Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Book Review: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Mataxas

Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  For those who don't know who he is, you should.  He was man of great faith and knowledge who had the task of calling his beloved country, Germany, out of madness.  Born of the wealthy level of society, born of a traditional family whose morals were strict and whose practice of faith was  mixed.  He made one unconventional move after another feeling compelled by God to rethink the way his German Lutheran heritage lived its faith.  Those moves led him to conspire to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

This biography is actually two biographies: one of Pastor Bonhoeffer and the other of his homeland Germany.  Not only are we given a insight into the man but an insight into how a country could have fallen under the spell of a madman like Adolf Hitler.  Central to both was the German Church which had grown to be a deaf and toothless watchdog.  The lines between faith and nationalism were drawn and one had to chose a side.  Hitler had managed to deftly merge the two for a marriage of convenience to a bride he hoped to dispose of with when the time was right.

In this biography, we are able to see the multiple influences upon him: family, friends, scholars, and faith.  In the last, we see he could not be sated with the status quo; he often would ring a clarion bell to which few, especially within his church, would heed.  We see a man who strove to maintain his Christian witness, even to the moment of his execution.

On the one hand , we are given an insight into the toxic mix of nationalism and vengeance that became Nazi Germany.  We see a people so angered by the ill formed Treaty of Versailles that anyone who could exact revenge would be followed.  We see a people reduced to poverty who were so hungry for a savior, even if that savior was a murderous fiend, they would follow.  We see a country whose political and religious institutions were ill equipped to deal with such frustration.  We see that the churches were already emptying, that faith was more a private devotion, and faith was easily disposed with when a false messiah took the stage.  We are left to gasp at the rise of evil as the world had never seen prior.  We will see that venomous recipe be dumped across the world through war and genocide.

Yet at the same time, we are introduced to Bonhoeffer and his friends and co-conspirators who would not go quietly into that good night.  We see incredible faith and bravery in the cast of characters.  We see a man who knew that faith could not be regulated to the cold pews of a Church, but had to be transported as well into the world at large...that the only way to prevent such evil was to live the life of a disciple of Jesus Christ in the fashion of the Sermon on the Mount.  We see a man and his compatriots who found the Final Solution as evil and something worth laying their own lives down to stop.

The reader is left asking some very disturbing questions about the world today.  The circumstances which allowed for the totalitarianism of National Socialism are still with us.  For us Americans, as we see the tactics of a Saul Alinsky played out (tactics identical in many ways to the rise of the Third Reich) in our society and politics, as we see our society fractured and straw men villains erected for our disapproval, as we see a government who wants us to surrender our freedoms bit by bit, who will be the Bonhoeffers in our midst?  Who will stand and be counted among those who will not allow our society to be dragged into madness?  Who will hold firm on their Christian beliefs and stand against the victimization of entire segments of our society (the unborn for example)?  Who will see what the popes since WWII have begged us to do and live our faith not just for an hour on Sunday, but throughout the rest of the week as well?  Who of us will stand for the unpopular truth, even if it means suffering and sacrifice?  As in the time of Bonhoeffer, we need heroes to arise and stand defiantly courageous!

Mr Metaxas use extensive writings of Bonhoeffer, public and private, to paint not just the man but the world in which he lived.  We see the passage of time and necessity to respond to situations as they devolved.  It is a morality tale as much as a biography.  It is a tale we would do well to listen.

A Most Deadly Affair: The Left and Abortion.

I saw a meme not long ago saying that to the left, abortion is the highest sacrament; on par with the Eucharist with Catholics.  Both have as central to the belief the words, "This is my body." I think it holds true.  For the left, a woman's body is hers to do with as she pleases.  A baby in the womb is seen as a parasite on her body, hence, at the disposal of the woman to do with as she sees fit.  In this scenario, the baby in the womb is not a separate entity deserving of any human rights.  No, its humanity is left to the whim of the woman.  You'll notice I am saying woman and not mother; this is to reflect the beliefs of the left.  For the left, abortion is the fail safe should their other sacraments of sexual promiscuity and birth control not work.  Abortion and artificial birth control have the same root on the left: the deadly love affair they have with eugenics.

What is eugenics you ask?  It is a belief that the survival of the human species depends upon the weeding our of lesser traits.  In his book, "The Descent of Man", Charles Darwin  remarked to his dissatisfaction that humanity was the only species that protected its weak and deficient.  Throw in some Friedrich Nietzsche, and some Margaret Sanger, and you have an explosive movement that  became the philosophical underpinnings of the progressive movement.  It was Margaret Sanger who started using birth control and forced sterilization of those seen as 'weeds' and feeble lesser strains of humanity.  Ms. Sanger was a committed racist.  Her organization started spreading clinics throughout the country and world for the expressed purpose of eliminating the lesser strains; placing most of them in in impoverished and minority neighborhoods.  Her organization is a darling of the left, actually its flagship.  No matter what vile things this group does, no matter how deceptive it is, no matter how it targets minorities, the left will always come to the defense of this group and pour tons of money into it,  I am talking, of course, of Planned Parenthood.

Now, mix this with the fact that progressivism is basically slow cooker socialism.  It is patient socialism.  Instead of revolution, it slowly takes over institutions and becomes the norm.  I invite the reader to reader to read Saul Alinsky's "Rules for Radicals."  Paramount to socialism is the providing of everything for the underclasses.  This sounds Christian, correct?  Except for the nasty little reason why they want to provide: if one can strip the ability of a person to provide for themselves, one can have absolute control over them.  This is why gun control is also a sacrament of the left.  One does not want a populace that can defend itself against its oppressors.  It is why the government must have control over everything; it must so burden the populace with laws and regulations as to make dependence the only acceptable outcome.

What do you get with such a mixture of progressivism and eugenics?  The power to enforce eugenics with abandon.  Many of the people that progressivism champions will be the first to be effected.    Doubt me?  Study the history of the rise of communism in Russia and the eastern Bloc, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, and the rise of National Socialism in Germany.  The death tolls from these events are staggering.  That any country who plays with this snake thinks they will be spared is a country that most certainly will be bitten and injected with the worst of venoms!

Both progressivism and eugenics have an antipathy towards Judeo-Christianity.  They have to.  The view of human life and dignity are so polar opposites, that one can not live freely with the existence of the other. What makes Judeo-Christianity so very dangerous is its beliefs that every single human person has an inherent dignity which must be respected and protected because every single human being is loved by God.  The New Testament especially makes clear that love of God and love of neighbor are so intertwined that to do damage against a person, intentional or unintentional, is an offense against God Himself.  To see humanity as a group to divide and conquer, to balkanize, to pick winners and loser is antithetical  to Judeo-Christianity.  This is why the progressives seek to limit free speech (the love affair with hate speech, micro-aggressions, safe zones) as a tool for quieting dissent,  It is why is is perfectly acceptable to dismiss so many of the arguments against eugenics and progressivism  as religious babble and outdated superstitions.  They must!  That's why truth must be a subjective reality, no matter how inane the claims made.  If all things can be reduced to opinion, all the easier to rid themselves the purveyors of objective truth...especially Judeo-Christianity.

I have news for the progressives and eugenicists: you may be able to rack up quite the body count; you have....hundreds of millions.  You will lose however.  You always do.  Hence, those of the Judeo-Christian faiths: DO NOT BACK DOWN FROM THE TRUTH!  Make no compromises with entities who seek your destruction. Be the wall between these jackals and their prey.  It is so sad to see elements of various Judeo-Christian faiths, including entire churches, who have co-opted the Gospel to try and make some hybrid faith in which the principles of progressivism and eugenics can be given a shiny smiley face; a mask that hides their demonic nature.  They are Judases, plain and simple.

Know who we are up against but do not lose sight of our basic premise  that God does love every single person; the destruction of our enemy cannot be our goal, no the conversion of those who count themselves out enemy.  That can be done without conceding a single iota of ground.  It can be done and gain ground.  Let us not lose sight of who wins at he end.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Church of Piety and the Church of Power

The Roman Catholic Church.  The largest non national entity in the world.  She is made of up of over 1.2 billion adherents spread throughout almost every country in the world.  Her adherents live under every form of human governance and socioeconomic system known to man.  She has been consistently persecuted throughout her 2000 year history.  She has outlived every persecutor.  She has been ruled by saints.  She has been ruled by scoundrels.  She has been in a constant state of  reform.  She is the largest healthcare provider and educator on the planet.  From her came colleges, universities, hospitals, orphanages, social welfare, etc. She is the largest source of charity on the planet.  She has been  praised, pilloried, undermined, and betrayed from the inside, yet she stands tall.   We believe that despite all of this she stands not because of her mere human element, but because of the Holy Spirit, promised by Jesus and given at Pentecost.

The Roman Catholic Church is a complex lady.  She is so because she is chock full of human beings; human beings full of grace, human beings full of foibles. Those human beings can grow lax and selfish and then grow selfless and magnanimous.  Our history as a Church reflects these truths.  Our governance reminds us that such a large entity moves, by nature, very cautiously and slowly.  In her governance, the Church Militant (the part of the Body of Christ on earth) has two groups who are in constant and necessary sides of the spectrum: the church of power and the church of piety.

I borrow these terms from author and historian, Rodney Clark, from his recently published book, Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History.  In Chapter 9, the chapter on the canard that the Church prefers authoritarian civil governments, he uses these terms to describe the two churches: The Church of Power and the Church of Piety. "The Church of power was the main body of the Church that evolved in response to the immense status and wealth bestowed on the clergy by Constantine." In short, they're the administrators.  The leadership of the church mainly falls into this task.  They are given the duty of the upkeep of the infrastructure necessary to do the work of the Church.  Someone has to maintain the parishes, dioceses, educational systems, and the myriad of other ministries the Church has.  But on their own, they can turn the church into a business.

The Church of Piety, according to Dr. Stark, is what 'pressed for virtue over worldliness and constantly attempted to reform the Church of Power...the task of conversion...of evangelization" was left to the Church of Piety.  If the Church of Power upkeeps the infrastructure, the Church of Piety gives the reason for it to exist.  If the Church of Power can be likened to the body of the Church, so the Church of Piety is its soul.  Much like our own bodies and souls, there can be as usually is tension between them.

Before I go any further, it is worth admitting I really am more of the Church of Piety even though by virtue of my role as pastor, there are times I have to be in the Church of Power.  To tip my hand a bit, I see both parts of the Church Militant as necessary, but I believe the Church of Power is to serve the Church of Piety.  I realize there must be administration, but that the administration serves the ends of the  mission of the Church.  Even in my own administrating of my parish, I believe that the budget should not determine the mission, but that the mission should determine the budget.  Well maintained empty buildings are of little use when not engaged in the mission of the Church.  Balanced budget matter little when the mission of the Church goes unfulfilled in the local area.   However, the mission does require infrastructure.

When one dominates to the exclusion of the other, it rarely works out well.  When the church of power dominates it can become a church fixated on the things of man and not the things of God.  It becomes corrupt.  It is the equivalent of a zombie, a soulless body still moving but actively rotting as it does.  When the church of piety dominates to the exclusion of the church of power, it loses its infrastructure and and become muddled and even fall into heresy.  It can be the equivalent of a ghost,  a cognizant entity with no physical structure in which to operate. 

When the two parts of the Church Militant walk hand in hand, both the work of the Church and the means of this work stride along.  One cannot lose sight that the other is needed.  In fact, both churches should reside in the same person when it comes to leadership within the Church.  Truth be told, the Church has survived without the church of power, but her ability to get about the mission of the Church was hampered in the process.  Being more in the Church of Piety than Power, I can and do get frustrated with the ambition, politics, and even lack of vision of the Church of Power.  They, in turn, can see me as a bit of a loose cannon, a curmudgeon, and as having my head in the clouds.  Fair enough...just as long as we never lose sight as to why the Church exist: to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the conversion and salvation of souls.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Role of the Priest in Mass

I believe that part of understanding the Mass is understanding what is the role of the priest  is in Mass.  In a concept, he is to act as the Person Christi, the Person of Christ.  Upon his priestly ordination his soul is ontologically changed so that when the ministry demands that he speak in the person of Christ, he may do so, not for his own good, but for the good of those to whom he has been sent to serve.  For example, within the Sacrament of Reconciliation, when the priest speaks the words of absolution, it is not he that forgives, but Christ using him who forgives.  This same idea happens at Mass and informs much of what the role of the priest is during Mass.

In Mass, the priest stands in a crossroads between the world and heaven; he represents God in his role as teacher and priest, he stands before God interceding for the good of his flock.  He brings the prayers of thanksgiving, adoration, penance, and petition before God and brings the grace of God, most powerfully seen in the Eucharistic species to feed his flock.  Of all the parties involved in Mass, is job is specifically to serve both the people and God.  He, himself, is not to be the focus of attention.  One of the less than subtle ways the Church points this reality out is that the priest cannot make up things as he goes a long; a ritual is provided, words are provided, scripture texts are provided.  He is forbidden by the General Instruction of the Roman Missal paragraph 24 from changing any actions, rubrics, or words in the Mass.  This is done to preserve that the Mass is of the Roman Rite and not the Mass of the Fr. Bill (or any priest) Rite. A master changes things, a servant obeys.

The priests has two focuses in the Mass.  There are times when his focus is the flock.  This is especially seen during the Liturgy of the Word where the priest uses the homily as a time of instruction, exhortation, and example to apply the Scriptures to the lives of his flock.  The homily should always have the purpose of drawing the listener into a deeper relationship with Christ.  To misuse the homily as a time for stand up comedy, teaching falsehoods, or putting on a show is criminal; it is poisoning the flock one is called to feed,  A good priest knows that anything he might have to offer will pale as compared to what God has to offer; he will allow the homily to point to God.  In other places in the Mass he stands in the Person of Christ in offering absolution (penitential rite) and blessing to the flock gathered.

The second focus is that of God.  In offering prayers, especially the Eucharistic prayer, he stands before God as the intercessor for the people assigned him.  His priesthood mirrors the priesthood of Christ who is our great intercessor before the Father. It occurs to me that when the people pray for the priest it is at junctures when the priest must give something of God to them, they pray for the priest because he must stand before God in intercession:  first at the beginning of the penitential rite where the priest will be called upon to give absolution for venial sins, second before the priest enters into the Eucharistic Prayer, third when the priest starts the Eucharistic prayer, fourth when the priest extends the peace of Christ, and fifth when he is about to extend God's blessings.  A sixth time is also possible when he is the reader of the Gospel, because he now must give the words of the Gospel to his people.  When the priest is the momentary focus, it is only so that he may be prayed for so that he may worthily carry out what the office of priesthood demands during the Eucharist. At each of these junctures the priest is reminded of his intercessory role and that in that role, his focus must be on God.  One does not ask for something without focusing on the person he is asking.

At that altar, the priest makes present by the power of the Holy Spirit our share in the eternal sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross.  He does not re-enact the Last Supper.  He does not put on a passion play.  In fact, he is to be as transparent as possible, for it is the words of Christ that make what is happening happen.  At that altar, the focus of all in the Church is on Jesus Christ.  In this role the priest must take the attitude of St. John the Baptist, "He (Jesus) must increase and I must decrease." In this proper disposition, the priest is not the master of the sacrifice, but the servant of the sacrifice.

I know this gets muddled many times and parishioners can often have to brace for impact every time they get a new pastor or even a fill-in while the pastor is away.  The Church does not want this to happen.  Again, it is why a uniting ritual, with same words and actions, is given.  It is also why the faith of the priest is always on display in Mass.  Through his actions and instruction, through his obedience, he models the life of Christ and exhorts his flock to do so as well.  When the priest makes mass about himself, his wisdom, his stylings, and his tastes he robs the flock of the very thing they have the right to receive in coming to Mass.    Namely, a moment of real contact with the transcendent God who wishes to make Himself known to us.  Woe to the priest who stands in the way of this meeting!  I cannot point to God and myself at the same time without making myself a God! No, priests within the Mass are to point away from themselves just as Jesus pointed away from Himself and to the Father...just as Mary pointed away from herself and towards God.  Because the Mass is supposed to be the place where we get the grace necessary to live the life of Christ, we can never allow Christ to be ignored or placed in a secondary place.  The priest has the ability to place the focus where it need be or steal the spotlight for himself.  Pray that any priest will never usurp the attention owed God for himself!

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Some Musings About Mass

I will have to admit two things up front: 1) Vacation allows me much time to ponder things, and 2) In said ponderings, I come to the conclusion I am not a fan of being passively entertained.  I do not watch TV.  I do not go to the movies.  Video games leave me cold for the most part.  I do like live music.  More often than not, I prefer to use my time chatting and interacting.  What has this do to with Mass?  In my ponderings, I go to thinking about responses I got to a couple questions that I had posted.  There was  thread of answers about making Mass speak more to this or that group.  In general it has troubled me that  this response is so common.  It is not said by bad people or by fools.  It is said by people frustrated with the emptying pews, especially when those pews no longer have their family and friends sitting in them. This phenomenon is nothing new.  Statistically we have seen a steady decline for decades.  In these ponderings, I am thinking out loud.  I wish there were simple answers.

It's not about entertainment

Disposition matters.  When I go into a movie I am looking for a little escapism or to get some emotion going.  My job is to sit back and wait for it to happen.  The merit of the movie comes in what it does for me.  If I like it, then I will watch it again.,  If not, I will not.  Once a TV show goes in a direction I do not care for, I will cease watching it.

This happens in churches.  We will see people flock to a church because of the show.  Whether that show is on the stage of mega-church or a local church, we will go where we feel we get something. I read the book, Rebuilt.  I thought they analyzed the situation on the ground well.  What disappointed me was they fed into the mentality of providing a bigger bang and more activities.  That certainly has been the prevailing consensus.  What I want can be a fickle thing.  Entertainment is always a matter of taste.  Some like older stuff, some like newer stuff.  The things is this: if your orientation going into Mass about what you can get, feel, or be satisfied...then the orientation is wrong.

Mass is not about what I receive primarily, but what I give.  Our primary task in going to Mass is to give thanks to God.  What of Communion, then?  Because we are supposed to be in a relationship with God, we show our love for Him through our thanksgiving, He shows His love for us by giving us His Body and Blood.  Mass is supposed to be an exchange of love; a precursor to heaven.  What we offer is paltry in comparison to what we are given.  However, if we do not even see giving God thanks as our primary job, then Mass will lose its meaning.  When Sancrosanctum Concilium ( the Constitution on the Liturgy from Vatican II) asked for the members of the church to give 'full, active, and conscious participation, it was an acknowledgement of our task in the Mass.  Thanksgiving can hardly be given by merely being in a place where Mass is happening.  It would be like going to friend's home for dinner, ignoring the friend, eating his food and departing.

Mass is about this interchange of love.  Indeed at the end of the Sermon of the Mount, Jesus reminds us that it was those who did the will of the Father, not those who just showed up, but those who entered into a relationship with God who will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  How much more can God come to know us (as if he doesn't already) than through this exchange of thanksgiving for Communion? 

This can be done in the most humble of circumstances.  Such masses have been done in the most glorious of Cathedrals and on the battlefield.  Trying to make Mass accessible is saying that this holy exchange isn't enough.  That is a rather blasphemous thing to say.

To whom shall we turn?

This topic has bothered me for some time and is sure to get people riled.  The Church allows for Mass facing the People.  In fact, this seems to be the practiced norm.  I have tried to find why this was decided.  People like to cast dispersion and accusation as to why.  I am one who looks to the writings of the Church herself.  I want to believe it was done for the best of intentions.  I do not think it was a wise thing though.  Before you get your feathers in a ruffle, hear me out.

Posture matters.  In Catholicism we use a number of postures during Mass.  They can connote prayer, listening, adoration.  The position of the priest points to something.  Namely, it points to orientation.  Where is the focus and what is his job?  When the directionality is to the people, such as the readings, homily, and such then it is appropriate to face the people as the priest is acting as teacher.  But the priest has another role as well: that of intercessor.  He prays for his flock and that prayer is not directed at the flock, but is directed to God.  Many priests will forget that and morph into a showman. I think that Mass facing the people facilitates this.  It can feed into the 'entertain me' mode.  It can feed in the orientation being away from God.

I am not saying this necessarily happens.  But the focus of Mass is not to be the priest.  Neither is to be the people.  Our focus is on God...His focus is on us.  Our focus cannot be on any person in that room.  Consider how we believe that upon ordination a priest soul is changed because he must be able to share in the Priesthood of Jesus Christ.  The priesthood of Christ was not to put the focus on Himself.  Rather, He was the great teacher and intercessor for us before the Father.  That is the priest's role in the Mass.  I believe that perhaps at certain times during the Mass, especially during the Eucharistic Prayer, we would be better reminded of this reality were the priest facing God at this time.  People like to say in a deriding fashion that priest has his back to the people; except at the moment the focus isn't the people and it isn't the priest.  The focus is God.  I believe our posture should give witness to this and introduce an understanding that the whole entertainment motif has no business in our masses.

I sincerely believe that this has hurt priestly vocations.  There is something greatly noble about being that intercessor between God and His People.  This isn't a power trip, but a powerful witness to the manly role we take in being an intercessor.  If the priest comes across as a holy showman, it will be to the detriment of the flock; the focus is dangerously taken away from where it should be. Being the showman is intimidating.  It is not something most young men want to do.  It places the success of the Mass on the priest and not on God.  Who feels able to that?

The Roman Missal itself presupposes that the priest is facing the same direction as the people as it gives the instruction 'the priest turns to the people'.  I have good friends try to explain this away; but I have found their explanations widely insufficient. 

These musings are by no means exhaustive treatises on Mass, but written thoughts on a couple of matters for the reader.  Like them, don't like them...I am not Moses coming down from Mt Sinai.  I am saying that both of these things merit further prayer.  I challenge the reader with this parting thought:  Try going into Mass with a disposition of giving thanks to God as your primary reason for being there.  See where it takes you.  God can be given thanks just as easily in the maelstrom as He can in agreeable circumstances; it comes down to our willingness to try.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Dismissing Hades: A Perilous Decision

At the beginning of his Catholicism Series, Bp. Robert Barron points out that Jesus compels us to make a choice.  We are with Him or against Him.  There is no third option.  Why so a commanding request?  The answer lies in what hangs in the balance.  In a word: eternity.  Heaven and hell.  For many in out society the option is narrowed to one: heaven.  As we have reduced the devil to a mythological figure, a metaphysical bogey man, a cheap we have tossed his dominion, hell.  If there be a hell, for many, it is the deposit for evil spirits.  The elimination of hell is the triumph of the modernistic heresy called universalism:  everyone goes to heaven.  Surely that is something any decent person can get behind. But there are certain things you will have to be rid of first.  Thing that many modern theologians and philosophers are trying to get rid of, by the way.

First you must be rid of the concept of free will.  If there are no consequences for one's actions, then free will has no real meaning.  If the outcome is the same regardless of what is done, then the impetus to do good is at best silly.  There is no sense to judging anyone's actions.  We may get together and randomly declare what we can and can't do at this moment, making morality a mythological construct.  Morality is replaced with legality.  Hence, you must get rid of the concept of objective truth.  Truth becomes whatever is agreed upon with in a society.  Justice is now merely a matter of the capricious whims of those who rule.  In a world without the concept of hell, justice is malleable, random, and largely a weapon of control.

I have just described our society.  In a world without hell, there will be no other possible road other than moral anarchy.  Society will break down as selfishness is given a license to do whatever it pleases.  No hell gives rise to the moral absolute of selfishness; there is simply no logical reason to be good.  The reward is the same anyway.

But let's ask ourselves how this plays out in real life.  Let's delve into human nature.  Will a man who thinks he could lose his job and a man who thinks he can't lose his job going to treat their jobs the same way?  Will a person who thinks they can lose their spouse and a person who believes they cannot lose their spouse treat their spouse in the same way?  Will the person who knows his health can change for the worse going to treat his health the same as person who believes they will always be healthy?  We know from personal experience that those who know that what they have can be lost will treat much differently what they have from those who don't.  Greater diligence and care is shown; greater wisdom is applied.  This doesn't mean that the person lives in a state of paranoia, only that they are more cautious with what they have, especially if they love what they have.

If this true for our interpersonal relationships, would it not be true in regards to God?  Many will quote St John who says that God is love.  This is revealed truth.  They believe that it is this love that conquers the day and allows the person into heaven.  God cannot cease to be what He is to punish me, right?  So does God love those in hell?  Yes.  However that love is felt differently.  The person who answered positively to God's call to relationship in this life will bathe in this love much like a person who loves the truth bathes in light.  For the person who rejects that relationship with God, the same light of God's love will be a  source of eternal pain, cursed like the person who loves the cover of darkness to hide their deeds. 

Why cannot the damned change then?  We are told in the Scriptures that the damned are given what they desired.  They desired selfishness here, they will have it for eternity.  The blessed chose to love as God loves, hence, they have also chosen their lot.  Dante Alighieri,  in his work The Inferno, had the damned forever engaged in the activity they chose over God.  Where their endeavors on earth brought them a joy, now they are trapped forever in a futile loop of their own making.  It makes sense.  Hell is the complete absence of heaven, hence nothing of God nor heaven can exist in hell.

In Pirates of the Caribbean, The Curse of the Black Pearl, Captain Barbossa remarks on their lot, "The drink would not satisfy, food turned to ash in our mouths, all the pleasurable company in the world could not slake our lust.  We are cursed men." Nothing of God can exists in hell.  The theological virtues of faith, hope, and love...gone forever.  Gone too are the gifts of the Holy Spirit; gone are wisdom, knowledge, fear of the Lord, counsel, piety, understanding ,and fortitude...evaporating like dew into the ether.  With them go the fruits of then Holy know peace, joy, and such...all gone.  Any impetus to convert is gone, because the impetus to convert is from God.

Now, a loving God would not will such for us.  He would not create us for hell.  This said, we might well freely choose hell.  We choose it by choosing things that please us over God.  We influence others to hell by teaching them that the things of this world matter more than the things of God.  Dismissing hell is the ultimate way of absolving ourselves of our own selfishness. 

So should fear hell as the primary way of spurring us to the right thing.  Not on its own.  Not by a longshot.  Does the man who does his job well necessarily need to worry about losing his job? Security comes in doing the right thing.  Does the person who truly love their spouse need fear losing that spouse?  No.  The selflessness of love brings about a security.  If we love God, will He abandon us?  No.  BUT we must love God. 

What does that love look like?  He didn't leave us to try and figure it our on our own.  He reveals it to us.  To love Him means to seek Him first...not sports, money, jobs, pleasure, God first!  God has revealed that worship of Him shows our love of Him.  Keep holy the Sabbath.  When we have to make hard choices, do we choose for God or for something else.  Is the center, of the periphery?   What we choose over God, becomes our God.  The idea we can keep God quiet if we sit in a church building for an hour on Sunday is ludicrous.  When we spend the rest of the week putting Him second, how does that say I want what God has to offer for eternity?

We may try to throw away the concept of hell.  We  may be able to strike it from all theological speech and all public knowledge.  That does not make it go away.  Your and my actions, priorities, and choices do have eternal consequence.  In every story about a person in hell, they are surprised...shocked...that they are there.  God informs them that they are there by their own choice.  These aren't parlor games; they are real.  You cannot say you haven't been warned.  Make use now of the time allotted to you...turn back if you chosen poorly.  Or remain in rebellion or indifference.  It really is up to you.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Book Review: Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History by Rodney Stark

History told from the perspective of someone possessing an strident ideology can make for compelling fiction. However, it remains fiction. Over the centuries there have been many, for various reasons, that have told history from an anti-Catholic perspective (sometimes an anti-religion perspective) so as to bolster their own greatness or world views.  In 'Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History", author Rodney Stark, co-director of the Studies of Religion at Baylor University, seeks to tackle these falsehoods.

In an interview about this book, Mr. Stark, who grew up Lutheran, proclaims himself an independent Christian, and teaches at the largest Baptist University in America, said this book was not dedicated to any love of Roman Catholicism but dedicated to his love of history.  In debunking  item after item, he uses what is hidden is plain sight.  Instead of seeing history through the lens of an ideologue, he sees history through the eyes of a man who simply wants to know what really happened.   He lists the historians he uses within the chapters.

He debunks canards that are favorite weapons used against Roman Catholicism: approval of slavery, the Inquisition, the Crusades, the suppression of knowledge, the approval of Antisemitism, to name a few.  Being a man looking for objective data, he neither gives the Church passes where such passes would be undue, but he sifts the lies from the truth; he sifts the history from the propaganda.  He acknowledges something most in history conveniently forget: that because a pope of council speaks does not mean that every single one of her adherents and clergy jump up and say 'Yes, Sir." The need to distinguish between what was officially taught and what was done by some needs to be clarified.

Written so as to be easily understood without sacrificing the academic acumen to tell the truth, Mr. Stark makes it easily clear why the lies were there, who they benefited, and why knowing the truth is so important.  In all, he tackles 10 separate issues commonly used to defame Catholicism.  Facts are stubborn things, as President John Adams once remarked.  Perhaps a greater clarity on the facts without the prism of ideology would go a long way to the forward progress of truth.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Prayer: More Than a Spiritual Vending Machine

Over the years I have noticed that many people's prayer lives resemble Varuca Salt tearing through Willie Wonka's chocolate factory singing "I Want it Now!".  God as vending machine.  Prayer as inserting the cash to get the sweets that are within.  It is frustrating business.  It is frustrating because God is not a vending machine.  He is not an over indulgent parent either that wants spoiled children.  He is a Triune God; a God of 3 persons so in eternal relationship with each other that is one God.  The bonds of the internal relationship is love.  If we are to understand the function of prayer in our lives, it cannot be understood outside of the concept of self-giving love.

Prayer is conversation with God.  We are told by Jesus that the Father already knows what we need before we ask Him.  Yet, how much of our prayer is our asking God for stuff?  Asking for things is not bad.  It shows on some level we understand that God is disposed to our good and wants to give us what we need.  But because God loves, we might not get an answer we want.

God can answer with other that yes.

There is a reason that Jesus reveals the 1st person of the Trinity as Father.  He is not just a good father, but the very zenith of what being a father is.  We can extrapolate a bit from what we know good fathers do here.  A good father does not always say yes.  If he loves his children, he cannot.  If the child asks for something that would harm them, he is obligated out of love for them to say no.  If the child is asking for something that stands against his loving plan, he also will say no. Sometimes, the answer is not yet.  Sometimes a child might want a good thing but at the wrong time.   For a good dad, love of his children is the prism by which the answers are given.

In prayer, we must understand that God is disposed to our good and knows our good far better than we know our own good.  We get short-sighted.   We lose sight that there is anything beyond this life.  Sometimes our prayer for things is motivated by fear, lust, greed, anger, envy, jealousy, or wrath.  We can confuse the words 'need' and 'want' quite often.  Sometimes we can get an idea of measuring how much we are loved by how much stuff we get.  The health and wealth gospel charlatans preach a God of giving stuff; love is measured in worldly goods.  Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount not to fixate on the things of this world; that detachment from worldly wealth is preferable; that God's love is not measured in excessive bounty.

As God is disposed to our eternal good, we need to trust that He sees a much bigger picture than we.

A Fuller Conversation

Our communication with God, though, needs to move beyond asking for stuff.  In our own human communication, we would weary of a person who only spoke to us when they wanted something.  We would grow wearier if the person became angry with us if we didn't deliver every single time.  We would grow weary, because we are not always disposed to the good of others when we feel used.  Because God is disposed to our good, he continues to want that relationship with usWe might well see that relationship blossom if we learn that there are other forms of prayer that need to be engaged.

Adoration:  Relationships are forged through love, mutual love between the parties.  The more the two parties share that mutual love, the stronger the bond becomes.  To love God is to give ourselves over to Him.  We know He is disposed to our good; are we disposed to His? To be disposed to His good is to desire to love as He loves, whom He loves, and  grow accordingly.  We must love God and express that love for Him.  Part and parcel is our desire to be in His presence.

We Catholics believe that God is made tangibly present in the Eucharist.  What is our attitude about Mass? What is our attitude about Eucharistic Adoration?  Do we express our affection for God?  If God is love as St John reminds, can we approach Him with any other disposition than love?

Penitential: Truth will point out that our response in love is imperfect.  Our sins are offenses against the love of God.  Some of those sins damage the relationship, some sever the relationship.  Our love for God will press us to seek forgiveness for our sins.  Our love for God will make us recognize God's deep desire for mercy.  In our prayer, we must understand the idea of right relationship.  So many times in the prophets the people of Israel and Judah are told that God loathes their sacrifices and does not hear their prayer because they lack love and thus lack true penance.  True penance desires amendment of life; a desire to cease sin.  Love will press us to know the inappropriate nature of demanding without love and without expressing sorrow for that lack of love; whether it be displayed to God or to those around us.

Notice in the Mass how we pause to call to mind our sins and ask for absolution before we enter fully into God's presence in the Eucharist! We do not enter God's presence with presumption.

Thanksgiving:  No more than we enter in God's presence with presumption, do we enter into His presence empty-handed.  It takes arrogance to ask for stuff when we have not been thankful for God's presence and blessings we have already had.  So central to our faith is thanksgiving that our celebration of the Mass is called the Eucharist.  the word 'Eucharist' comes from the Greek for thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is motivated by love; it is an acknowledgement of God's love made manifest in our lives.

To grow deeper in relationship with God will necessitate our showing the discipline to be aware that we incorporate these three types of prayer daily into or lives.

In the fourth type of prayer, intercession, we seek the will of God in the lives of others.  We pray for the living. We pray for the dead.  This is the prayer life of the saints.  They glorify God, they intercede for others.  We demonstrate the love of God in our lives by showing that love in our prayerful concern for others.  We show our love of God by the love we show for others.  Intercessory prayer must be a mainstay in a Catholic's prayer life.  Intercession is not about telling God what to do, but in laying these people in God's care trusting is His providence and will for them.

A Simple Exercise

Many years ago, a spiritual director gave me a simple exercise to incorporate these prayers into my life.  It is four steps.  Sometimes it will short, sometimes longer.  Do it before bed.

STEP 1: Enter into God's presence in praise, acknowledging His love for us and my love for HIm.

STEP 2:  Reflect upon the day, looking at the positives and blessings.  Give thanks to God for each and everyone of these.

STEP 3:  Reflect upon the day again, looking at where our own actions, words, and thoughts fell short.  If we find that we have severed the relationship with mortal sin, make a commitment to get to confession as soon as possible.  Pray a sincere Act of Contrition when done with this section.

STEP 4:  Reflect upon the day one more time.  Now look for those people and situations that  need to be prayed for.  Notice to pray for them, not about them.  This is an act of love; looking out for the good of my neighbor.  Intercede for them; ask God to give them that which He knows they need.  Ask Him to help you aid this giving.

Over time you will notice patterns good and bad.  You will find examens of conscience much easier and a greater awareness of God's presence and blessings already present.  Like a maturing child, you will approach God more with what you need and not what you want.  The more we engage, the closer the relationship.  The closer the relationship, the more natural and necessary prayer become...the more comfortable we will be with all 4 forms of prayer.

Finally, we cannot let feelings nor emotions determine the efficacy of prayer.  There will be dry spells.  It happens.  We forge on.  Usually the dry spells are God's way of inviting us deeper; to do this we have to desire it and leave behind was is comfortable.  Prayer and relationship do not grow merely by feeling, but by growth in virtue.

May God bless your undertaking this effort!

Friday, June 17, 2016

What is Mercy?

You would think that calling for a year of mercy would instigate a flood of mercy in catholic quarters.  In some places it has, in many others it has touched off a debate that is getting quite ugly.  Ironically enough, calling for mercy has exposed the fault lines just underneath the surface within the church.  It has been exposed that many have not the foggiest notion of what mercy is, what it entails, or what its goals are.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1829, mercy is one the fruits of the theological virtue of charity (love).  The theological virtue of charity is defined as "the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the ove of God." (CCC 1822)  Hence we cannot understand mercy without understanding the theological virtue of charity.  Mercy, being a fruit of charity is directed to one who has offended; a sign of compassion to such a person.

There is a directionality to mercy: conversion through forgiveness.  It is an imitation of Christ.  The disposition of mercy cannot be merited even if the reception of mercy does require a response.  We are reminded by St Paul that Christ died for us when we were steeped in sin (Romans 5:8)  He does this because He loves us.  This does mean that God approved of, ignored, or enabled us to sin.  No. He calls us from sin and gives a path home.  In the Scriptures,  we see God places a premium on mercy, as we see in Mathew 9:13: It is mercy I desire.  It happens in the call of Matthew.  Notice, that the exercise of mercy does not leave the person where they were.  However the exercise of mercy can be uncomfortable and risks being rejected.

In the Church we talk about the corporal works of mercy AND the spiritual works of mercy.  The corporal works of mercy are: Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, comforting the sick, visiting the imprisoned, burying the dead.  These are easily seen as acts of charity.  They all require a person to look to the needs and goods of another.  These are easy to identify.  I will point out that the word 'worthy' appears nowhere (as in feeding the worthy hungry).  To imitate Christ is to imitate His willingness to look out for the good of all.

The spiritual works of mercy, though, are a little more uncomfortable.  They are :instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, admonishing the sinner, comforting the sorrowful, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving all injuries, praying for the living and the dead.  The same love that motivates the corporal works of mercy motivate the spiritual works of mercy. It is these works that create the strife.  The extremes fall into camps: one camp sees the law as a weapon to beat sinners with and the other turns a blind eye to sin and leaves the person there.  Neither camp knows mercy.  Where there is no mercy, there is no charity.

Mercy is not the approval of, condoning of, nor acceptance of sin.  The tolerance police love to believe that this is the case.  Toleration is meant for persons, not actions.  A sin does not cease to be a sin because I love the person.  In fact, if I love the person, I will not want to see them remain in that which harms them.  Sometimes that means leaving the door open as the father does in the prodigal son parable.  His son leaves of his own volition and must return of his own volition. He does not go chasing after his son, but once the son has returned he forgives the immense harm that his son has done to him.  Mercy cannot force conversion nor remove the need for conversion; it is continually open to conversion. To condone sin and withhold engaging in the spiritual works of mercy is as bad as to have no mercy at all.  Ezekiel 33:8 reminds us to leave the sinner in sin is to bring their death upon our own head.  To do nothing is not an option.

On the other side we have the one without mercy.  This is a dangerous and spiritually fatal place to be.  If we look at the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:14-15, immediately after Jesus gives us the Our Father, He says, "If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you.  But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions"    
To withhold mercy is call upon God to withhold mercy.  What a dangerous place we put ourselves in taking the attitude , "You sinned and and beyond my desire to forgive, you are going to hell." In such an attitude we consign our own soul to hell.  Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us?   Sound familiar?    Mercy reaches out to the sinner to pull them from the wreckage of their sin: not to leave them in the wreckage not condemn them for having the wreck.  The balance is hard but necessary to strike.  That people would resent that a sinner could be forgiven is the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal is they who now are ostracized from the familial bond of the Body oft Christ.

We show ourselves to be God's children when we seek to be merciful.  St John reminds us that God is love.  The Church reminds us that mercy is a fruit of love.  Without mercy, we have no love and will cheat ourselves out of the kingdom of heaven.  Whether that lack of mercy comes from failing to forgive or giving approval for the sinner to remain in sin is not relevant, it accomplishes the same end and endangers our souls in the process.

One of the things that Pope Francis asked for in this year of mercy for a greater use of and access to the sacrament of Reconciliation.  It is the entrance way back into the Church after mortal sin has been engaged.  We cannot ask our mortal sins be forgiven and still hold onto the sins against us.  Have doubts?  Read Matthew 18:21-35.   Showing mercy the ultimate act of self preservation!  Refusing mercy is the surest source of eternal damnation.  Getting to judge people is not a perk of being a good is a warning sign that something is going fatally wrong.  we are to seek the eternal good of all, especially those who are acting against that eternal good.  But charity must be the salve in which we wrap the medication. IT  MUST!

I recognize that I am in need of much mercy from God.  If I know this, I must equally realize that I must also be generous with mercy; not merely extending it to those I like, but to those who stand against absolutely everything I stand for as well.  I must be willing to show mercy for those who have no mercy for me.  

Thursday, June 16, 2016

An Open Letter to Seminarians

As a young man discerning as to whether you are called by God to serve the Church as a priest, you aspire to a noble and worthy call of life.  If it be God's will that you are called to the priesthood, you will be called into a life of great joy, great sorrow, and an ever present Cross to joyfully carry for the sake of those you will serve.  Stay connected to Christ our King and the joy stays even in the midst of the greatest of sorrows.   If God has other plans for you, as in marriage, you will too find great joy and sorrows and crosses to be joyfully embraced and carried.   As a priest, I wish to impart on you a little paternal advice.  I was blessed to have priests in my life as I was in the seminary who did so for me.  I was blessed to have a pastor who wanted to mentor and guide me.  I was blessed with great priests for my diaconate and associate assignments.  I know that not all seminarians have such blessings.

It's the Same Base

One of the greatest struggles I had as young man was wrestling with the equally noble calls to marriage and priesthood, knowing that I would have to choose one.  I was confused because I felt such a draw to be a good husband and dad.  I knew I could do it and could not figure out why I would have these charisms yet have no outlet to express them.  I took this to the leader of retreat once,  a man who had been a seminary rector before becoming a bishop.  Honestly, I was hoping he would tell me it was a sign that I was not called to priesthood.  His answer was that if I wouldn't make a good husband and a good dad, I wouldn't be a good priest.  He told me that the base of virtue was identical. The love I would have for a spouse was now the love I was to have for the Church. The love I was to have for my children would be the love I would have for those to whom I was assigned to serve.

The seminary is not a place to run if one cannot form relationships with others.  It isn't a place to hide  if I am too socially awkward to date.  As a priest, you will be called to form actual familial bonds.  Doubt this?  Jesus reveals Himself as Son, the 1st Person of the Trinity as Father, and we are referred to as brothers and sisters, adopted sons and daughters of God. These are not hallmark sentiments but base realities.  Churches are not businesses that offer holy merchandise.  The Church is the Body of Christ; it is a relational entity.   Whatever virtues and qualities are necessary for the forging of relational bonds need to be cultivated in the seminary.

This is why your sexuality must be chastely ordered to your call.  We believe that the physical aspects of human sexuality are ordered to  procreation and union within the sacrament of marriage.  As the Church asks  us to be celibate so as to be living witnesses of the union that lies ahead, our sexuality is to be so ordered to that end.  This does not mean that one develops or nurtures an anti-social or cold and distant personality. The people of God aren't potential seducers awaiting to bring you down.  They are the children you are called to nurture and protect.  Our spouse is the Church.  This isn't to express the tawdry in sexualizing our ministry.   Quite the opposite...our minstry is called to bear new life and unify, but to a greater end.

As with a human spouse, that part of our life belongs to our spouse, it is not a toy to play with.  While our spouse wishes us to not use our physical sexuality, the love that creates and unifies is very much asked for and is expressed in the fidelity and execution of the duties of our calling.  Our actions of creation and unification come through the sacraments of which we are servants.  Our unification comes through the offering of the Mass, the extension of Absolution, and the Preparing of the Soul through Viaticum. To do this effectively calls for a freedom of movement by which we can serve.

To Serve, not to be Served

The word serve is the heart of the priesthood.  Recall when the apostles were bickering among themselves as to who was the greatest among them, Jesus tells them that ambition and power were to have no place in His Church; that His Church would be modeled after Him who 'came to serve, not to be served and to give His life as ransom for the many.'  The seminary isn't there to train you how to wield power.  Your assignments are not going to be appointments as heads of state.  Your assignments are not about a new group of people to serve you, but a group of people whom you are called to serve.

In this, the desire to serve and the joy of knowing you are doing God's will must carry you.  You are now in an arena where your efforts are given grades and kudos.  You get A's for doing good, and lesser grades for doing lesser.  Those days will pass..  Many times you will get thanked and appreciated for what you are doing.  Many times though you will glared at, taken advantage of, and forgotten by those you serve.  If being served is your aim, it will be a tedious life for you.  However, when I say your relation with those you serve is very much akin to parent/child relationship, the same thing can be said about the role of parents.  Sometimes your children will love and appreciate what you do, sometimes they will take it for granted, and sometimes they will resent you for serving them correctly.

Being a pastor of souls is like being a parent.  That means, my brother, that the way we father can do great good or great harm to the parishes we serve.  Think of the dynamic of a family in which the dad is angry and the kids live in fear of being yelled at, humiliated, or abused.  Think of the family dynamic where the dad is neglectful or self centered.  Think of the family in which the dad provides and protects to the best of his abilities.  A man would not love his family will be a priest who will not love his flock.  We are called father for a reason.. It is the role we play.  As God holds accountable dads in whom he places the care of children, so are we as priests held accountable for what we do with His children.  The more you are willing to serve, sacrifice, and suffer, the better you mimic the Good Shepherd.

Service is about the cultivation of the theological virtue of love.   Being a virtue, it has to be an intentionally cultivated discipline.  Being a theological virtue, it can only be cultivated by God's grace, especially through the sacraments.  Making a regular habit of Mass, confession, and Adoration will be to your betterment.  However, the grace of orders does not magically make you learn how to love; it must be  discipline you actively cultivate now.  To be the servant you will be called to be, the virtue of love must be your defining trait.

There is Already a Messiah

Only Jesus can rightfully claim the title of Messiah.  He is THE anointed one; while we are definitely anointed with Chrism upon our ordination, we only serve at the pleasure of THE Messiah.  It is Jesus that saves, we participate in His work.

I say this because we can sometimes get the notion that our job is to save Holy Mother Church from herself.  We can get this way because we know that there are problems, even some serious  problems out there.  We know that others who had the shepherding role fell short and left bad things in their wake.  Having been exposed to what the Church teaches, we can get zealous for the truth to come raging back in all its glory.  We are aware of the liturgical abuses.  We are aware of the compromises.  Knowing this can instill a healthy dose of righteous indignation.  However, the human frailty of the the church has always been with us.  Only Christ Himself possesses the wherewithal to redeem such an entity.

Use Wisely Your Opportunity and Time

Hence it is important that we unite ourselves with the Messiah.  You have several duties within the seminary, while you still have the luxury of time, to do so that when your time comes to work the fields of the Lord you will be effective in doing so.  We cannot want to be a messiah and follow a messiah at the same time.

1) Study and study hard. Seminary isn't a series of hoops and obstacles to jump through on the way to a coronation. You owe it the people of God to soak in as much church teaching as possible.  The people of God can ill afford anymore poseurs who say 'the Church teaches' without knowing what the Church actually teaches.  Your flocks will not need to know your spin on the truth...they will need to know the truth.  You are not there to get grades and honors.  You are in the seminary to learn so that you may correctly teach the truth.

2) Pray and pray hard. You will have to be a man of prayer if you are to execute you job as a dad, husband, or priest.  Your relationship with God is the font from which your strength will come; it will be the source of your life.  You will spend much time preaching and teaching about this relationship to others; you will not be able to give what you do not have.  You will be asked to pray for the Church in the Divine Office.  One of you chief duties as a priest is to intercede for your flock.  Developing a devotion to the Blessed Mother is important and a source of great consolation.  Learning how to be in silence, to do spiritual reading, to be wise with your time is important.  Too many times priests will jettison a prayer life in order to keep up with their kind of like jettisoning eating to keep up with the rigors of life.  Your flock will suffer your inattentiveness to prayer.

3) Develop virtue.  As the priest, you are going to have to be the Persona Christi.  You are to model what being a child of God looks like.  Like a good dad, you will be modeling correct behavior.  Cultivate patience.  The damage done by angry priests is devastating.  Cultivate the cardinal virtues. Learn to control your tongue.  The capital sin of the clergy is gossip.  Gossip is born of everything wrong within the priesthood: ambition, disordered passions, wrath.    There is no place for gossip in our calling.  We can hurl words like 'liberal', ;'conservative', 'traditionalist' and so forth like well aimed javelins.  We can allow our prebyterates  to devolve in tribes who look askance at each other.  That starts in the seminaries. It must stop.

My brothers, you do not get wasted time back.  Opportunities lost may well never come around again. The people you will serve will need you to be a man of God.  They will need to be able to trust that what you are saying is THE truth.  As the seminarian, so the priest.  Any flock assigned to you, please understand that they belong to God first and we will be held accountable for the care we gave His flock.  You aspire to a noble cause.  You are human and will struggle.  You may not be a complete package.  If God only called the perfect, there would be no priests.  Discern are needed out in the fields of the Lord.  

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Monster Behind the Mask: The Myth of Diversity

I grew up loving the cartoon Scooby Doo, Where are You?  Every show pretty much ended the same.  The phantom or monster would have their mask ripped off and behind the mask would be some angry janitor, eccentric, or con artist.  So many of the monsters of our day hide behind masks.  They hide behind a demeanor of civility and political correctness.  Like the devil himself, they never tell you the real goal; they wrap it in a desirable good.  No monster hides himself so well as the one who claims to champion diversity.

Diversity is not a bad thing.  On its surface, it is about being able to live in harmony despite our differences.  It is about creating a utopia where physical  differences are recognized and respected.  Recognizing that the human species is made up of many different races, sizes, shapes, abilities, and such and extending to each their inherent dignity and respect is a good thing.  Not everyone need look the same to receive the same God given rights. Ideally, people of different ethnicities, faiths, genders, and cultures should be able to live in peace.  It is a desirable thing.   This is the pleasing mask that is worn by many in our society.  Something much darker lies beneath.

There are many who desire diversity that very much do want peace and equality.  There are many, though, who do not.   For these people, the scream for diversity is anything but diversity, it for a cleansing of those who do not think like them.  It is a picking of winners and losers, for finding useful idiots to carry their placards, for finding the smiley face in front of the demonic glare.

Every age has picked its winners and losers.  Deadly business.  Today's loser becomes tomorrow's winner.  Shifts occur and the upper hand changes.  Revenge ensues.  Adroit politicians pick up on this and shift their allegiances to the prevailing winds.  Today they hide behind the veneer of diversity.  They have hid behind other veneers as well: nationalism, eugenics, religion, reason...the list goes on.  True diversity doesn't look to punish and give the upper hand to one group over another.  In fact, that is the antithesis of diversity. Diversity, in this culture at least, is a tool of social manipulation.

It is the smiley face masking divide and  conquer.  Diversity as practiced in our society is about dividing us as a whole into subgroups.  This diversity pits the subgroups against each other. The smaller subgroups form alliances to take on bigger subgroups.  Politicians pander to get a coalition of these subgroups to be their power base.  If anyone in the defeated subgroup complains, we say we are doing it in the interest of diversity.  The rancor between the subgroups runs deeper and deeper until violence erupts.  This diversity wants us to identify not a human person first, but as member of a victim subset.  It is much easier to manipulate smaller groups than a single people.

Division, though, is not a trait nor a fruit of justice or goodness.  Division is a tool of Satan.  The divisions bolstered by our friends in the diversity industry are based on false premises.  The diversity shock troops need us at each others throats.  They need us to exchange glares, threats, and violence. If you are championing diversity yet seeking to quiet those not like are not championing diversity, but championing oppression.

Perhaps I am somewhat sensitive to this.  I belong to several out of favor subsets:  I am a white, male, heterosexual, conservative, Roman catholic priest....I am everyone's jerk and everyone's pinata.  However what is believed by the diversity tsars about what I must be because I belong to these subgroups is about as truthful as Pinocchio on a bender.  The same is true for any subgroup so defined by the diversity police.  We must stop falling for it.

The truth is this: each of us human beings is unique and is made in the image and likeness of God.  Each one of us is due the same rights and dignity despite the accidental differences we have.  There is no subgroup that we write off as beyond redemption.

Herein, though, is the true monster behind the mask: so much of it is a elaborate ruse to vindicate our favorite sins.  It is the desire to normalize sin.  Notice how objective truth and institutions dedicated to objective truth are vilified?  Notice how self-identification no longer needs to be rooted in empirical evidence, especially if that self-identification puts me into a more desirable subgroup?  Notice how love of sinner now means to love the sin as well?  Notice the adverse and dangerous affects it is having on our country.

My Catholic Faith tells me this: I must see in my neighbor the dignity God has placed in them.  I must love them and be disposed to their good even when they are acting against their good or my good, for that matter.  I am not given permission to persecute.  The extraordinary standard of excellence  to which we are set as Christians means looking for union through conversion of heart and soul.  St Paul tells us that in Christ there is no slave nor free, Greek nor Jew...that He came to unify what sin divided.   Whose side are we on?  True diversity recognizes we are one despite our differences.  If the diversity we are pushing for looks to assign winners and losers...we might want to find a a different word to describe whatever it is we are doing.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

What Defines Us?

In the aftermath of the tragedy in Orlando, the question of of what defines us has played heavily in my mind.  Those definitions matter as they become the starting point of our actions.  Getting into the head of Omar Meteen, the shooter, and seeing what influenced him gives us ideas of what led to such an outburst of evil.  There will columns written aplenty on this.  This column will not be one of them.  Social media has pulled away the curtain of civility and in doing so gives us a window into the mind of the writer in the heat of the moment.  What influences them?  This is important as those words can bear influence one way or another.

What influences us matters.  They are legion as well.  There are a whole hosts of philosophies, theologies, political theories, emotions, and media ever ready to jump into the minds of individuals and steer them into a particular direction.  Some of these influences are positive and some are negative...sometimes seemingly coming from the same source.  For the purpose of this column and because a Catholic priest is writing it with the hope of showing a positive influence that can and does change the world, I will look at the two dominant influences playing for the soul: good and evil.  These influences will define us as people and give rise to our behaviors.

Evil has as its fuel the human trait of selfishness.  Life is about pleasure and self-satisfaction.  Others exists to make me happy.  The selfish person must be philosophically liberal, that is, they must have themselves as their own locus of authority.  The function of all around me is to please me and verify my beliefs.  Such a person can hijack a philosophically conservative institution such as Catholicism (the locus of authority is not the self but God) and create a hybrid.  In this, Church teaching is cherry picked to agree with the ends of the individual.  When a disagreement arises between the Church and the individual, it is the church that must change in the eyes of such a person.  The role of magesterium is to facilitate this ruse.  Such a thing can also be applied to any and all socioeconomic systems where any good is manipulated to suit the ends of the selfish individual.

Good, on the other hand, has its fuel love.  By love, I speak of the virtue by which a person willingly gives of oneself for the good of another.  Life is about the good of others even if such requires sacrifice and suffering.  The good of the other becomes the motivating factor and not what the other can do for the person.  Love is disposed to the good of the other even when the other is not disposed to their own good.  Love seeks the good even in the most harrowing of circumstances. Love, too, can permeate a ideology or socioeconomic system and change it to the positive.

Both of these reside in the human heart more often than not.  Like a devil and angel on one's shoulders, actions are being provoked by these two forces.  Who wins?  The one you nourish and the one you allow. This is what defines the person.

To this end: for Catholics: Church teachings are neither a buffet or a weapon of war.  The selfish person will use the truth as either of these.  As the Church is based in the love of God, and the love of God is disposed to out good, our actions as Catholics MUST be disposed to the good of the other.  Sometimes that will mean charitably telling a person the truth they do not want to hear; but in such a way as to provoke conversion.  'You're going to hell unless...', yeah, that isn't going to provoke most to conversion.   I can't operate a buffet while demanding others give up their favorite sins. I do believe that Jesus demanded that we get the log out of our own eyes  before (not instead the way) getting the sliver out of our own.

What influences us, be its roots in selfishness or selflessness, will define who we want to be.  We are telling God who we want to be.  Jesus tells us He desires mercy.  Does mercy define us?   Jesus commands us to love another.  Does this love define us?  Can we stand for the truth and remain charitable?  Well, look at what we post, say, and call for.  The fruits will tell us.  Jesus tells us good fruit cannot come from a bad tree.  What fruit comes forth...especially when we run into someone who disagrees with us?  There will be the test.

Finally, what is it we as a people need now?  We do not need to be defined by sin.  We do not need further anger and indignation poured as fuel into a raging fire.   Christ calls us in the Sermon on the Mount, to be a light to the nations, salt, a leaven.  We will inevitably give from how we define ourselves.  Truth and charity are needed. To give it, we must truly define ourselves by it.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Why is Conversion so Hard?

The hardest part of my day, every day, is the efforts made to be a better man and better priest than I was yesterday.  Some days I succeed, most days I feel like Sisyphus, who was condemned to roll a boulder up a mountain only to see it roll back down to the base.  In my version, I am flatten like Wile E Coyote on a desert road.  Why is conversion so hard?  Why is sin so easy?

I will start with the second question first. Sin is easy because being selfish is easy.  Whether it is ease, pleasure, wealth, power, or whatever else is craved, selfishness requires little mental effort.  Accruing what we desire might be a bit more of a challenge, but to give into the desire for such things is easy.  It requires no love, no altruism, and no compassion.  It requires the upkeep of a perpetual infantile stage.  Conversion, however is much harder and presents a  much bigger challenge.  This is what Jesus is speaking of in the Parable of the Sower and Seed in Matthew 13:1-23.  The seed falls on four types of ground: the path way, rocky ground, thorny ground, and fertile ground.  The first three represent why conversion is so difficult.

Some of the seed hits the path and is immediately snatched up by the birds.  Jesus explains that these are those who hear the word without understanding it and the devil snatches it away.  Some of the seed hits rocky ground, it spouts but withers quickly.  Jesus explains these are those who hear it , receive it, but once a trail comes along, they wither.  Some of the seed hits thorny ground.  These hear the word, but the worries of the world choke it off.   These lead to further reflection as to why conversion is so hard.

The Devil Hates Conversion

The devil hates losing ground he has conquered. His loathing of God provokes him to destroy what God loves, especially humanity.  The devil does not want you to change.  He has fashioned your shackles for eternity and wants you weighed down by them. He will never call them shackles nor call you enslaved.  Instead he will call you free.  Anything that threatens his hold on the person, he will try to stop.

The early Church understood the concept of spiritual warfare.  They knew that if the devil was bold enough to believe he could tempt Jesus away from the Father's will, he would see humanity as a much softer target.  In the modern age, we reduced the devil to a myth, a parlor game, a macabre  figure for horror movies, and even a sympathetic character.  Whatever the devil was, he wasn't real.  Even within the Church, in blessings, the idea of exorcisms fell off.  It was to our detriment.  As the French poet Baudelaire once wrote, "the devil's best trick is to persuade you he doesn't exist."  You cannot fight a enemy you do not believe to be there.  We drop our guard and he will swoop in and prevent conversion at a moment's notice.

If he cannot keep it away, he will make the person undergoing conversion  run hot then run cold.  He will convince the person that the conversion was premature, unnecessary, or unwarranted.  If this fails, he will choke us with the concerns and worries of life to make us back off; to rely on old methods to solve problems.  I have seen this so many times in people who convert only to fall away rather quickly.   Each of us has an enemy that wants conversion stymied.  We need to understand this.

Conversion Means Change

Conversion entails we change how we do things.  It challenges priorities.  It makes us toss our idols.  The more the conversion, the harder it becomes.  The people of Israel dabbled in syncretism. This is the participation in more than one religion. They would go to the temple mount and make their prayers and sacrifices to God, then would go into the Valley of Hinnom (in Hebrew 'Ge Hinnom', in Arabic Gahenna) and worship idols, even sacrificing children to these pagan idols. The devil, if cannot persuade us to abandon faith, will tempt us to syncretism.  Eventually, the person sees the futility in this and chooses a side.

The choosing, though, comes at a cost.  Choosing to convert means leaving behind one's favorite sins.  This is hard.  Anyone who has tried to break an addiction knows this.  The addiction is a coping mechanism or a compensatory behavior.  Now the person must move beyond this.  The danger of the rocky ground is that conversion can be short lived.  "You mean, I have to give up....?"  "Wait, how am I supposed to get by now that I can't...?"  Purgation can be very difficult and can lead to abandonment of conversion.  The devil will try to convince us we just simply cannot live without our favorite sin.  Forgive people?  What if they hurt me again?  What if they aren't sorry?  I have to give up gossip?  The list goes on.

A person embracing conversion must move past these ingrained vices (bad habits).  That is hard.  Vices, like virtues, are built one decision at a time.  A lifetime of embracing a vice will not be undone easily.  The devil will use this to his advantage.  Doubt that? Try to give up something you really don't need. Hooked on porn?  Try giving it up!  Hooked on painkillers?  Just try to give it up!  Your body and neural pathways are conditioned.  Think the devil won't tell you you simply aren't strong enough? Try forgiving a person you have been long angry with.  Try going back to church after a long absence.  All of this is hard.

The person who falls is the person who tries to do this on their own.  The shallow soil  is the person who believes that they can do this on their own.  However, the three theological virtues (faith, hope, and love) need God's grace to grow.  If the devil can isolate you from the sacraments, he erodes the soil you'll need to grow.  The more connected we get with God's grace, the more we have the armaments to combat the devil.

What Will My Friends Think?

If the devil cannot get you to fail internally, he will use externals.  This is his wheelhouse.  It always has been.  One of the most powerful tools he has is worry.  People can be pack animals even when we claim to be individuals.  We conform to societal standards.  Conformation brings the ultimate drug: acceptance.  This is true even if the acceptance comes from the small subgroup we identify with.  So often youth will rebel by conforming with a group other than their parents.

The world loves to shift the definition of normal.  It loves to isolate those who won't follow along.  This is particularly true now, where we have seen the defeat of objective truth.  Self-identification is going to a place where it need no empirical evidence to back it up.  Conversion will bring a very uncomfortable circumstance: sticking out.  Society punishes this with ridicule, persecution, and bullying.  The person starts to become afraid that they look like the caricature so widely ridiculed.  Will they now be passed over for a job, for a date, for a position, for popularity, or some other craved for prize if they take this conversion thing too seriously?

The harsh answer is yes, it is entirely possible that you won't be liked.  Why?  Because if you or I am able to convert why cannot they?   Many people do not like being challenged...and seeing a fellow slave break their chains can be very disquieting.   Better for them to be back in chains than for me to face my chains.    There are very few people who like being disliked.  That fear of ridicule is powerful and can lead a person to abandon conversion and go back to where they were.  Breaking away from this is hard and cannot be done without that attachment to God, especially through the sacraments. 

The Harsh Truth:  We are Never a Finished Product

This is hard to see.  We are not a finished product while in this life.  The great spiritual teachers referred to conversion as stages of growth in relationship with God: the purgative, illuminative, and unitive.  The more free we actually become the more freedom we want and the more we realize sin weighs us down.  The closer we get, the more intense the temptation to fall away and backslide. If we are not humble, if we do not recognize our constant need for God's help, if we do not see our needs growth and truth, we will become lost.

Some sins might be ever present problems or sources of temptation.  This especially true for anything we had cultivated as a vice.  While the harsh truth is we are never a finished product here, the tremendous blessing is that God will give us all the grace we need all along the way if we will trust him.  The Church recognizes that we struggle and fall; it is why Christ instituted the Sacrament of Reconciliation on the day of the Resurrection itself.  The ultimate triumph of the Cross is the forgiveness of sin and the newfound reconciliation/ restoration of sanctifying grace now available through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

However, we must be set for a life long battle.  The devil cannot beat us unless we allow him. He can tempt, not force.  He will strike us where we are weak. That is why perseverance and grace are so needed.  Yes, conversion is hard, but very doable. We can get weary of our own failures.  Heaven knows I do on a regular basis.  However the battle is not decided until we die.  We cannot succumb to pride, fear, worry, or rebellion and expect heaven.  We will have to embrace conversion, as hard as it is,   and not abandon hope.  Dante writes in the Divine Comedy "Inferno" that the following words are written over the gates of hell, "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."  We are not there yet, so hope we must...and do battle with the devil and his minions we must.  Conversion is indeed hard, but if we are to expect heaven, we must heed God's call to ongoing conversion and use His grace to get there.

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Frustrating Art of Sowing Seed

The world judges success in numbers.  Nielsen ratings. Record sales. Airplay.  Site hits.  The bigger the crowd the better.  How much money does a item bring in?  Success is measurable in bulk amount.  If something doesn't hit such high numbers, it isn't a success by worldly standards.

By worldly standards, Jesus of Nazareth would have been considered a failure.  He was followed by crowds, but those crowds were fickle, screaming 'Hosanna to the Son of David" one minute and "crucify him' the next.  Despite preaching the greatest sermons ever, his own disciples could be power hungry, petulant,  and cowardly.  Of his small inner circle, one sold him out (literally) and betrayed him, the leader denied knowing Him 3 times, and the rest ran.  He was handed over to a murderous empire by His own people, tortured, and finally crucified. Yet, He would rise from the dead, His words transformed the world and culture, and His followers would bravely go out to the known world and proclaim Him.

Not every word He preached initially hit home or hit home at all.  Not every group was moved to conversion. His words are the words of eternal life and were met with skepticism and belligerence by some.  He addresses this is the parable of the sower ( Matthew 13:1-23).  In this parable the sower casts seed out.  Whether it grows is dependent upon the ground which it hits.  Jesus likens this to those who hear his words.  Some will bear fruit from those words, most won't.    Some will be hostile to it.  Some will find it too hard.  Some will rise to the challenge.  In short, not every word of truth will fall on willing ears.  If you work in the fields of the Lord, that sucks!  In fact it can be depressing, frustrating, and maddening.  Many who work in the fields of the Lord will burn out if they determine success as the world does.  Some ministries, such a s youth ministry, have large turnover rates.

The frustration comes from this: the thrower of the seed has no control over the reception of the seed.  Being right isn't enough.  Casting seed is never a one and done event; but a decades long repetition in which one prays that the rights seed hits at the right time.  Our 'success', for lack of a better word, is measured one soul at a time.

We have to be aware that the seed of the Gospel is not the only seed being sown.  Immediately after the parable of sower and seed   is another parable: the wheat and the weeds. (Matthew 13:24-30).  In this parable a man sows wheat and his enemy sows weeds in the same plot of land.  We who minister in the Church are up against those who sow weeds.  In fact, those who sow weeds get a lot more fame, air time, and influence than we do.    Our seed is stronger than theirs, but theirs is thrown in much greater bulk.  Many times as a pastor I am all too aware that I am allotted an hour on a weekend to throw seed that somehow has to wedge its way in to weed strewn ground.

That is why the seed we cast matters.  It must be truth.  If we are throwing out anything less, we are throwing weeds.  People are not stupid.  If we are throwing out a variation of what they already hear, they will stop coming.  They are.  Playing nice, wanting to be popular, and dumbing down the teachings of the Gospel and the Church are the equivalent of not just casting weed seed, but putting roundup on the good seed growing!  What we teach in our classrooms, programs, and from the pulpit must be the truth in its entirety.  People will walk away.  They walked away from Jesus.  The rich young man walks away from Jesus.  Some of His disciples leave after the Bread of Life Discourse in John 6. Some will hear and reject.  That is beyond out control.

Truth, though, is to applied with charity.  Truth is not a weapon to beat down, but a salve to bind up.  There may be an initial sting, but that is a good thing.  When throwing the seed, we must have the good of the listener in mind.  That is an art.  We must be disposed to the good of the listener; to the eternal good. 

It is easy to get despondent when a strong program or event goes unheeded because things of lesser priority are routinely seen as of greater priority.  There is nothing new there.  It is part of the human condition.  As a pastor, I want what is best for my parish.  Most of the time, I see that unheeded.  However, we plug along.  Try again.  Throw out another handful of seed and pray that perhaps some of it falls on receptive ears.  That is working in the fields of the Lord.  Bl. Mother Theresa reminded us that God does call us to be successful, but faithful.  Rejection by the world isn't a sign of failure.  Jesus assures of this.

So chin up.  Wipe away the frustration and anger.  We have the duty of sowing seeds.  God provides the grace for the rest.