Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Pastoral Letter to our Youth

While this is directed at our youth, I invite parents, grandparents, and other interested parties to read as well.  Perhaps, this can become the jumping off point for some very fruitful discussions.

            Last weekend, Pope Francis confirmed 44 teenagers, including two from the Untied States.  In the homily for the Mass he reminded them that as they continued to grow that they were to not look like the world around them, but to be a positive alternative of faith.  He told them “swim against the tide, it is good for the heart.”   We all know that this isn’t easy.

            I do not envy you for the world that you are growing up in these days.  Truth be told, though, it has never been easy.  You get many mixed messages: rebel but conform, be tolerant and intolerant, be good but enjoy bad, be generous but be self-centered.  There is nothing new in that.  Your parents, grandparents, and I grew up with the same mixed messages.  What makes you different is the overwhelming volume in which you get it.  Your parents and I grew up in a time before 24/7 TV, the internet, smart phones (or even cordless phones), i-pods, and such.  The access that the voices had to send us these messages were few and far in between. You cannot get away from it.

            Our age group just had to get good grades to get into the college of our choice.  You have to have the grades, a list of extra-curricular activities, and volunteer work to get in.  We were taught self-esteem is a by-product of achievement and you were taught that self-esteem is something to itself.  You grow up in a culture far more hostile to faith of any kind.  You belong to a generation who lost 25% of that generation before they drew their first breath due to abortion.    You grow up in a society, which for all its scientific advances, has become angrier, more isolated, depressing, and frustrating.   You have a fundamental decision: Will you stand with or in contrast to the society?  Can you change it for the better or participate in its decline? I would imagine which of the two we your fellow parishioners would like you to do!

            So there is challenge to standing up in contrast to this society.  It is one that requires a fresh way of thinking and acting.  It is a way that requires strength, courage, and internal nobility.  For some of you, those qualities are already well exhibited.  For some of you, those qualities are growing.  But let’s be honest, for some, those qualities are being drowned out by a whole host of outside forces.  These forces tell you that your church and other authorities are nosy killjoys for asking you to wait till marriage to engage in physical sexuality, for asking you to not get drunk and/or high, for asking you to selflessly serve others, and so on.  They tell you that everything you should want should make you money, give you pleasure, be fun, or demand nothing of you.  They tell you that it is too hard or unfair to live up to these standards.  Be aware, though, that these voices will use you to their own ends and leave you by the wayside when you fall.  You can and must do better and listen to those voices that seek your good both now for all eternity.

            It is because we seek such good things to you, that this parish has ramped up its commitment to you.  However, our commitment means nothing without your brave and positive response.  Your Catholic faith is not a spectator sport; I can assure you that you will get absolutely nothing out faith if you put the same amount into faith! ENGAGE!  Engage our faith!  Engage our parish!  Engage!  As with all things in this life, you will get out of something the commitment you put into it.  I encourage this in that I truly believe each of you has much to offer and are capable of truly astonishing good.  We want to help develop that. The human brain is not fully developed until your 20’s. Your Church wants to help you to mature into the best Catholic and person you can be.  Again, you cannot sit passively by and wait for something to happen…engage!!

            In this parish, we have two major opportunities for you to engage.  One was the mission trip to New Jersey to help others who lives were upended by Hurricane Sandy last year.  That deadline has passed.  The last full week of June, we will have a group called Totus Tuus (Latin for Completely Yours… Bl. John Paul II’s motto).  During the day they will be running a vacation bible camp which you can help in running.  During the evenings they will be running something for High School students.  While it is not necessary for you to come every evening, it would be a true shame if you absented yourself altogether.  In this parish we have a confirmation class that is a class.  You have many voices that will tell you outright lies and half-truths about the Catholic faith.  If you don’t know what we actually believe and why we do, then it will be all too easy to mislead you with those lies.  Our parish is committed to your knowing the truth.  Is it fun?  Does it matter if it is?  That whatever we engage in has to be fun and light IS one of the prevalent lies that society tells you.  Sometimes it is necessary to buckle down and apply oneself. 

            In this diocese, we have 3 major experiences that mix the element of fun with prayer and reflection during the summer.  There is a co-ed retreat called Christpower that focuses on service during the day and a variety of fun and prayer at night.  It is for those currently in High School.  There are two single gender camps : Camps  Siena (for young ladies) and Camp Maccabee (for young men) which focus on being a strong, virtuous, confident, and courageous Catholic leader.  These camps are for those who are current 8th graders- juniors.  More information and the applications are available on the back table in front of the sacristy.   There are several in parish, including myself, who are willing to pay your way to these events because we are invested in your futures.

            You cannot say we are not trying.  However, we do not force either.  Nonetheless, I am being assertive about these things because the other side has your ears so very much more than the Church or God does.  You can approach these as opportunities or you can approach them with excuses.  I realize you have much going on during the summer; however, deepening your faith cannot be regulated to perhaps an hour on Sunday (with many not even doing that) or something that keeps getting pushed down as not a priority.  There is so much that hinges on the effort you willing to make.  We will afford you every opportunity because we believe that you and your futures are that important.  Give us a chance.  Take a chance.  Your parish needs you to engage. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Leaving Laodicea...Apathy Is Not an Option

 ‘And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: 
The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin* of God’s creation:
 ‘I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For you say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.’ 
Revelations 3:14-22

 If you were to ask the Church of Laodicea for a self evaluation, I am sure they would have spoke well of themselves and how they lived the gospel of Christ.  In fact, it would seem that they have become quite self satisfied with their efforts.  My guess, though, is that there would have been little empirical evidence to back this claim up or very little growth.  They had a spiritual apathy, a comfort with the status quo.  However, we know that the status quo is the first step to concreting apathy which eventually leads to atrophy.  Where there is no will to rise to challenges or even to acknowledge challenges, there the proclamation of the Gospel will become tepid and eventually dead.  Where other churches in Revelations are fighting persecution from outside, the church of Laodicea is rotting from within; they are in greater danger of collapse than the others.
Let us look at the church in the diocese.  Like most dioceses, we are seeing a steep decline in people who go to Mass, who get married in the Church, who get baptized, who get confirmed, who have their children educated in Catholic schools, who go into the seminary, who go into the religious life, who get ordained, who contribute, and so on.  Were this any other institution, heads would be rolling for such slides.  We would be demanding  better leadership.  But, where apathy prevails, one will also find a heart of timidity.

Too many times, when we are presented with such scenarios the answer becomes, "Well, let's loosen the rules; let's make it easier,"  Despite the fact that this never works, we keep going back.  This quickest way for people to not take something seriously is by watering down or compromising.  Most of the people who wander away don't simply fall off the face of the planet, they continue searching.  That they believe that the Catholic Church isn't where fulfillment is found is not their failure...it is ours.  Who is the 'our'?  The clergy.  Those who have been charged with the proclamation of the Gospel.  Those who were supposed to teach and preach the Good News.  We grew lukewarm.  As the old Greek saying goes, "The fish rots at the head first!"  This is nothing new.  We cannot lay our problems on the papacy;  the popes of this age have been godly men who were oftentimes the voice of one crying out in the desert.  It is what happens locally.  This is what needs to change.

One of the central messages of the new pope, Francis, is that we clerics must engage our flock and those called to be a part of the flock.  We cannot be prisoners of our rectories or chanceries.  Engaging the flock is the totality of our call.  Relationship is at the center of what we are called to do!  That relationship is likened to a familial bond not as a business relationship.  We, as clerics, as not businessmen.  We need to quit acting like we are.  We are called 'Father', a title of relationship.  This title defines our role within the Church.  We model that fatherhood on the Fatherhood of God, the fatherhood of St Joseph, and the best examples of good dads.  A good dad is engaged in the life of his children.  He actively watches out for their good, their safety, and their future.  He has that divine responsibility as his children belong to God before they belong to him.  A good dad recognizes that and acts accordingly.  By the same token, we are assigned a portion of the flock that belongs to Christ.  Our parishioners belong to Him.  We have the duty of providing and protecting with the same love that Jesus has for them.

It is these thoughts that spur me.  Believe me, there are days when being a prisoner of the rectory sounds good; it sounds safe.  There are times I get overwhelmed and wonder if anyone is listening.  But our call is not towards being safe or being numb.  I look at it this way:  a good baseball batter will get a hit 1 out of every 3 times.  He puts himself in the path of a ball that can reach over 100 MPH.  Inevitably he will get hit by that ball.  Yet, a good batter, keeps going back into the batter's box, even if he is in a dry spell.  I know that being a minister of Christ does not mean I will succeed every time.  I won't. In fact, some of my tries will fail miserably.  But, God doesn't ask me to be successful, He asks me to engage.  It means overcoming fears.
It means stepping outside of my comfort zones.  Some I have conquered, some I still have to conquer.  I have come to the conclusion that apathy is nothing more that a practiced fear of trying.

If we expect to see things turn around, it will by engaging people with the truth of the Gospel.  Not because it feels good.  Many times it won't...especially if we are doing it right.  It means taking highly unpopular stands.  However, I would imagine more people drift away from the Church because of a lack of engagement than leave out of anger at a teaching.  I am not comfortable around teenagers.  Nothing against them.  It is not my strong suit.  Yet, if there be any group that is in danger of being swallowed whole by the errors of our society, it is them.  A good dad does not sit back and watch the wolves devour his children!  The truth, not pablum nor falsehoods, must pour from us like a mighty river.  We must be willing to put our ourselves between those God has placed in our care and those who would dis-spoil them.  We must risk not being liked.  There is not a good dad alive who has not seen a child of his give him a white hot look of hatred for being told they couldn't do something they wanted or had to do something they didn't want to do.  There is not a good dad who hasn't been accused of being unfair, unreasonable, and sucking the fun out of life.  How can we as priests think we should be exempt?  Christ Himself was not exempt from these feelings and accusations.  Yet he perseveres and so should we.

I am still a work in progress and know there are more things I must cooperate with the grace of God to become better at doing and better at being.  But I know any attachment to the status quo must be driven far away.   None us can stay in Laodicea nor encourage others to do so.  Apathy is not our friend, it is our enemy.  As assuredly as Christ drove the money changers out of the temple, so must we drive apathy out of our parishes and diocese.  We must leave Laodicea and buy the gold refined by fire; that is, allowed ourselves to be purified by God's grace and learn to engage.  The people we lead need as much.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Aftermath of Evil

At the writing of this column, pieces were still being put together in the aftermath of the bombings of the Boston Marathon.  At this juncture we did not know who did it and why they did it.  We do know that people died and many more were injured and that there is no excuse that be given why such a thing had to happen.  What we saw was the face of evil.

At the writing of this column, a trial was happening in Philadelphia for the abortionist Kermit Gosnell.  What happened within the confines of his abortion clinic made the savagery of what happened in Boston look calm.  Tales of babies born alive and executed by having their throats slit,   two women losing their lives, decrepit conditions straight out of a horror movie, and a disturbing depravity emerge as details of trial go on.  The media ignored this story until an outcry arose.  What we saw again is the face of evil.

Over my lifetime we have seen that face of evil arise time and again: Columbine, 9/11, Newton CT, Aurora CO, Oklahoma City, and far too many other instances to bear. 
Every week our papers and news programs are full of stories of death, mayhem, violence, and evil.  It should be enough for any sane person to scream out, ENOUGH!  We can feel helpless in the face of such atrocity.  However, we must do something.  Some take the stance if we ban guns, or violent video games, or violent movies, or some other thing that we can rein in such evil. Truth be told, we can ban all these things and so much else and it will not solve the problem.  The problem is the evil that resides in the human heart.  Unfortunately, we cannot legislate that.  However, this leaves far from hopeless.

Our Catholic faith tells us that there is a profound alternative.  I will admit that too many times our Catholic faith has been hijacked by those who called themselves Catholic and used it as a tool of manipulation or a weapon of destruction.  To do so, though, they had to break the very foundations on which our faith is built.  Our faith is built on a very simple premise, a single commandment that Christ gave: Love one another.  This love, of which Jesus speaks, a translation of the Greek word ‘agape’, is a love that is completely self giving.   St. Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, gives an exposition of this love.  He calls it patient and kind, a willingness to seek the good and rejoice in it.  This love spurs us to courage and strength.  It is the very antithesis of evil.

We have seen this love on display many times.  It spurs us to heroic actions.  One of the most powerful pictures of 9/11  involved pictures of first responders, firefighters, police officers, and clerics (like Fr Mychal Judge) running to the twin towers to offer help and assistance, knowing full well that to do so put their lives in jeopardy. 
It rallies the human heart to see such selflessness and bravery.  It is the perfect answer to the face and aftermath of evil.  Evil will happen…our response will determine how deep the aftermath will be.  If we respond with revenge and violence, we perpetuate the aftermath of evil.  If we respond with courage and selfless love, we stem the aftermath of evil and even, perhaps, stop further evil from happening.

Which side wins?  It goes back to a Native American parable about the two wolves that exist within the human heart, one good and one evil.  The one that wins is the one that is fed more.  We would call these two wolves, virtue and vice.  Whether virtue or vice wins is up to each individual.  Hence, each individual either stems or perpetuates evil and its aftermath.  In my own life, I am finding the following disquieting questions ones needing to be answered and changed for the better.  If we truly want to see the violence and evil stemmed, it will begin in our own hearts and in our living it bravely.

My first question in confronting the face of evil is in asking myself how it is that I entertain myself.  Do I see death, violence, and mayhem sources of entertainment?  Our culture certainly does!  Be it violent video games, violent movies, violent music, violent TV shows, and that list goes on…violence has become a mainstay in our entertainment culture.  Taking pleasure in viewing and participating in violence most assuredly does not feed virtue and speaks nothing of selfless love.  It feeds vice, it feeds revenge and it feeds hate and intolerance.  It feeds every depravity of the human heart.  But the entertainment aspect also flows into our culture of gossip.  Why do we feel the necessity to trash another person’s reputation as a way of entertaining ourselves?  Why do we feel the freedom to speculate and badger?  I am no fan of most music as of late, but I look at the likes of a Britney Spears or Justin Beiber and see how they are stalked, ridiculed, belittled, and quite frankly, bullied and wonder why we have the audacity to wonder why these kids implode.  I see it in the digging remarks I make for no other reason than to run my foolish mouth.  We cannot entertain ourselves with evil and expect good to come of it.

My second question is how I respect the dignity and integrity of others.  Evil has respect for neither.   Good is cautious with both.  The first step to fomenting evil is to strip away the humanity of another.  Nazi Germany did this with the Jews.  It was necessary for the propagation of chattel slavery.  It is absolutely necessary for the practice of pornography.  It is absolutely necessary for abortion.  It is needed for gossip and every other evil we inflict.  If I do not respect you as a human being, then it justifies whatever evil I inflict.  If we expect evil to be conquered both in our own hearts and in our society, respecting the dignity and integrity of others is paramount.  Our faith teaches us that our lives are to a reflection of the love of God.  We are taught to treat others as we would want to be treated.  This includes responding with forgiveness.  Forgiveness stops evil in its tracks.

We lack the ability to control the human heart.  No law can change the human heart.  The only thing that changes the human heart is selfless love.  It is our practice of this, or lack thereof, that altars the face and aftermath of evil.  Revenge begets revenge.  Hate begets hate.  If we expect the cycle of evil and its aftermath to ever change for the better, then it will have to change within the hearts of every human person.  While this seems impossible, it was because Christ wanted to afford each of this the means and grace to accomplish that He came and for which he selflessly offered His life on the cross.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Reflections On Good Shepherd Sunday

this is to appear in my parish bulletin for the weekend of  April 20/21 2013

This weekend, we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday.  Around the world, we remember that the Resurrected Christ is the Eternal Good Shepherd who forever provides for and protects His flock.  We give thanks that this Good Shepherd loves us, His flock, so much that He offered His life for us to forever protect us from the dual wolves of sin and death that would otherwise despoil the flock. We know that when Christ was taken up into heaven, it was neither the end of his shepherding nor the end of His physical presence among us as the Good Shepherd.  We believe that He remains among us through the Eucharist through which He continually nourishes the flock.  He also left behind a church whose apostles were charged to continue the teaching of the Gospel and were to encourage the flock to live the Gospel in the most concrete ways possible.  This Apostles appointed deacons to help in the service of the flock and appointed successors to them, known as Bishops, to continue the mission to which Christ had set them.  These in turn appointed priest to assist them in the service of the flock. 

This weekend we ordained 18 men to the permanent diaconate to help in the service of the flock of the Lord.  These men will assist the Bishop and the pastors to whom they are assigned in taking care of the flock of Christ.  It has been my experience over the years that these deacons have been immensely helpful in such a profound task.  However, they are limited in what they can do.  As was the case when I was transitional deacon (a deacon who will go onto to be ordained a priest), they cannot anoint the sick, nor can they give absolution in confession, nor can they confect the Eucharist.  Those areas of service are to be done by priests and bishops.  Were we ever to be in a situation where we were ordaining 18 priests in a year!  Were we to have even 18 total seminarians looking at the possibility of such service!  Alas, though, such is not the case and it is not to the betterment of the Church and the parishes.  We need more to answer this divine call to service.

If we are to expect to ever arrive to such heights it will take a major change of heart.  Many will say that we experience such shortages because we only ordain unmarried males.  As we saw with the media swarm around the election of Pope Francis, there were many who opined that the Church has to adjust to the modern world and chuck her outdated notions on who gets ordained, the nature of marriage, the goods of human sexuality, and so on.  People forget though that the Church is supposed to look different and be different than the world; a light cannot be a light if it looks and acts as the surrounding darkness.  Too many times the language of priesthood has been the language of power.  Suffered greatly we have with such notions.  The priesthood is not about power, as Pope Francis reminds us, but about service.  It is to service we must attend, for that is how the flock of Christ is tended and how it is grown.

The purpose of the Church is not to navel gaze.  Nor is the purpose of the Church to be a commercial spirituality store disconnected from day to day life.  The life blood of the Church is united to the Blood of Christ Himself, a blood spilled in the name of eternal service born out of eternal love.  Thus it is wholly necessary that we know the content of our faith for service cannot be an unorganized event.  We serve with an end in mind; the salvation of souls!  Thus the proclamation of the Gospel and its content is necessary in our service. Church teaching, as Pope Francis remarks, cannot be an end unto itself, but the medium by which we serve and proclaim.  We need men who will without exception and distraction, give themselves fully over to the service of Christ’s flock in His parishes and in those in need.  Priesthood is not a job but a vocation of service.

When I say ‘men’, I mean more than merely the male of the human species.  We need men who will rise to the heights of selfless service to the flock of Christ and act as father to those to whom they are assigned.  We live in a society that prefers to keep the male of the species as boys.  If we expect things to turn around in our Church and in our society as whole, then this trend must be reversed.  This starts in the family.

Dads, you have been given the divine mission through marriage to be the prime teachers of your son in what it means to be a Catholic man.  It is your responsibility to show them that we are not slaves to our instincts and that our true dignity does not come from exercising power but in exercising authority.  Power and authority are not synonymous!  Power is the will to make other do what you want; authority is a delegated responsibility to care for those placed under your care.  You show this in how you treat your spouse.  You show this in modeling prayer.  You show this in making clear that you understand that before your wife and children belong to you that they are God’s and you will be held responsible for how you shepherded them.  Moms, you share in this shepherding role as you and your husbands became one when you exchanged your vows and rings in marriage.  You are to encourage the heart of a servant, model the empathy so necessary to raising a boy into a man so that he will grow into being part of the next generation of husbands or priests that will be necessary to carry on our Church and our society.

To help with this end, we developed Camp Maccabee so that your sons may hear this same message loud and clear from their Church.  We try to teach them that their nobility as a Catholic man comes not from money, power, or pleasure, but from a willingness to stand out  in this hostile culture just as the Maccabees did when the Seleucid Empire and Antiochus Epiphanes wanted to destroy Judaism in the centuries leading up to the birth of Christ.  We do this because we realize that the trends must be reversed and new evangelization of our youth is central to this goal.  We need these young men to grow into the kind of men who will be great fathers, husbands, and priests.  We need them to be one with the Good Shepherd to accomplish this goal.

The service of the flock of Christ is desperately needed and we need young men to step up and courageously ask God what is it that He created them to do.  We need good men who will serve with courage, knowledge and strength.  Too often, so many both inside and outside of the clergy have sought purpose in the trappings of this world and it has caused great damage.  Our purpose as followers of Christ is not found in money, power, or pleasure; it is found in following the footsteps of the Good Shepherd.  If He say about Himself that He came to serve and not to be served, then that must become our maxim and motivation as well.  The time for action is well past, we are already so very behind. Our Good Shepherd is calling you to service!  He is calling your children to service!  How will we respond?   

Saturday, April 13, 2013

A Tribute to Someone I never Knew

I didn't know Cathy.  I never met her until I gave her Last Rites last week.  As I stood by her bedside, I saw the same pained faces of those who loved her gathered around with me.  Cathy had profound Down's Syndrome.  Her life, by most people's standards, was severely limited by her disease.  Yet, she had a profound effect on those around her.  For 20 years, Cathy had been a resident at Ruth Jensen Village.  Ruth Jensen Village is a residential set of group homes in Bowling Green, Missouri where those who suffer from such diseases are cared for and given great and loving care.

This gave me a unique moment in my priesthood; preparing a funeral homily for someone with such a profound disability.  It got me thinking.  Over the years, I have met many who have had a variety of disability and diseases.  Many think these people as a curse.  In the US, 90% of babies diagnosed with Downs Syndrome are aborted.  Somehow these people are seen as burdens and impediments.  In my own family, I have several nieces and nephews that are somewhere on the autism scale.  Neither them, nor Cathy, nor anyone I have met with such disabilities are any less human than myself,  any less worthy of compassion, friendship, and empathy than any other person.  They have right to their dignity and integrity being upheld as much as anyone else.  These people do present a challenge to us; and I believe that is what scares so many.  How we treat such people says much more about us than it does them.

Cathy was incapable of sin.  She lacked the capacity.  What a blessing!  She was never able to choose against God and fall out of the relationship extended to her through baptism.  She certainly was among those that Jesus was speaking of when he said, "Let them come to me, to such belongs the Kingdom of Heaven!"  I cannot help but believe that she heard "Well done, My good and faithful servant, enter the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world."  I would imagine some might be thinking, "Hold on there, father!  Really."  Absolutely!  Her whole life she offered those around her the chance at becoming better people.  She offered, through her sufferings, the chance for people to rise to the greatest nobility within themselves to step outside of themselves and love unconditionally. Many will no doubt ask, "How can a loving God inflict such a person?"  My answer is that it is not God, but man, that puts these qualitative standards upon the disabled, thinking them as something less than fully human because they suffer what they do.  God sees them as He sees everyone: as someone worthy of His love and compassion.

I firmly believe what troubles us about people such as Cathy is not who they are, but who they reveal about who we are!  I listen to my siblings and admire them a great deal.  They do get down when there are setbacks with their children...all of them!  They do rejoice in the victories of their children..all of them.  I have never heard any of them differentiate their children into normal and abnormal children...but simply as their being their children...every single one of them.  That everyone could have the same vision about all people, disabled or not.  I see the compassion that they and their children show.  I saw the compassion that the staff at Ruth Jensen had for Cathy and it makes me want to be a better person.

So many times, in funeral homilies, I make a point of pointing out that the limitations that life inflicts upon  us are forever gone when we pass from this life.  As I watched my dad deteriorate from Parkinson's, I took comfort in that it could no longer touch him.  I have made the same observations about those who suffered from cancer and whole host of debilitating diseases.  I look forward to seeing dad again with him at full strength.  I look forward to meeting Cathy someday.  I think it will be a wonderful conversation.