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!  

Friday, August 19, 2011

Who knew we were that bad?

This morning I read an article www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/aug/18/aliens-destroy-humanity-protect-civilisations#start-of-comments about how when an alien race finally made contact with us, they might just wipe us out so that we don't become some galactic plague.  On the one hand, this is ridiculous beyond words.  On the other hand it shows a disturbing undercurrent in the elite society: man is a plague best contained if not just wiped out.  The Gnostics never left us!

Gnosticism was a belief system that grew up before Christianity and challenged Christianity in the early days.  In fact, gnosticism took on a pseudo-Christian form.  Gnostics believed that the physical world was a cosmic mistake, the workings of a demi-urge (the Old Testament Yahweh) who created the world and all it holds.  This 'god' is capricious and evil.  That he makes man in his own image makes man especially evil.  Man is a soul trapped in a body by this demi-urge. Christ came from the good God (Abba) taking the form of a human being but not actually being a human being to show us a way to escape the clutches of the body and the demi-urge. The creation of new life was seen as a participation in evil.  The gnostics were for abortion, birth control, and anything that prevented new life.  They favored homosexuality as it was sex with no danger of procreation.  They saw suicide as noble.  They held the hoi polloi (the commoners, the riff raff, the great unwashed masses) as deserving of contempt and extinction.  Since they possessed the secret knowledge (gnosis is the Greek word for knowledge), they were able to do that which the hoi polloi could not.  Does any of this sound vaguely familiar to our world today?

Elite society takes a dim view of humanity.  We are a pox on the created order and a burden to the planet in their eyes.  They fantasize about our being wiped out by our own stupidity (see the upcoming movie Contagion for example) or because of our inferiority.  My dad tells me about a friend he had in way upstate New York who thought all who live in the Adirondack State Park should be forced to move out and relocate elsewhere to keep the park in pristine shape.  When my dad asked the man were he planned on moving, the man replied that he didn't...since he got how life should be lived in the park he could stay.  It is the global warming specters who warn us that we have to live simply whilst they who get the enormity of the problem get to keep their multiple mansions, private jets, and limos.  It is the politicians who say we need to tighten our belts while they are living high on our dime.  The examples go on and on.  The point is that there are those in the halls of knowledge and power who simply do not like humanity in the least.

What set Judeo- Christianity apart back in the early church is what sets it apart now; we see creation as good and humanity as the height of that creation.  Humanity has a dignity and possible nobility to it.  What I think so many see is when we lack that nobility.  Consumerism and materialism cheapen us and make us seem as little more than a plague of locust in need of destruction.  It is our ability to be selfless and self-giving that shows the depths of our nobility because it this ability to love that is the 'image and likeness of God' in which we are created. If we ever want to transform our society, it will be through a mutual selflessnes that mimics the love of God and sees within each human person the inherent dignity in which we are created.  It will also allow us to treat the rest of the created order with respect, not seeing our environment as something to be pillaged within an inch of its destruction, but as something to wisely tended as a good steward.

On the wild off chance that intelligent life does find its way to our world, I would like to think they could see our ability to be wise and loving stewards and not just a cosmic blight to be wiped out.  But you might want to go out and get your best ray gun anyway:)

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Providing for Future Generations

I have it heard so many times in the last year or so that the generation in school now will probably be the first generation in some time in American History who will not have it better than their parents.  Increasing debt, both personal and national, paired with slimmer job prospects, skyrocketing education costs, and moral decay are all conspiring against those in our future.  The cause of this comes from the same root: we do not sacrifice anymore. In a society that prefers to be served and not to serve, the "I want it all" attitude prevails.  Unfortunately other people, especially those placed in our care and those who will be placed in their care, will suffer the consequences. This same fact has plagued us in so many ways, in our world and in our church.

The unwillingness to sacrifice comes from a very dark place in the human soul, a place of rebellion against God.  It follows the attitude of Satan, whom in Paradise Lost John Milton writes: "Ego non serviam!" "I will not serve."  Sacrifice is necessary for service, but sacrifice is willing to put the needs of another before oneself.  It is seen in a good parent who willingly gives up pleasures they might enjoy, or even personal necessities, to make sure their child has what they need.  This isn't just a matter of things, but of time and energy as well. Where sacrifice is absent, however, absent also is the love of God.  Without the love of God, our projects are castles of sand built on sand on the shore of the sea. We are finding out in this culture that living for oneself is costing us dearly, not only cheating future generations, but also ending in our own destruction as well.  This society, a society that consumes like locusts to satiate its materialistic longings, is a society that shows all the marks of a society in decline: moral decay, promiscuous licentiousness,  an over emphasis on leisure and sports, the overindulgence of instincts, and a declining emphasis on the spiritual.   Too many people think all is lost so they might as well party till the fall comes.  This is nonsensical. 

The virtue of self-control and sacrifice, also known as temperance, helps us to be wise about the expenditure of our time and our energy and do so with the love of God infusing our efforts.  Thus temperance is where we begin.  How is it that I can use what I have to benefit others?  This is particularly the case in tithing.  In tithing, we make a sacrifice of self for the good others.  WE help out our local parish so that the mission of Christ might be able to come about in its fullness.  So many parishes limit what they do because the monies are not there to do so.  Unfortunately the group that needs it most is the group most often treated minimally: our teenagers.  So many times we reduce our Catholic stuff to maybe an hour for Mass on the weekend and maybe an hour for education ( if the teens are not in Catholic Schools) and presume that this is enough or that even this is a colossal burden. If we were to dedicate just the minimum time for masses every year, we are talking a maximum of 56 hours out of the 8760 hours of a year! (.006%!)  If we dedicate the normal time allotted for youth education (non parochial school students) one would add another 38 hours of the 3760 hours in the year for a grand total of 94 hours a year (1%) for their religious formation. That is what we provide for these youth to grow up to be holy young men and women?!  They will spend more time cleaning up, watching TV, playing video games, on sports, on school, on jobs, on sleeping, on partying.  Youth activities, even education, are commonly held in much lower esteem than school activities and trying to plan for church youth activities is like trying to steer a Cooper Mini through traffic  during the Indianapolis 500.  In case we are wondering why there is such a dearth in priestly and religious vocations....  It is time for some temperance.  That doesn't mean we quit doing these things, just in appropriate moderation that reflect our priorities as Catholics.  If a child never learns sacrifice and having to make hard choices based on good principles and priorities, they will be ill suited for the future.

How do I serve?  How do I encourage service?  How do I embrace sacrifice for others?  The more we get this and act on it, the better suited we are for the future.  We can see what living for yourself has wrought in this society.  We can do better.  Our faith demands better.  Maybe the sacrifice begins with getting our priorities straight.  there is a great saying by CS Lewis, " Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in, aim at earth and you will get neither." We are transient beings whose end is not here and now.  Whether we choose to believe that or not does not change this.Aim eternally and let your priorities reflect that!  If we do not, then not only will we lose eternal life but this life will be reduced to the nonsense and pain of greed and envy so prevalent in our world right now.  Find ways to serve. Find ways to serve as a family.  See the 94 hours as a jumping off point for an entire life and not hoop to jump through to satisfy an unfair God.  If we are to ever get the priests and religious we need, it will start from the nurturing of service.  If Jesus says about Himself that "The Son of Man came to serve and not to be served", can we as His followers profess any less?  Nurture service and its attendant sacrifice and we will be providing well for future generations in a way that stockpiles of wealth can never do.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Tragic! Just Tragic and sickening!

the Pushing of the Next Domino 

This is just tragic on so many levels.  Where is the reporting on these things?! This cannot be allowed to fly under the radar and leave our children open to this vile and life destroying behavior.  Pedophiles destroy young lives every day and this behavior cannot be given credence or legitimacy.  that talks would even being seriously considered to  drop pedophilia from the DSM is unthinkable and will lead to a very dark place for our children and their futures.  This cannot stand.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A not so subtle challenge

It is easy, I know, to critique something we see and either believe or know to be wrong.  Within the Church this is especially true.  We can see many disturbing developments: fewer and fewer go to Mass every Sunday and Holy Day, even fewer go to Confession on any kind of regular basis, most Catholics know precious little about the content and purpose of our faith, fewer of our young are retaining their faith, we have nowhere the number or quality of clergy we need, the religious life is in wholesale free fall in many religious communities, more parishes are closing, fewer baptisms, fewer marriages, more Catholics have co-opted worldly sexual mores, and the list goes on and on.  There is no shortage of things to bemoan.

 It is worth considering that most of this decline is in the 1st world nations (North America, Australia, Europe) (cf. cara.georgetown.edu/CARAServices/requestedchurchstats.html) while the opposite seems to be true for Africa, Asia, and to some degree Central and South America.  Were the culprit Vatican II, as so many want to blame, one would expect an across the board free fall.  This is not the case.  Something is distinctly different in the 1st world that is affecting the Church profoundly.  As the overwhelming amount of both laity and clergy in the 1st world are from the 1st world, it is only natural that the clergy of the West would come into seminaries, houses of formations, and religious orders influenced by the culture in which they grew.  It has become a downward spiral.  So here is my theory...for what it is worth...and perhaps some ways to fix it.

I am only speaking to the church where the decline is in effect.  I am a child of the 70's and 80's.  I know well the constant message that is continually and feverishly pumped into us: live for yourself!  Culturally, we are a rather narcissistic lot. We judge the efficacy of anything by what pleasure it gives me or how I feel about something.  Even when we are altruistic, it is because we get a good feeling about ourselves. We are told that life's goal is about comfort, pleasure, and ease. We are used to being so stimulated by outside sources on  an ongoing basis, that if outside stimuli fail , we deem whatever we experience as a failure.  We become so focused on the individual that we forget that we actually are a social being and that our actions bear directly upon the lives of others.  One who lives for themselves will rarely want or believe they need an outside force pressing upon them to restrain themselves, be it government, church, or God.  The first real culprit to the decline of Mass attendance is far too many of us simply do not feel we need God or do not want any institution telling us that there is more to life than ease, pleasure, and comfort.  We will turn to religion if the world fails to provide, but more often than not, the turning towards quickly becomes a turning away when the individual becomes challenged towards a permanent and profound change of heart.  Witness what happened after 9/11.

In our self-centeredness we prefer to be served and not to serve.  So many who do come to church have this mentality; I am there to be entertained, to have an emotional response, or to feel accepted no matter how I wish to live. We want all kinds of ministries and programs but want someone else to volunteer.  Trying to get volunteers in an average parish is a maddening exercise!  God and faith, in this mindset,  are supposed to enable behavior and not challenge it.  So many times I see people bemoan that priests don't regularly preach about contraception, homosexuality, and such.  I willing to bet that these are people who are not themselves struggling with such things.  I have noticed what happens when someone touches a spiritual spot they don't want challenged, the reaction is dismissive and derisive!  Normally people are happy to hear homilies or sermons that chastise someone else's behavior and leaves them feeling comfortable about their own lives.  This is human nature.

We loathe inconvenience in this culture. Everything needs to be quick, effortless, and satisfying.  It is why politics has become a collection of skin deep sound bytes.  It is why people like the quick to learn slogans (advertisers and politicians count on this).  It is why our diets have gone to pot and obesity is on the rise. We want the things we feel of lesser value to be quick so that we may return back to the ease, comfort, and pleasure we so crave.  This is very evident in Mass.  Last Pentecost, I had a gentleman walk into church, as I was greeting people, who looked me right in the eye and directed me to hurry this thing up. I thought, well, this guy ( not a parishioner of mine, thanks be to God) had picked the wrong feast, the wrong parish, and the wrong pastor to tell that to.  We priest often joke to ourselves that we might just as well put a drive through on the side of the church.  I was interning in a parish, frequented by tourists, were I saw people in very expensive cars drive up 40 minutes late, get out of their car (leaving it running), getting into the Communion line, receiving Communion, and walking directly back out again and return to their cars and drive away smiling!  They never even hit a pew.  I see the dismal response we often get in most parishes for adult education, use of the Perpetual Adoration Chapel, weekday Masses, Holy Day masses, youth activities, and such.  I know people who will avoid going to a particular Mass because that Mass has the Corpus Christi Procession afterward or some other special thing (really seen in attitudes about Easter Vigil) and "well, that just goes beyond that 1hour (including travel time), Father, that I have allotted to Mass this week."  Now, I have been blessed to be in a parish where these attitudes are quickly changing and even were challenged well before I got here.  But can we believe for a moment a parish where these attitudes prevail will provoke vocations, conversions, or true worship?   If we treated sports like we treat religion, the major leagues of every sport would fold tomorrow!   But sports are fun, though...much more fun that religion!

This leads to a deepening in the downward spiral in that so many priests cater to this attitude, many times choosing a safe side to be on.  It becomes a matter of which group happens to agree with me or which group will give the lesser grief.  As these clerics all sat out in the pews at one time, they have seen their pastors do this, have seen the various sides compete for attention in the pews and then in the seminary, and then have to preach  to this same lot as a priest.  They have seen priest maligned regularly for saying unpopular things and see priests regularly vilified in the media.  I know so many young priest who came out of the gate on fire for our faith only to watch them get bashed about by parishioners who endlessly critique everything about them.  It is sad that those who support the faith are not nearly as vocal as the critics of the faith.  The temptation to cater what is popular is overwhelming.  People forget that every cleric is a human being subject to the same temptations as anyone else and that the temptation towards ease (or at least less grief) can be a powerful thing.  I know this because there are days I struggle with this. 

We priests also know that most young men and their parents would sooner send themselves or their son to a fiery death rather than see them enter the seminary, let alone get ordained.  I have joked that the quickest way to get a teenage or twenty something young man to flee from Church is to ask them if they have ever considered priesthood.  Actually it is true.  I have seen parents act as if I just asked their son to kill puppies for a living by mentioning priesthood as a possibility.  When I re-entered the seminary, many of my friends and family had tried to dissuade me from the seminary because they thought the priesthood was beneath me and a waste of my talents.  Think we'll get good strong vocations in that atmosphere?  The bottom line is we cannot offer nothing but critiques and expect that anything will change.

Maybe the best place to start about what to do with our faith is to ask the questions: What do I know, actually know, about the Catholic Faith?  Where is it I need to change or grow?  Where have I resented being told to change?  What is it that I positively contribute to helping the Church continue the mission of Jesus Christ?  Is my faith too much about me and my personal likes?  Am I willing to take wholly unpopular stances in order to do what is right?  How do I serve?  What is my attitude about worship of God?  Do I make a profound effort?  Am I willing to endure hardship, inconvenience, sacrifice, or suffering in order to what is right?  Conversion of a people starts with one individual conversion at a time.  The sooner we learn that God is not to be at our convenience, something that has to fit into our schedule full of more important things, the sooner we will see a wholesale turnaround in our parishes in this country.  Nothing changes positively by sitting on the sidelines complaining.  Worried about access to the sacraments?  When was the last time you spoke to a young man about priesthood or supported a young man who has thought about such things?  Have you ever spoke to your children about such things or do the only time they hear about a priest is when someone complains about what a dirt rotten so and so Father is!? These are just a few suggestions, hopefully you are getting the point.

We live in a culture lost in a desert of unfulfillment...a people who are finding the emptiness of living for comfort, pleasure, and ease.  WE need to get our act together.  The grace of God is there in great abundance, but we have to have to get to the point where it is not just about me and what makes me feel good.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Sir, step away from the club!

Earlier today as I was surfing the Catholic web, I came across a site about priests and bishops who take admirable and courageous stands.  The lead was about a Bishop who attended a Mass outside of his diocese where the celebrant was not exactly the model of orthopraxy.  I looked at the comments offered and was shocked by the incredible lack of respect and the harsh judgment leveled not just at the offending priest, but the particular bishop, Vatican II, and other peoples.  It isn't a first.  Over the years I have noticed in the Catholic blogosphere a tendency to play a game I call "Pin the heresy on the cleric/pundit".  I have seen rivalries come about with each side's loyal minions rushing to the defense of their fearless leader.  It has gotten ugly.  I have seen it in parishes and dioceses as well.  I have seen it become the mainstay of some publications.  I cannot wag a finger, though, I have picked up more than a few mallets to play a rousing game of "Whack-a-cleric" myself.  But about a year back, it started to stir within me just how wrong this was.  There is a huge difference between being the Persona Christi and trying to be His replacement.

It is a fact that humanity in all its glory, in all its ugliness, in all its benevolence, and in all its cruelty can be found in every aspect of the Church on earth.  Why?  Because human beings populate the Church on earth (aka the Church militant).  As God  chose that His priests would be drawn not from among the angelic choirs but among human beings, there will be sin and foolishness co-mingled with holiness and sanctity.  Our call as Catholics is to correct charitably the offenses and cheer the sanctity.  I noticed on the aforementioned website that those who pummeled this particular bishop and priest did not leave positive comments in the places where other priests and bishops had taken heroic stands.  Yes, there are clerics and laypeople who do bad things, who manipulate the Gospel to another end, and who are con artists.  When we answer such behavior with a reaction more akin to a shark reacting to blood as opposed to a nurse responding to the same blood, we not only fail to address what needs to be said, but only make the situation worse. 

It make me sad when I see the "Oh, there's Michale Voris...hey, it's Mark Shea...Woah, there is Bishop so-and-so...Yee Haw...lookee..here come Fr so-and-so...let's string 'em up, get out the clubs, and have ourselves a Catholic pinata party!"  We can all sing a rousing rendition of "They'll know we are Christians by our clubs, by our clubs, yes they will know we are Christians by our clubs!"  Oh wait, that is not how the song goes?  My mistake!  That is the problem.  While we pummel each other and refuse to hesitate to strike our fellow Catholics, think about how that looks from the outside.  For those who hate us, all it does it give them ammunition for dismissing us as hypocrites.  For those searching, it makes them wonder why they would want to be part of such a group. It only deepens scandal.

I would invite all the various devotees and their fearless leaders in this hodgepodge of critique and counter-critique to do a lectio divina with any of the following: I & II Corinthians, The Farewell Discourse in the Gospel of John (ch 14-17), the Sermon of the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7), each of the Eucharistic Prayers, or the Letters of Pope St. Clement to the Corinthians.  In essence, spiritually put the club down, step away from it, take a deep breath, and remember, while you are not personally responsible for that guy or gal, you very much are responsible for what you do!  It is one thing to defend the faith, but any defense is based on a presentation of truth (see the writings of St Justin Martyr) rather than a personal attack on those for whom Jesus prayed, "Father may they be one, as you and I are one." (John 17:22)

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Want to or Have to? Preparing for Mass.

Once again it is the weekend.  Soon Catholic Church parking lots will fill with their members filing in for Mass.  There will be basically two groups getting out of the cars, those who feel forced by law or others to go and those who want to be there.  It has been my own experience that what one brings to Mass will be what one takes from Mass.

Over the course of my years as a priest, I have heard over and over again, "Father, I get nothing out of Mass."  That can mean many things.  Maybe it means that the priest is either uninteresting in either content or style, the music is bad or not to the taste of the hearer, or that I came in expecting nothing and that is exactly what I got.  My retort to this objection is, "Well, what did you bring in?"  We use the word Eucharist as a synonym for Mass.  The word Eucharist comes from the Greek word for thanksgiving.  It is the understanding of the Church that one comes into Mass with a heart full of thanksgiving to God for His many blessings that have been poured out upon the person that week. In the course of the Mass we bring up wine and unleavened bread, two items that were a part of the thanksgiving sacrifice of the Old Testament, as a thanksgiving for God's blessings.  The collection is normally taken up also as a sign of our thanksgiving to God for all the blessings we regularly receive. The simple question for each of us is, "Am I coming into this Mass with a heart full of thanksgiving for all that God has done for me and for us in this last week?"  seeing as how none of us merit God's blessings and grace, to enter Mass without thanksgiving is to show up not only empty handed but with an attitude of " You better give me something now". God owes us nothing but out of His great love provides everything.  That needs to be abundantly clear when we come in.  That is why coming early to prepare is so important; it gives us the opportunity to pray and name that for which we are thankful and acknowledge where we have been neglectful or hostile to God or to those around us.

This leads back to the question I ask, "What are you bringing in?"  The Eucharist is not merely a thanksgiving offering, but it is a peace/sin offering as well.  In the Old Testament, when a peace/sin offering was brought, it was not as if it was thrown in toto onto the altar and burned, only certain parts made it to the altar (blood, fat, some organs, for example), part of the flesh had to be eaten by the person who brought the sacrifice so as to unite him to the sacrifice and thus receive the benefit of the sacrifice, forgiveness.  The animal had committed no sin, the person bringing it had.  That animal suffered what was due to the person, so the two had to be mixed (so to speak), so that they were one.  Christ Jesus had no sin, yet was offered as a peace/sin offering for us.  This is why Jesus says in John 6: Unless you my flesh and drink my blood you have no life within you.  Think of that the next time you ready yourself for Mass!! So many times we get nothing out of Mass because what we bring is a blasphemous thanksgiving offering: our sin instead of our thanksgiving or our sin mixed with our thanksgiving. We cannot give God a thanksgiving offering of rotten fruit or good fruit mixed with rotten fruit!  Part of rightful participation in the Eucharist is a humble evaluation of our actions, words, thought, and such with one question in mind: What Eucharistic offering am I bringing?  Some of our failings severe our relationship with God(mortal sin...yes we still believe that one) and require the Sacrament of Reconciliation (lying, gossip, theft, sex outside of marriage, to name a few) to purify our thanksgiving offering.  Some sin (venial sin) is forgiven in the context of Mass (penitential rite) so that when we bring our thanksgiving sacrifice we may make a pleasing sacrifice to God.  That sacrifice is our lives symbolized by the bread, the wine, and the tithe.

Mass is not 'fire insurance' or a 'get out hell free card'.  If we feel we have to go to Mass or else, then there needs to be a bit of work done.  We cannot control the homily or the music, but we can control our attitude.  We do control the offering we bring.  If we want to get something out of Mass then being watchful of what we bring in will make a huge difference.  The person that wants to be there understands this.  So this weekend, bring in a suitable offering of thanksgiving, if you need to go to Confession, do so...let your offering flow from a heart full of thanksgiving and not be soured by a heart of entitlement.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Same Base, Different Building: Priest, Husband, Dad

18 years ago next week, I re-entered the seminary.  I say re-enter because I had left twice before, the 2nd of those two times I left in such anger that I swore I would never enter the grounds of a seminary in my life again.  I really need to watch my use of absolutes.  My re-entrance was less than spectacular; an act of reluctance and hoping once and for all that someone would tell me that priesthood was not my calling.  After a semester in which I piled on damage upon myself, I went home for Christmas break and ran into my ex who informed me that we could pick up where we left off; she was a wonderful young lady whom I could see myself marrying and fathering a large family with.  When I left for St Louis again it was to pack up and come back to New York.  I knew in my heart that what I was doing was selfish and coming from a reluctance to commit.  But at the heart of that reluctance was a very deep question: Why would I feel so drawn to marriage and family life yet also feel called to the priesthood?  They seemed mutually exclusive terms.  The retreat was immediately after Christmas break and out of my generosity to God (I'm kidding) I gave Him the retreat as an opportunity to convince me to stay.  Archbishop Harry Flynn (then the Bishop of Lake Charles [or was it Lafayette] in Louisiana..later Archbishop of St Paul) gave the retreat.  He was a former seminary rector of Mt St Mary in Emmitsburg MD.  He was awesome.  During one of his conferences, he offered opportunity for 1 on 1 meetings.  I took him up on the invitation.  My question was simple:  How could I feel such a draw to the priesthood and marriage at the same time?  His answer was simple and has taken me years to fully understand: "If you would not make a good husband or dad, you will not make a good priest.  It is the same foundation, different building." This response, by the way, would give birth to what would become Camp Maccabee.

Archbishop Flynn was absolutely right.  I have come to appreciate that in greater ways as I continue to mature in the priesthood of Jesus Christ.  The same foundation consists of (and this is not an exhaustive list) the following: an ability to commit to something other than oneself, the courage to stand up for what is good and right and protect against what is not, the ability to stand one's ground, the ability to put those placed in your care first, the willingness to sacrifice and even suffer for those placed in your care, the ability to be a man of God and a man of prayer, the ability to provide what is good, and the willingness to give example by word and deed.  Although these traits are not exclusively masculine, no man can be a man at all without them.

In marriage preparation, I remind couples that when they commit themselves to each other in marriage, they are from that point putting the other first.  Jobs and careers, money and power, prestige and reputation, friends, extended family and even children come after their commitment to each other.  That primary bond influences and enriches all their other relationships.  After God, the relationship of their mutual bond as husband and wife comes first.  For my life as a priest, the same is true.  After God, my full commitment and duty is bound to the People of God and the Catholic Church.  My commitment to them must come first at all times.  As much as a husband and wife are called to profoundly self give for the sake of the other, so I as a priest am called to give myself totally for the good of the Church.  As a priest that means that ministry always comes first.  As a pastor, that means those placed under my pastoral care have the full right to attention, charity, sacramental ministry, and instruction.  That extends to other duties to which I am assigned.  It is as bad for a priest to see pastoral ministry as a burden as it is for a husband to see his wife as 'the old ball and chain'.  A man who lives for himself and his needs is no more suited for priesthood than he is for marriage!

There is a reason why parishioners call their priests 'Father'.  It is a term acknowledging the responsibility that this man has within the parish.  A good father provides what is good and true for their children.  He protects them from what would harm them.  He realizes that he is not his child's buddy, but his dad, which means he will have to challenge behavior, correct behavior, but provide an righteous alternative as well.  A good dad is interested in making his children into good men and women who will have a solid foundation  for life.  He looks out for the spiritual, physical, and mental well being.  He provides, with his wife, a rock solid foundation for his children to grow into outstanding adults.  everything I have just said about a dad applies fully to a priest.  I have to be as vigilant and wise with my parishioners as a good dad is with his children.  Both of us get the ability to do this from the same source: the grace of God. This grace gives us the base to be the Person of Christ within our respective calls.  Neither a dad nor a priest is called to be an overlord; children are not the dad's serfs, parishioners are not the pastor's serfs.

There is such a need for both good husbands/dads and good priests.  In our commitment phobic society, it is getting harder to find either.  A lack of commitment is usually a very nasty sign of a present reality within oneself, the trait of selfishness.  For men (or women for that matter as well) selfishness shows a profound lack of maturity.  Boys are selfish...men are not.  Men look beyond themselves to the need of others...boys don't.  There are a lot of a lot of chronologically older men who are still boys.  They cannot commit and will abandon the commitments they make when they become challenging or difficult.  We need better.

Camp Maccabee was formed to address these things while the young men were still young.  It was formed to give them the tools to help guide them from the destructive selfishness of boyhood into the selfless bravery of manhood.  We speak of honor, respect, self-control, and holiness as the keys for a firm foundation regardless of the particular vocation to which they may be called.  Why?  The same foundation is needed either way.  Those four traits must be driven into young men by their parents as well...especially sons from their dads.  If we are to look into the future with any sense of hope about the state of the Church and the state of the married life, it will come from our cooperating with the grace of God and helping our young men to be men...not boys of this world but men of God.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Danger of "I'm owed"

Over the last few days two images have been in my mind.  One is the image of the riots and looting going on in the UK and the violence that has broken out in there and other areas of Europe.  I see a lot of young people running in and out of stores and institutions they broke into, standing around things they are burning, and attacking police officers.  Maybe pictures are not as telling as they should be, but these young people seem to be well fed and in able enough condition.  The riots are over people's displeasure at the government, the economy, and fear over what tomorrow brings.  Some use such times to pull together, share the sacrifice, and hunker down for hard times.  Others, like these thugs, use the same times to pillage.  I saw an article in the UK Telegraph calling these youth basically spoiled amoral brats who feel they are owed for merely existing.  When the "I'm owed' generation gets inconvenienced, watch out.  While I cannot feel pity for their plight, I do feel a sadness for the mentality that allows such actions to exists.

The other images that play in my head are the horrific scenes in the Horn of Africa where famine has once again set in.  Fed by years of drought, inept and corrupt governance (or lack of any at all), and other factors, famine is once again gripping a people who back in the 1980's suffered horribly as well.  The stories of people walking for months and days just to find sustenance and safety are heart breaking.  The pictures of near dead children, dehydrated infants, and anemic looking adults should soften even the hardest heart.  Of course, aid will come (and hopefully not be scooped up by corrupt war lords and other officials), but for many it will come too late.

My idea was to give those in the UK and other assorted areas where there is fighting to stay in a comfortable lifestyle a little reality check.  I though it would be something to start posting pictures of those suffering in the Horn of Africa on every flat surface large enough to hold it with a simple message: "Do you really have it that bad?"  I doubt it will work, because the self centered lack empathy.

That is the big danger of "I am owed."  When the best a person can do is become so fixated on what they want, they will be oblivious to the needs of others and the harm they are inflicting.  It displays itself in so many ways: it is in the CEO who lays off people while taking millions in bonuses, it is the thug who destroys another person's property for the sake of destroying it, it is the war lord who hoards relief meant for his people, it is the person who strips the dignity of another person, reducing them to a sex toy; it is the bully who builds his or her personality by showing just how cruel they can be to the weak, it is the demagogue who whips up the masses with divisive rhetoric just so he or she can accrue power.  It is the driving force in our society: I am owed_________.  Money, power, a car, a home, a job, popularity, fame, the newest electronic gadget, and the list goes on and on.  But why?  Because the person worked hard and saved?  Because the person in a genuinely good person?  Because the person  has good ideas that will benefit those around them?  Sometimes.  More often than not, though, the reason I am owed is just because I happen to breath in and breath out.  If we want to take a good look at what 'I am owed' has wrought, take a good look at the troubles this world has.

The Corporal works of mercy are:
  • To feed the hungry;
  • To give drink to the thirsty;
  • To clothe the naked;
  • To harbor the homeless;
  • To visit the sick;
  • To ransom the captive;
  • To bury the dead.
The spiritual works of mercy are:
  • To instruct the ignorant;
  • To counsel the doubtful;
  • To admonish sinners;
  • To bear wrongs patiently;
  • To forgive offenses willingly;
  • To comfort the afflicted;
  • To pray for the living and the dead. 
These are not exhaustive lists of how to watch out for each other, but they are some of the main ones.  AS I have said to my own parishioners, you'll notice that the phrase 'who deserve it' does not appear anywhere in the above listing.  Getting away from the 'I am owed' mentality and its inherent dangers means incorporating the needs of others as a focus in our lives.

Things are going to get rough as the economy gets tougher and more precarious.  WE can either act like thugs and riot taking what we believed we are owed or we can pull together and watch out for one another; only one of these is compatible with our faith.  All of us would do very well to leave behind "I'm owed" behind. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The value of friends

Over the last few days, after spending a great deal of time mentally and spiritually unpacking the bomb dropped last weekend about the aforementioned young priest who is taking a leave of absence, it occurred to me that any priest could walk down a similar road without even noticing it until it is too late.  I got to thinking about what has kept me from walking down that road.  I the last post I stated the three things every priest needs to help keep a sense of opprobrium about himself (Spiritual Director, faithfully praying the Liturgy of the Hours, Brother Priests as friends).  I also started thinking about other things that have help keep me from collapsing in on myself over the years, especially around 2002 when things got very difficult because of the scandals surrounding the priesthood in this country.  here are a few.

It would be idiotic to believe that any of my stability would be present without the grace and love of God.  Although my appreciation of the depth of the Father-Son relationship I am called to have with God is still yet unfolding in greater clarity; I have found the solace of hope that comes from a deep set belief that our Father actually does want what is in our best interest.  When things have gotten especially difficult or confusing, I knew that I had to hold on for dear life to faith and to the relationship I have with God.  Without that relationship, I simply would not be able to operate in any sensible fashion.  It is with great anticipation that I look forward to watching that relationship continue to unfold and deepen.

I have also had the benefit of having great mentors.  Over the years, I know I have been blessed to have priests who took a personal interest in me and helped me along, even when I was not aware of it, and set a high standard for me to follow.  I think of Fr Fred Barnett who opened the door to me to re-enter the seminary and became my champion when things got difficult.  I think of Fr Jim Fuemmler and Fr Manus Daly who stood by me when things did not look like I would make it back in.  I think of Msgr. Don Lammers, my pastor at my first assignment, who encouraged me to use the gifts God gave me and let me get my sea legs while remaining just close enough in case I fell.  I think of the Spiritual Directors I have been blessed to have over the years who guided me along and challenged me when necessary and walked with me (sometimes carrying me) when life got difficult.  All of these men made  and continue to make me a better priest and I like to think that Fr Barnett prays earnestly for me from heaven.

I have also been blessed to have wonderful friends who have repeatedly opened their homes and lives to me, treating me as family.  Many took me in as I went through internship and seminary and were of great support.  Many have been parishioners in my assignments over the years who gave me a place to relax and get away from the day to day of being a pastor.  They have watched out for me, challenged me, prayed with me and for me, and have been there through illnesses, deaths, and most especially  helping me stay steady during the scandals.  I have enjoyed the outings, dinners, and chatting.  I think of nights like tonight where we had dinner and just shot the breeze in the back yard talking about all kinds of things.

I think also of the array of priest friends I have.  Some of these have been my confidants and have allowed me to do the same for them.  Others have extended their friendship and made themselves available for me to tap into their wisdom and insight.  Some of them have been just there for us to laugh and blow a little appropriate steam.  They have been invaluable over the years and of great comfort and spiritual sustenance.  They keep me honest and challenge to me a better person, a better priest, a better man, and a better Catholic.

As I sat with the young men of our diocese who are in the seminary, I thought that I could wish for them nothing greater that having this wide array of support and deep and abiding relationships.  I pray that they have and answer the call of grace for a deep relationship with God.  I pray that they are able to find wise mentors who will take a interest in their well-being.  I pray that they have such a wonderful array of lay and priest friends as I have been blessed with over the years.  IF any of those seminarians read this, cultivate such relationships; they will your rock.  To those who read this who fit into those above groups (and you know who you are), I offer a deep and heartfelt thank you.  May God bless you and I hope for the continual opportunities to return the favor of your friendships.  I am very blessed indeed because of the numerous people God has placed in my life and in the numerous people in whose lives I have been placed.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Requiem for A Brother Priest

Yesterday I got the gut wrenching news that a brother priest who had been ordained for only 5 years is taking a year leave of absence for further discernment. I have watched the reaction of others which have spanned from a disappointed sigh to outright anger. I have been bouncing all over the place myself.  I'll be fine.  I deeply love being a priest and am solid in my decision.  Part of that would be based on something that happened the better part of 20 years ago.

In the early 1990's the Diocese of Belleville Illinois was rocked by scandals involving priests who were molesting children and who were unfaithful to their promise of celibacy in other ways.  Kenrick Seminary brought in a counselor from St. Luke's in Baltimore to talk about it and hopefully head off the group of seminarians I was  a part of from following down the tragic path these priests had (btw, the young man I am talking about IS NOT part of any scandal of any kind).  I remember very clearly what this priest had said that were warning signs that a priest is in some kind of trouble and in danger of leaving.  I resolved then and there to make sure all three were constantly in check.  I imagined that no priest got ordained believing he would end up leaving or do something scandalous.  I present those three today and if you are a priest please attend to them.  If you are a lay person, ask your pastor or associate whether they are doing these things.
1) Have a spiritual director.  Spiritual directors have a wonderful way of keeping a priest humble and honest.  I have been deeply grateful to my spiritual director (15 years this year) who has helped me through tough spots, kicked my tuckus when I needed it, and been there to listen.  A spiritual director helps keep a priests honest.
2) Have priests friends.  We priests are supposed to form a brotherhood of mutual support.  This support is not subject to ideological lines, age, seminaries attended, and such. We know the pratfalls, temptations, and trials we go through and can be of great help to each other and can help in holding each other accountable.  It is not that laity cannot understand or be our friends, but we know we can't say everything to a lay person that we can say to each other.
3) Pray the Liturgy of the Hours faithfully.  Along with Mass, it is the way we offer up prayer for our parishioners everyday.  It reminds us that we do not live for ourselves but are called to be the Persona Christi in the world in which we live.  They remind us that the spiritual life of the priest is the firm foundation of which all is set.  Praying the Liturgy should be a thoughtful action and not something rushed through to get it over with.

Whether the young priest I started about comes back is to be seen.  But the time for preventative medicine is gone.  I know he was told these things in the follow up to ordination that the diocese does with our new priests.  However, we need to be of mutual and sometimes challenging support to one another.  So ask.  It may not be appreciated, but ask anyway. 

To my brother priests: we must not allow a guy to isolate themselves.  I know it is easy to get so wrapped up in the assignments to which we given that we might not just notice that something is amiss until it is too late.  It would be easier to assume what went wrong, but if we are left to assume, it means when we needed to reach out, we didn't.  WE are a brotherhood...not a collection of co-workers.  We must be of mutual support to one another.  Let us lift this young man and other priests we know who have left the ministry up in prayer.  Let us be more watchful for each other, that we are not left to mourn again the lost of a priest to leaves, to scandals, or to apathy.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Feast of the Transfiguration

Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration.  AS I was celebrating Mass this afternoon, the words of Sacred Scripture, both in the 2nd reading and gospel, recount the words of the Father directed to Peter, James, and John: This is my Beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him.  By extension, those words are extended to all of those who call themselves Christians...each one of us.  The Father had to tell these apostles this because they were not listening to Jesus who repeatedly told them what Kingdom He had come to establish.  They were looking for a kingdom of this world in which they would hold privileged positions of power.  Jesus had told them this was not what He came to do.  They were on their way to Jerusalem, sure that finally now would come the establishment of a new Davidic earthly kingdom.  When seeing the Transfigured Christ with Moses and Elijah, they saw a way to back their plans.  The booths of which Peter speaks are to put Jesus on display to convince others of His divinity and right to start this new world order.  The Father makes it clear that such is not His will.

We cannot wag our fingers too hard at the disciples though.  All too often, we busy the vast majority of our time, energy, and resources building kingdoms for ourselves here and now.  We look for ease, wealth, influence, and reputation here and now as if this is all that there is.  We build kingdoms bound for destruction, for our death will wipe out any tenuous hold we had on any of these kingdoms. What then?  Will we face a true kingdom that we have largely ignored and only mildly prepared for?  When we limit our faith to 45-60 minutes a Sunday (when there is nothing else better to do, it is the right time, it is the right priest) and think that this is all we need to do..then perhaps it is time to listen to Jesus.  He is not looking for a relationship of convenience, but for a lifelong eternal relationship which influences everything we are.  Too many times we see religion as a set of data to be memorized and not as a template for a relationship with God and with one another.  WE can get so wrapped up in what we want that we bypass what we need. It is easy to do.

Several years back, I came upon the song "I Surrender All" by Clay Crosse.  When I first heard it, it hit me hard.  Like everyone else, I struggle with building an earthly kingdom and forgetting about God.  I was reminded that I cannot focus on my kingdom and still expect the Kingdom of heaven.  My time in this life tells God very clear whose kingdom I am concerned about and to which kingdom I dedicate myself.  When I focus on my kingdom, I essentially tell God that my kingdom is better.  If I am to expect any true share in heaven, my actions, attitudes, priorities, and focus had better speak to this.  Jesus gave us a way of life.  He did not do this because He wanted to simply give just another option to follow if it suits us.  He did it because this way of life says clearly that I do wish to enter into that eternal relationship with God.  So, are you ready to surrender all?  Are you willing to stop building a temporary kingdom and start living for a lasting one?  Can you hear and follow the words of the Father, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.  Listen to Him!"?  It is hard to do, I know this.  I struggle with it every day.  However, it is soemthing God gives us the grace and ability to do.

The Grand Illusion

As I progress through Fr Richards book, he talks about the idea of control.  Our want for control is one of the strongest drives we possess.  Want for control shows itself in the Garden where Satan tempts Adam and Eve with the idea that eating from the tree will give them control to decide their destiny and morality.  If we look at our society and our world, we can see what our want for control leads to: there is no crime, no war, no sin that does not flow from the the want to establish control over others and take for ourselves what is theirs.  The 7 deadly sins, born of the power train of control (pride) all are either direct or indirect attacks on others in which we wish to control , posses, and hoard and either prevent or strip away what another has.  For all the over reaching for control (and the frustration that comes from finding out just how little we control), which we are told will make us happy, there is an complete lack or want for the one type of control that is not only good and virtuous, but in fact does make us happier and more content: self-control.

I think that the grand illusion is this: that we have the ability to control another person.  The best that we can do is intimidate, suppress, or so degrade that the person simple does not fight back.  The control of others is a game of manipulation which requires a foundation of condescension.  In my pride, I have to believe that what I want and need is superior to the needs of others.  Control of others does not seek to instruct or illuminate and leave the option to them to choose; it beats the other into submission or at least silence.  The reader will note that in describing control of others that there is no mention of virtue or openness to charity.  This is because control of others is devoid of such things.  The best that we can do is purpose truth and try to influence the right choice, not because it benefits me, but because it benefits another.

The place where we all can control is what flows from our hearts, minds, souls, mouths, and acts.  It is here that we need to exhibit control for the sake of being better people and better Catholics.  It is the lack of self control in our own lives that will often drive us to seek control in others.  I would presume this to be so because it is easier to try to control another (although fruitless) than it is to control ourselves.  Then, how do we control ourselves?  It starts with humility.

Humility receives such a bad wrap in our country.  It is wrongly believed that humility is self-deprecation.  It is not.  Humility is honesty about who we are. who God is, and who we are before God.  Humility allows me to look into myself and see both my strengths and weaknesses.  Humility allows  me to see that I did create myself, breathe life into my body, give myself the talents, gifts, and charisms I have (although I do have the task to develop them to the purpose for which they were given).  Humility allows me to see that these all were given to me by God with an intent in mind.  It reminds me that God gives me the grace to develop these gifts so as to build up others.  It reminds where I have failed in such things and am in need in forgiveness before I can progress any further.  Sometimes setting things right will be easy, but more often than not it will be very hard.

To give an example:  for 20 years I ate much and exercised little.  In that time, I put on 145 pounds (going from 165 to 310).  I knew that this was a problem but allowed sloth and gluttony to be my way of life anyway. Now to reign in that wages of sin I am permanently changing my attitude towards diet and exercise.  It meant I had to radically change my diet.  It means that despite the fact that I despise my elliptical and bowflex, I have to use them for more than collecting dust.  It will take a lot of effort and self-control.  God gives me the grace to do so...I have to use it.  I was happy yesterday when I stepped on the scale and now see my weight under 300...it took self-control and effort. If I am to progress further, it will mean much more of the same.  This is just one example and I am sure each of us could give a place where we have let self-control fall by the wayside.

Fr Richards make a great point in saying that forward progress starts with humility and confession.  It is hard to move forward when we are carrying the weight of the past.  God wants to heal our ill advised desire to control everything but ourselves.  He wants to take that meddlesome burden from us.  He wants to replace it with much lighter yoke of love and humility in its place.  We, each one of us, must decide whether we will allow Him to do so or not.  WE can either keeping trying for the grand illusion or want what it true and bears positive fruit.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Imagine my surprise

I am more than a little surprised that I am actually liking this new vegetarian diet and really do not see (right now at least) stopping in a year.  I have noticed it takes far less to fill me.  I am not hungry so much.  The variety is endless and quite tasty.  A good friend, Val McGrath, who is supporting me in this and got several cookbooks that are quite full of great recipes:   I have been looking at recipes in these books and Val has cooked some of them for me and all of it has been very good.  I t looks like this with meld well with my love of cooking and might well mean the vegheads eat well at Camp Maccabee next year.  I am already feeling better and have more energy...that might also come from actually sleeping 8 hours a night too :)  So far ,so good.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Still unfolding

When I started this blog, it wasn't to have you witness what might well be a lifetime conversion.  After reading that passage from Fr. Richards book "Be a Man", I am still dwelling on that simple phrase "Father I am your son!"  I have been feeling a bit like the prodigal son a bit, but I would suppose that looking at what was missing and the effect it had can be daunting and haunting.  I have noticed one immediate change.  I don't mind praying.  Troubling to hear a priest say that praying was hard, I would suppose.  It was.  It was a chore.  If prayer is communication with God and God was something distant and at best something I theorhetically should have a relationship with, praying was like shooting words into the ether hoping they landed somewhere.  Thankfully, for some reason, this was not my experience in Mass.  But it showed in other ways: my reticence to pray the Liturgy of the Hours (especially on my day off), my woeful underuse of the Adoration Chapel my wonderful parish has, my indifference to the rosary, and just how I would generally bounce from one event to the next event without lifting most of those events to God.  I know it might be somewhat disturbing for my friends and parishioners to read these things, but I also know I am not the only one who is called to this change of heart.

Upon reflection this morning in the chapel before the Blessed Sacrament, it occurred to me that if A) I am a son of the Father, B) Jesus Christ is THE Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, then C) I am a brother of Christ, and D) since all the baptized can make that claim, every baptized person is in full reality my brother and sister.  As if unpacking being a son of the Father wasn't enough, this has flooded in more.  I am still sorting this one out, but I know it is going to have ramifications on the kind of friend, sibling, son, pastor, and brother priest I am call to be.

IN my prayer this morning it also occurred to me that once my eyes have been opened to these facts, there is no going back.  I am not saying I was a bad person before.  But there are so many places where I can stand to allow the grace of God to strengthen me and make me better.  Furthermore, I don't want to go back.  Realizing that I am a son of the Father is changing so much within me; especially things I have struggled with for years.  I am truly interested in seeing what is next.  I invite my readers to find these things for themselves.  If I am a son of the Father, so then are you a son or daughter of the Father.  That makes us brothers or brother and sister.  This changes everything.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Be a man!

Since I finished Camp Maccabee this last week, I have been reading a book by FR Larry Richards called "Be a Man", a book that Fr Joe Corel, the diocesan vocation director, gave to male campers and attendees on both Camp Maccabee and Christpower.  I cannot recommend enough that those who received this gift actually read it.  I also recommend to any young man  who has not got it to go out and get it.

This book has been hitting me hard.  I have been a priest now for 14 years.  I returned to my Catholic faith almost 20 years ago.  I have dwelt on the subject of Catholic masculinity for almost 5 years.  My homilies have been peppered for 15 years that God wants a  relationship with each and every one of us.  I have repeatedly pointed pointed out that it is a familial relationship that God desires.  I knew the right vocabulary.  I knew the rights concepts.  However, it has struck me that I have been circling the airport for decades on not landing the plane.  What has struck me to this conclusion is a passage from the above mentioned book.  IN it he describes a horrific nightmare he is having.  The nightmare doesn't end till he professes "Father, I am your son!"  He isn't saying anything that is new, he is saying something that he now understands on a a deeper level.

It seems in the all of the times I have prayed, that this little nugget escaped me.  It isn't that I didn't know it as a piece of information (or know about it). it was that I didn't know it.  This little phrase has stuck in my head since I read it and refuses to leave.

So many times, especially in dealing with young men, I have seen a deep isolation they experience from God on a relational level.  Some bravely go through the motions and attend Mass and try to be a good person, but struggle with why God seems so far away.  It is easy for them to gradually wander away altogether.  The topic of the divine only comes up when they struggle with a tragedy or try to make sense of the world around them.  So many times they will fill that empty spot with things that will numb them to that emptiness: promiscuity, alcohol, reckless behavior, narcotics, endless electronic diversions.  These side tracks only numb for a while.  Prayer, when they try it, seems an exercise in futility.  God is as distant as the farthest star.

I wonder how that changes when we take to heart that little phrase, "Father, I am your son!".  I can hear God saying, "Well, it is about time!"  I am still processing everything going on in me right now, but I feel that it is possible that God is going from a business that I was in (and probably really good at)  to a relationship that I share with others.  Right now, I would love every guy out there, every young man who feels isolated in life and with God, to have even a fraction of what is flooding my head and heart right now!  I know I will blog more about this and this book.  But this little phrase is serving as one of those epiphany moments.  I invite every man that reads this to reflect on those words "Father, I am your son!"...I will be praying that it hits you like it is hitting me.