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.