Saturday, January 28, 2012

Why have Catholic Schools? Thoughts on Catholic Schools Week

This week is Catholic Schools Week in this country, a time when we celebrate the Catholic parochial school system, interparochial schools and High Schools, and other Catholic Institutions of learning.  The teaching of our youth in both the ways of the faith and in the other areas of education have long been an important part of our Mission as  a church.  Parochial schools in this country have been in the forefront in many ways.  We established schools among the Native American peoples when most others were disinterested. We had the first desegregated  schools system in this country when the St Louis Catholic School system ended segregation in its school system, almost decade before segregation was struck down by the US Supreme Court.  We can look at great saints in this country such as St Elizabeth Ann Seton and St. John Nuemann who were champions of the early parochial schools in this country.  These schools grew despite the bias and prejudice leveled against Catholics.  These schools help to provide Catholic identity for generations of students through the American centuries.  We have a great legacy in our possession.

There has been much criticism leveled at Catholic Schools.  Some say they are a hiding place for the wealthy and elite who want their children away from the riff raff of public schools even though Catholic schools will bring in such students in an effort to help.  The popular media likes to portray the nuns who staffed schools for many decades as humorless witches who took delight in tormenting children even though many nuns happily served for most of their life in the education of our youth and most were good people.  Some say our schools have lost their Catholic identity and look and act no different than their public counterparts.  In some respects this has happened, but it is my experience that this is easily remedied and I have found both my teachers and administrators in the 4 Catholic schools over which I have been pastor most amendable to suggestions I have mad to bolster Catholic identity and change over catachetical programs.  In fact, I found our teachers and administrators to be overall good people, very active in other aspects of the parish other than the school, and dedicated to the Catholic mission even though teaching at a Catholic School means a substantial lessening of salary as compared to what they could get for the same position in a public school.

In my homily this evening, I reminded the congregants who were there for the Mass opening the Catholic School week, that we as a Church, are in, for lack of a better phrase, the business of the salvation of souls.  Our Mission is the Mission of Jesus Christ, through and through.  Any program or thing that is done in a parish is to be about the salvation of souls (as we see in this weekend's Gospel) and thus to share in prophetic role of Jesus Christ to announce and exemplify the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Our schools must be connected entirely in the proclamation of the Gospel and model themselves exclusively after Christ.

I also remarked that the message we hear in our education (which had better be the Gospel...otherwise great harm is inflicted) and in our Church's teachings are not the only message vying for the ears of our children.  Between basketball games this afternoon, I watched a selection of shows on channels who aim at our children.  I was appalled at the messages and models regularly presented as normative behavior.  Adult authority figures (parents & teachers) were portrayed as self-involved, distant, clueless, cruel, easily dismissible characters made to be circumvented or ignored.  Kids were precocious  know-it-alls.  Teen boys were either betrayed as hopelessly insecure and nerdy or as suave users with the moral compass of a tapeworm.  Teen girls were portrayed as hopelessly insecure or so absolutely mean and manipulative as to be outright demonic.  I will not even get into the hedonistic lyrics set to awful tunes that most music is.  The point is that parents need to be vigilant that the message consumed by their children at home and in how they entertain themselves does not undo what we teach them as matters of faith and morals.  There must be a consistent message or the purpose for having Catholic schools becomes undone.  Now, undoubtedly, some will read this and remark that we can't hide this stuff from children.  My answer is to ask whether you allow your children to eat from a garbage can or swim in a sewer lagoon?   Of course not, you protect your children from such things because of the adverse effect it has and explain how these things are dangerous and harmful.  That would be part of the parents' duty of being the primary teacher of their children.  If we wouldn't allow them to partake in things that would actively destroy their bodies which will eventually die many decades form now, why on earth would we allow them to engage in activities that will destroy their souls that are eternal?  The Catholic education given in our schools cannot end once the student leaves the school must continue throughout the rest of the day!   This is why I politely remind our parents (okay..not always so politely) that when the absent themselves from Mass on the weekends, they are undoing one of the core reasons we have Catholic Schools.  There can be no mixed message.

I, as a pastor, have absolutely no interest in running a private school.  None.  I am very interested in running a Catholic School.  Catholicism as we rightly teach it is not a light switch we turn on and off as a matter of convenience.  It is meant to inform and effect everything about us.  This is the foremost mission of the Church and any institution that calls itself Catholic.  As Catholics, we must remember, it is not our job to make the the faith more like the world, but to make the world more like our faith.  To do that, we must be armed with truth and not allow ourselves or our children to be influenced by worldly wisdom with its tales of violence, hedonism, materialistic attitudes driven by greed and envy, selfishness, revenge, and its cheap and disposable attitude about the value of life.  We, as adults in the Church, both parents, educators, and clergy are to be the watchmen at the gates and those who train our children when it becomes their turns to be those sentinels.  We have seen what happens when the aforementioned groups fail in these responsibilities, or worse yet, act in union with the enemy and prey upon our youth...we must want what is good and that which faithfully passes on our Catholic faith to the next generation.  That is why we have Catholic schools.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Transference, Barney, and Rebellion: Things to avoid in following God's will

The readings for this week have been so wonderfully apropos for this week where we as a Church remember vocations and pray for them during Vocations Awareness Week. Hopefully this isn't news to you.  The first reading are from I Samuel, with yesterday's being the call of Samuel.  This reading happens to be the 1st reading for this weekend.  While the young Samuel is mistaking the call of God for the voice of the priest, Eli, finally Eli understands that God is calling the boy and tells Samuel to respond with "speak, Lord, you servant is listening."  What a bold statement!  This statement is supposed to be at the heart of every Christian every day.  The responsorial psalm for that day (and coincidentally this weekend as well) has the response of "Here I am, Lord, I come to do your will."  Again, another simple statement that should be at the center of how we live. Were every Catholic to really capture this, all of the problems we experience within the Church would simply dry up.  Vocation crisis? Gone!  Scandals within the Church?  Never would have happened?  Numbers of practicing Catholics dwindling?  Not any more? I could go on and on with this list, the upshot is that if we were to live out these two simple sentences, there would profound change and great good.  So why isn't it happening?

My first guess is a what I would call a simple case of transference.  We become suspect when we hear that we are called to do God's will.  We transfer onto God what He means by that with what we mean by that.  We know that our wills can be awful self-centered.  We know that we can want other people to do our will because it suits us to have them to do so.  In this light, God comes across as a eternal me-monkey  with a colossal ego that needs to be stroked lest He go all Rambo on you.  We assume that God is every bit as self-centered as humanity and bristle at the idea of having to serve such a megalomaniac!   However, God is not such.  Instead of being self-centered, He is other centered, that is, he loves us and wants what is best for us now and for all eternity.  He watches out for us and want to protect us.  When He asks us to do His will, He asks us to be other-centered (that is to be truly loving) as He is and thus to watch out for the true good around us. 

My second guess would be what I call the "Barney Syndrome".  In this scenario we accept that God loves us.  We even believe that God unconditionally loves us and wants what is best.  Where the breakdown starts is that in believing these things we fail to make the jump that we are called to model out behavior on His.  God becomes the Great Enabler.  Instead of "Here I am Lord, I come to do your will", the response becomes "Turn the other way God, I want to do my will!"  God's job is to rubber stamp whatever I want to do.  Furthermore He is suppose to bless it as if I were doing His will!  This God doesn't have a hell because everybody gets into heaven, unless, like, you know, you're like Adolf Hitler and stuff.  The morality bar is set as low as needed to accommodate whatever it is I want to do.  The problem here is that if we enter into a relationship with God, a relationship necessary for heaven, then the love goes both ways. As with a good marriage where the two spouses are actively concerned with the other person's needs , our relationship with God is bound on our looking out for God's will (which as above said, looks out for our good) as He looks out for what we need.  God blesses this.  God, however, is not one to taunted, ignored, or dismissed.  He is not the great enabler.  He allows us to make our choice about whose will we follow and then bear out the consequences of those choices.

My third guess is outright rebellion. In the story of Samuel, Samuel is given to the High Priest, Eli, because Samuel is called to serve the Lord.  Eli has to sons who are priests as well: Phineas and Hophni.  They were self-centered men who has the audacity to steal from God what was His during the sacrifices.  Not only were they indifferent to God, they were outright hostile.  Their response to God wasn't "Here I am Lord, I come to do your will" it was "Go away God, I am going to do my will." Phineas and Hophni push away the hand of God because they have no desire for a relationship with God, especially a relationship that will require them to change.  Without God's hand, they are destroyed.  This story is repeated over and over again.  God does not want such things to happen, but He allows the consequences of our choices to happen if we are insistent upon it.  On a slightly separate note: why we think as Americans, that we can push God out of the public sphere, routinely mock Him and those in relationship with Him, replace Him with materialism,  lust for power, hedonism, and materialism, how we can surgically excise from any avenue of our school children's life, mock His existence,  pile corpse upon corpse with our violence, abortion, and disregard for the basic needs of other and then have the audacity to demand that His only job, if He exists at all, is to make happy and bless whatever it is I want...just baffles me!

The point is that we are called to rise above transference,  Barney, and rebellion and follow God in our lives knowing that His will is always oriented towards our collective best interest.  There is no reason to be afraid.  If we want the vocations we collectively need, it will be in having the faith to say "Here I am Lord, I come to do your will."  If we want true peace in our parishes and to be free from scandals of all sort, then again, we will have to conform our will to God's.  If we want true unity and peace in our country, it will come from living, actually living, the Gospel which calls us for defer to each other in imitation of Christ.  If we want strong marriages and family life, then it will only be through this mutual submission of will for the good of others.  God is not a rubber stamp to approve of a life divorced from His will, nor is he a giant purple doofus who enables reckless and selfish behavior, nor is He one who is to mocked.  He wants what is truly good for us and leads us to peace.  We have to want that to!  How will you, the reader, live up to "Here I am Lord, I come to do your will" today?  How will your life reflect that?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Looking for Love in all the Wrong Places

Today is the New Hampshire Primary.  The good people of NH will have to chose between 5 imperfect candidates that the GOP has trotted out for this year's election.  Then will come South Carolina.  Before you know it it will be Super Tuesday, then the Convention and the GOP will put their flawed candidate against the flawed Democrat candidate, we will pick the one who we believe will do the lesser damage and rest for a few months before we start talking about the 2016 presidential elections.  In November, millions of flawed individuals will vote for their flawed candidates and we will be saddled with 4 years of flawed leadership.  Now, before anyone thinks I have finally jumped in the deep end of the pool of cynicism, I am still in the kiddy pool.  All these flawed people are just your average human beings.  My only compliant is that we will have all these flawed individuals voting  based out of their vested interest, whether or not that interest is in the best interest of the country as a whole.  We wonder why things are a mess.

This is nothing new under the sun.  It is probably exacerbated by voters who think the only job of government is to make their personal life better.  It does not matter whether it is the person who thinks if only the government would quit taking boatloads of their money, their lives would be so much better or it the person who believes that if the government would only send them boatloads on someone else's money their lives would be so much better, it is all the same.  It is the same template: Candidate A or B will get me what I want so I will vote for candidate A or B.  Want to guess why we are in so much debt with no real will to not keep piling up more debt?  So it goes, even if for me to get what I want means other people have to be plundered or forgotten, so be it.  Such is the lot for those who place their faith in the things of this world: wealth, power, and pleasure.

Me?  I don't place my hope and my future on the whims of politics or politicians.  It seems a foolish thing to do. Not to sound like a certain evangelical TV preacher who has a tendency to sound dotty once in a while, I think we are trying to find answers for the bigger questions in life from those incapable of answering them.  While I do want a happy life, I know that most of that happiness will come from my decisions and choices and from what I hold to be important.  No government official can do that for me.  It is unfair to believe any person can.  I decided on another rout about a year and half ago.  What worried me was my finances.  I was deeply in debt and worried about how I would ever be able to catch up.  I went through cycle of running up bills, getting loans to pay bills, running up bills again, and so on.  Finally, I knew the only way to combat this was to change the routine.  Over the next 18 months I paid off all of the debt without taking on loans.  That meant living simply.  No movies (okay, 1), no concerts, simple vacations, very little new anything. Now the debt is gone, I found out that living simply suited me, and I do not worry about finances now.  In this process, I found the endless pursuit of more and better had left me with lots of stuff I didn't need or use and a mountain of debt.  No government official can do that for me!  I don't need someone else's money to make me happy, I am more at peace now than I have ever been.  But financial freedom is not the only reason or the major reason.

The major reason is that, although I am a priest,  I had let love for the things of this world get in the way of my devotion to God.  I used material wealth to try and satiate what should have been God's.  Now, that relationship with God expands because I have found His grace and help to be more satisfying than anything this world had to offer.  How do you think I was able to have the self-control to pay off the debt?  I asked for His help.  I also found that without the worries of the world pressing down on me, I was much more effective as a priest because my head was where it needed to be.  Furthermore, it has affected how I am a pastor and how I guide this parish of which I am pastor.  I now know why Canon Law tells priest to live simple lives. Silly me for not taking it seriously.  My happiness does not hinge on a politician and their empty promises nor on the accumulation of this world's goods.  I found a place that was worthy of my devotion and love; my parish, My relationship with God, my family, and my friends.

My attitude about politics is simple: good governance enables the individual to what is good and right.  Such is not the case with our government.  Our government forces people in the medical  professions to act against their conscience when it comes to abortion and contraception.  It provokes greed and envy as a way of getting votes.  It provokes class warfare and any other divisive means it can to cater to the absolute worst in humanity.  It is reckless.  Placing my faith there?  Not so much!  I want better!   It rewards the old abandonment of faith for Catholics if they wish to win in public office.  The old "I will not allow my faith to influence how I vote" is a load of nonsense.  If faith means nothing in the public prevue, then why bother having it?   Faith is not a talisman meant to hedge our bets just in case there is some divine entity out there who doesn't mind being routinely ignored.  You vote where your faith and happiness lie; as Christ said," where your treasure is, there your heart will be."  I have seen the crap that the world unloads as treasure.  It is temporary and destructible and can be seized at any given moment.  So I am not looking for love there.  No one who calls themselves a Christian should.  Civil governments have failed for millennia  to provide universal happiness.  Why do we keep looking to them?  Elections come and go.  The same exact promises have been made every election cycle for as long I can remember with little to no positive change.  I want more and better, which is why I am looking for love, so to speak, in all the right places.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Looking For Help in all the Right Places

One of the beauties about being a Catholic is that there is no expectation that we go it alone.  We belong to a church that is crawling on being 2000 years old and stretches into eternity.  There are over 1 billion of us on this planet now and at least that many that came before us.  We are connected to the saints in heaven as a matter of believing that the death and resurrection of Christ, as St Paul tells us in Romans, has destroyed the veil of death that separated us from God and each other.  Most importantly, we are the adopted sons and daughters of God, through Baptism, who are children of a God who desperately loves us, wants what is good for us, and gives us a continual stream of His grace to enable us to continually fulfill the mission of Jesus Christ and  to lead us in a life of true peace and contentment.  If we utilize all of this, how can we fail?  If we allow ourselves to engage in the will of God, we are guaranteed final victory!
    All of this said, it does come down to our making the choice to utilize these things in our mission as a parish.  Too often, we can follow the wisdom (or lack thereof) of the world which tells us that if we are to succeed in life, it will be only through the hard work of our own efforts and in the gathering of all the benefits from that work to oneself.   We live in a world that encourages us to turn inward; we belong to a faith which demands we turn outward.  We live in a world that tells us that life is all about what we can get (and by any means necessary); we belong to a faith that tells us life is all about what we give.  This world leaves us as a group of isolated individuals who have no choice but to argue and fight with one another over the scraps of this world; we belong to a faith that binds us together as a family rooted in mutual interest and towards a common goal.  We have to choose which side we wish to belong.
    If we look at the main mission of the Church, to gather the nations into one with God and one with each other ( cf Mathew 28:18-20,  John 17:20-21), and we are members of that familial bond known as the Body of Christ through our baptism, then God will give us all we need to accomplish this task.  In our goal this year of calling back all who have fallen away from the practice of the faith, we do not walk alone.  We walk with each other, with the company of the saints, and most importantly, we do it with the grace of God.
    Most important is the grace ( the unmerited help and aid of God) that God gives us to accomplish the mission to which He has set us and the grace He gives us to live faithfully to the Gospel of Christ.  As Catholics, we have concrete avenues of grace in the sacraments of the Church, all established by Christ Himself, and in the day to day actual grace God gives us to navigate out day to day lives.  It is always present and awaits our positive choice to use it.  The more we mindfully engage in the use of this grace, the more joy we find and the more we are able to stand to the tasks our faith requires of us.  It gives us the courage to invite back, it gives us the depth to provide a good example, and it gives us the strength to bounce back from indifference and hostility to our faith.  Seek out that grace when you feel inept, afraid, troubled by temptation, and consumed by the world’s ‘wisdom’.   Grace reminds us that God does not create us slaves of the world, but creates us as free men and women who are not bound by fear, apathy, or weakness!
    God does not have us walk alone and without examples to bolster our resolve that the life of Christ can be lived and lived in triumph.  He gives us the intercession of the Blessed Mother and the saints.  He gives us their example.  He gives us their friendship.  They have but one task: to give glory to God and to pray for us.  We can look to their lives and see how they overcame sin through God’s grace, how they stayed steadfast in the world in which they lived, and how their living of the faith inspired others to live the faith as well.  Their lives remind us that no mountain is ever so high as to be a permanent hindrance.  They evangelized.  They gave themselves over to the will of God despite persecution and ridicule. Because they cooperated with the will of God and lived lives that professed Christ, they now stand before God eager to help and eager for us to be joined with them.  We do well to ask for their help and intercession.  We do well to use the examples of their lives to remind us what can be done.  With so powerful intercessors before God, cooperating with Christ who wants us to be joyful and successful in His Mission, again, how can we lose heart or be afraid?
    Finally God also gives us each other as companions in His mission and as brothers and sisters who look out for each other’s good.  There is no person ever baptized into the Body o Christ who does not somehow share in its mission.  We are to help each other and encourage each other along the way.  The idea that the Body of Christ should be so fractured in this world with Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant congregations out of union with one another and then split within themselves, is a sad testament to man’s desire for power.  Divisions cannot be nurtured or apathetically allowed to exist.  This is especially true in two areas within the Church: divisions with congregations and indifference or hostility towards vocation.  There are no sins or past grievances that are so total that they must infest a parish continually.  These grievances usually come down to an anger that someone else got their way and I didn’t.  We are not each other’s competition nor are we to be each other’s judge and jury.  When these things happen, it shows that the focus of the person is worldly (self-centered) instead of Godly (other centered).  We can not be worldly and expect anything but division and strife.    It will also weaken us as people ignore their vocation (which by its nature seeks to serve as God wills) and place ‘success’ on how much power, wealth, and pleasure can be gained at any cost. A people who are looking out for each other are naturally going to be inclined to seek God’s help in finding out where within the Body of Christ they are best suited to serve.  We need our own to see marriage as a vocation from God to help build up the fundamental building blocks of the Church (the family) from which arise the next group of priests, deacons, and religious.  We need our current families to be incubators of young people who will fearlessly seek and follow God’s will, and  if it be to the priesthood and religious life, that it be pursued with vigor and courage.  The stronger we are within the parish, the stronger the ability to fulfill the mission we set ourselves to in following Christ.  God gives us this grace, let US as individuals within the parish and as a parish together be bound by the Eucharist we commonly receive to be what God calls us to be: a city on hill that bears light and witness to the transforming power of God!  We do not ever walk alone in these tasks!

Monday, January 2, 2012

2012: To Apocolypse or not to Apocolypse

I have a feeling that there are going to be a lot of relieved people this time next year and more than a few bummed.  This is 2012, you know, the year the whole shooting match is supposed to go up in a glorious frenzy of mayhem and destruction.  Maybe it will be some Mayan doodah (even though they are saying not so much), maybe it will be Planet X (I cannot remember the actual name of this destroyer sounds like a Star Trek character that Kirk tries to hit on), maybe it will be a financial meltdown (a little more true to the situation), or maybe God is just going to have a cosmic fit, decrying just how much of a mess we have made of things.  Likely answer is will be screaming about the election still next year, with more than a few ready to cue up REM's "It the End of the World as We Know It" because their guy was cheated out of a win.  Likely we will still be wondering at what juncture we can collapse the economy.  I have a feeling that there are a lot of people who just want it to end...with them on the winning side.

I sense there are a lot of tired people out there.  The news has become an exercise in propaganda that takes a break from schilling for whatever candidate they like long enough to let us know of the murder,the natural disasters, and to let us in on whatever the heck the radicals Muslims are outlawing this week.  We see the economy in that drunken state of a partier who has a lot of New Year's Eve  and will have a really obnoxious hangover tomorrow.  We see our own country breaking down along so many ethno/gender/orientation/economic fault lines that the melting pot look more like the 1968 DNC convention rather than the smarmy 70's Coke commercial in which we wanted to play vocal coach to the world.  Were the Statue of Liberty made today...well she would be giving a New York City Peace Sign to her own citizens.  We are seemingly told to choose between the self-indulgent envy ridden OWS crowd and the greedy too much is not enough unrestricted capitalists. The entertainment industry is so absolutely banal and hyper-sexualized (and mind you pumping their 'art' into our homes and ears at record paces) that it is only a matter of time when we will have shows that make 2 and half men look like Sesame Street.  What sane person wouldn't want to see this all crash down?!

Me?  No.  I mean, do not get me wrong.  I would like to see us get along.  I would like to see us live within our means and be content with simplicity.  I would like to see respect restored to human sexuality.  I would like to see and hear aesthetically pleasing music and art.  I would like to see people to quit sweating the small stuff and learn how to slow down and just be quiet for a while.  I would like the triumph of beauty and grace to trump the ugliness and banality of this mass produced consumer world.  Call me a naive fool, but I think this is all possible!  Why?  Because of my Catholic Faith.  I know that God loves his creation so much so that He sends His Son as one of us (which is why we celebrate Christmas).   I know that because God loves us we cannot go so far as to be at the point of no return.  That people can be made better by God's grace gets me up in the morning.  It gets me into the pulpit and education programs.  It drives my vision of the future.  So I do not give up nor do I want to.

2012 will come and go.  The question is will we learn anything?  Will we finally learn that material goods do not guarantee happiness?  Will we learn that debasing the human person never leads anywhere good? Will we learn to see what draws together in common and not focus on the nitpicking differences we have?  Some will, most won't.  But such things keep me in a job:)  So there you Mayan calender or planet X or financial collapse will save us from having to be better people.  Take the chance now to be the person God created you to be and to be the best version of that person you can be.  God gives us the help...why not use it.  Better to face the future with hope than to await a boogeyman who will save us from having to change.  A Happy 2012 to you all!