Saturday, December 29, 2012

Lessons from my father

I apologize in advance for what I am sure will be a long entry.  Bear with me.  I have had a month now to digest what happened a month ago today.  Being an introvert, I simmer on my thoughts, slow cooking them.  I filter them through my beliefs, my knowledge, and my feelings.  It occurs to me that I had not just learned lessons from my father over the last month, but over my lifetime.  My dad had not become in his last month of life something that he was not before.  Perhaps I just saw it in its purest form.  Like a pupil whose teacher stops suddenly, I feel a bit lost in fleshing things out, but, flesh them out I must.

My dad taught me many lessons, some were easy, most were difficult.  Many he spoke of frequently, most his actions spoke most powerfully.  Many were consciously listened to, most were subconsciously taken in and molded who I am.  I write this to distill a few of those lessons.

Lesson 1: Who you are is determined by the sum of your choices.  Dad never could have been called a racist, a homophobe, a sexist, or a elitist.  He did not pretend to understand all there was about the human person, but he did know that their choices and free will actions showed the kind of person individuals were.  We were never taught to be suspicious of a person because they were different than we were.  WE were taught to differentiate the person from their failings.  He would be disappointed when people made decisions solely based on one aspect of the person ( race, gender, etc)  Dad did not believe in collecting antagonistic relationships.  Life would present enough of them on its own, there was no need to seek them.

Lesson 2: Playing politics is never worth the rewards gained.  Dad hated politics.  He hated the duplicity.  He hated the back-stabbing, manipulation, self-serving relationships, and deceit necessary to play politics well.  I am not speaking of merely politics as in governance, but more to the point, office politics.  Getting more money was never worth selling out his beliefs.  He was there to do a job and do it to the best of his abilities.  He believed in advancement by merit alone.  If that meant he got passed over for a raise or a promotion, then so be it.  Integrity mattered more than status.  It would have been easy for him to sell out and use the excuse that he had a family to provide for.  He didn't.  If he got a promotion or raise he wanted to know it was because he had earned it.  I always respected that about him.

Lesson 3: Sometimes the bad guy wins and how one deals with that says a lot about the individual.  I never heard my dad say that life was unfair.  He detested the concept of fair and unfair because it was always a subjective thing.  Fair or unfair by whose standards? By what criteria?  Sometimes you could do everything right and still get screwed.  Because you play by the rules does not mean your opponent will.  Sometimes their deceit and machinations gave them the edge.  Sometimes they won the job, the promotion, the raise, and so on. As dad found it more important to be able to look at himself in the mirror than be admired for something he wasn't.  It meant that he got up, dusted himself off, and kept doing the right thing. Sometimes you lose.  The true test of the person was whether the person could walk away with their integrity and dignity intact.  It meant many harsh lessons.  It meant giving up temporary advances and advantages.  It meant not being afraid of failure.

Lesson 4:  It is only stuff.  Dad had great attachment to people and animals.  He loved nature and was fascinated with the outdoors.  People came before things.  Always.  Taking advantage of people to get more things made no sense to him,  Despoiling the world to get more things made no sense to him.  Things were not worth it.  He didn't need copious amounts of stuff.  He lived comfortably and simply.  He could have lived much higher and simply chose not to. He wasn't cheap.  But he didn't spend money for the sake of spending money.  His taste were simple.  He could go overboard, say, on vitamins and supplements.  But for most all else, simplicity of life was what he desired.

Lesson 5: You'll not find nor create heaven on earth.  Heaven was when we died, not now.  Our task here was to be the best we could be.  We were to use God's grace, be detached from material goods, be honest, friendly, and competent.  We cannot change anyone else but ourselves and only hope that our way of life might attract others. Here, people would be dishonest, greedy, envious and power hungry and other people will suffer for it.  Accidents happen, disasters happen, sickness happens, death happens.  That is the nature of the material world.  Fighting it was futile and maddening.  It was we approached these disasters and disappointments that mattered.  He stayed positive even when there seemed no reason to be so.  He did not expect perfection here so it didn't throw him when he didn't get it.   

Lesson 6: Faith matters.  For dad, faith wasn't a set of beliefs treated like a family heirloom to be trotted out for special occasions; it was a daily lived experience.  It was what drove him.  I could go on and on about this but I think it suffices to say that if you read the other lessons, you can see how faith permeated all those lessons.

My dad was not a perfect man.  He would correct me for saying otherwise.  However, it is fair to say that he tried to be the best man he could be.  That was all that could be asked.  I assume, like myself, that when he stood before God, he wasn't asked "why weren't you as good as so and so"; he knew the question would be "what did YOU do with what I gave you."  Allow me to be  a witness for the defense and say, he taught his children what was important, how to face life as it is and not as it should be, and to never allow the drive to get ahead to diminish our loyalty to God or to those he places in our lives.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Death and faith...or lack thereof

In recent days, my dad passed away.  I have said in a previous post, my Catholic Faith has given me great solace and comfort in its teaching that since Jesus Christ, borne out of His great love for, gave His life to redeem us, frees us from enslavement to sin and death so that when we approach that moment of death we can do so with eternal hope.  My dad had this hope and desperately wanted his children to share in that hope. Because I choose to live the hope that my dad modeled for me and wanted in instill in me by having me baptized, I can approach this moment in time with intense calm and hope.  I proudly live this hertiage my dad sought to pass down to his children.

Yesterday, one of my siblings friends, a person who self-describes herself as a liberal and atheist, posted on my sister's Facebook wall a few words of comfort from her perspective.  I know she meant well in helping her friend deal with the loss of her dad, but I was struck by the hopelessness of those words and how they wanted to drag my sister into that same hopelessness, a hopelessness that my dad would have categorically disagreed with intensely and would have taken great offense that someone was using this opportunity to directly dismiss his own deep held faith with one of his children.  Again, I do not want to say that this person had malicious intent.  This person has her beliefs and in a free society she is entitled to express them.  But as someone who struggled with agnosticism in my early 20's, I can hardly condemn her.

For me, finding my way back to faith was first more an act of logic than faith.  It goes like this:  it is physically impossible for something to come from nothing.  All matter is regulated by the properties of time and space.  Logically, only that which is not bound by these properties has the ability to bring them into being, and hence the created order into existence.  It is called the ex nihilo argument for the existence of God.  That the created order is so well ordered even in the seeming chaos points to an intelligent power bearing responsibility for that created order.  It was for this reason that I could never intellectually accept atheism as a viable or logical reality.  It is not logical.  This left me at a Theist or agnostic state.  That whatever created had any relationship with that creation was another question.  That I struggled with.  I had to reconcile the faith I had studied (that my dad had passed to me) with what I saw in this world.  Why did tragedies happen?  Why did good people suffer?  Having been in the seminary, I saw a lot of activity from clerics that did not jibe with the teachings of the Church...if their knowledge couldn't provoke them to authentically live that faith, why should I then give any credence to that faith?  It was their poor witness paired with me wanting to be unshackled by what seemed an empty morality that led me to be an agnostic for a few years.

A few years went by.  Something ate at me about the worldview I was holding: It was awful convenient to hold what I was holding because it changed to locus of authority from outside myself to being myself.  Morality, hence, was whatever I wanted it to be and I found I rarely challenged myself to be a better person. I knew I was supposed to be a good person.  I was honest and diligent at work, I stepped into a supportive role for my siblings after my parents divorced, but I was slightly promiscuous, incredibly materialistic and not a happy person.  I chain smoked.  I was argumentative.  I had a hair string temper.  I had ulcers.  I was comfortable in my agnosticism on one level, but felt a great abyss of emptiness inside that no money, power, or pleasure could sate.  I remember one night sitting on my deck in Missouri and realizing that there would never be enough money, promotions, toys, sex, or other pleasures to fill what was lacking.  Life became futile and meaningless in that absolutely everything that I was could be taken from me and at best all I could get was temporary relief.  I fought returning to faith because it too had disappointed me.  I refer to that next 6 months as the dark night.  I remembered something from my seminary days, a quote from St Augustine: "our hearts are restless until they rest in you."  My heart was most definitely restless and unfulfilled by the earthly trinkets that surrounded me.  Then I started taking the next logical steps.

What made more sense: that this creator created with or without a reason or purpose?  Logically, it made greater sense that there would be intent and hence reason and purpose.  What made more sense:  that the reasons would be malicious or beneficial?  I remember my dad taking me on hikes when I was 4th grader in Indiana.  He loved the outdoors and would point out while we were walking what kind of tree, plant, bird, animal, or rock I was looking at. He is responsible for my love of nature and the outdoors.  I thought much later in life as to why we call natural disasters 'Acts of God', but we don't refer to newly blooming flower, the beauty of new life, the awesomeness of a mountain range, the splendor of a sunrise, the warmth of friendship, the sounds of a gentle rain, the smell of a spring meadow, the sound of a child's laugh, "acts of God' as well?
The earth was full of beauty both profound and simple and co-existed with the ugliness, suffering, and agonies of life.  However because our bodies and the created order are limited to time and space, we grow old, we get sick, and our bodies cease to function.  However, there was something in me that knew that there was more.  That started me on the road of faith.  I saw the profound difference it made in others and I wanted that for myself.

My dad had every reason to be a bitter man by worldly standards.  He was snatched from his home by DFS as a pre-teen.  He bounced from one horrific foster home to another till my grandparents adopted him.  His 23 year marriage ended badly.  He never got rich.  He never got powerful.  He had an incurable disease in Parkinsons that would eventually make his mind a prisoner of his body.  I could go on and on about how many things he had to endure and the disappointments this life heaped on him, however, as I watched my dad in this last month, I saw a man of deep faith who was full of joy even as his body was turning against him.  In that last month, I witnessed a man at peace with the world, with God, and with himself.  As I sat by his bed with two very good friends and watched him take his last breath, I can not describe adequately the calm and peace of that moment.  Everything inside me told me that all that my dad had hoped and desired in this life, he was  now experiencing.  I'll not allow any atheist to rob me or my family of that moment.  I will not allow them to infuse their hopeless world view into this moment.  This person can believe what she wants, but I choose not to share in such a maudlin worldview or allow my siblings to hear that view unchallenged.  

Anyone who knows me well or has heard me preach knows that our Catholic preaches that we are to be a people who merciful, charitable, kind, forgiving, compassionate, faithful stewards of God's gifts, including the world in which we live, and faithful witnesses of Christ.  When we fail to live to these standards, we give scandal and give ample fuel to those who would dismiss God and faith altogether.  Dad knew this and grew more and more into this and wanted his children to know the fulfillment he felt.  It troubled him that not all did.  I know it troubled him when I didn't.  I know he now prays for his children and grandchildren because he wants us to be with him...he modeled a path...if we are wise we will try to walk on it despite all life throws at us.  I told my dad two things minutes before he passed from this life: I would take care of his dog for as long as Buddy lived and that I would watch out for my brothers and sisters.  I asked him to intercede to help me do these things.

To my sister's friend:  I know you meant well.  You wanted to comfort my sister and I deeply appreciate that.  However she is my dad's daughter first.  Both you and I have made our decisions.  Fair enough.  I introduce a little philosophical nugget known as Pascal's Wager in reference to God. If you are right and I am wrong, I can live with that.  I have spent the majority of my life inviting people to be selfless, to be merciful and forgiving, to be good stewards of our blessings, to help those in need, to respect the integrity and  dignity of every human person..even though at times I can fail to live up fully to that.  If you are rightI wont' be cognizant to realize it anyway and thus have no regrets.  I have a joyful and fulfilled life even though I will never be wealthy, powerful, or indulge in certain pleasures.  I have that same calm and peace my dad had and I see it as the most precious part of his inheritance and example for me and my siblings.  However, if I am right, then I have lived a life that has told God my desire for heaven and union with Him and you have rejected him.  All judgment amounts to is a verification of our own free choice.  God condemns no one to hell, it is a personal choice each person makes.  Truth be told, I would just as soon have you on my side.  Yes there are things in the created order that bring sickness, suffering and death...but we were not created to just be is transitory at best.  If God has indeed given us a part that will transcend time and space (the soul), my ultimate hope and peace lies there.  That is why when my dad whom I loved a great deal passed from this life, I had no sense of loss or any sense of overwhelming grief, ( I did cry profusely as I spoke my good-bye, my promise to carry on the heritage he wanted to pass on to me and my siblings and his grandchildren and ask for his help), the legacy of faith my dad left filled that moment with intense calm and peace.

At his funeral this coming week, it will be celebration of my dad and his deep felt and well justified faith in God.  Dad suffered greatly and had his long Good is the time to celebrate his share in Easter.
The closing song of my dad's funeral mass will proclaim his belief, my belief,  and the belief of every faith filled Christian:
Sing with all the saints in glory,
sing the resurrection son!
death and sorrow, earth's dark story
to former days belong!
All around the clouds are breaking
soon the storms of time shall cease.
In God's likeness we, awaking,
know the everlasting peace!

Friday, November 30, 2012

He is at I am at peace

Yesterday afternoon, my dad had a massive heart attack and passed away quietly and peacefully later that night.  It was sudden.  He had celebrated his 72nd birthday the day before and was in great spirits.  Truth be told, he usually was anyway.  In his final months, he had been severely hampered by Parkinsons.  Despite the lack of ambulation, the falls, and even the difficulty in feeding himself, he was always pleasant.  That disposition came from his profound faith. Even as he passed from this life, his faith led him.  There was no drama, no complaining, and no fear.  He died in peace.  He desperately  wanted to be united to God for eternity and last night he got that desire.  He is at peace, so I am at peace.

As a man of faith myself, a faith modeled by my dad, I feel a calm.  Dad was ready.  Not because of any last minute panic about needing to get his affairs in order, but because he lived the gospel day in and day out.  He proudly belonged to Christ.  Christ tells us that those who are unashamed of Him before others, He will be unashamed of before the Father.  He was not a perfect man and would correct me for saying otherwise.  He didn't see himself as a finished product just coasting through this life waiting for his entitled award, but as a pilgrim needing God's grace as he awaited the Promised Land.

The effect it has on me it that such a witness makes me want to be a better person, a better man, a better priest, and a better follower of Christ.  Tomorrow we  start the season of Advent, a time in which we look ahead to the fulfillment of all desires and promises of was Christ says lays ahead for those who are ready.  It is a truly blest moment to witness someone who was ready and was able to look to that moment with hope and not fear.  We do not get time back.  The games we play and the bets we hedge rob us of hope.  I know Jesus Christ reigns and loves us.  I have no doubt about that.  I know that I need to be ready.

I want for each and everyone of you that same blessing I saw in my dad.  The calm, the hope, the faith, and the powerful witness. Anyone who authentically lives the Christian faith finds did.  May the same be for you and me.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Reversing roles...a new role for me

Recently, I have had a new element thrust it's way into my daily life.  I would never consider it an intrusion or unwelcome element at all.  My dad, whose health has been precarious as of late, has moved up to where I am stationed.  This seems to be a long term deal.  Right now, he is in the rectory and will be as we secure permanent housing and when I feel secure that he can live on his own.  I will admit, that for the first few days I have felt a bit overwhelmed by this and carrying my normal schedule as a pastor and priest.  I started praying about it and reflecting upon it and trying to avoid becoming a whiner about it.  I know my dad deserves better and so does my parish.

I am blessed to come from a family where we take care of our own.  My mom became a primary caretaker for both of her parents when they became old and started to grow weak and sick, even turning her dining room into my grandmother's bedroom in my grandmother's last days.  My dad took early retirement from a job he loved and moved halfway across the country to take care of his parents when they grew sick and elderly.  He took care of them for years.  Both of my parents set wonderful examples and reminders that honoring your mother and father do not end when  the child leaves the home.  I consider it a privilege to continue the family tradition.

As I was starting to feel overwhelmed, it came to me in prayer that I am doing for my dad what he did for me as a child.  My dad worked long hours, many at jobs he disliked, to provide for our family.  He worked hard and every dime he had went to the family.  I remember as a young boy noticing that dad's clothes were threadbare a lot.  I didn't know what it meant.  I noticed that he waited till the kids had food before he took his own.  I didn't know what that meant either.  I do now.  He sacrificed for his family even if it meant denying himself in the process.  Dad did for decades.  Very rarely was it appreciated; in fact, more often than not, it was taken advantage of and presumed upon.  Of course, I can now view this from the vantage point of an adult.  From that same vantage point, I know I must show that same dedication that was shown to me.  He did all that work and came home.  He dealt with all the problems and joys of being a dad...running us to and fro...listening to our whining....watching out for us when we were sick. 

I cannot imagine this is going to be easy.  Where dad got to watch his work pay off in seeing his children grow, find careers, find spouses, have their own families, I will watch as dad starts the slow decline as he prepares for eternal life.  That's okay.  I am blessed with a position that will allow me to do this, with a parish that has already shown its support to me and my dad, an understanding bishop, a good network of friends to support me , and a God who I know will give whatever is necessary to live up to the challenge presented.  I really do feel privileged as his son  and as a priest to step into this role.  Pray for me and my dad...and all my family as we embark on this new course in our lives.  

Monday, October 15, 2012

Of Faith and Politics

* as a cleric of the Catholic Church, it is not my duty nor obligation to adhere to nor promote any political party.  In fact, I am forbidden to do so.  I am not a member of any party and have no allegiance to any party.

Politics.  Who governs?  By what philosophy?  By what set of standards?  We live in a republic, which means  we vote for those who make the laws and decisions that govern us as a people.  The people of this country come from various socio-economic states, various religions or types of faith (or lack thereof), from both genders, various races, sexual identities, regions, cultural backgrounds, and a myriad of other factors.  Laws and governance must apply equally to all groups who make up the tapestry that is our country.  Every single person who enters a voting booth enters with a set of convictions, self  interests, and desires and votes accordingly.  Over the entirety of this American experience, political parties have been a reality and have relied in cobbling together various subsets of these aforementioned groups to get elected.  As time progressed, these subsets were encouraged to see the other groups as threats to their own wants and consequently as the enemy.  This has not been good for this country at any part of our history and is now particularly divisive in our own time largely thanks to the overwhelming amount of information, disinformation, propaganda, and deceit available 24/7 from the media, internet, and political campaigns.  It is difficult to sort the truth from the lies and thus easy to hide within the fold of a political party.

We all approach the world and its realities from a certain viewpoint.  I am a Catholic.  This does not mean that I am a Catholic as opposed to anything else, but my starting point in making decisions, moral and otherwise, starts from the premise of the Catholic faith.  This is not saying I always act in conjunction with that faith (my confessor could inform that I do not always do so), but even when I choose against it, I know I am choosing against it and that if I value it, then I needs to make amends.  My Catholic faith informs all of my relationships, be it with family, friends, strangers, fellow Catholics, those who are not Catholic, those who do or do not belong to the same demographic subsets I belong to, with the poor, the wealthy, the believer, the non-believer.  It affects how I act, how I choose, and how I vote.

How does this affect me when it comes to be a citizen of this country?  First, the Gospel demands that I love all people.  It reminds me that I am my brother's keeper in the widest possible sense of that belief.  For me, that means that I loathe antagonistic relationships.  I do not need enemies.  I do not want to have enemies.  I realize that holding what I believe seriously might accrue enemies, but I am not purposely seeking them.  The gospel does not say that my duty to love stops when the other person is of a different race, creed, political party, economic status, orientation, culture, birth status, and such.  That duty transcends all of these other factors.  I have a moral obligation to defend and provide for those in danger and need.  When I vote, I bring these principles into the booth with me.  I must.  For if I abandon or compromise those principles at any point, they cease to have validity.  That means when I enter that booth, I am not voting for what is best for me, best for whatever demographic subsets I belong to; I vote for what is in the best interest of this country and humanity  as a whole.  This means I have a hierarchy of criteria that informs my vote.  No party is entitled to that vote. 

Given my criteria comes from that Gospel viewpoint, what should be the first criteria?  The command to love one another.  The Bible always puts a premium on the love those most in need; those who cannot provide for themselves.  At the top of this group should be those who are least able to do so.  That group would be the unborn.  A child in the womb cannot do anything for itself.  It can not speak up in its own defense. It cannot defend itself physically.  It cannot escape harm directed at it.  It is the very paradigm of helplessness.  As whatever you wish to call that which resides within the womb is both human and life, it is owed our love and protection.  Any group or party that condones the destruction of this most helpless form of human life as a mere choice says much to me about their general beliefs about the dignity of human life.  These people will never garner my vote...ever.  If I am true to my catholic principles, they must not.  How the most helpless of our society are treated will always be my first criteria.

That child's life does not end upon birth.  For the rest of its life, that child, as its grows into adulthood, will need help, education, food, clothing, a stable family, and the opportunity to freely follow its convictions and faith.  Those children will need security, love, compassion, patience, help when they fail, and the tools to succeed.  We can have fair debates on how this is accomplished.  No single political philosophy has the totality of the answers, usually the answer lies in an amalgamation of the best of these political philosophies.  As a Catholic, the command to love and the wish of Christ that we be one, leads me to want to seek out where those answer lie.  I know that catholic teaching can only be proposed and not imposed; but propose I must.  These words must be followed up by example.  My obligation to those in need is not something to is farmed out to another entity, but one in which I must personally engage.  This is why, for example, that Catholics have a myriad of institutions to do these things: hospitals and clinics, schools, charitable organizations, religious orders, and parishes.  This is why I as a pastor have been insistent that we look out for those in need within our parish and larger community. This is why I am so grateful to those in the Friends of St Martha who have attended to the needs of our own parishioners in crisis through various ways.  This is why I am grateful for the tons of food we have given to the Hope Center to help feed our local poor.  This is why I am grateful for the thousands of dollars we have given to those in need, those who need financial assistance both here and abroad.  But we know that such help can only be temporary.  The best answer to a person in need is to provide the situation for them to no longer need.  For those whose mental and  physical condition makes long term help necessary, we should be there.  As a Catholic, this is the next criteria I bring to the table.

The point is that as a Catholic, my faith requires me to look out first for those around me in imitation of Christ.  It effects everything.  No exceptions.  My life is an integrated whole...not a compartmentalized dyspeptic myriad of subsections.  My faith cannot be a hobby engaged upon when convenient.  My faith cannot be divorced from public avenues of my life.  I cannot nor will not be told that I must treat faith as something inferior to secular thought.  I respect the right of those of varied positions to bring what they think and believe to the table.  If I am really Catholic, that is what I bring to the table.  My Catholicism influences all my other ways of thinking, acting, relating, and being moral.  My politics do not influence my Catholicism.  My Catholicism influences my politics. While I do understand about the rendering to Caesar what is Caesar's and what is God's unto a Catholic, I will never allow Caesar or anything else of this world to trump God. 

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Everything I Thought I Knew, I Didn't: Reflections on 15 Years of Priesthood

Today I celebrate 15 years of ordination.  I am celebrating it!  As I look back on the last 15 years of being a Catholic priest, I look at one heck of a journey.  There have been extraordinary highs and gut wrenching lows.  The seminary did the best it could to prepare me with a base of knowledge, spirituality, and human formation to help me meet the road as it unfolded over the years. To be honest, I came out of the seminary all wild eyed and ready to proclaim, serve, and restore.  I came in with a profound ( or so I thought at the time) desire to serve.  I thought I knew it all and what the people wanted.  I thought. It is not that I was horribly wrong or off base, it is just that I had no idea of the magnitude  of what lay ahead.  Thankfully, God has always moved my heart to engage Him and His people and to keep trying to adapt without losing anything of a true Catholic priestly identity.  That openness has lead to a wealth of epiphany moments.  I wish to share some of the bigger ones.

1: What I actually know about God, faith, and Catholicism is little.  It is not through lack of trying.  I am a rather well read person who always believes there is always more that I can and need to learn.  Content wise, I probably do know more than the average person, but is like being a scientist, the more you study the more we know how little we know.  It is a given that we simply cannot come to know everything about God; we struggle with just the tidbit He gives us through Divine Revelation. 15 years of preaching on the Scriptures almost everyday and I still am amazed at how many layers there are and how much more there is just on the surface.  15 years and I have yet to grow tired of preaching and studying the Scriptures because it is like a multi-faceted gem with an infinite numbers of sides; each begging to be examined and integrated.  The depths and power of faith, I have come to find out, will go as deep as we allow them. Because it is based in God, the experience of faith and grace is boundless.  The more I experience, the more I know that is still left unexamined.  The depths of the theology, philosophy, logic, and wisdom present in Church teachings is profound.  Some of the greatest minds of history help in reflecting upon Christ and what the Christ event fully means.  I am a smart guy, but I am not St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Chrysostom, or any of the other great minds that have populated our teaching landscape.  I read the writings of the great Fathers and mystics and realize just how little I know.  I like to think that my desire to keep knowing and delving deeper into the mysteries of the faith is pleasing to God.  It is a lifetime endeavor.  It is a perpetual challenge.

2: The People of God don't need another Savior.  We already have one.  The Catholic Church existed long before I became a priest and will be here long after I depart from this life. My role is to point to THE Savior.  I have found out that this is far from easy.  It is more than using the right sequence of words, it is by living a correct example.  That is difficult for me.  I think the easiest trap for any cleric to fall into is that trap of hypocrisy.  It is easy to preach love, mercy, forgiveness, patience, love of God and love of neighbor; it is much harder to live, especially knowing that my parishioners have the right to be able to see me living that example.  It has meant that I have had to wildly reign in my temper, a temper that has gotten me into much trouble.  The first time I lost my patience with a parishioner, it hit me after I was done of the potentially devastating effect of the Roman Collar.  I became aware that when I lost my patience, it just wasn't me as a person, but it came across as the entirety of the Roman catholic Church, if not Christ Himself, coming down on the person.  I shudder to think how many people I might well have driven away, how many vocations I might have crushed, how many good souls were rightfully scandalized.  I look back at those 2 or 3 incidents and still feel deep regret and sorrow.  As I have grown, my temperament has settled and my anger is usually saved for people who cut me off in traffic (and yes, I know I must work on that as well).

3: I am called 'Father' for a reason.  This realization has grown so much stronger over the past few years.  When we started Camp Maccabee some years back, it was with the understanding that all the same things needed to be a good dad and husband were also needed to be a good priest.  Archbishop Flynn told me that in a one on one conference during a retreat my 1st year in theology.  that conversation was probably one of the most significant of my life.  It took me almost 20 years to unpack that.  My role in a parish is that of a father.  It is my duty to provide from the wealth of our faith and to lead others into a deeper relationship with the God who entrusted me with their care.  The same can be said of dads and their children.  It is my duty to nurture and maintain union built upon stewardship and selflessness, so that each member of the parish knows they are loved, wanted, and needed as part of this parish family.  I use the term 'parish family' not in some sappy sense of forced fellowship of people who would otherwise have no connection, but in the same dynamic that Christ did when He used  familial terms to describe the relationship He has with us, we have with the Father, and that we have with each other.  It is not my job to dominate.  It seems it would  be easier if I tried that, but I know it would undo everything and drive off wide swaths of the family entrusted to my pastoral care.  It is a constant source for internal dialogue and external whining.  I know that I am far from being that ideal father.

4: The people don't need to know what I think, they need to know the truth.  So many times people have been confused because clerics have come down like Moses from Mt Sinai with their own slant or opinion on the teachings of the Church.  It creates great confusion and invites division.  My opinion saves no one.  My opinion is not synonymous with Divine Revelation.  My opinion can dilute the Gospel.  I will be held responsible for that.  I am well aware of that.  In fact, it frightens me.  One of my pet peeves is being lied to because when I am lied to, I can not make reasonable or correct decisions; it is hard to build decisions on a lie.  If I dilute the Gospel, I present a deceit and force other people who may not know better to build decisions on those deceits.  The reason I read so much is because I want to be as sure as I can that I am presenting the truth and giving those entrusted to my care a solid foundation.  Sometimes the truth can be challenging and provoking. In fact, the vast majority of the time it is.  The truth always provokes us to a deeper and greater relationship with God and with one another.  The truth challenges our bad habits and favorite sins.  I cannot tell people a deceit in hopes of not hurting their feelings,  or not making them angry with me, or in hopes of not losing money in the collection.  It is hard and the temptation to take the easy road and say what people want to hear (or what I want to hear) it ever-present.

5:  I wouldn't give this up for anything.  Even in the incredibly dark days of 2002 when the sex scandals broke and priests that I not only knew, but admired as well, I had no intention of leaving.  There were days when I was weary.  There still are.  There are still days of great frustration, but isn't that true for everyone? However, those days are greatly outnumbered by the great days, the powerful days, and the truly spiritual days.  The schedule can be grueling.  Being constantly in an unwanted spotlight is aggravating at times. I still get nervous preaching and teaching.  I still feel somewhat inadequate in some of my pastoral duties.  I am okay with that in that I have only been doing this for 15 years.  I know that I am far from the perfect priest and perfect pastor; I still have much to learn and much to grow.  I am not a finished product.  That said, I can say I have tried my best most of the time.  I sincerely hope that as time passes that I will progress deeper and become a better pastor.  Despite every struggle that I have faced, am facing, and will face, I love the challenge that being a priest in this society.  I love that I have to keep my own weaknesses in check with God's grace.  I love that I have learned much and still have much to learn.  I love that there will be never a reason for me to grow cold or apathetic.  I am interested in what the next 15 years bring, what I will learn, how I will develop, and how I can better be what God has called and created me to be.    I am okay with the fact that I will never grow wealthy by earthly standards.  I am okay with the fact that this society will probably never respect me.  I am okay with knowing that if I am a good priest there will be much sacrifice that lays ahead.  I look forward to the future and I am happy in the present.  the best thing that I have learned is that God is ever generous with His grace and mercy with anyone who willing to at least try to rise to the challenge of the Gospel.  Here's to many more years of learning. growing, and deepening.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

It is only just religion

    The above statement is one that we hear too many times in society.  It is the times that it goes left unsaid but is acted upon that is really disheartening.  “It’s just religion, or faith, or church” is born from an understanding that matters of spirituality are to be easy, enabling, and unobtrusive in our lives.  Faith, especially the study and practice thereof, are regulated to a low priority.  It is a co-opting of  the culture in which we live that marginalizes faith altogether; a culture that Dr. Stephen Carter called “The Culture of Disbelief” .  This culture has thrown God out of our public institutions.  God is not allowed in our public schools.  He is not allowed in the public square.  This has gone on for so long that most Americans have also pushed Him out of their lives.  What happens?  We get the gratingly inane “I am not religious, I’m spiritual” (aka : “I do what I want and God will have to just rubber stamp it…I don’t take orders from God or some church…I give them“) Take a look at what is happening in our country.  Watch it crumbling.  It is nothing new.  In the Old Testament, Israel rotted from within as it pushed God to the periphery. They relied on their wealth and power (sound familiar?) and pushed God’s protecting hand aside.  Without that protection, they fell apart, were crushed by their enemies, and all the power and wealth in the world could not save them.  We are on that same path.  Did our power and military might spare us 9/11 or the two subsequent wars that happened as a result?  Did our wealth stave off this prolonged recession?  Push God away and we push His protection away!

    What is true in the macrocosm of society is equally as true in the microcosm of our parish and our families.  Our pursuit of the secular has practically wiped out the pursuit of the eternal.  All too often the pursuit of the eternal is regulated to one hour (or shorter) on Sunday.  That is only if something else doesn’t crowd it out.  Education?  That’s another subject altogether.  If we think that 4-5 hours of religion class, IF the child goes to Catholic school, and 1 hour if they don’t, suffices for their training, then we are fooling ourselves and essentially answering a good part of the reason why  our youth lose interest and wander away in disturbingly large numbers.  It’s hard to have a deep abiding relationship with someone you barely know.  Is there any parent who believes 1 hour of science a week suffices to help their child?  How about 1 hour of math?  How about one hour of spelling?  Or English? Or History?  How then, is one hour in class enough when it comes to the teachings of our faith?  Of course not!  Let me go one step further.  Religion ’class’ is not like other classes.  In the other classes, we are not giving them information so that they can have a personal relationship with math, science, or any of the other disciplines. In religion class, or PSR, or confirmation ‘class’ we are more about telling them how God has revealed Himself over the ages so that He might be known, served, and loved at least to some degree to which He knows, serves, and loves us.  In all of these ‘classes’ we are dispensing knowledge so as to lead to a relationship with God.  Just because ‘it’s only religion’ does not mean we can give it a minimal effort.

    Our Christian development and education do not end once we have ceased ‘classes’.  If they do, then we can expect nothing but a minimalist attitude towards faith and the application of faith to our daily lives and on how we set priorities in our lives.  “It’s only religion”. whether spoken or unspoken, will lead to an eventual turning away from the faith.  We cannot reject that relationship with God here and now and expect that somehow all will be just peachy in the afterlife. 

    So what does this mean?  Let us start with what is the parish’s responsibility.  The parish has a responsibility to provide the material, the teachers, the time, the space to help parents teach their children how to develop that relationship with God.  The parish has a responsibility to make sure the materials and solid and truthful.  It is our job to provide opportunities.  However, as I said during the homily on Good Shepherd Sunday , while it is my responsibility to make sure that the fields the flock are nourishing from are the fields of the Lord, I cannot make anyone attend anything.  You have to want it because you recognize the necessity for a deep abiding relationship with God and the equally pressing need to pass on that same fire to your children.  We have provided classes for our youth in both the parochial and public schools (in which under the best of circumstances we can only show them the tip of the iceberg), for our high school students in confirmation. 

    We tried  to provide classes for our Freshman and Seniors.   Both failed because of lack of participation from the youth who had other things to do.  I have provided most Wednesdays to have adult education.  I used top notch programs and books.  I am no slouch as a teacher.  The response was minimal at best.  I am offering a bible study using, again, top notch material.  21 people out of 400+ families we have this parish signed up.  Am I to believe that the other 400+ families are biblical experts who know the Bible so well and are able to defend their faith so well that they do not need help?  We brought in one of the foremost speakers on evangelization this Spring when Patrick Madrid came in.  Fewer than 80 parishioners showed.  Am I to believe that all the others know their faith so well and are so practiced at evangelization that they didn’t need help?  We have a well stocked parish library by the women’s restroom in the back of Church, it has been there for over a year.  I have stocked it with solid materials, surrendering hundreds of books from my private library, all in the hopes of providing educational resources for my parishioners.  I have repeatedly spoke about the opportunities we have in the diocese for our youth to spend a week coming to know that relationship with God better. The same goes for the Mission trip.  The response has been underwhelming. If it seems I am complaining a bit, I am.  It seems like there is always something else to do…some class…some sport…some practice…some game…something else that is more important on the food chain of our lives.  We are trying to live up to our responsibilities to provide both material and opportunity.  This is a common problem in all parishes!

What is your responsibility?  To respond positively.  To admit that we need help in understanding.  To purge this horrid ‘it’s just religion’ when it comes to how we respond, how our youth respond, and each sets their hierarchy of priorities. After all, it isn’t just religion, it’s our eternal relationship with God in the balance.  Relationships take time and effort, they challenge to change for the better.  If God doesn’t say ‘it’s only humanity’ when it comes to us, how can we say ‘it’s only religion’ when it comes to Him

Saturday, May 12, 2012

I Assume it will continue: Parents and Catholic Formation of Youth

 I Assume It Will Continue

This week school ends for the summer.  Our students will hopefully spend more time with their first and best teachers of the ways of the faith: their parents.  There are values and matters of faith that we have tried to instill so as to help parents build more on the foundations they set with their children.  It is my expectation as a pastor that those lessons of faith continue to be practiced:

1) In this school, we have taught your students the centrality of the Eucharist in the identity of a Catholic.  We have had mass most weeks 3 times with your child.  In those masses, I have spent hours teaching your children the basics of the Catholic faith and how those teachings concretely apply towards how they live.  While I do not expect that they will continue to come to weekday mass, it is my expectation that they do on Sundays and Holy Days as per the teachings of the Church.  We had, most months, time for your children to pray in front of the Blessed Sacrament in Adoration, again to stress the importance and centrality of the Eucharist in our lives.  We do have an Eucharistic Adoration chapel where you as a parent can continue this work and bring your child before Christ in the Blessed Sacrament at your convenience.  I assume that they preeminence of the Eucharist in your child’s life will continue to be taught and modeled by your own behavior.

2) In this school, we have taught them the importance of the Sacrament of Reconciliation and its central role in maintaining a healthy Catholic identity.  Most months, we had time set aside for your child to go to Confession so that their spiritual lives might be continually bolstered by the grace of God.  I will assume that these lessons and the practice thereof will be continued to be taught and modeled by those who promised to do so when they willingly brought their child to be baptized.  I will assume that the life of repentance and grace will continue.

3) In this school, we have taught your child the importance of prayer.  The day is speckled with prayer in the individual classrooms, together as a student body, and in the already aforementioned times provided for your child to pray.  Prayer is also part of that central core of catholic identity.  It is my assumption that parents will continue this by praying together as a family and encouraging their children to a deeper prayer life and practice of the faith.

4) In this school, we have taught your children the importance of a devotion to the Blessed Mother and in following her example of faith.  Your child prayed the Angelus after lunch everyday.  Your child prayed the rosary.  These are among the ways we tried to teach and model this central aspect of Catholic identity.  I can only assume that their primary teachers, the parents, will live up to the responsibility they took upon themselves at their child’s baptism.

5) The teachings of the Church we have taught in their religion classes.  It should not be limited to there.  It is primarily the parents duty to teach these things as they do teach other parts of the identity that children have.  We have a large parish library.  I am investing a good chunk of this parish’s money in expanding that library to now include books aimed at children and teens; books about the lives of the saints and how to be a better Catholic.  I will be teaching a 24 part series on the Sacred Scriptures every Wednesday through the summer.  We are offering Vacation Bible School, a youth mission trip, Christpower, Camp Maccabee, Camp Siena as ways of bolstering the lessons learned in the classroom.  I can only assume, again, that those parents who have taken the responsibility of raising their children in the ways of the faith, as they said they would during their child’s baptism, will joyfully make use of these things to bolster their child’s faith and make it a priority, not allowing other pursuits (some worthy, some not) to crowd out such time and effort.  I can only assume that those parents for whom Catholic identity is important will joyfully make use of these things for themselves in order to help them become better teachers and help their children become better Catholics.

5) In this school and other education programs we have taught them the importance of selfless service.  Anyone who heard me preach more than for 5 seconds knows that I place a premium on such service as it shows an imitation of the life of Jesus Christ.  I can only assume that parents will bolster this life of selfless Christian service by the volunteering they do both within the parish and with other charitable entities.

Please do not think I am being too forward with assuming all this or that this a poor attempt at sarcasm or complaint.  We do what we do in education systems to bolster the religious training that is started and modeled within the family.  I understand the Church’s teachings on the nature of the Church and what she has to say about its most basic building block, the domestic church, also known as the family.

Several weeks back I reminded parents that they have the God given responsibility of being shepherds who lead those entrusted by God to them in the ways of the Good Shepherd.  Parents should be at least as  attentive to the spiritual development of those placed in their care as they are the academic and physical development of their child.  If it seems I am being pushy about this, I am.  The stakes are far too high, both in this life and in the life to come, for the spiritual development of our youth not to be the priority it needs to be.  I can promise you I will continue to be insistent on this matter.

  The development of our youth into the next group of shepherds is a high priority for me.  It needs to be an high priority for all have the role of shepherd for the next generation.  The elements of prayer, education, service, and sacramental involvement are all necessary to produce not just shepherds, but good shepherds.  As I told the kids at the last school Mass of the year:  They are taking a few months off from school, not their faith.

Friday, April 6, 2012

So you hate bullies, do you?

I was watching a story on an upcoming movie, "Bully" and it was saying how 18 million kids are bullied this year (that we know of).  It is a sad indictment on this country, but where does it come from?  Did 20th -21st Century kids invent bullying?  No, it has been around as long as humanity as been.  Bullying is part of the human condition as long as there exists one person who out of selfish motivations needs to feel as if they are superior to another.  The bully needs to be number one.  They need to be the center of attention.  They will get that attention any way they can.  Maybe it is by gossiping or verbally running down another person.  Maybe it is by exposing another person's faults while ignoring their own.  Maybe it is by making blanket statements about entire groups.  Maybe it is joining a group and using intimidation to get one's way.  Maybe it is physical attacks.  However it happens, it is ugly.  It has one focus, to quiet, bring into submission and , if necessary, destroy anyone that gets in the way of them.  Now, with the internet and 24/7 TV, Facebook and other social media, bullying has found all new avenues beyond grade school taunts.  It is easy to focus on the bullying that children do to one another.  It is sad to see a crying child or a scared child.  There is something in good people that wants to see such things stop.  However, the kids are mimicking behavior they already see.  You want to stop children from bullying?  Then you better start with their teachers...the adults who model and revel in the behavior.  That is a tall order as it is so pervasive in our society.

Let's start with politics.  Politics has become more and more an exercise in sheer bullying.  Ad hominum attacks are as common as milkweed pollen.  Politicians, political pundits, and entertainers make their stock in trade on it.  For example, I am not one who thinks that Sarah Palin is presidential material, but the way she was personally savaged was disgusting.  Worse yet, the attacks on her children, including her infant son with Down's Syndrome, were unbelievably gross.  If one wants to disagree with her views, that is fine.  Knowledgeable  adults should be able to rationally debate ideas.  Personal attacks are a sure sign of a lack of knowledge. People laughed at these horrible jokes and attacks and said she and her family were fair game as they entered the public arena.  Would you like to guess why a lot of good people want nothing to do with politics or refuse to run for office?  Smear campaigns are just another version of adult bullying.  Whether that comes in the form of a conservative radio show host publicly calling a college student a slut or a late night 'comedian' referring to female conservative politicians as words I just refuse to even is bullying either way.  If the radio host commentator wanted to debate the testimony of the college student...fine..that is challenging an idea.  If the late night 'comedian' wants to debate the politics of these women...fine.  Name-calling is a form of bullying.  It is also in politicians who paint entire groups with disparaging names, make blanket (and mostly false) statements about the other political party, presume to know the motivation of someone else, and use tragedies to their advantage to push their agenda (and call their opponents heartless). It is political activists who see intimidation and other bullying tactics as fair game in pushing ahead their agenda.  Our kids see this. They hear it.  They see it glorified in the media and lionized by pundits.

How about the way we entertain ourselves?  Why do we laugh when a person is mocked in the entertainment industry?  Why do we allow stereotypes to carry the day?  Whether it is the starlet who is getting raked over the coals because of her outfit, or the person made fun of because they are too thin or too fat, or the actor who made a big mistake, or the singer who had a meltdown after years of harassment from the paparazzi?  How about the hate filled statements directed at certain groups and the return fire sometimes offered back?  Watch you favorite TV show and see the stereotypes and bullying fly!   Our kids watch these shows and know certain groups can be called anything and everything and it not only considered fair game but as hugely entertaining as well.  How many of our shows, music, video games, and such encourage aggression against weaker people?  If we really want to keep our kids from bullying, then perhaps we should quit feeding them a steady diet of it!

We cannot be selective about which bullies have to quit bullying.  We can't say the kids have to quit but the adults can continue.  We can't say that bullying needs to stop unless the bully agrees with my positions or makes me laugh.  We can't say it is okay to bully some people but not others.  We can disagree about issues and even agree to disagree. That is fine.  But we do not need to personally attack to win.  My Catholic faith (as it is 'on paper' and not as it is sometimes practiced) tells me that every single person must have their dignity respected, even if we disagree.  I can say this or that action is good or bad, but I cannot make the jump to saying therefore the person/s who do such are evil.  That is not my call.  On this Good Friday, when we see that God was much more interested in saving us than attacking us, maybe learning the lessons of Christ are that important.

My Thoughts on Good Friday

10 years ago or so, the movie “The Passion of the Christ” came out.  It was not well reviewed.  Some swore it would stir up animosity towards Jews, which it didn’t.  Some were troubled by the gore and violence although these same people were not so troubled by gore and violence in other films.  My guess is that they were troubled by the overall message of the film, which is quite simply that, as the Gospel of John tells us, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son.”   They were troubled by the reality of the Christ, which is far from the cleaned-up  really nice philosopher they prefer to think of, if they think about Christ at all.  But we can get used to that cleaned-up image of Christ on the cross.  We look at most crucifixes and we see this cleaned up image…most of the corpus is free of blood or wounds.  When I was in Peru some time back, their depictions of the crucifixion were rather graphic and hard to look at.  But they were realistic.  When one looks at those depictions, one gets a graphic understanding that the crucifixion was indeed violent, gory, and graphic.  This should give us a sense of why he endured the cross and depths of His love for us in enduring the Passion and death He did.  Quite frankly, it should trouble us, move us, and bring about a profound sense of God’s deep love for us.

Why is the cross necessary?   Because man refuses God’s love.  We sin.  We do awful things to one another.  We heap inhumanity upon inhumanity.  Each act is an act of rebellion against God, who created us for so much more and better.  In our selfishness, we rebel against God.  Justice would demand that the fitting penalty for rebellion be served, namely death.  If justice were not served, there would be no purpose to not sinning; if we were to receive an a reward independent of our actions, then our actions would mean nothing and our need to promote good would be non-existent.   No loving God would bring us into existence just for his amusement of watching us suffer and beat each other as if creation were no more than God’s Coliseum to watch us suffer in some sick gladiatorial engagement.   No.  Quite the opposite, our faith tells us it grieves God when we heap our selfishness upon each other, and deep in our hearts we feel that same distress and pain in watching man’s inhumanity to each other.  How could God allow into heaven such a rebellious species?  Would we not rebel in heaven as we rebel on earth? 

Since God refuses to give up on his creation, but also knows that justice demands punishment for our rebellion, He sends His only Son to give us a new way of life knowing full well that His words would sting our ears.  Where man had rebelled against God, now man would rebel against the world.  In Christ, Jesus redeems us and foments a rebellion against the world and its master, the devil.  He dies the execution method of a rebel in Roman times, crucifixion…a death so horrific that it would make people think twice about rebelling.   The fury of the world knows no mercy and brought that fury down in full force against Jesus.  In the movie, “The Passion of the Christ”, the one scene that is scorched into my mind more than any other is the scourging.  Jesus is first caned.  Welts and blood cover Him as He is beaten to the ground.  The Romans laugh as they make sport of Jesus, thinking Him defeated.  Then He does something…He stands up…an act of rebellious defiance against the world.  The Romans become enraged and bring out the cat-of-nine-tails (a whip with 9 ends, each with a razor on the end) and brutally beat Jesus within an inch of His life.  The whipping is halted lest Jesus dies before he makes it to the cross.  It occurs to me that each blow Jesus takes in our stead, so loathsome is our rebellion to a loving God.  He willingly does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.  The offering of His Body and Blood at the Last Supper would earlier that day would know come to its bloody zenith.

In his DVD series “Catholicism”, Fr Robert Barron stands in a church in France and reflects on very old altarpiece of the crucifixion.  Its depiction is painful to see, but Fr Barron makes a point of saying that this is a portrait of the happiest man to ever live.  It is striking when he says it.  He is absolutely correct, though.  On the Cross, we see a man victorious.  Satan could not deter Him by temptations towards worldly honor, worldly wealth, worldly power, nor worldly pleasure from the Cross. On the Cross, Jesus soundly refutes these temptations and conquers them.  By His obedience, man no longer need be a slave to worldly pleasure, power, wealth, or honor…instead he can freed from such things and thus open to  so much greater with God.  When Jesus says, “It is finished’, they are not the words of a defeated would be king,  but the words or a victorious king…one who has come to do exactly what he was sent to do.  This is why Good Friday takes its name.  Jesus pays the price for our transgressions and thus breaks any hold Satan would have on us.  In the death of Jesus, we are set free.

Thus the last act of Good Friday: will we live as men and women set free from the hold of worldly power, wealth, honor, and pleasure?  Will we turn our backs on rebellion and choose to freely love?  Will we live the life of Christ?  We live in a world pockmarked by selfishness: every act of bullying, of greed, of envy, of disrespect for the integrity of another person, every act that rips away another’s dignity, of lust, of wrath...all proof that man still will reach out to be enslaved by the world.   Will we forge our own chains of slavery or allow the death of Christ free us from such chains.  Through the actions of Good Friday, we remind ourselves that we are created and meant for so much greater than this world can promise…let us embrace that Cross and by it be freed from rebellion, be freed from selfishness, and share in the victory of He who conquers it!  A Blessed Good Friday to all.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Thoughts on Holy Thursday

 Today we begin the Sacred Triduum, those three days when we focus upon the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  It begins with the celebration of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper this evening.  This Mass celebrates the two sacraments founded on that night of the Lord’s Supper: Holy Orders and Eucharist, thus tying them intimately together.  Both flow from the same base: agape, that is, self-giving and self-sacrificing love.  Both are bound in the person of Jesus Christ Himself.

Holy Orders are founded at the last supper in both the command to the Apostles ‘to do this memory of me’ and in washing their feet and its attendant command to ‘as I have done for you, you should do for others.’   Both of these lead to the same point about the ordained priesthood in that it is to be a life of selfless service by which that first Eucharist is both made present and forcefully lived to the purpose for which it is given.  I shall back to Holy Orders in a moment, for to understand the reason for Holy Orders is to understand the Eucharist first.

In the Gospels of Mathew, Mark, and Luke, the Last Supper is the Passover meal.  In the Gospel of John, the Bread of Life discourse (John 6) is placed deliberately in proximity to the Passover.  Why?  If we go back to the Passover, what happens?  Moses and the people of Israel are commanded to sacrifice a spotless lamb, mark their doorposts and lintels with its blood, eat the lamb with proscribed dishes, and to do this on the night when God would strike the House of Egypt for its enslavement and cruelty to the people of Israel.  The blood redeemed the first born in that household.  That very day (remember, Jews measure days from sunset to sunset, not midnight to midnight) Israel would be freed from its enslavement and start its long journey to the promised land.  In the instructions for the meal, God tells Moses that the people of Israel are to do this as a perpetual remembrance (zachar) so that every age of Jews throughout time might perpetually receive the same freedom and direct help from God as did those Jews around their tables in Egypt as long ago. To this day when Jews celebrate the Passover, they do not view what they do as a re-enactment of the first Passover, but as a direct participation in the only Passover.  If we do not understand this very basic understanding the Passover, then we will not understand the Eucharist.

Recall what John the Baptist refers to Jesus as: the Lamb of God. Fully human and fully divine, He is the spotless lamb to be sacrificed as a redemption for humanity.  No more than the lamb in the Passover sacrifice had done anything meriting death had Jesus done anything meriting death or punishment.  Yet, just as the Passover lamb takes upon itself the sins of the firstborn deserving death, so the sacrifice of Jesus takes upon Himself the sins of humanity and suffers the death we have merited.  In both cases, eternal justice is served.  But as in the Passover sacrifice the lamb wasn’t merely slaughtered then chucked to the side, but was consumed instead, so the Lamb of God is not merely chucked aside but is consumed as well.  Why?  The sacrifice was not finished until the sacrifice and the one for whom it was sacrificed were literally one and thus the one for who the sacrifice had been sacrificed could attain the benefits of the sacrifice.  Without the consumption of the sacrificial victim, the purpose of the sacrifice was in vain.  This is why in John 6, Jesus says, ‘Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life within you!  Why say something so bold and then give us no way of fulfilling this teaching?

 We turn to Mathew, Mark, and Luke for that answer.  In their passages, we see how Jesus intends for the bold proclamation in John to be fulfilled.  He takes two very common elements in both the Passover meal and in Jewish life: unleavened bread and wine.  He then proclaims the bread to be His Body and the wine to be His Blood.    These are rather dramatic statements.  He takes the bread of a people in flight (unleavened) and proclaims it His Body.  Why?  Unless those who follow Christ could partake of His Body they would have no benefit from the sacrifice of the Cross and hence no life.  He then takes wine and proclaims it as it Blood, for the same reason.  His Blood would seal this new covenant relationship which gives us access to eternal life.  Had Jesus meant that the bread and wine were symbols or representative of His Body and Blood, then would He have not said as much?  He doesn’t though.  This IS my Body, this IS my Blood. Later that day he would be sacrificed on the Cross.  Now we have the ability, through Christ, to participate directly in the one sacrifice of the Cross for as many times as we would need it.  If we are honest, we need that grace as many times as we can get it, certainly at least once a week!  How sad it is that anyone would see participation in the Eucharist as an uninteresting chore and infringement on their time!  Our participation in the Eucharist is our thankful response that Christ poured Himself out for us so that we might both have the grace necessary to trudge through this life and have access to eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven! The Eucharist is part of that firm foundation on which our hope and peace lay.   The Eucharist is the power source for the life of a Catholic!

We have the elements for this to happen, but the person is necessary as well.  There has to be a person who can act in the Person of Christ so that the bread and wine we have can also become the Body and Blood of Christ.  The Scriptures always had men set apart who were selected to be the mediator between God and His people.  Hebrews reminds us that Christ Himself becomes that mediator.  Yet He charges his Apostles at the Last Supper to ’do this in memory of me.’  This charge was given to a very specific group. The New Testament lest us know that this group of apostles and their successors, bishops, would be charged with the responsibility of making present to every age the Eucharist and the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name.  This is the basis of Holy Orders, the fullness of which is in the Bishop, and then to a lesser extent to his priests.  They are set apart , even changed on the most base level of their being (soul) so that they can be the spiritual conduit by which the Body and Blood become really present.   Hence, the less priests there are, the less access to the Eucharist there is.  But the priest is more than a sacramental dispensing machine.  He is to be a witness…a profound witness.  That witness is to be not towards power…but towards service.  

In John, Jesus washes the feet of His apostles.  In the time of Jesus, this was a bit scandalous.  Feet, in his time, were seen as the dirtiest part of the body and more often than not were.  Not only was the task of the foot washing of guest considered the chore of a servant and not a master, it was the job of the lowliest of servants.  In washing the feet of His Apostles, Jesus shows them the depths of service; a service which will be given even more powerfully upon the cross.  Jesus did not want His apostles to be the greatest and most powerful of overlords, but the most profound of servants.  They were to follow His example (“As I have done for you, so you should do for others”)  and thus give example to all followers of the life of selfless service every baptized person is called to be!  At ordination, we are not ordained and changed so that we might be overlords, petty monarchs,  or despots.  We are to be of service as Christ was.  This is the foundation of Holy Orders, seeking to serve instead of being served.

But this life of service is not restricted to clergy.  It is to be embraced by all and anyone who calls themselves a Catholic.  In our society, living a selfless life in wholly contrary to this culture and is, in fact, counter-cultural.  Each of us is to model our life on Christ.  Could you imagine just how different life would be?!

This the big question is this: “How do I mimic the selflessness of Jesus Christ that we celebrate this Holy Thursday?  Does it get me out of my living room and to the Church this evening?  Does it help me prioritize?  How can I say I selflessly serve?  There are always new chances if one has failed to this point…which is why we celebrate what we celebrate over and over again.  As long as we draw breath, we can change more and more to what we are called to be.  May God bless us all on this Holy Thursday.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

You Like Me, You Really Like Me!...or maybe not

It has not always been easy being Catholic in this country.  From the early settlements of the colonies, English settlers took a very hostile view of those papists joining them in the new world.  It would take over 170 years before a Catholic would be elected to the presidency.  Otherwise, Catholics were to keep to themselves, shoulder outright hate, bigotry, and intolerance.  Then with the age of media, we were treated to some positive images of priests and sisters...singing and kindly.  We saw a Catholic Bishop, Fulton Sheen, have a hit TV show.  Then we elected Kennedy and something changed.  In a speech before Evangelicals in Texas, Kennedy basically promised that would not use his faith in the way he led, he would be a good little protestant dhimmi and be just like them.  No wonder the speech made Sen. Santorum want to puke.  He got elected and Catholics had an epiphany...all we have to do is chuck our faith if we want to be popular.  We could still retain the cultural identification as Catholic, we just didn't have to live any of it or publicly profess any of it.

Then, just off the heels of this epiphany came the sexual revolution.  We might have had problems with this or that teaching of the Church, but now we were free to just let loose.  What better way than to fornicate like bunnies and feel no tinge to that nasty old conscience! We could contracept our way into a new and freeing existence of  all the benefits of marriage without having to marry.  Women were told that marriage and family life weighed them down anyway, but why chuck that ball and chain and have to miss sex?!  When that stodgy old Pope Paul VI put out Humanae Vitae..well we just had in black and white just how out of it the Church was.  It wasn't just lay people either.  Many of those priests and sisters who stayed, after so many left, adopted this new 'freeing' mentality and , well, woo-hoo,  just went to town.  In fact the less that you could act or even look like one of those nasty old relics, the better.  Sure, some people got bent out of shape, but they were humorless puritans.

So we bolted from our faith, dumbed down...I'm sorry...breathed new life into the practices, and acculturated so much worldly wisdom,  that assuredly now they would like us!  65% quit going to Church much at all or completely.  It became fashionable to be a cafeteria Catholic, picking and choosing what teachings we liked or didn't challenge our favored sins.  Surely, the world would love us now!  Of course, the clergy decided that this would be a wonderful time to hand our detractors boatloads of ammunition (not to mention boatloads of money as well) and break their vows of celibacy with children, women, and men.  Okay, it was a small percentage of the clergy...a really small percent...but we bought the narrative that most priests had all the sexual restraint of a teenage boy in a brothel with his dad's credit card.  We bought the premise that most priests were gay or just really weird.  Surely, the world will like us now!  Our convents emptied out!  Our seminaries emptied out!  Surely the world would like as now! Yeah, not so much.

 Catholics are learning that you never negotiate with someone who wants you dead.  While those who abandoned their faith were lauded and gave themselves such non-offensive names like 'recovering Catholic" (get it?  Like a recovering alcoholic? because Catholicism is a disease?  Funny !  Oh never mind) and some became official spokesmen for the Church in the mainstream media and were trotted out like prize turkeys whenever a pope dared cross the pond and drop in.  All the better if a former priest of sister..better yet if a current one who just show how worldly they were in trashing the pope.   But for those who decided to stick it out, the attacks have been relentless.  The more faithful we are, the more they hate us, and we  have to happy with this. Really...happy?! The entertainment industry will continue to portray all clergy and religious as either dolts, Huns, gay, or criminals.   The media will continue to portray faithful Catholics as insipid, ignorant, intolerant, hate filled, half breeds, hypocrites, and nitwits.  The oh-so-smart academic types will continue to doubt our intelligence, our teachings, our rituals, and our faithful with little more than derision and scorn.  Maybe even the government will continue to try to strip away our rights.  SO WHAT!?  My attitude is : BRING IT!

History shows that whenever we are persecuted is when we grow.  When we take the moral high ground and stand our ground without returning their attacks with equal aggression, we prevail.  When we are forced to defend our ground, we have risen time and again to the occasion.  If this sounds defiant..well, that is the point! Truth be told, I don't want the world to like me and approve of me.  I don't need their stamp of approval.  I don't want to be the shape-shifting insecure about who I am person that allows the cool kids to dictate their likes and actions.  In Luke, the Beatitudes bless those who are persecuted and curses those who are liked and approved of by the world.  The Catholic who doesn't see their faith as something worth dying for is the Catholic who doesn't see their faith worth living for.  So to Hollywood...bring it on!  Music industry...bring it!  Government officials...hit us with your best shot!  Media...we're not scared of you!  We came before you, we'll be here long after you.  We have outlasted every kingdom, empire, and trend that has tried to destroy us.  We have survived every foolish self-inflicted wound with which we have struck ourselves.  That is because we have Christ promise that you would never prevail and crush us. We have the power of the Holy Spirit.  We know already who wins the war...and it isn't you!  So bring the grace of God, we're ready! 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Danger of Free

Perhaps the title is a little off...a better title might be the danger of expecting things for free.  The debacle over whether the Church should pay for the contraception and sterilization of her employees has once again brought this discussion to a head. Even after the 'accommodation' which was nothing of the such, the administration decided that the insurance companies should give out free contraception and sterilization for employees of Catholic institutions.  At least the administration is being consistent.  They are also purporting free education, free college, free food (food stamps), free medical care, and the list goes on and on.  On the surface this seems compassionate, that we provide for those who cannot for themselves.  Seems to be consistent with Church and biblical teaching one could say.  However, it is not nor it is good for the recipient if this deluge of free stuff creates a permanent bond of neediness and helplessness.  Ideally, assistance should lead the receiver to an ability to stand on their own and not to a state of perpetual neediness.  I will say here, that there are some exceptions to this rule; those with severe handicaps for example.

So why is it dangerous?  The answer is on several levels.  First, when a country is divided into a country of providers and a country of takers, it will foment division.  When free things are given to the able bodied without expectation of it being temporary, it robs the person of the reason to get back on one's feet.  Why work when I can receive the necessities of life for free?    However, the help slowly becomes not enough.  The person will inevitably want more and more.  Why?  Because there is something within most people that wants to be in a better position tomorrow than they were today.  If I can get this sum through no effort now, why should I not receive more through no effort tomorrow?  One will look at how those who have worked hard receive and become envious than they can move ahead and thus provide for a better tomorrow.  This provokes envy on the part of the person who receives for free.  Instead of seeing how this happens, the entitlement mentality takes over and the demands increase.  This entitlement mentality will spread like a cancer to all parts of the human person, producing a like effect on on all parts.  The entitlement mentality spawns a learned helplessness and a voracious neediness that cannot be satiated.  No amount of other people's wealth will satisfy the bottomless pit of is no longer a is an expectation.

Along with this expectation and its attendant helplessness comes an absconding of responsibility and accountability for one's life and one's actions.  The favorite question of the entitled is "who are you to judge me?"  This only flows from a person who is first unwilling, then dives into unable, to accept responsibility for the results their lifestyle engendered.  It's not my fault I am poor...the rich man stole it from me.  It's not my fault I don't have a good education, the government didn't spend enough money on me.  It's not my fault I have a child out of wedlock, I didn't get free contraception and personal servant to make sure I used it.  It's not my fault.  Nothing is my fault.  Everything is someone else's fault.  The lasting damage of everything being free is the damage it does to human integrity and dignity.

This goes into the spiritual as well.  As nothing is my fault, I am owed even heaven.  The practice of faith, since it requires effort, is laid aside.  Here is where the phrases that start with "My God... doesn't judge, doesn't make demands, doesn't require, loves me no matter what and will allow me into heaven no matter what and if he doesn't...well then HE is unfair and lacks mercy."  The role of faith, if one is to engage in it is to coddle, stroke the ego, entertain, and make me feel special.  The role of God is much like the role of everyone give me stuff without question, condition, or expectation of results.  Is it any wonder as entitlement has grown in this country, church attendance has plummeted?  There is a direct and logical correlation!

The reception of free stuff, though, is built upon a total deception.  Nothing is free.  All the benefits received, someone else pays for.  In this country, for example, the loads of free things comes out of the pockets of the producers...those who work hard and pay taxes.  The 'free' contraception and sterilization insurers of Catholic institutions comes from the premiums collected from those institutions and their employees.  Even our faith, a free gift from God, came at the cost of the Cross.  Someone pays.  That is life.  Because someone pays means there are people who do accept responsibility and accountability for their actions.  Those are the people who make things work.  When they give, it is not so as to fulfill some mandate or law, it is to give freely from themselves for the sake of another, which is a positive act of love.  This reality needs to be responded to by the receiver.

When I was a child and would receive gifts from my grandparents for either Christmas or my birthday, my parents had the full expectation that a thank you note would be written to the giver of the gift.  My parents wanted me to understand that what was given to me was not tribute brought by subservient grandparents to their royal grandchild who was owed at least whatever they brought, but a gift from a loving grandparent.  I think about, from time to time, how much smoother things would have gone in my youth had I realized all the free stuff I received (food, clothes, housing, etc) I actually had because my parents worked hard and made sure their children were taken care of.  They taught me to be quick with thanks yous.  Whether that thank you is directed at the servers for serving Mass, the multiple volunteers who make this parish work, the friends whose support and friendship I know I have...that thank you helps me to focus on my blessings and not on my lack of luxuries.  Finally my thank yous to God remind me that all I have is pure gift from God, not tribute God gives me because I am such a wonderful person.  In short, thankfulness is the antidote to entitlement.  If you don't think so, watch what happens when an entitled person is told how thankful they should be for what they have.

Entitlement, by its nature, breeds division born from greed , sloth , and envy.  It pits people against people in a bull rush for their piece of the pie.  It breeds class warfare and assuredly crushes any nation that embraces it as a way of life.  It destroys the bond between man and God.  Thankfulness has the opposite effect.  It binds into an intertwined union specifically because it causes the person to move beyond the self.  Finally thankfulness draws us ever closer to God because it opens our eyes not to just what God can do but what God has done.  As God gives all things for free, our hearts should be overwhelmed with thanks and drawn ever closer to God.  If we can start there, then perhaps we could be thankful in the public realm as well. 

This country is a mess.  Our politicians, for years, have garnered votes by promising this or that to voters, making what they promise sound like it is for free.  It isn't.  The government has no monies of its own without the taxes and fees they gather.  Every food stamp, every subsidy, every free to you item was paid for by the taxpayer and the consumer.  I would hope those who are on the take would understand this and quit demanding more free stuff on someone else's dime.  If they want more, then perhaps ( and I know this is a novel idea) get off your butt and person should revel in a parasitical relationship with the world around them.  Nothing is free on this planet,  So buck up and get moving and quit demanding everyone else bring you tribute because you simply are owed it because you happen to breathe in and breathe out.  Now, I will step off my soapbox!

Friday, March 2, 2012

Why is the Church sticking to her guns? Behind the reason to fight the HHS mandate.

editor's note: This fight with HHS and the Administration is beyond mere politics or even mere religious strikes at the heart of our beliefs.  Hence, the beliefs themselves must be addressed.

    Over the past year or so, I have studied more and more the teachings of Blessed John Paul II concerning love, marriage, and human sexuality.  They flow from the book “Love and Responsibility’ he wrote long before becoming the pope.  The teachings that flowed from this revolutionary book designed to explain Catholic moral teaching on human sexuality and marriage, was an answer to the common acceptance of most Catholics to artificial contraception, and the lesser acceptance of abortion, divorce, and such.  These teachings are the basis of a program called Theology of the Body.  Whereas most Catholics and non-Catholics would characterize incorrectly Catholic sexual moral teachings as a litany of ‘that shall nots’ and a belief that women should be baby factories, Blessed John Paul II comes from a different angle; an angle that wants to see the creative and inherent beauty of human sexuality as something to be treasured and respected as a part of the respect owed to the individual as whole.  For Blessed John Paul II, the mystery of God is written into our very bodies and into the totality of our entire being.  He points out how all Church teaching on sexuality flows from this positive vision of the inherent dignity and integrity of the human person.    Hence, the Church’s teaching on sexuality, now under incredibly heavy fire, flow entirely from the complete respect for the integrity and dignity of each human person; a person to be respected on all levels of their beings, including their sexuality.
    When God commands humanity upon its creation to ‘be fruitful and  multiply’, it is a command flowing from the fact that God wants us to participate in His power to create new life born from love.  The tools of that power are holy and special and to be treated as such.  However, over time two camps developed that got this wrong.  One was a type of puritanical misunderstanding which saw the human body and sexuality as evil, lesser, and ugly…something to be ashamed of and avoided.  The other was one that saw human body and sexuality as a mere means to an end where the individual was served to self-seeking ends.  Both reduced this great and wonderful gift of God to something tawdry and shameful, as if the divine gift to create new life born from mutual self-giving love was a divine mistake.  It is about the nature of love, particularly marital love, that the Bl. John Paul II wanted to recapture.  For him, the body was not an ugly and shameful thing, nor was human sexuality.  Both are gifts from God to be respected and loved.
    Catholic teachings on human sexuality flow from the use of that sexuality in the manner for which it was given; to be an act that is mutually self-giving (not self-taking) love and from which will naturally flow a stronger union and the possibility of new life.  The Church does not believe that sex is solely for ‘baby-making’ but neither is it only for pleasure.  The church sees the human person as an integrated whole: mind, soul, and body.  Anything that takes away from the dignity of that integrated whole is seen as problematic if not outright dangerous.  From this understanding flows our teachings on artificial birth control (which does not respect the integrity of the body, mind, or soul), pre-marital sexuality (which simulates an act for a reason for which it wasn’t given),  pornography ( a complete breakdown of any respect for any part of the human person)and the other teachings about the correct use of human sexuality.  These flow from high ideals to be sure, but does not all of our teachings?  Self-giving love is the very foundation of all actions, words, motivations, teachings, and actions found in our Scriptural teachings and in the teachings that flow with and from them.  The same foundation must be present for all.  This is why the Church cannot back away from her teachings on birth control and other sexual teachings; to do so is to strike at the very foundation of that self-giving love of God from which our common lives flow!  Self- giving love (aka agape) is the rock upon which our faith is built, it is the very nature of God, and hence to be the very foundation of our own human lives.
    This stands in stark contrast to how the world views the human person.  History over the millennia shows that humanity has viewed itself more as a herd animal (albeit a highly developed one) that operates on little more than instinct.  Our culture, especially from the 1960’s and on, has seen sexual expression as a basic right to be followed without any real sense of respect for others and as a function of animal instinct.  This was an over reaction to the equally wrong ‘shame and angst’ version of human sexuality.  We went from ‘if it feels good it must be bad’ to ‘if it feels good, do it’ without stopping anywhere in the sane middle to ask what are the deeper issues.  When the sexual revolution of the 1960’s broke wide open, it brought startling repercussions:  an increase in unwed pregnancies (in some communities the norm), abortion, abortafacients  (the pill, the morning after pill, RU-486,  IUD),  a myriad on new and fatal STD’s (HIV-AIDS being the scariest of these), and helped to contribute to the assault and destruction of the family unit in this country.  This was as Pope Paul VI wrote in his letter on human sexuality, “Humanae Vitae” which was widely panned by secular leaders and even some religious leaders but was all too correct on what would happen if the contraceptive mentality were to take hold.  Both Paul VI and Bl. John Paul II knew that God wanted so much more for His people.  The Church, in her teachings, knows that God does want what is the absolute best for us because of His self-giving love for us!  That does not mean it will be easy. 
    Catholic teaching always wants to flow from the self-giving love of God and challenge us to make that love our own way of doing things.  This is why the Church will not back down from this fight with the administration even if 100% of Catholics disregard the teachings on contraception.  We hold to those high ideals and challenge ourselves to reach them through God’s grace.  I know not all that have used contraception did so with expressed evil in mind, but as a practical solution to a problem they have.  Most people think the church teaches what she does about sexuality because it views sexuality as shameful.  Quite the opposite is true.  Because we view human sexuality as so precious and special, we want to protect its integrity as we would any other part of the human person.  When we fail to treat that sexuality with respect, as happened in the clerical sexual scandals of the last 50 years or so, it brings confusion and pain.  We are capable of better all around!
    For this reason, we have been using the Theology of the Body series in our Middle School, Confirmation Class, and marriage preparation classes.  Because this teaching wants to appeal to our higher, stronger, and better selves, we are using it extensively.  Items on this are also available in our parish library.  Remember, as Catholics we always strive through the grace of God to be the best version of ourselves.  That includes the use of our sexuality as well.