong, then yes, there is a duty to correct this, but to do so with simply laying out the truth instead of laying out the opponent.  We will never get anywhere constructive by treating every differing opinion as a personal attack on my own belief system.  Modern debate can be civil.  To all who get all bent out of shape so easily, remember, there is already a Messiah and the job is permanently filled.  Your hero is not his fill-in or permanent replacement.  In fact, if your hero is seeking to be a new messiah leading us out of the valley of ignorance or heterodoxy or whatever malignancy is out there by his or her  sheer force of will and wisdom, run and do not walk away from that person.  It is my own experience that when I am not following THE Messiah, I will follow any Messiah.  Dangerous stuff, that is.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Our Hearts are Restless Till THey Rest in Thee

Today is the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time and the Gospel we have is a continuation of last week's Gospel in which upon being asked by Jesus, "Who do you say that I am?", Peter answers correctly, "Your are the Christ, the Son of the Living God."  Jesus gives Peter the 'keys of the Kingdom of Heaven', a unique authority that extends from Christ Himself.  What is Peter's first act as keeper of the keys?  When Jesus tells the apostles what being the Messiah actually meant, Peter wants none of it.  In arrogant presumption, he takes upon himself to rebuke Jesus as if Jesus were insane or at least taken temporary leave of His senses.  What leads Peter to such a bold move?  Jesus describes the role of the Messiah as one of being rejected by the religious leaders. put to death, and then rising in 3 days.  This was not the job title Peter had in mind for a Messiah.  Jesus was supposed to go to Jerusalem, wow the religious authorities (and maybe even the Romans) and through either that or through war, establish a new Davidic kingdom.  Peter is looking to the things of this world to satisfy his longings and is tempting Jesus to do the same; a temptation that Jesus had already experienced in the 40 days in the desert when Satan tempted Jesus to do the same by promising to hand over all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus would worship him.  Jesus has the same response both times; he refutes it.  This time, He instructs His apostles (and by extension all who would follow Him) to fix their gaze not on the things of this world, but in the things of God.

It is easy to chide Peter as if he were some singular dope who didn't get it.  But that is the story of humanity, isn't it?  We continually seek within the things of this world fulfillment and contentment.  For some it is an accrual of wealth and power, for others it is knowledge.  Take, for example the saint whose feast it is, St Augustine.  In his Confessions, St. Augustine talks about his searches  for contentment within this world.  He talks about how he chased this inner longing God places within us and tried to fill it with the things of this world.  This lead him to sinfulness and even a heretical cult.  He describes how his mother, St. Monica, who had herself found the answer to that longing in God Himself, had desperately prayed for her son to do the same and had invited him over and over again.  Augustine persisted in seeking in the world, but eventually converted to Christianity and understood what is was that his mother had, saying in the Confessions , "Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee."  He would find in God what the things and pleasures of this world had failed to provide and stopped building his own temporary kingdoms and gave himself over to the Kingdom of God.  St. Augustine, after this self surrender to God, would become a prolific writer and preacher whose teaching still greatly influence the Christian faith.

There is a powerful lesson to be learned from both of these: Specifically, what fills that hole within us.  It is easy to look to the things of this world to fill that need.  In fact, the world will tell us that there is no God, so if we are to find fulfillment it will be here and now.  This way of thinking can subtly or not so subtly drive our lives, even those of Catholics.  Ambition for the things of this world and the possibility of their filling that longing is not just a feeling that Peter or Augustine felt, but one common to our human condition.  Sometimes we can replace the refrain from today's Responsorial Psalm, "My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord, my God" with trying to satiate that thirst with wealth, power, status, influence, and reputation.  When those inevitably do not work, the emptiness gets numbed.  In his book, "Prayer Primer", Fr Thomas Dubay writes the following: " When one rejects the real God, he inevitably substitutes lesser things to fill his inner emptiness.  If we are not captivated by the living God and pursuing Him, we will center our desires on idols, big or small: vanities, pleasure seeking, prestige, power... while idols never satisfy, they often do serve as narcotics that more or less deaden the inner pain of not having Him for whom we were made and who alone can bring us to the eternal ecstasy of the beatific vision."   So many times our quest for fulfillment in this world is dashed by the realization that no matter how good the feeling provided, it soon or later goes away.  This leads us to double down on stupidity in the hopes of a permanent fix.  If a little materialism doesn't work, maybe more will.  If a little sexual promiscuity doesn't work, maybe more will.  If my use of narcotics and alcohol doesn't work, maybe more will.  Much like a person smacking their head against a brick wall and wondering why they are dazed and bleeding, we can keep going to the same unfulfilling trough  thinking maybe this time it will be different.  The bottom line is that our longing will never be totally fulfilled by the things of this world because the things of this world are temporary.  We who fix our hopes on the temporary set ourselves up for our own disappointment, disillusionment, and unhappiness.  Were simple accumulation of wealth or power a constant in the fulfillment of the human condition, there would be a level at which every person would declare that they are totally satiated.  Does that sound like the world in which we live?  When we chase after specters, we will have nothing but a haunted longing in the end.  We are meant and made for far greater than what this world can provide.

In the Gospel, Christ invites us to walk in his footsteps and in doing so find both the focus and locus of true and lasting fulfillment. We cannot expect the eternal from the temporary.  To find that which is lasting, we must look to that which is eternal.  Those who find it, find it easy to detach from this world and find joy regardless of the wealth, health, prestige, power, reputation and such they have or lack thereof.  This is because when we find that which is eternal, that which is temporary is recognized and treated as that which is temporary; but finds in the temporary the visage of the God who made the temporary as well as the unending life within the Kingdom of Heaven. We always have the choice to pursue the things of this world or the things of God; we have the ability to try and find fulfillment in the here and now (if you are into exercises in futility) or we can broaden our vision to the eternal.  God gives us His grace to do so.  His footsteps show us the path.  This means that the love of God must influence all that we are and all that we do. For it is agape that fills us with what the world promise but cannot deliver upon.  It is our choice to walk in frustration or fulfillment.  Be aware, though, that St Augustine is right in that our hearts are restless until they rest in God.

As one who has seen with my own eyes the ruins of a great and powerful empire (Inca) that is now consigned to the dustbin of history along with every other empire, it is wise to understand the Latin saying, 'Sic Transit Gloria Mundi'..that is, Thus passes the glory of the world.  We are called to a far greater dignity and promise.  Let us set our sights on that which is of God while we live it that which is of this world.  It is difficult to be sure, but if we truly want to experience a foretaste of the eternal union and fulfillment of heaven, it will by striving, though the grace of God, for it in the here and now.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Some troubling question about Catholic Youth Formation

This certainly is not going to be a popular subject, but I am going to ask questions that are going to be uncomfortable and for which I really have no answers.  I am going to use my own diocese as an example.  First, let me say that I am a big supporter of Catholic Schools and especially those to whom I have been assigned.  Second, I think that youth formation is one of the most important things we do in a parish after the sacraments.  In fact, I think it absolutely critical for the hope of the future of our faith and its continuance from generation to generation.  The following are questions, musings, and perhaps grasping at straws to figure out what is next.

Several years back I was at a meeting for pastors and principals where the presenter was extolling the importance of Catholic education.  In the talk, he mentioned that neither of his children practiced the Catholic faith anymore, but the formation they got was wonderful.  I know many of my brother priests had a moment of cognitive dissonance.  One would assume if the formation were wonderful that his children would still not just be practicing Catholics but actively involved as well.  I was talking to a friend who was at a Catholic High School graduation where the principal was going on and on about what fine young Catholics the current graduating class is while knowing that about only 30% of the Catholic students were at Mass on the weekend.  All totaled throughout this diocese ( a diocese of around 90,000 Catholics with 3 Catholic High Schools, 38 parochial grade schools, 100+ PSR programs, almost as many Confirmation programs, several parishes with full time paid youth ministers and many more with volunteer youth ministers) will spend upwards of 30 million dollars on our youth this year alone.  Untold hours of volunteering, fundraisers, and such will happen.  Many parishes will have to make very hard decisions about non-school activities because of tight budgets. In this diocese, we run above the national average of Mass attendance (nationally @30%, in the diocese of Jefferson City it is around 45-50%.  But giving is usually just at or below what parishes need to pay bills.  It is not as if we are not making an effort.  Just for some perspective: I have been a priest for 14 years; this means in my short time as a priest in this smallish diocese, we have spent $420,000,000 dollars on youth education and formation.

Yet the vast majority of weddings I do the couples are co-habitating. I see a very small percentage of them at Mass on any regular basis.  I am not saying this to condemn them, only stating facts.  I can count on not seeing at least 50% of my confirmation students after they are confirmed, and about that many during the summer vacation break.  The number of priestly and religious vocations coming out of our Catholic schools is anemic at best, and this is with a full time vocation director who spends time in each of the schools every year, in the high schools frequently, and is never at an end of finding new ways to get the message out.  I am fortunate in that I will say I see 75% of our grade school students every weekend, but I know this is not the norm.  I have seen parents scratch their heads...good stable catholic parents...wondering what happened; why is their child not following their example and not listening to what they know their children are being taught.  We could only muster less than 100 youth for the summer programs we have...less than 100 from the entire diocese.  It is particularly hard to get young men interested in anything having to do with faith and religion. 

These are not bad kids.  I sometimes look at what they say on facebook and see what their attitudes about faith become and it makes me weep.  I see popularity and partying become the foci of life.  I see dedication to sports and other activities crowd out faith.  I see kids ridicule the one who actually does take faith seriously.  We are losing them in so many ways.

Some will say that it is because of the horrid catechesis.  Maybe, I know many catechetical series are variations of Christianized narcissism where the value of anything is measured by how it makes one feel.  But I know there are very good series out there as well that are being used.  It does not seem to make a difference. I have seen dynamic youth ministry and lethargic youth ministry without noticing a huge difference in the majority of a parish's youth.  I have seen fine young Catholics come from apathetic and even antipathetic homes and apathy generate from strong Catholic families.  I have seen fine young Catholic men run away like they were on fire when a mention of the possibility of a priestly vocation is mentioned.  So, after 14 years and 420 million dollars, after seeing heroic and dedicated volunteers, priests, religious, and lay people give tremendous amounts of time and energy to our youth, after seeing a product (for lack of a better word) that does not measure up to the immense amount of time, energy, and resources, I have to wonder what is going on and how do we turn it around.  Turn it around we must! (Sorry for that Yoda moment) These youth are the pool from which the next generation of parochial leaders, parents, priests, and religious will be drawn.  How do we compete with (or more to the point combat) their culture of instant gratification, focus on only today, consumption with self-esteem, and engaging in behaviors that only numb the emptiness and isolation felt when these foci fail to produce on any lasting basis?  I am not willing to write a single student off that I have ever had...not a one...not the ones who have left, grown cynical and bitter at life, not those who see faith as a childhood whim with no depth, not a one who prefers to be drunk, high, and sexually active.  I can't.  None of us should.  I truly care about these young men and women and want what is best for them, even if they are misled about what is best for them, or could not care less about what happens to them.  I am happy we are starting to make inroads in my parish, but it is the smallest of inroads and one that is very fragile.

So what do I do?  I pray.  I pray a lot.  Mostly for guidance.  Like so many things as pastor, I still feel like a newbie priest, trying to figure out with the grace of God the next step.  I make an effort.  I care.  Whether that is enough, I do not know.  But maybe the answer is to continue trying and challenging.  Spiritus supplicet. But perhaps it will take all of us actively praying, encouraging, and setting good examples. There is an answer.  Christ does not ask us to do something then leave us high and dry without His help to accomplish it.  There you go, tonight's rambling.

I have an idea for 9/11 in NYC!

Since Mayor Bloomberg is going out of his way to ignore those who gave their lives in the service of others on 9/11, I purpose that the fine Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York City join with local clergy in holding a memorial Mass for those who gave their lives to help others on that tragic morning.  Mr. Bloomberg, it was not you, nor the President, nor the politicians who were running into harm's way  to rescue the traumatized from the World Trade Center; that duty belonged to the brave men and women of the NYPD, NYFD, EMT's and their chaplains who ran towards those buildings as everyone else was rightfully fleeing or staring in horror. They lost their brothers that day as the buildings collapsed, including one of their chaplains, Fr. Mychal Judge.  To not invite them to this memorial is shameful.  It would be nice if the Yankees or Mets would allow their stadiums to be used for this event so that these brave men and women know that we remember their sacrifices that day and that their families who are left behind know that we deeply appreciate their selfless service.  Just an idea.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Toning down the rhetoric

In writing this post, I am getting that 'hypocrisy vibe alert' for I know that have been as guilty as the rest in participating in the to be mentioned behavior, but as of late, I have refrained from the behavior for the most part. I say for the most part because the St Louis Cardinals underachievement is rising to new heights.  The problem though is angry rhetoric.  There seems to be no shortage of it.  There seems to be no arena in which it is not just common but is now the norm.  Within the halls of our churches, the halls of governance, the halls of industry and finance, and within the lives of everyone, especially the famous, we feel the right and necessity to castigate at will.  Whether it is US representative telling a whole group of her fellow Americans to go to hell, the in kind responses to her, the accusations leveled at bishops for being too this or that,  the ripping apart of some starlet's personal choices, the constant stream of abuse we level at any authority figure, or any group to which we do not belong, we have turned our society into a dysfunctional group of busybodies where looking for anyone else's faults is the norm and displaying them for all to admire as if it were a museum gallery exhibit  is the goal.  The great melting pot has turned into a saga that makes the Lord of the Flies look like the Von Trapp family.  We have become a society of Mrs Kravitzes screaming "Abner, Abner" with such frequency that it feels like cat claws on a chalkboard.

Disagreements are a part of life.  How we should proceed as a country, as a church, and as a parish will always be there.  Each of the three have guiding principles that act as parameters for behavior and direction.  For us as Americans that guide is the US Constitution and its attendant amendments.  We may disagree  on its application.  But that disagreement can be handled civilly.  Do we actually think that yelling, name-calling, accusations and counter accusations about motivation will help anything?  We can really believe the cacophony of mobs will bring any peace?  Mob rules have never ended well, whether it is the French Revolution,  the Russian Revolution, the rise of Hitler, or even the bitter fruit we are seeing rising out of the Arab revolts in which minorities, particularly Christian minorities (Egypt, Iraq for example) are being persecuted.  There are ways to settle differences peacefully without bludgeoning each other to death.  There is no necessity for us to resort to hateful rhetoric, destructive behavior, or anarchy to get our feelings known. There is a different way. For we Catholics, it flows from our Catholic Faith.

As the country has the Constitution to ground the discussion, so we have the teachings of the Church and the Gospel.  Whereas we can amend the Constitution over time, the beauty of Catholic teaching is that it need not be amended, only applied.  The basic tenet of Catholic teaching is simple, it flows from the only commandment that Jesus gave us: Love one another! We are to love God with all that we are and to love our neighbor (that is anyone) as ourselves. Love, when used in the New Testament, is almost always translated from the Greek word 'agape', which means divine love.  What separates divine love from the other types of love is that it is completely selfless, attending to the needs of another.  Agape is willing to take on personal sacrifice and suffering for the good of another, to bear wrongs patiently, and show kindness. (cf I Corinthians 12-13). All of the Church's many teaching all flow from the question as to what does it look like to love God and our neighbor, recognizing the two are inseparable. Thus, it is from that vantage point of agape that we enter into discussion.  We also need to realize that discussion is more often not about persuading others to act as I see fit all the time, but to learn why things are where they are.  This is especially true when it comes to why the church does things the way it does and teaches what it does.  So many times we come in with our guns half cocked waiting the opportunity to fire instead of coming in with an attitude of understanding.  How we think this will produce anything but ill will and division is beyond me.  When we come in with the predisposition that the other party has intentionally wronged me and personally attacked me, there will be no room to listen or act fairly.

Therein lies the genesis of the problem.  This need for hateful and divisive rhetoric comes from a very dark place in the human soul: that the world must circle around me.  When we feel that it is everyone else's job to do as I want and see things as I see them, it is an obvious tip off that agape is not where I am coming from.  It is clear that my base is looking out for me and not for the other.  We can get so wrapped up in vested interests that we have no option but to feel frustrated and thus launch into hate filled rhetoric, presumptions of another person's malevolence, or personal attacks.  It is easier to deal with someone else's greed than to deal with my own, to decry someone else's inflexibility rather than deal with my own, and to be enraged about someone else's disrespect than to deal with my own.  If we hope to move discussion beyond such things, it will be in taking the focus off of 'me'. When we can look at problems and dilemmas from a vantage point of what is best for us or in what will be helpful for others, it will open our eyes, tone down the rhetoric, and open our ears to another.  When we address the true wrongs that we see, and we must, it always must be from the vantage point of inviting the person doing wrong to conversion of heart.  True conversion never comes from the end of a gun or the business end of a bat.  It does not come from accusations, yelling, taunting, or other un-christian like behavior. It comes from a genuine love and concern for the person, in wishing and wanting good for them.  Will it always work?  No.  But that does not excuse us from doing so.

The bottom line is this: Do unto others as you would have them unto you!  If you would not like your every fault and failing laid out for all the world to see, then don't do it to someone else!  If you do not want presumption of malevolence when you do err, don't do it to someone else!  If you want people to listen and understand, then afford others the same!  If you want people to treat your selflessly, then do the same for them!  If you wish to be the recipient of agape, then be the giver of it as well.  Whether that is within our families, workplaces, schools, parishes, churches, businesses, or governance, if we are true to the faith we claim, then agape must be our starting point for any discussion or correction.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

That explains a lot :)

It is almost midnight on a Sunday evening.  This morning I was dragging my sorry self out of bed hoping that caffeine would somehow put me in a semi-coherent state.  It failed.  After masses I ended up sleeping for 2 hours or so then kinda just lounged about.  So it is midnight and what am I doing?  Canning, cleaning the kitchen, mopping the floors, goofing around on the computer with sleep nowhere in the near future.  Thankfully, Monday is my Saturday and I can sleep in tomorrow, well until my Golden Retriever does the pee-pee dance at about 7:00 AM.

This involves her hopping on the bed, digging her nose into my neck, wagging her tail so hard that the entire room shakes, and not relenting no matter how grouchy I am until she hears the magic words, "Do you need to go outside?" At this she jumps off the bed, jumps back on if I am not up immediately, and heads for the back door as I try not to injure myself going down the three stairs from the house into the garage.  I put her food and water out and go back to bed.  But I digress...

It is entirely possible as I get older that I am reverting back to my teens and twenties in which I was a night owl and despised mornings.  I got to thinking, would it be so bad if the early Sunday Mass were at...I don't know...noon?  I would be much more coherent.  I was debating this morning with myself as to whether strolling in front of an IV drip of caffeine would break the communion fast as it is not entering through my mouth.  Then I remembered that I am a huge baby about needles, so that wouldn't work.  So alas, my dear parishioners, bear with me on those mornings when I am not exactly bright eyed and bushy tailed (actually you all seem to do that one just fine)...and buy me an espresso machine for Christmas..can't stand the stuff, but maybe a shot of that at 6 AM will raise me from the dead!