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.