Saturday, December 26, 2015

Reflections on the Feast of St Stephen

Today, in the Roman Catholic Church, is the Feast of St Stephen, the first martyr.  In the Acts of the Apostles chapters 6 and 7, we are told that St. Stephen is one of the seven men selected by the apostles to be the first deacons.  They did this through discernment and prayer.  These seven men were to be servants who tended to the tasks of waiting on the members of the new fledgling Church as the apostles tended to the teaching and preaching ministries.  This did not exempt Stephen from proclaiming the truth of the Gospel.  It was his steadfast preaching of the Gospel and a willingness to suffer for it that gets him killed.  As he is being stoned to death for blasphemy (telling the painful truth to the Sanhedrin and those who brought Stephen up on trumped up charges) he prays that God not hold this death against those killing him.  We know one of those who concurs in the act of Stephen's death is  a rather zealous  Pharisee from Tarsus named Saul.  This Saul would very quickly become the persecutor of the early church, only stopped on the road to Damascus by Jesus Himself.  There he is called to go from persecutor to apostle.  One can imagine the daily image in St Paul's head of St Stephen's martyrdom as he went through the Mediterranean basin spreading the Gospel. 

In the Gospel for today, Matthew 10:17-22,  Jesus warns His disciples that following Him might well engender persecution and even betrayal from the the closest of family.  He knew that what awaited Him was the cruelty of the Passion.  He knew the world would resent His message of mercy, forgiveness, and love.  He knew his followers would be persecuted, harassed, and some martyred.  While He warns us of this, He still expects us to live in faith and hope, unperturbed and joyful, despite whatever persecution the world could concoct.

Starting with St. Stephen, we see the followers of Christ got it.  They found something so joy filled that there were no threats that could deter them from the faith, not even the threat of death.  In the early days of the Church, many throughout the lands where Christianity spread were persecuted and martyred.  All of the apostles but St John (not through lack of attempts) would die martyrs.  It was that strength and resolve that drew the attention of their persecutors.

Christians were seen as enemies of the state by the Roman Empire.  Because they did not worship the Roman gods, they were seen as dangers.  For the Romans, the the gods were not loving gods disposed to the good of humanity; rather they were more demonic entities to be appeased; lack of being appeased led to great disaster.  When persecutions would break out and arrests were made, these Christians would be rounded up, given a chance to recant or be thrown to the lions, among other totrures.  In the Roman world, in their amphitheaters, you had spectacles of blood.  The first round were criminals who died cowardly deaths, fleeing and crying from whatever was coming at them.  Those who were to die well came later with the gladiatorial fights.  But the Christians disrupted this.  They died well.  Instead of fear and screaming, these Christians would enter singing psalms of praise and praying for those who would witness their death.  They continued the activity of St. Stephen.

As time marched on, widespread persecutions continued.  Each persecutor  would end up losing.  Christianity would survive and even thrive.  Even to our own day it is estimated that a Christian dies every 5 minutes for the faith.  We hear stories of how even children are being put to death by radical jihadists, refusing to deny Christ.  That all of us has such courage!  

This leads to two final thoughts.  Pope Francis, in his Christmas homily and Urbi et Orbi blessing, urged us to not longer turn a blind eye to our Christian brothers ans sisters being annihilated in the Middle East.  The world has been deafeningly silent to their cause.  Very few are trying to help, in fact, there are many entities including our own government who are actively  blocking aid and escape.  Say what you will about Glenn Beck, at least through his Nazarene Fund, he is raising monies and even personally going to these dangerous areas of the world to personally oversee the saving of Christians.  Raising money has been the easy part, finding any nation to take them has been hard.  Slovakia took 150 of them and they  told of pressure they were getting from the UN, the EU, and our own country not to take any.  While we belong to a church does calls for courage and strength in the face of persecution, that does not mean we refuse to help when we can.  As Pope Francis said, this silence must come to an end.

My final thought is this: How do we respond to the attacks leveled against us.  A slight understanding of US History shows that the Catholic Church has always been hated in this country.  Do we shrink away in witness in the hopes of not being noticed and ridiculed?  The secular society is ready every second to mock us, to strip away our abilities to allow faith to be the foundation of our lives.  They have successfully driven faith out of the halls of business, education, and governance.  Freedom of Religion is quickly being reduced to freedom of worship, which can be quickly eradicated as well.  Our weakness and timidity in standing tall only emboldens their next step.  We are not jihadists, though, we do not accomplish martyrdom by killing others.  Our witness comes not in suicidal frenzies, but in shows of courage and strength.  It was that witness to the Gospel that spread the Church throughout the world. Truth by told, it is only that holy boldness that has ever been successful at spreading the faith even in the worst of persecutions.

Now is a needed time of heroes!  We need the St Stephens of this world who will lovingly proclaim the Gospel in the hopes of converting souls.  For our beliefs are never spread at the tip of a sword, but by mimicking the love of Christ in all things to all people. We have those St Stephens in the Middle East and Africa.  We need them here in the USA as well!

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Time to Man Up! Of Dads and Fathers

This morning I got to talking with a parishioner after Mass (yes, a Saturday morning Mass...they still happen) and our conversation was mainly about two things: A pregnancy crisis center that is opening soon here and about the state of priestly witness.  We were talking about how in the Center that was opening we had to follow the example of other centers we had been exposed to and be sure that we had something that reached out to the dads of these children in giving them the tools to be good dads. Both of us sit on the Board for this center. My parishioner is a lawyer and related how he sees the detrimental effects of men being absent in duty or negligent in duty as dads; how that is passed from generation to generation.  We are hoping that among the things we do in this center, is be a voice who calls these men to step and be the dad these children are going to need.   The dad being the best man he can be, the best dad he can be, and growing into a man of faith are all part of an equation that we know can and will stem the tide present in this culture of fatherlessness.  We know children with good fathers are afforded a better life that those who don't. 

This will take some work.  Our young men today are been largely emasculated and taught to be numbed: their role is to play video games, have sex, and complain about  how unfair life is. Our culture has tricked them into accepting little, killing ambition, and becoming destructively self centered.   Calling them beyond themselves and into nobility is so important and necessary for a healthy culture.  That behavior needs to be modeled. A dad with little ambition will train his children to be the same.  A dad who finds anything that makes him move beyond himself (faith, responsibility) troublesome and unworthy of his time will train his children to be the same.  A man who numbs himself through obsessive behaviors or sinful behaviors will pass the same down to his kids.  To reverse trends will require men to get off the couch, put down the gaming control, and get about the business of being a man.
You'll notice though, there were two subjects this morning; I have not forgotten the other.  They are intimately tied together.   They are tied so closely together because the same dynamic is in play within a parish: the faithful witness or lack thereof will resonate in a parish, either producing great good and engendering great harm.
Just as the leadership of the dad in a family is central to the passing on of faith, so the leadership of the priest, called father for a definitive reason, is central to passing on of faith.  There are a few places worthy of reflection here.  First, does the priest actually believe that he is, by the grace of God and power of the Holy Spirit, confecting the Body and Blood of Christ?  Does the way he celebrates Mass, touches the sacred Species, and shows reverence give a witness to profound belief?  If it doesn't, how, then, will those sitting in front of him come to belief themselves?  Yes, we can point out ex opere operato (essentially, if the correct form and matter are used, the sacrament becomes what God  designs regardless of the personal holiness of the priest), but if the witness of the priest to the reality of the Eucharist is not present, how then can we engender belief and devotion?  Does the priest give ample access to his parishioners in time and energy; making himself available to them through confession and getting out among them in pastoral visits?  If the only time his parishioners are given any consistent access is for that 1 hour at Mass, what does that say?  
 I believe the way we constrict times for confession is the equivalent of taking a bullhorn out and saying, "It's not important!"  Wow.  The central reason for the Christ even is the forgiveness of sin and the reconciliation it brings about.  We will hide behind the words, 'by appointment' which largely deny the penitent the option of anonymity and largely say. 'if you can get ahold of me, we'll do it.'  Imagine that dynamic within a family.  It would be destructive.  Face time, though, is not limited to confession and  Mass.  Most priests have actual degrees in theology; do we share that wisdom and learning with our parishioners?  Do we darken the doors of classrooms and classes?  When we  are silent on the passing on of the faith, we have only ourselves to blame for the lack of faith.  Many priests will point to the 2002 scandals as why they do not go around teens and children.  Let's be honest, it wasn't like most priest delegated the kids off the a legion of nannies in the form of youth ministers to do their job completely for them.
There is much more I could write on this.  Perhaps someday I'll write that book.  However, ponder this.  We know that the lack of dads will engender the next generation of men to not see marriage and being a dad as connected with sex.  It will be pleasure in the moment; a woeful cancer spread.  By the same token, a priest who is not a father to his parishioners will leave the possibility of young men in his parish entertaining the possibility of priesthood almost dead.  Dads and Fathers, our belief matters.  Our presence matters.  Our interaction with those placed in our care matters.  If we hope for change in the problems that plague our parishes and homes, it will begin with men stepping up and being the dads, the husbands, the priests, and the men we are called to be.  If it seems I am being a bit demanding of men, trust me, it is the standards I hold myself to.  I don't always achieve them, but they are the goals, day in and day out.  So, it is doable, hard but doable.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Death of Shame and Guilt

Guilt and shame are like warning lights on a car dashboard.  They signal us that something is wrong and needs to be fixed.  Like our cars, ignoring, denying, or suppressing our acknowledgement of these warning lights, it doesn't make the problem go away and in fact only makes the problem worse.  Guilt and shame inform us that we have done something we should not have done or have not done something they should have done.  They are warning lights from the engine that is our conscience.

 The conscience, as defined by the Church, is "Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right. It is by the judgment of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law" ( Catechism 1778)  The conscience is that part of our human mind and soul that distinguishes between right and wrong, between good and evil.  It is not a finished product at birth, but must be formed. 

The general directionality of the conscience in a responsible human being is supposed to move from self-centered to other-centered.  There are psychological disorders where this does not happen: narcissism, sociopathic disorders, and psychotic disorders.  Part of the formation of the conscience is shame and guilt.  Shame alerts us we should express remorse or sorrow for our actions that were wrong.  Guilt helps us to understand we need to make restitution for our actions which have harmed others. Both force us to see that our actions bear consequence not merely on myself but on others as well!  They are signals that our actions and our conscience are not in sync.  To achieve equilibrium, shame and guilt should be addressed by the positive steps of contrition and reconciliation.  When these warning light go unaddressed, it is to the detriment of both the individual and everyone around them.

However these two warning lights aren't merely being ignored, we are trying to snip the wires connecting them to the engine. If we can deaden guilt and shame, we can live in a world where I am always right and owed.  How are we doing this?  Remember, the conscience must be molded.  We are doing this by actually preventing the move from self-centered to other-centered.  When we do things like  giving everybody rewards for merely participating in an activity, even if the participation was little more than breathing, we do not encourage drive to excellence.  We do not give an impetus for forward movement.  We protect from failure.  This is dangerous.  If I see no reason to change a course for betterment, than why try?  If failure is not a possibility, why try?  If I simply will be handed reward without effort, why try?  Why change?  If the world is simply going to change for me, why should I change to accommodate anyone else?  We encourage a stunting of growth which will spread like a cancer throughout the person.  It is a very short trip between 'why try' to 'I am owed.'

In the spiritual life, this is fatal.  Because everything is about me, all of my actions and words can be justified as protecting the most important thing: me! What happens then to shame and guilt?  It turns very quickly into resentment and anger.  Any entity that challenges me is now the enemy.  Any entity that doesn't cater to me, pat me on the head, tell me how good I am, and make me feel special is now the enemy.  It breeds hubris.  It breeds universalism, a heresy (false teaching) that everyone goes to heaven.  Heaven becomes the ultimate participation trophy! Anyone who believes that makes themselves fit for hell.  

When we look at our society, we see the fruit of the seed planted: young adults who want everything free and immediate, no comprehension of the consequences of their choices, a clear vision, however, of the consequences of other people's choices on them,  cruelty, and an ends justifies the means.  Anger and resentment are now the defining characteristics we see so very often.

The anger and resentment are a direct result of the attempted murder of guilt and shame.  If we wish to reverse course, it will be reconnecting the wires between the conscience and the warning signs of guilt and shame.  Guilt and shame are properly addressed with remorse and repentance.  It is not God's will for us to live in either a state of guilt and shame nor in a state of anger and resentment.  In the Catholic Church we have the sacrament of Reconciliation to address these head on.  Is it any wonder in a society where the wires are snipped that Confession lines dwindle? We need to get back to the correct formation of conscience; confession is an integral part of this forward motion. It gives a place for shame and guilt to not only go but to find resolution.  If we want the anger and resentment to subside, then we can no longer avoid addressing guilt and shame; in fact, we must let them out of their tombs and be the warning lights they are meant to be. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Precepts of the Church 5: Reception of the Eucharist

On Receiving Holy Communion | liturgy guy    The next precept of the Church may come as a bit of shock to most practicing Catholics:  “All of the faithful, after they have initiated into the Most Holy Eucharist, are bound by the obligation of receiving Communion at least once a year.  This precept must be fulfilled during the Easter Season unless it is fulfilled for a just cause at some other time of the year.” (Canon 920)  Does not the Church already have a precept that al faithful Catholics must attend Mass on all Sundays and Holy Days?  It does.  Whereas in the USA, we equivocate Mass with the reception of Communion, the Church does not.  In fact, the frequent reception of Communion is a fairly recent (from Catholic Church standards). 

    To give a little history, frequent reception of the Eucharist seemed to be the rule; whether that reception was once a week on Sunday, or every day.  For strange reasons, the reception of Communion fell off to the point where the Church has to mandate at the 4th Lateran Council (1213) that Communion had to be received at least once a year.  Daily communion fell of until the latter 19th Century, when Popes Bl. Pius IX, Leo XIII, and finally St. Pius X all pushed for the idea of receiving Communion whenever one went to Mass.  This was contingent, of course, on a person being in a state of grace (free of mortal sin).  While frequent Communion is recommended, the teaching of Lateran IV still stands in that a Catholic in good standing must receive Communion once a year, ordinarily in the Easter Season. 

    The reason for this precept is quite simple:  Referring again to John 6, where Jesus says, “Unless you eat my Flesh and drink my Blood, you have no life within you”, it is clear that regular consumption of the Blessed Sacrament is necessary for life in Christ.  The Church has always seen Jesus’ words in John 6, “For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink, “ (John 6:55) as instructive to the necessity of the reception of Communion as necessary to growth in the life of Christ.  Only when one was physically unable or in a state of mortal sin, it was seen as odd to exempt oneself from the reception of the Eucharist.  For those who were in a state of mortal sin, that could be easily remedied through Confession.

    That the Church states one should receive the Eucharist at least once a year (keeping in mind that one still has to go Mass on Sundays and Holy Days), is stating a minimum, not a maximum.  St Pius X encouraged the frequent reception of Communion.  In Sacra Tridentina, written in 1905, he says,

“1. Frequent and daily Communion, as a practice most earnestly desired by Christ our Lord and by the Catholic Church, should be open to all the faithful, of whatever rank and condition of life; so that no one who is in the state of grace, and who approaches the Holy Table with a right and devout intention (recta piaque mente) can be prohibited therefrom.

2. A right intention consists in this: that he who approaches the Holy Table should do so, not out of routine, or vain glory, or human respect, but that he wish to please God, to be more closely united with Him by charity, and to have recourse to this divine remedy for his weakness and defects.

He reiterates a belief from the beginning: namely, that the reception of Eucharist, for a person in a state if grace (not in a state of mortal sin) is spiritual nourishment and preventative medicine for those seeking to grow in a life of holiness.  The Eucharist, though, is not magic.  It is not a good luck charm or talisman meant to replace the confession of sin.  In fact, reception of the Blessed Sacrament, even once a year, requires both belief and freedom from sinfulness.  This is why a person in a state of mortal sin and/or disbelief should NOT receive Communion.  For one to do so is to invite the wrath of God for sacrilege of the Body and Blood of His only Son (see I Corinthians 11: 27-29).  The reception of the Eucharist must always be done in a state of grace and belief even if that Eucharist is received only once a year!  St Paul goes even further in I Corinthians 11:30 in stating that the ill health in soul they feel is a direct result of their unworthy reception of the Blessed Sacrament.  The very same medicine given to help us live a life a holiness can be our undoing if received unworthily.

    It is rare that people withhold from the reception of the Blessed Sacrament,  Normally, if they do, it is because they have issues with marriage and divorce.  A person in a invalid marriage cannot receive Communion until such a situation has been rectified.  Pride should not get in the way of seeking to rectify this situation.  Pride is the root of all sin.  It ostracizes us from God.  If an unwillingness to resolve marriage issues is what keeps you from the reception of the Blessed Sacrament, you are spiritually starving yourself.  While not all issues can be resolved (a valid marriage is a valid marriage), one should try to resolve them.  Do not let pride rob you of the medicine Christ gives us to not only make us holy, but that is necessary for the divine life we need for the Kingdom of Heaven.  While I will cover the precept of the Church on Marriage in two weeks; if you find yourself in an sacramentally invalid marriage, let’s work on that.  Call me.  Set up an appointment.  Don’t wait.  Don’t let pride get in the way.

    Finally, as you read this, ask yourself whether I am receiving the Eucharist in such a way that it can bring life and healing?  Am I free of mortal sin?  Do I believe?  These things are necessary for the proper reception of the Blessed Sacrament.   It is worth noting, that whether a person believes the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ has no effect on the fact that it does indeed become the Body and Blood of Christ.  Jesus gives us this so we might have life.  He gives us it as much as we need.  Let’s be honest, we need the Eucharist.  We need the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.  We do.  To navigate this world, all its temptations, all its fallacies, all its agonies, we need the Blessed Sacrament.  To build up the Body of Christ, we need to consume the Body of Christ!  Let us do what is necessary to ensure that the frequent reception of the Body and Blood of Christ is life giving and the preventative medicine we need to avoid sin and cling to the good and holy.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Troubling Voice of Jeremiah

The figure of the prophet Jeremiah sits painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  He is portrayed as a downcast old man who has seen the fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, and the destruction of the  Kingdom of  Judah.  With the fall of Judah, the promised land had been taken away from the people of Israel.  On either side of him stand two mourning women, mourning the fall of both the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah.  Jeremiah's sadness, no doubt, fueled by the insistent rebellion of the People of Israel and Judah.  His warnings went unheeded.  His pleadings only got him in trouble.  God had sent him to warn the people of Judah that they were now in danger, having pushed His hand away from them.  The people of Judah had embraced every sort of depravity and evil.  They engaged in the sin of syncretism: they worshipped the God of Israel on the Temple Mount and went into the Valley of Hinnom and worshipped multiple idols even though to do so was to break faith with God.

One might argue that Jeremiah was too late.  Things had gotten so bad, that his words of warning from God went unheeded.  I wonder if his words weren't meant for those who did hear and listen, even if they were a minority.  I wonder if his words weren't kept so that when Israel had finally been returned back to their land, they would remember and stay away from their former ways

I wonder if we are not in such a time ourselves.  Is there no perversion or sin not embraced by this society?  This did not happen over a small time, but over decades. We drove God from the public square and roundly mocked anyone who does believe in Him.  We have so devalued human life and family that we are watching butchery of unbelievable proportions in this country that we turn a blind eye to the trafficking of human baby parts.  The family is falling upon hard times through economic pressures, constant redefinition, and being treated as irrelevant.  Religion has been treated as a purely private matter that can be molded into whatever is comfortable.  Anyone who points this out is reviled and dismissed as a intolerant relic of days best forgotten.

Are things too far gone?  I don't know, but the troubling voice of Jeremiah needs to be ringing out again; calling us back from the brink of insanity.  That voice needs to be heard with clarity no matter how unsettling it is. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Precepts of Church 4: Confession

    As we continue through the precepts of the Church, I wish to just remind people of the purpose of these columns.  After teaching for 25 years in classrooms at various levels, it has been apparent to me that it is human nature that people will avail themselves to the lowest standard set.  The job of those who are in authority is to set the standard high AND help those placed in their care to get there.  The Church understands this well and in having these precepts, they are setting a standard of criteria of what is the minimum of someone to call themselves Catholic.  These precepts are not a checklist, but items to be indicative of someone who wants that relationship with God.

    Since our Catholic Faith is primarily about a relationship with God, our Catholic family, and the human race, any and all aspects familiar to us regarding relationships come into play.  Those relationships will have times where harm has been done; we call that sin.  Sometimes those sins will hurt the relationship, sometimes those sins will destroy the relationship.  For the relationship to go forward, there must reconciliation.  Hence, the Church also addresses this reality.

    In the Code of Canon Law, it is stated: “After having attained the age of discretion, each of the faithful is bound by obligation faithfully to confess serious sins at least once a year.” (Canon 989)  The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) handles this from 1440-1470.

 Let’s break this down:

“After having attained the age of discretion”  Classically, this age had been determined to be 7 to 8 years old.  The age of reason is that moment when there exist a level of understanding of the difference between good and evil/ right or wrong.  This is important as there are three criteria for a mortal sin to be a mortal sin: a) Serious matter, b) full knowledge, c) full use of free will. ( see CCC 1857-1859) Once one can understand on a necessary level these, then sin that can sever the relationship with God can happen.  When one or two of these criteria are not in play, then venial sin has been committed. (CCC 1862) Venial sin damages but does not sever the relationship with God.  However, it does need to be forgiven as well.  There are times in Mass where these sins are addressed and forgiven.  However, once mortal sin has occurred, then confession becomes necessary before any other sacrament can be done.

“Each of the faithful”  Those who have passed the age of reason  and are baptized are those counted among this group.

“is bound by obligation”  Because baptism enters us into a relationship with God, there are certain obligations that would be endemic of a good thriving relationship.  Among those, would to be honest when harm has been done to the other in that relationship. The gravity of mortal sin destroys our relationship with God.  It cannot ignored nor left unattended.  To die in a state of mortal sin is to die having forfeited heaven.  Hence, reconciliation must take place if we are to be restored into that relationship.  Using our human relationships as an example, when we have been deliberately hurt by one we love, can we simply ignore it?  If no sorrow is expressed to us, regardless of our desire to forgive, then full reconciliation cannot take place.  Our sorrow and  mercy act as balms to heal that damage done.  If we love the other, then we will readily want to heal the damage done by our choices and seek to show mercy to those who have harmed us.  The obligation existent in the relationship to mutually love each other would drive us to seek reconciliation. 

“to faithfully confess serious sins”   Serious sin, also known as mortal sin, must be confessed.  The first criteria for mortal sin, grave matter, is specified by the 10 commandments: honoring one’s mother and father, prohibition against the taking of innocent human life, theft, lying, adultery (any use of human sexuality outside of the bonds of marriage), lust , and coveting. When a person has crossed these line knowingly and full use of free will, they have willfully severed that relationship with God by pursuing activities that God has said gravely offend Him and His plan. These are moral issues; whether a particular society finds them legal or preferable changes nothing of their reality nor effects.  Seriousness is not dictated by society nor government, but by God.

“at least once a year”  Notice, first, it says ‘at least’ and not ‘at most’.  This is connected to  another of the precepts, to be dealt with later, that one must go to Communion at least once a year.  The bottom line is, though, that one is not to receive the Eucharist in a state of mortal sin.  To receive the Eucharist in mortal sin is itself  the mortal sin of sacrilege.  It is to act as if a relationship is there when it is not; it is an act of deceit.  Relationships thrive on truth.  They need the activity of mercy and sorrow to bind harm.  No more than I hope one would only apologize to a spouse or loved one once a year, would I imagine a person who wants that relationship with God would simply allow separation to fester until that time of the year came around.

    The most common objection to confession is the protestant belief that I don’t need to confess my sins to a priest; I can just tell God I am sorry and be done with it.  We start with that this is not biblical.  In the Old Testament, the Book of Leviticus is clear that the priest acts as an intermediary or intercessor in the sin offering.  That a priests would act as a conduit of the mercy of God is clear.  In the Gospel of John, after the Resurrection, Jesus says to the eleven “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”.  Jesus was sent for the forgiveness of sin and the reconciliation with the Father that was now possible through His death and Resurrection.  They were to now share in this mission. Furthermore, he breathes on them (a sign of the life of God) and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit, If you forgive men’s sin, they are forgiven them, if you hold them bound, they are held bound.” (John 20:21-23)  These men and their successors were given a new authority they did not have before.  They were to be those who acted as intermediaries who forgive or withhold forgiveness (let that sink in for a second); they are the new priests.  If we were to merely say in our own hearts, “God, I am truly sorry”, then such a gesture would be unneeded.

    In fact, since the forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with the Father is only possible by the working of the Holy Spirit (see above passage again), only those to whom the authority given to the Apostles and their successors (also known as bishops) can extend this forgiveness in the manner that Jesus Himself set up!  At ordination to the  levels of priest and bishop in the sacrament of Holy Orders, the same Holy Spirit that was given to the eleven is given to these men for the same exact reason.  Bishops can delegate the authority of reconciliation to only priests.  By the way Jesus set things up after the resurrection, one most certainly does need the sacrament of Reconciliation to be restored to a relationship with God that has been severed by mortal sin.

    Remember this precept exists for one reason: to keep us in a eternal relationship with God.  It gives us multiple opportunities to seek His grace for conversion. It isn’t an imposition, but a blessed relief so that we can allow healing to take place

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Do You Trust God?

This morning's homily from our deacon has been in my head all day.  The central question was "Do you trust God?"  We had two stories of widows in the Scriptures today: the story of the widow of Zarapeth and the widow in the temple.  Both find themselves in difficult straights.  We know nothing of the widow in the temple other than she gave two small copper coins, all she had,  as a thanksgiving offering to God.  The widow of Zarapeth, we know, has a child.  They have been hit hard by a famine brought on by a drought.  She has enough food left for a small meal for the two of them after which she has consigned herself that her and her son will die of hunger after this last meal.  Elijah, after being told of her plan, tells her if she will instead give him a small meal, that God would provide for her and her son.  Think of what he ask: Please give me the last of your food and God will provide for you.  What faith she has in doing it!  God follows though on the promise. The same with the widow in the temple: what an act of faith she makes in trusting God's care for her even if she is willing to give what little she has left as an thanksgiving offering.  These stories litter Scripture: trust in God and live.
That's awful hard though.  It certainly is counter intuitive.  In a world that tells us that we get out of live what we take and what we control, trusting in something we cannot see seems foolhardy.  Anti-theist will mock it as blind foolishness in a sky fairy.  We will be told to be practical and self-preserving. 
However, we have to dig a bit deeper.  Not only does God want to be trusted, a curse is laid upon those who won't.  He lets them trust in other things.  The other things always let them down. The people of Israel were told to trust in God for their sustenance and safety.  When they did, things went well.  When they didn't, things collapsed.  When they people of Israel trusted in God their kingdom became strong.  When they started to trust in other gods, wealth, military alliances, and power, things deteriorated and collapsed.  Their false gods could not save them.  Their wealth made them targets.  Their military alliances turned on them.
Look to our own age.  We are taught to trust science, power, wealth, and self-determination.  Anything of God that is trusted is roundly mocked by the elites; the same elites who will blame the failure of these very things  on God or proof the God doesn't exist.  The world routinely mocks sexual abstinence and lauds promiscuity (with birth control of course...because birth control will save us!).  However if people trusted God in the use of their sexuality the scourges of STD's would almost non-existent, abortion almost non-existent, the scourge of pornography as well...not to mention that relationships would be greatly strengthened and divorce increasingly rare.  We are told now to accept cohabitation as the new norm.  Facts be damned as far as to the long term damage done!  Well meaning people trusted and got burned.  We trusted the world and human life and dignity got massively cheapened, family life collapsed, and a plethora of diseases killed, permanently maimed, sterilized, or harmed millions.
We are taught, above all, to trust in our own desires.  If my desires are strangely oriented towards the help of other, then good for you.  However if my desires are towards accumulation of wealth, power, and honor for me, then good for me.  To delude ourselves into trusting such, a thick layering of bogus self-esteem is lathered.  What we end with are angry individuals, precious snowflakes, unable to operate.  If they are able to operate, they accumulate and consume like locusts never finding a lasting satisfaction.
If we think about 99% of the problems we have and this world has, is it not a direct result of trusting in those 'sensible' things instead of God?  God doesn't want us to trust him because he is on some divine ego trip; he wants us to trust Him so he can provide for us.  Unlike the nonsense espoused by charlatans in the health and wealth gospel (neither of which God promises), God gives us what we need even if it isn't what we want.
So many young men refuse to even entertain the possibility of priesthood because of the immense amount of trust required.  So many young women don't entertain religious life for the same reason.  So many young couples don't trust God and cohabitate, injecting a venom into their relationship which more often than not will kill it.  This lack of trust does not serve us well.  Furthermore, it doesn't have to be this way! 
God doesn't ask us to trust him so that he may destroy us.  He doesn't ask us to trust him so as to watch us suffer.  He asks us to trust Him as an acknowledgement that He loves us and that nothing of this world can offer more than He can.  Whether that lack of trust comes in withholding the thanksgiving sacrifice, compromising with our sexuality, running away from a vocation, we need to stop running and start trusting.  We will never know until we start to trust.  If the world has a problem with that, tough!  What the world wants from you is to use you not love you.
These are things rolling around my mind right now.  Do I trust God?  Completely?  What holds me back?  What ill-fated alliances am I making as a back up plan? What compromises do I make? All food for spiritual thought and prayer.  

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Precepts of The Church 3: Tithing


 Normally, I have an obnoxious need to do these things in order, but as the Gospel is the Widow’s Mite this week (Mark 12:38-44), I will tie in this precept of the Church with the readings for this week.  The Code of Canon Law states: “The Christian Faithful are obliged to assist with the needs of the Church so that the Church has what is necessary for divine worship, for apostolic works and works of charity and for the decent sustenance of ministers.  They are also obliged to promote social justice and, mindful of the precept of the Lord, to assist the poor from their own resources.” (Canon 222, cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 2043.2)

    Before the canon is broken down, it is important to understand from where this comes.  In the Old Testament, there were two basic types of sacrifice: the sin/peace offering and the thanksgiving sacrifice.  The sin/peace offering was always the best of one’s herds or flocks and was done to seal a covenant (peace) or because of sin.  The Sacrifice of Jesus of the Cross ended the need for such a sacrifice to be redone and every Mass is a direct participation in this one sacrifice. The thanksgiving offering was the offering of the first fruits of one’s labors as an act of thanksgiving.  The tithe was holy to the Lord (holy meaning set apart for God‘s use) (see Leviticus 27:30), was to be dispersed between the needy and for the sustenance of those whose duty it is to serve God (see Deuteronomy 14:22-29). So evil was it to withhold the tithe that the Prophet Malachi refers to it as stealing from God (Malachi 3: 9-11), an act which carries a curse with it.  While the sin/peace offering was abrogated by the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, the thanksgiving sacrifice was not.  The New Testament refers to alms-giving multiple times as an act of mercy that benefits both the receiver and the giver.  Alms-giving is an act of mercy that reflects the love of God being actively mimicked by His followers.

    Let us break down the code:

“The Christian faithful (those baptized) are obliged to assist with the needs of the Church”.  This speaks to a larger fact that mercy is not a special addition to the life of a Christian, but a core identity.  This also speaks to the fact that the Church has a mission and duty which must be assisted.  To both ensure these things are done and those who do it are given what they need, the Church, building upon the Scriptures themselves, keep consistent the call for the thanksgiving sacrifice (tithe) for the same exact reason as seen in the Bible.

1. “for divine worship” The Christian Faithful are obliged to assist in those things necessary for worship.  This is a long list that includes buildings, vessels, vestments, bread, wine, and so on that are used in the worship of God.  In this would also be the upkeep of said items.

2. “for apostolic works”  These would refer to the things a parish is to do: educate, evangelize, form, and provide spiritual opportunities for spiritual growth for both her parishioners and the community at large.  Our school, education programs, evangelization efforts, and things of this nature would fall under this category.  Again, the Christian faithful are obliged by the giving of time, talent, and treasure, to ensure the work gets done.

3. “and works of charity”  The help of the poor and those who are in need are also to be tended to by one’s tithe and volunteering.  The Church and each of her members are always supposed to be actively looking to the needs of others in the same exact way the Jesus did.  The Catholic Church is still the biggest giver of charity and assistance in the world.  It was the Catholic Church that brought us and invented institutions such as hospitals, colleges and universities, hospice, orphanages, and other institutions that are hallmarks of western civilization.  We are not allowed to be the rich man who ignores Lazarus at the gate.  The giving of our resources and time so as to help those in need are seen as central to the Catholic life.

4. “and for the decent sustenance of ministers”  While no one should grow rich working for the Church (and in this country they do not), the wages of those who work for the church are taken from the tithe.  Why?  I, as a priest, am supposed to give myself completely over to the service of Church; I, and all other priests, are forbidden to own businesses or take secular jobs.  The same is true for all clerics.  Furthermore the execution of the apostolic works requires staff (teachers, administration, for example).  The ability of the parish to properly staff so as to execute these duties well is wholly dependent upon what comes in with the tithe.

    When the tithe is withheld, it constrains the ability to the parish and diocese to go about the mission of the Church.  Many will say that parishes are in trouble because they spend too much.  This is not true.  Most parishes are in trouble because the tithe is routinely withheld.  This cripples the parish in the ability to engage fully in the mission of the Church.

     Finally the Canon says, “They are also obliged to promote social justice and, mindful of the precept of the Lord, to assist the poor from their own resources.” To promote social justice is more than to vote for people who do good things or whom we will delegate our own responsibilities; it is to look to the good of the society and to realize it is not someone else’s duty to show mercy; it is ours.  The taxes we pay are not in lieu of the tithe.  Mercy is not something we delegate away, but something we always actively engage in.

    The tithe or support is an obligation.  It is about the first fruits and not the scraps.  So grievous was the withholding of the tithe or giving scraps instead of first fruits, that God withheld his blessings from those who withheld their tithe.  I can say from my own experience that money problems and withholding the tithe always seem to go hand in hand.  By the same token, tithing and financial stability have always gone hand in hand as well.  I know it doesn’t numerically add up, but for some reason it works.  Perhaps Malachi isn’t off base. It wasn’t as if my income changed.  We cannot expect financial stability by taking from God what is His.

    For me, it is simple:  I take my income, divide it by 10.  That amount is then split three ways: half of it goes to the parish to help in its work, a tenth goes to the diocese to help it in its work, and the other 40% goes to whatever charities I wish to give it to so as to enable them to do what they need to do.  This would be the standard that is recommended across the board.  This is a baseline, I usually give more to each of these as needed; not because I am a good guy or a wealthy guy, but because I understand the immense blessings God has given to me and I show  thanks by sharing that abundance with others.  As God is never to be outdone in generosity, we should be generous.  The widow’s mite was all she had to give.  Her action showed a profound trust in God’s benevolence and love.  As with the other precepts,  God does not ask what He does so as to destroy us, but so that we have life in abundance.  The tithe isn’t merely about paying bills, it is so much more.  It is about a basic disposition of trust, or mercy, and of compassion.  To withhold it is to actively thwart the ability of God’s people to do the mission to which His Son set us.  Like the other precepts, we will have stand before God and answer.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Precepts of The Church Part 2: Mass and Holy Days of Obligation

high mass | Catholic Lane 
 The first precept of the Church has to do with Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation; namely the participation in Mass on these days.  The Code of Canon Law states: “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass; they are to abstain from those labors and business concerns which impede the worship to be rendered to God, the joy which is proper to the Lord’s day or the proper relaxation of mind and body.” ( Canon 1247) 2180 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church says the same thing as well.  Let’s unpack this canon.

“On Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation” :  This would constitute every single Sunday of the calendar year and the following Feasts: Immaculate Conception (Dec 8th), Christmas (Dec 25th), Mary, Mother of God  (Jan 1st), Epiphany (Jan 6th), Ascension Thursday (40 days after Easter), Corpus Christi (Thursday after Trinity Sunday), Assumption (August 15th) and All Saints (Nov 1st).  In the United States Epiphany and Corpus Christi have been moved to the following Sunday.  Additionally, in this diocese, Ascension has been moved to the following Sunday.  Immaculate Conception is always celebrated unless it falls on a Sunday (Sunday of Advent would take precedence). Christmas is a holy day regardless of what day it falls on.  The others are celebrated unless they fall on a Saturday or Monday.

the faithful” : This would be all baptized Catholics.  Those who are ill or taking care of those who are ill are exempt.  All others should make every effort to participate during Sunday and holy day masses.  I am aware that some employers make this near impossible. If you are an employer, don’t be that guy.  I realize that despite best efforts a church cannot be located in time whilst traveling.  Although should help in planning travel and vacations.  Save these, the faithful are obliged to participate in Sunday Mass.  To choose to not do so is a mortal sin.  To choose to not go to Mass for insufficient reason (stated above) constitutes a mortal sin in that it is serious matter (despite what our society says) and is done so with full use of knowledge and free will.  Hence, to willingly skip Mass incurs a penalty of not receiving Communion until one has been reconciled with God through Confession.  To be faithful means that we act in good faith and seek that which will build up that faith.

“are bound to participate in the Mass”:  Bound.  You are bound to participate in Mass if your are a faithful Catholic. Sunday Mass and holy day Masses are not optional!  This also means more than occupying a pew for x amount of minutes.  To participate means that one comes in with a disposition to worship God, to give thanks to God, and to seek a deeper relationship with God and His people.

“They are to abstain from those labors and business concerns which impede the worship to be rendered to God”:   Mass is to take central stage on Sunday.  It is the first priority.  I know this has gotten difficult because so many other entities have supplanted Mass as the first priority.  Let’s be honest, though, it was ground we ceded.  Sports, sport practices, jobs, and whole host of other things have reached into Sunday morning demanding this time.  I am not saying these things are evil.  However, to be blunt, the 1st Commandment does say “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me” and the third commandment says “Keep holy the Sabbath.”   These are commandments given by God.  They are commandments, not suggestions.

Sunday takes precedence because it is the day of the Resurrection.  It stands as the center of the week.  From the very early Church on, it was the day when the Christian community gathered together for worship and thanksgiving of God.  Because of the latter, the Greek word, eukharistia, meaning ‘thanksgiving’ was attached to the worship service.  Furthermore, as Christ says in Mark 2:27: “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”  The Sabbath was to be for the benefit of humanity.  There is a human necessity to both worship and give thanks.  It staves off false pride, a sense of entitlement, and gives us proper sight in how to approach the world.  In Mass, we are furthermore given the grace we need to meet the challenges of our time, to negotiate this world, to grow free from our sinful inclinations, and to set the world anew.  Also, Jesus says  in John 6:53, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life within you.”  Participation in Mass gives the opportunity for that new life.

So central to Catholic life is Sunday Mass that the Church has always seen it as central, with Vatican  II declaring it to be the ‘source and summit’ of the Catholic faith (see Lumen Gentium 11, Catechism of the Catholic Church 1324).  To willingly skip Sunday Mass is to starve ourselves spiritually and to drain the life of Christ from us; a life that we will need to enter heaven.  Sunday Mass is celebrated by anticipatory Masses on Saturday evening through Sunday day and night.  Other Masses of the week do not take the place of the Sunday Mass!  If your child goes to school weekday Masses, this is not in lieu of Sunday.  Unless the weekday be a holy day of obligation, no sin is incurred by missing Mass on a weekday.  This is not so for Sunday Mass.  This is not so for Holy days of Obligation.

“the joy which is proper to the Lord’s day or the proper relaxation of mind and body.”:  Again, the Sabbath is made for man.  We need rest.  Our ridding Sunday of its rest has not been to our betterment.  We, as a nation, are more stressed out than ever.  We are finding that secular engagements can be a demanding master.  That we choose to act as if Sunday is just another day has not served us, our country, or our parishes well.  We physically, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally need down time.  Maybe the God who hardwired us knows this.

This precept, as all the following precepts are meant for our betterment.  Challenging though they be, they are meant to help us grow in holiness, maturity, and faith.  Withdrawing from them will produce nothing positive or good.  Entering into them and participating as God commanded us to do (recall Jesus’ command to ’do this in memory of me’ at that first Mass, the Last Supper) can only be to our good if we allow it to be so.  So come giving thanks, expressing sorrow, expressing glory and adoration of God so that He may, in turn, give you an abundance of His grace.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Precepts of the Church: Introduction

These precepts are an answer to the question of what does it mean to be a Catholic in good standing.  These precepts are the baseline, the beginning, the bare minimum of what the Church says are concrete measures of what being a Catholic entails.  I write these pastor’s pens with an understanding that all the precepts are is the jumping point of the Catholic life and relationship with God and His Church.  I will go into greater detail on each one over the course of several columns so that we may see why each is an integral part of the Catholic life, how each is necessary to the identity of a Catholic, and how each points to a call to holiness that we are given by virtue of our baptism.

    I know that in our culture over the past 5 or 6 decades we have adapted a ‘away with the rules’ approach.  Those who uphold rules are seen as Pharisaical or rigid ideologues impinging on freedom.  It has led to a moral anarchy in our society where what is moral or immoral is up to me.  Likewise, we have deluded ourselves into believing that being Catholic is whatever I say it is and that if the Church has criteria on what constitutes a member in good standing then the Church is out of line.  This, too has led to a moral anarchy where being holy devolved into being good which devolved into being nice which devolved into being inoffensive.  We dismiss divine revelation for human wisdom; saying divine revelation is just human rules.  Even the Bible itself is dismissed as a mythology anthology full of fables and tales.  All of this done as an act of rebellion in which I am my own master. 
    The Catholic Church, though, is no mere human institution.  If Jesus is who He says He is, then what He calls the Church becomes the guiding principle. To this Church He said “what you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, what you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Mathew 16:19, 18:18)  The Church built its teachings on those of Jesus.  Jesus’ teaching flowed from the Old Testament, especially the 10 Commandments.  Hence, the Church has the right and duty to define what life in Christ looks like.  The precepts of the Church do this; they give us an understanding of what it means to be a disciple.  If you look at the precepts, they read like a list of those things that will keep you healthy enough to engage in the work of the Gospel.

    I guess a colloquial way of looking at it is that here is the meal and exercise plan if you are to possess the strength to get about the business of the kingdom.  At one time, there was a 7th precept: To engage in the evangelization mission of the Church. 

    I am afraid if I were to say that only those who fulfill the precepts of the Church can receive the sacraments, many would fall away.  However, that is exactly what the Church is saying.  There are standards.  These are the measuring line.  I invite you to look at this list and ask yourself both ‘have I been doing these, and how do I start back up if I have not.’  That latter part is of great importance!  Remember, we are a Church of mercy and forgiveness.  However the human heart has to be so disposed to mercy and forgiveness before it can be given.  In the next 3 or 4 weeks, I will be going one by one on these precepts as a preparation to the Year of Mercy that is starting on December 8th. 

    In each precept, I will also point out that each precept is a minimum and not a maximum.  The goal of a healthy relationship isn’t defined in what is the least that has to be done.  If that is the case, could one actually say they love the other?  The more one loves, the lighter these precepts are and the deeper we will go.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Lord, I Want To See...Maybe

The Gospel for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B, is St. Mark's account of the healing of Bartimaeus.  Bartimaeus is a blind man who hears Jesus is coming through.  He says two things: "Son of David, have pity on me" (twice) and "Master, I want to see."  Even though he is initially dissuaded from approaching Jesus by those around him, he persists.  The lot of a blind man in the time of Jesus was s dismal existence.  Unable to hold a job or farm, their lives were reduced to begging for their sustenance.  The regaining of sight was more than a mere regaining of a lost sense, it was the reconnection to life that the renewed sense allowed.  Once Bartimaeus is healed, he cannot be a blind man anymore.  A new life is given and  the expectations that go with this new life are part of the consequence of the healing.  Jesus acts on Bartimaeus' faith and restores his vision and tell him "Go your way, your faith has saved you."  What 'your way' does Bartimaeus choose?  We are told he follows Jesus.

So, is this a nice story of an interaction between a blind man and a loving Messiah?  No.  There is much more going on.  Let's break this down:

Bartimaeus seeks Jesus.  We hear of many cures that Jesus performs over the course of His ministry.  They all have a striking resemblance: they all are either brought to Jesus or approach Jesus themselves, such as Bartimaeus did.  Jesus didn't go looking for them.  Remember the story of the Prodigal Son from the Gospel of Luke; although the father mourns his son's absence, he does not go looking for him.  His son freely chose to leave and his son must freely choose to come back.  The miracles of Jesus are more than mere stories about what a good guy Jesus is.  All of the healings were about a restoration.  They point to what Jesus came to do: to restore humanity back into an eternal relationship with the Father.  That relationship had been estranged by sin.  Illness, blindness, possession, leprosy, and such were all signs of a  fractured or severed relationship whose presence kept the person from the fullness of life.  Jesus doesn't merely heal, he restores.

However, Bartimaeus his initially dissuaded from approaching Jesus.  He is rebuked and told to be silent.  We are not told by whom and for what reason, only that those around him are quite content for him to remain blind.  When a person decides to seek Jesus, there will always be people who will try to dissuade them.  Some will try to dissuade because they do not want conversion for themselves and cannot bear to have a person they know do so.  Some will try to dissuade because we don't want 'that type' of person amongst our company.  All who dissuade are agents of Satan.  Some will even try to convince that no need of healing is necessary or that their blindness is acceptable. The world is very adept at condoning sin under the guise of tolerance.  Even within the Church there are some who will say that one's blindness is fine.  They will say that this is what mercy looks like.  There is nothing merciful about allowing a person to remain in darkness; there is nothing merciful about prohibiting a restoration of sight when all that is necessary is the faith to seek it and the desire for a new life in Christ.

Bartimaeus, however, is not dissuaded in the least and only cries out all the louder.  This time Jesus calls for him and now there are those around Bartimaeus who tell him to 'Take courage, get up Jesus is calling you."   These are those who actually facilitate conversion, who seek what is good and help in the process of conversion, leading the blind to Christ.  Where those who dissuade are agents of Satan, those who encourage and are willing to lead a person to Christ are agents and disciples of Jesus.  This is our call as baptized Catholics.  To be amongst this group, though, presumes that we see.  We cannot be the blind leading the blind. (Luke 6:39)  A person who is a slave the sin will hardly be of much help in helping to free another who is a slave to sin.  Translated for Catholics: Do we seek to maintain a state of grace in our life, by embracing ongoing conversion (as witnessed to by regular Confession) and seeking to deepen our faith and understanding in Jesus, His Gospel, and His Church?  When we are given sight, it is so that we do as Bartimaeus did; follow Jesus.  It is hard to follow Jesus if we do make the effort to come to know what this entails.  Without the following of Jesus, we might as well be blind.

Finally, when Bartimaeus is asked by Jesus what he wants, he simply says "Master, I want to see!" Notice:  Master.  Bartimaeus makes a profession of faith of who Jesus is.  He is his master; Bartimaeus approaches as a servant.  The name, Bartimaeus, means son of the unclean one.  He is humanity.  His unclean status makes him unfit for the Kingdom.  His blindness is symbolic of this.  To go from unclean to clean necessitates his reorienting his life towards a new master, Jesus.  Only in this reorientation can he go from the son of the unclean one to being a son of God; hence the only reasonable to reaction to Jesus' intervention is for Bartimaeus to follow Him. 

All of this calls for a response on our part.  Do we embrace conversion?  Do we even seek it?  Because we happen to inhabit a pew every so often does not mean guaranteed entrance into heaven.  See Luke 13:22-27.  What we do in Church is supposed to inspire conversion in ourselves in such a powerful way that we become for others a path by which the blind are led to Jesus.  To believe that conversion can happen independent of the sacraments is a fool's game.  To believe that the role of Confession is optional is to steadfastly adhere to blindness. 

That the confessional has fallen largely silent is a stinging indictment against this age.  It is the work of Satan!  How can the blind see if we shut off the path to Jesus?  What does it say, my brother priests, when time for confession for the entire week is less time than an average meal and offered at a time so obnoxiously inconvenient to most that many do not come?  What does it say when 15-45 minutes are allotted for a parish of hundreds if not thousands of families?  Do we hide behind the ubiquitous " or by appointment" knowing that catching us is near impossible. Does this not send a message?  Do we not become the people telling Bartimaeus to be silent?    Yet, we have the audacity to complain that no one comes when we have set the stage for failure?  Do we preach about confession?  Do we speak of the reality of sin?  Do the words 'mortal sin' ever depart from our mouths?  Do we not see how this feeds into a mentality that empties out our churches?  The blame, so to speak, is not only there.  My brothers and sisters in the laity:  Are you insistent on confession?  Do you do an examination of conscience?  Do you allow the world to condone blindness, allowing the 'everyone is doing it' to be reason for your own willful blindness?  I might add this question to my brother priests as well.  How often do we avail ourselves of the sacrament of Reconciliation?  It will be very hard to treasure this sacrament if we ourselves are not open to conversion.

There is no room for "Lord, I want to see...maybe" or "but not now".  Blind disciples are ineffective at spreading the kingdom.  We must have the same humility as Bartimaeus.  We must admit our need for healing and restoration.  We must not allow others to dissuade us from this.  We must recognize that only in reorienting ourselves to God as our master, can we find such healing and restoration.  Jesus is ever near us, waiting for us to call out to Him. Can we say "Son of David, have mercy on me?"   Will we turn from the blindness of sin so as to walk in the way of Jesus?  Will we facilitate this possibility to others?  We know this world is becoming a darker and darker place as sin is called good and conversion is called evil.  In this dark night, we are called to be light.  To be light though, necessitates eschewing the darkness and blindness of sin and a embracing and living of the light of Christ.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Yeah, I skipped Sunday Mass! So What?

In the United States, Mass attendance has been falling steadily over the last several decades, from 75 percent to 42 percent with no real end in sight.  Over those years, those Catholics who identify themselves as Catholic have seen that identity as possible without the actual practice of the faith has risen significantly.  A cavalier attitude has developed about Mass attendance that sees Church as easily divorced from spirituality.  Into this spiritual void has jumped universalism, a false teaching that everyone goes to heaven (if there be one) except those who are bad (who don't think like me).  It's no real big deal if a person doesn't go to Mass or live any of the precepts of the Church as long as one is good seems to be the predominant feeling out there.  The Mass is boring many feel.  The music sucks or the priest is too ________ , so I don't go.  I can find God in my favorite recreational activity.  The list goes on. So what's the big deal?  Why does it matter and why should I go?

What is Mass? 

I guess we should start by saying what is Mass.  I believe that most people are of reasonable disposition and are open to truth.  Mass is an act of worship of God.  It is the where we directly participate in the saving action of Christ on the Cross.  It is a direct participation in the sin/peace offering that Jesus allowed Himself to be. He offered Himself as sacrifice so that the relationship between God and us could be eternally re-established.  We lost that relationship through sin; but God could never bring Himself to write us off as beyond His help.  He wanted to be one with us again and used Himself to seal that bond.  The sin/peace offering, though, was a sacrificial meal.  Until the person for whom the sacrifice was offered ate a part of the sacrifice the sacrifice would have no benefit.  In John 6:53-54 Jesus says, " Let me solemnly assure you, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life within you.  He who feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has life eternal, and I will raise him up on the last day." At the Last Supper, Jesus enables this to take place by taking two common elements of the Passover meal, bread and wine, and declaring them to be the Body and Blood He was about to offer on the Cross.  The Last Supper is that first Mass.  All other Masses over two thousand years have been a direct participation in this one sacrificial offering.

Do we get the gravity of the situation?  Could you imagine one of the apostles saying, "Yeah, I could go to this, but I would rather_______".  Wow, imagine saying that to Jesus' face!  Your sacrifice isn't worth my time.  I can have life, even eternal life, without you.  I don't need the sacrifice of the Cross.  I am a good person.  Sounds easy to say now, how do we think that will play in front of God face to face?

Mass, you see, is an admission we need God's grace and help in our lives.  We go in, not to be entertained, but to give thanksgiving (the word Eucharist comes from the Greek word for thanksgiving) for what God has done for us and wants to do for us.  It is not a hoop to jump through, but supposed to be a conscious act of worship.  It is our awareness that we do want the relationship with God for eternity by showing that desire in the present that should drive us to Mass.  God's reward for this desire and openness to His will is to give us the Flesh and Blood of His Son so that we may indeed have His life within us.

Going to Mass is not merely a matter of sitting in a pew for an hour, it is about engagement in worship.  We do this because the work of the Gospel must be done.  It can not be done passively.  If you have been baptized, the mission of the Church is already something that has been promised and for which we will be held liable. 

Why go?  Because we are called to be holy!

The majority of Catholics believe we are called to be good or nice.  What does that mean?  I don't know!  It is a rather flexible definition for which the bar seems to be plummeting on a regular basis.  Being good always seems to embrace my favorite sins or bad habits, doesn't it?  The call of a Catholic isn't toward such mediocrity.  No, the call of Catholics is to holiness: to be a city set on a hill, a light, salt (see Matthew 5:13-16).  We are to be Christ's witnesses to the transforming power of His grace.  How can we do this if we do not get the grace we need?  Holiness takes fuel.  God gives that fuel through the sacraments.  Without that fuel, sin will take over and numb us to that necessity.  As grace builds on grace, so sin builds on sin.  The devil will want all traces of God's life stripped from you.  He will keep you as far away from the sacraments as possible, or losing that, convince you to receive them to no good end.  In other words, to receive them in a state of mortal sin so they have no effect.  It is no wonder that missing Mass is usually preceded by an abandonment of the confessional.  We need the grace of both because of the call to holiness that is given us.

Conquering the Yabuts

Who or what are the yabuts?  They are the excuses we come up with (yeah, but....)  My brother clerics, read these carefully as usually we are the ones that provide the fuel for more than a few of the yabuts.

Yabut 1:  Mass is boring!  If we come to be entertained, we have already come with the wrong disposition.  If we wish to entertained then the focus has shifted from God to me.  Disposition matters.  Am I there to worship or be worshipped?  I know that we can find the music to our disliking.  I know many who preach cannot do so well or effectively.  I know it can feel dead in there.  The way to combat this is to go in with the right disposition.  I am here to worship God.  I am here to give thanks.  It is a shame I have to undergo mediocrity at mass to do so?  Yes, it is!  To my brothers; does what we do point to God in a way that brings awe?  Is the music pointing to worship of God or do we sing about ourselves? Is there any sense of transcendence to what we are doing?  Can the people see that we believe in the way we comport ourselves and in the way we handle the Sacred Species?  It is hard for people to get that this isn't about being entertained if we act as if we are putting on a show to entertain them.  We, too, must come in with a disposition that what we are there to do is worship God and in return receive the grace we need to go get about the business of the Kingdom.  If we don't believe that what we handle is the Body and Blood of Christ, how can we expect those who come to Mass to do so?

Yabut 2: I can find God elsewhere!  I am going to start with a fairly blunt statement: my Catholic faith should be easily distinguishable from a pagan's faith.  Jesus didn't point at a forest, a fishing boat, a recliner, a football game, or a bed and say "Here is where you can find me."  He did, however, take unleavened bread and wine and say "This is my Body, this is my Blood."  He is saying, "Here I am!  I make myself physically present to you in this Mass!  I make myself physically present to you in the Eucharistic Species!  Jesus doesn't want to be with you in some mere theoretical manner, but in a very real and true sense.   There is no other venue in which we will find God so concretely!  Now, imagine, telling God that I didn't find His concrete presence in my life all that important...but I fully expect to get into your home for all eternity.  I don't think that is going to play over so well, do you?

Yabut 3: Mass is full of hypocrites!  Yes, it is.  Join the club.  To some degree we engage in hypocrisy on a regular basis.  We know the right and do the wrong.  We fail.  It is called sin.  Pope Francis has likened the Church to a field hospital where the grace of God is given repeatedly to us as a medicine to cure us and bandage our wounds.  For this reason, the Church has the medicinal sacrament of Confession/Reconciliation to make us well enough to receive the solid food of the Eucharist.  I know that trying to find confession times in most parishes is difficult (file under things that are not helping, Father) which screams it must not be important.  As already stated, though, the Mass is sin/peace offering.  It is offered for sinners so that they might draw closer to God and in doing so be given the grace necessary to be the authentic witnesses we are baptized to be.  It does presume a desire for relationship with God and an openness to growth in said relationship.  This is why confession is so important.  When we are in a state of mortal sin, that openness is severed.  In a state of mortal sin we go from mere hypocrites to those hell bound.  Mass is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.

What Difference does it Make?

A rather large difference, truth be told.  What happens when the light of Christ is extinguished in an individual?  There is less light!  If I spiritually starve myself to death, it is to the detriment of all around me.  Furthermore, if I am starving myself to death it is a good bet I am teaching others to do the same.  I shut myself out of heaven and invite others to do the same.  Remember, Jesus Himself says, "Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life within you."  Without that life we CANNOT enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  Jesus set up the criteria.  Furthermore, imagine, if you will, what would happen if the 1.25 billion Catholics not only received the Body and Blood of Christ in a state open to its effects (aka 'state of grace') just how positively transforming that could be in this violence ridden world.  Imagine the true good that would result.  Without our connection to the Eucharist on a regular basis, this cannot be accomplished.  Why every week?  Because our need for God is that strong.  When God commanded that we keep holy the Sabbath, it was for our good.  We need Him, we need His grace.  Pride obscures this fact, humility points to this fact.

Jesus gave His Body and Blood so that through it the world could be transformed and reunited with its Creator.  What a horrible thing to say to Him that we know better than Him and find His sacrifice as beneath us!  Jesus reminds us "There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, nothing hidden that will not be made known.  Everything you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight; what you have whispered in locked rooms will be proclaimed from the rooftops." (Luke 12:2-3)  Our internal dispositions will be laid bare before the judgment seat of God.  I, for one, know I need God's grace to get through the maze that is this life.  Let us be honest and overcome the yabuts and go seek Jesus where He makes Himself most concretely known.  If we are to expect the Kingdom of Heaven, it will not come from ignoring Jesus on earth.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Prayer in the Family and Recognizing the 5 Stages of Conversion

The Church defines the family as the domestic church.  It is the place in which the first witnessing of the faith by word and deed take place.  As, parents, you have a unique perspective and ability to notice the development of your children in all aspects of their lives.  You notice the physical growth and the endless trip to get new clothes and the increasing appetite that usually comes with physical growth.  You notice your child maturing; from the forming of words, to walking, running, growing the ability to gain independence.  You notice their mental growth as they come to understand their grasp of the world, how it works, and where their role might be in it.  You also have a unique vantage point to witness the growth of heir faith, both the understanding and practice thereof.  For this reason, among others, parents are rightfully seen as the first and best teachers of their children in the ways of the faith.  What is offered by parishes and schools is to be of assistance to parents in the spiritual growth of their children; we are not replacements to that task though.

    As with any instructor, you cannot give that which you do not have.  So, as the primary instructor, you need to be aware you set the tone.  What you hold important and as worthy of time and effort will normally be passed on to the next generation.  This is more than the mere passing on of information about God; your greatest lessons have to do with relating with God.  It is said that dads teach their sons how to treat women and their daughters what to expect of men; that mothers teach their daughters how to treat men and their sons what to expect of women.  Both parents teach their child who God is or isn’t and how to relate to God.  This is especially true of the dads.  Study after study shows that the attitudes about faith will be molded by the dad overwhelmingly more so than the mom.  So guys, delegating the spiritual leadership to your wife is toxic.  This is not because the wife is lacking…it is not her job…she has jobs as well and does not need to be doing your as well.  Just keep that in mind.
    As a person grows physically, emotionally, and mentally, so they grow spiritually.  As we are integrated wholes, all go hand in hand for the development of the person.  In matters spiritual, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) identified 5 stages in the growth of a person from non-belief to the ultimate goal of being a disciple of Jesus Christ.  These steps came from their work at evangelizing college students.  Author Sherry Weddell, in her book “Forming Intentional Disciples” noticed that these five steps are true for all.  The five steps are : Trust, curiosity, openness, seeking, and finally intentional discipleship.  Let’s go through these.

    The first level of this process is trust.  A non-believer will seek a person they trust as a bridge to possible engagement.  Within the family this is important; your children will look to you first as that bridge of trust.  That bridge is built or destroyed by our positive or negative witness.  If prayer does not happen in the home, if the principles of selflessness are not lived by the parents, if faith is foreign within the day to day operations , then the trust forms in that faith is not important.  If however, the family prays together (dad…one of your primary jobs), if mom and dad model selfless love, if faith is a determining factor is how decisions are made and priorities set, if the practice of the faith is central, then the parent has set up a bridge of trust in which the child can now proceed.  A person can stay at this level their entire lives.  Sometimes because improper example had been given, sometimes because of an unwillingness to change. This step is crucial, because if it is not realized the others steps do not happen.  Witness within your homes.  Not just with words, but with action.  Kids are very good at picking up when words and actions don’t’ jibe.  These children are a gift of God given to you so that they may grow into an eternal relationship with God.  Trust, though, is the beginning of the process.

    AS with all things, once an atmosphere has been created that allows for ideas being pursued, the next four stages start to happen in sequence.  There is no time table on this, it varies on the constant witness of the parents.  The next step to appear is curiosity.  It seems every child goes through the ‘why’ phase.  In fact they can ask the question over and over again, looking for deeper reason  Sometimes they push the question ‘why’ right to the brink of our sanity.  As the child tries to make sense of the world around them and the constant barrage of mixed signals they want to know why.  This curiosity isn’t an end in and of itself, left to its own devices with someone trusted, it will expand.  The curiosity phase can be threatening for someone who doesn’t think they know what they should know.  If we know that the curiosity and subsequent stages are coming, than the impetus for us to go through these stages ourselves becomes clear; if I lead others down a path, I should be aware of the path myself.  If I as a parent have not passed this stage, it will be hard to lead others.  Not all is lost though, sometimes as our child goes through these stages we lead by seeking to go through these stages ourselves.

    Curiosity leads somewhere naturally: rejection or an openness to truth.   It is not an easily crossed thresh hold though.  Why?  Because now a commitment is called for, a dropping of the defenses.  Trust is essential.   Openness is the first stage that involves a willingness to change.   For a child, what is being asked is turning away from a natural inclination towards self centeredness and  a move towards selflessness.    Without this openness, the next two stages simply will not happen.  In being taught to not merely reach out to a God whom they cannot see, but to trust in this God’s benevolence for them, we are asking them to trust.  Openness allows this movement to begin.  It will be rare that a child will move to openness if the parents, particularly the dad, is not open.  Because a door has been opened does not mean a threshold has been crossed, only that possibility of the threshold being crossed now exists.

    The first steps through that threshold is known as seeking.  Now a compulsion to want to know exists.  As parents, your children will turn to you first with these questions.  If a parent felt inept at the second stage of curiosity, this stage can be more threatening as our knowledge/ lack thereof and our personal witness or lack thereof are completely exposed.  What is being sought>  Just knowledge?  No.  Relationship is sought.  Faith always points to relationship.  Belief is given credence by relationship,  Without this step into relationship in general, the last step towards the relationship of being a disciple/follower of Christ does not happen.  We now move into the realm beyond knowing about something to actually knowing someone.  For parents, this cannot be faked.  A child will even accept that a parent might well be in this stage themselves, but if mom and dad (again especially dad) are not open or seeking themselves, it will be near impossible for them to guide their children through these steps.

    The last step is a total commitment to so orient one’s life in union with God: discipleship.  Here God is not an intellectual proposition or theory. He is a person with which to enter into relationship; a relationship so strong that it is worthwhile to change behavior.  This does not mean the disciple is perfect, but now is oriented to living a life of actual faith and discipleship.  This is your duty parents.  We remind you in the baptismal ceremony that it is your responsibility to teach your child to follow Christ.  That means you have the duty before God, a duty for which you are held accountable, to raise followers of Christ.

    How does this happen?  Prayer for starters.  It is not a pious devotion or unnecessary add on if a parent chooses to lead the family in prayer.  It is an absolute necessity.  Yes, children will get bored and fidget.  Yes, they will whine about not engaging in something the enjoy.  That is the natural selfish disposition talking.  Your job is to move them beyond that.  When you make time to pray as a family, you are telling them that this is a priority.  Sooner or later, especially if his prayer is atypical and not an anomaly to how the family functions, the children will not merely learn but embrace prayer.  If prayer is happening at home the likelihood that the family engages in the sacramental life of the church increases greatly.  Where a family doesn’t pray, Mass will seem like an anomaly to life and as such will be resisted.

    Second, the witness of love between the parents.  When you are selfless with each other, you show your children what a relationship should look like.  It is why the Church teaches that the bond between a husband and wife gives witness to the bond of Christ and His Bride, the Church.  How you relate to your children also bears witness.  Dads, you become a symbol of the fatherhood of God.  Children, for better or for ill, will transpose how they see you dads into how they see God.  If they see the great enabler in you, it s how they will see God.  If the see the great tyrant in you, they will see God as such as well.  If they see the selfless hero, they will see that in God as well.  Your role cannot be duplicated nor faked.  The Scriptures tell us you are, not should be or can be, but are the spiritual head of the home.  Your ability to witness discipleship is a hinge.  The inner workings of the domestic Church will determine so much of the trajectory of your children’s faith.

    Third, and by no means is this an exhaustive list, how are priorities set?  Does the family study the faith together at all or make use of the opportunities afforded in the parish?  Do commitments to other entities (as good as they might be) trump prayer and the practice of faith?  When  hard choices have to be made about jobs, sports, extracurricular activities, entertainment and the enriching of faith…who wins and what does that say?   We know from human relationships that when a relationship is not seen as worthy enough to endure sacrifice and even suffering for, then the relationship is seen as non-essential at best and as merely detrimental at worst.  However, if sacrifice is embraced, then a message is that the relationship in question is primary and important.  That a child comes to this level of faith is what you promised you would do at their baptism.

    We know that this scenario has not been played out across the board for decades.  We see this in the declining Mass attendance, the abandonment of Confession, the decline in  every measurable data out there.  This is not new and why The Second Vatican Council and one of it architects, St John Paul II, called for a new evangelization to burst forth.  You here are part of that call.  It is about recapturing what was lost and using it so as t positively transform the world in which our children will someday enter.  The voice of Christ and your own voice are not the only ones beckoning for their attention. 

    How do we restore these  things?  By intentionally understanding where we are on this road of discipleship: are we still at trust?  Are we at curiosity?  Are we at openness?  Are we at seeking?  Are we at discipleship?  Why does it matter?  Because by virtue of being a parent it is your job to lead your children through these steps .  Make prayer a priority in the home even if it isn’t now.  Will it be awkward?  Probably.  Do it anyway; the only way we move from awkward to not is by practice.  Take advantage of opportunities out there to explore further the faith…ask why.  Pick up a good book, a bible, go to a adult education class, a prayer group, a retreat…break up the business as usual.  There are multiple ways out there.  Note to priests:  we (and by we, I do not mean others in the parish…I mean we priests) should be offering venues for those who want to move through these stages to do so.  Just as parents have this primary responsibility within the family, so we do within the parish.  We cannot keep farming out these duties to others, we are called father for a reason.

    This might seem a new way of doing things, but it is as old as our faith.  Parents have always had the role of first teachers.  There is nothing new in this.  Now, as we pray during the blessing of the Fathers in the Rite of  Baptism, may you also be best of teachers, giving witness to the Christ by all that we say and do.