Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Spiritual Warfare: An Advent Reflection Part IV


Of the secular stories associated with the Christmas Season, Charles Dicken’s, “A Christmas Carol” is one of the more popular. The central figure is a hardened heart miser named Ebenezer Scrooge.  As the story unfolds, we see a man who allowed the sorrow he faced in his life to close his heart to those around him and to accumulate for the sake of accumulation.  Neither he nor anyone else received joy from his life.  His hardened heart was an act of revenge against the God and the world.  Over the course of the story, as he sees the consequences his hardness of heart wreaks on others and himself, he has a conversion experience in which the coldness of his heart is tinged with empathy.

Life can harden us to the needs of others.  Another powerful weapon in the devil’s arsenal is the weapon of selfishness.  Selfishness closes our hearts to the needs of others.  It so puts the focus on the individual that they become callous to the harm their actions cause others or the harm their neglect causes others.  Selfishness isolates us from God.  It is a wholesale rejection of God, in fact.

The poison of selfishness

Selfishness is a poison that infects every organ of the person.  It comes in the form of greed that builds a inordinate sense of what is needed in our lives.  It is a product of a fear that tells us we will have to suffer want if we do not hoard for ourselves.  The poison deepens from greed to gluttony where wanting the world is not enough, possessing it even to creating want in others becomes necessary.  If we cannot be successful in gluttony, the poison finds another way to infect us: jealousy and envy.  Selfishness provokes us to resent the good of others; to resent their belongings, their relationships, their health, and their talents. 

Passively, selfishness leads to resentment.  The person of Ebenezer Scrooge is a modern day example of the ugliness such a passive selfishness looks like.  The main sin is that of neglect.  You’ll notice that such a person always has an excuse for their neglect.   Actively, selfishness leads the person to actions meant to rebalance the perceived imbalance: theft, gossip, fraud,  and such.  These sins are done in the name of evening the score.  A greedy and gluttonous heart knows no end to their fury.  There is never enough.  Two aberrations of this sin, abusing the widow and orphan and withholding the wages of the worker, are seen as so heinous in the Scriptures that they are considered sins that cry out for vengeance to God.

This poison will infect our decision making ability.  It will justify every act as correct. I won’t help that person, for example, because they make foolish decisions, or they hurt me, or they are lesser than me, or …or…or …or….  Selfishness knows no end to the excuses and justifications for neglect and abuse.

The Consequences of Selfishness

Ebenezer Scrooge has the benefit of being able to see the consequences of his selfishness.  He sees the effect it has on the Crachitts, to Belle, the effect it has on his community, and inevitably on himself.  It is a dark picture.  Should we be so lucky to see the effects of our selfishness!  We shouldn’t need to be visited by four ghosts for such a revelation.

In the Gospel of Matthew, we have the Last Judgement Sequence, in which the difference between the righteous and the damned falls upon whether they were selfish or not.  Those on the right saw the plight of those around them and helped.   That selflessness of heart (empathy) is a reflection of Christ Himself.  The damned are damned because of their coldness of heart.  They saw the same need and did nothing.  Selfishness has its eternal cost.

Our willingness and ability to put ourselves second or even last is a hallmark of the Christian life.  This is why the Church and the Gospel put such a premium on detachment from the world and attachment to the life of God’s love.  If the devil uses selfishness as weapon, God gives us the armor and weapons to fight it!

Fighting Selfishness

Our main armor against selfishness is the virtues of love and temperance.  Temperance is the virtue by which we learn to temper the excess of greed and gluttony.  Temperance gives us the ability to be disciplined in our use of the things of this world.  Love gives us the ability to see the needs of others and act positively.  Love tempers the excesses of enabling or condoning bad behavior.  Love looks to the needs of the other and selflessly intercedes for the other. 

The weapons?  It starts with thanksgiving.  The more we cultivate a sense of thanksgiving, the more we see the blessing and movement of God in our lives.  Thanksgiving beats back the want of greed and gluttony by showing us our wants are not as we think. Thanksgiving leads to a sense of stewardship, the next weapon in the arsenal that God gives us.

Stewardship forces us to look at the correct use of every aspect of our lives.  How do I use what God gives me?  Do I hoard it and not?  Do I use what is given to build up only myself or those around me as well?  Stewardship gives a sense of whether we are properly using what we have.  In multiple parables, Jesus makes us aware that we are answerable for what we do with what we are given.  Stewardship leads to another powerful weapon: generosity/magnanimity.

In generosity or magnanimity we strive to mimic God in our willingness to be gracious and selfless with who we are and what we possess.  Magnanimity provokes off the couch and to visiting the sick, the lonely, or those who could better use such time.  Generosity and magnanimity provoke us beyond excuses to ignore and to find reasons to be involved.  A generous, thankful, magnanimous, and loving heart has no room for entitlement, greed, envy, jealousy, or gluttony!  It has no room for selfishness.

Perhaps the greatest preparation we can do in this season of preparation of Advent is to repent of such selfishness and open our hearts in empathy and love in imitation of Christ.  Why wait for visits from ghosts, like Scrooge, when the much easier and freeing action of repentance is always as close as the confessional?

Spiritual Warfare: An Advent Reflection Part III



Among the more powerful weapons the devil uses to incite us to sin is the weapon of wrath.  Wrath is an anger that seeks vengeance.  Anger, in and of itself, is an emotion that tells us we have been hurt.  What we chose to do to resolve anger is what either leads us closer to or further from God.

Vengeance is mine says the Lord

Vengeance in our common usage usually means inflicting harm as a mean of returning the harm that has been done to us.  We even hear sayings from Scripture, such as above.  We hear stories such has Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers in the temple.  Are these acts of vengeance such as we understand it?  If Scripture tells us to model our lives after God, why are we also told to hold back our hands in vengeance?  Why is it proper to God?

Vengeance, from the divine perspective, is an operation of justice.  It is allowing the consequences for choices to bear out.  God gives us what we choose.  If we choose to rebel against Him, there is a consequence.  This is one of the reasons the heresy of universalism doesn’t work: If actions have no eternal consequence, then there cannot be any true right or wrong.  There is a string in this heresy that sees purgatory as a place where all the sin of man is dealt with; that somehow sin can be forgiven of those who show no repentance. 

The devil, though, has no repentance in him.  He believes himself in the right.  He believes that the creation of humanity is a slight against him.  It is why he hates.  It is why he rebels against God.  It is why he wars against us.  He teaches us to use the tools he uses.  He is driven by fear, so he instills fear in us.  In his fear, he tries to exact vengeance against God.  His primary way is to turn human beings against God as well.  His predilection toward vengeance is a central part of his arsenal.

Satan’s vengeance is not the same thing as God’s.  God is just and allows us to choose our path and gives us the consequence to that path.  He doesn’t cease to love us.  His love, though, has the same property as light: a person who is acclimated to the light will find freedom in that light; a person who chooses darkness will find that same light painful and abhorrent.   God is love, as St. John reminds us repeatedly, and the same love that binds those in heaven is the same love that burns those in hell.  Those acclimated to divine love in this life will revel in joy with it for eternity; those who rejected it and preferred darkness will find it abhorrent for eternity.  Satan doesn’t cease to hate us; he is our enemy even when we do what he wants.  That is why evil can never be sated.  That is why vices, bad habits, addictions, and such are bottomless pits.  

God is kind and merciful

Because God is love, He will choose to show mercy.  He desires, as we see throughout the Scriptures, to extend mercy.  He wants to forgive us.  He makes that clear by what we celebrate at Christmas: He sends the second Person of the Trinity into this world as one of us without losing who He is as the second Person of the Trinity.  We call this the Incarnation.  Because God wants to restore the lost relationship with us, He sends His Son among us to seal that relationship again.  That new covenant will be sealed by the ultimate act of mercy.  The Incarnate God, the babe of Bethlehem (which means House of Bread), will become the man crucified on the Cross as a sacrifice to restore us to God, a sacrifice we partake in especially in the reception of the Bread of Life during the Eucharist.  

Hence, those who follow Christ must also be agents of mercy.  That mercy is not contingent upon the offending party being deserving of mercy.  St. Paul reminds us that Christ died while we were still sinners, not after humanity had done something to merit God’s mercy.

 Fighting vengeance

The principle tools we use to fend off these diabolical temptations are mercy and forgiveness.  Once again, we exercise these weapons not because those who have harmed us are deserving of such magnanimous behavior, but because it is what is needed. 

Undoubtedly, people will ask what they are to do with those who feel no sorrow for what they have done.  It is a fair question.  What are we to do?

There is an old saying that carrying grudge is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die.  Remember that the devil wants you to destroy your relationship with God.  He will have you harbor hurt, ill will, and nurture a desire for vengeance that will be overwhelming.  We know from various studies that this anger can have detrimental effects to a person emotionally, physically, and spiritually. There is no positive attribute to withholding mercy and forgiveness.   Showing mercy and forgiveness can be the ultimate act of self-preservation.  Showing mercy and forgiveness only serves to heal us. 

Vengeance begets vengeance.  If I withhold mercy from you and you return the favor, this downward spiral will continue until one party refuses to make the contribution of vengeance. WE are called to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect; hence, the call to show mercy to the undeserving is part of the call.

Partaking in mercy

The surest way to see the necessity of mercy is to seek it for ourselves.  Sin leads to a spiritual sociopathy.  It teaches us to not show sorrow.  Hence to learn mercy, we need to seek mercy.  We have to have the humility to know of our own sin.  Knowing this and seeking the mercy of God for our sins will dispose us to be agents of the same mercy we desire.  If I do not see the necessity of the operation of mercy in my life, it will be difficult for me to see it as necessary in the lives of others.

Finally, developing a sense of meekness (patience and forbearance) and humility will be the armor we need to fend off these diabolical attacks.  If we know we are in need of God’s patience and mercy, we will extend that to others.  This is one of the reasons Confession is so very important to the development of the Catholic life.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Prepare the Way of the Lord: Homily for 2nd Sunday of Advent

In the Scriptures, whenever a message is given, there is a call for immediate action. When a messenger is sent, the response is to be given then. The Gospel today begins with a quote from the prophet Isaiah,  that 'my messenger' will be sent to prepare the way of the Lord.  So important is this messenger that St. Mark begins his gospel with the messenger who would cry out,  "Prepare the way of the Lord." St. Mark begins with the ministry of St. John the Baptist. John gives a powerful sign in his baptism of repentance.  The question is this: is the baptism of John the baptism we celebrate?

No.

John's baptism is half the equation.  You will notice we are told people came to be baptized and they were confessing their sin.  There is another place such a thing is done; it is done with the animal sacrifices (aka peace/sin offerings) done in the temple.  The person brining the sacrifice would tell the priest the sin for which the sacrifice was being offered.  We know from St. Luke's gospel that John the Baptist 's father, Zechariah, was a priest. John belonged to a priestly family. Hence that John is doing what he is doing mimics that sacrifice.  It points to a shift away from the old way to something new.  John, though, points out that what he is doing is insufficient; that one was coming who would baptize in the Holy Spirit. John has half the equation...Jesus would fulfill it.

While the confessing of sin and its attendant sorrow was necessary, prior to Christ, it wasn't enough to restore the relationship lost between God and humanity. When humanity chose sin over God, a rift happened. With that rift came a loss...what was lost was the divine life in us known as sanctifying grace.  It would take more tyan confessing of sin to restore that.  That would take an act of God who could also act on our part.  The preparing the way of the Lord is that confession of sin so as to prepare ourselves for the gift God brings...the gift of sanctifying grace.

In baptism, near the beginning of the rite, we acknowledge the absence of sanctifying grace by a prayer of exorcism. We believe that this absence,  also known as original sin, must be acknowledged as assuredly the sins of those plunging into the wayers of the Jordan had to acknowledged.  We ask that having done this, by God's grace and will, our soul will be flooded with this sanctifying grace...that this mark of the baptism of the Holy Spirit leaves its mark in our souls. When an adult is baptized, we believe all of his or her sin is forgiven upon baptism. We complete that baptism with confirmation,  that final baptismal sealing with chrism of the life of the Spirit.

This grace of which St. John speaks in the Gospel is given us after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  I ask students the following: is it possible that after baptism a person would be able to stay in that state of sanctifying grace for the rest of their lives? Yes. Is it probable? No. Why, because we must do battle with a thing called concupiscence. Concupiscence is that desire to choose sin. Concupiscence must be fought. An rather odd detail is given to us about John the Baptist: he wears camel's hair and a leather belt and he eats wild honey and locusts.  Why on earth tell us that? Do we reall need to know John's fashion sense and diet plan? Well...yeah. the  significance is that he wears uncomfortable clothing and eats like a wild man shows a man completely detached from the comfort, pleasure, wealth, and power of the world. He has conquered the inclination to sin.  Preparing the way of the Lord is more than confessing sin, which is necessary.  It also includes a turning toward holiness.

Advent reminds us to prepare the way of the Lord in the same manner: turn from sin, turn to holiness, and allow the sanctifying grace of God to flood our souls. How well have we done battle with concupiscence? Have we fallen. Some sin is so grevious so as to sever the relationship with God and cast out that sanctifying grace. We cannot enter heaven without it. Sin that drives out sanctifying grace is known as mortal sin. Mortal sin has three components: serious matter (think 10 commandments,  for example), full knowledge  that it is wrong, and full use of free will. It's wrong, I know it's wrong, and I choose to do so anyway.  It is as if I say to say," this lie...this porn...this gossip...this wanting to sleep in on Sunday is more important to me than my relationship with you."  If we are to truly prepare the way of the Lord in our souls, the path to our soul must be decluttered of these sins.

We do this, again, through another sacrament:confession. Like baptism, before the sanctifying grace of God's love can be installed, we must confess that which blocks it.  This time, it is not original sin that must be purged, but mortal sin. Like baptism,  the confession of sin, though necessary, is incomplete without a willingness to turn to holiness and resolve to boldly battle concupiscence.  God, for His part, shiws His mercy and once again restores that sacramental grace in us. So important is this that when Jesus first sees His apostles the day if the Resurrection,  according to the Gospel of John, He gives them the duty to forgive sins in His name. Sanctifying grace can be given to finish what the confession of sin starts.

Do not let this Advent pass without your seeking that restoration of sanctifying grace. Even if it has been a awhile, seek out the grace necessary to prepare the way of the Lord way of the Lord. Let us not allow fear nor the delusion of pride blockade the path to our soul.  Heed the words of St. John the Baptist and prepare by tge confession of sin so that God may restore in us what is lost by sin. Be not afraid.  Trust in the Lord that He desires to forgiv and restore.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Spiritual Warfare: An Advent Reflection Part 2


The Darkness of Fear

                By fear, I should be clear, what we are and are not talking about.  We speak, for example of the gift of the Holy Spirit called ‘Fear of the Lord.’  In this context, we are talking about having a proper respect for God; that we have a realization that God is God and we are not.  It is a humble recognizing of God’s dominion over us.  By extension, we talk about such fear in regards to respecting truth.  For example, a fear of handling rattle snakes is good if one understands the danger they pose and that there is a right way to deal with them.  However, some fears fit more into the realm of terror or wariness of the unknown.  It is this definition that is appropriate to talking about how the devil uses fear to manipulate us and coerce us into sin.

Something innate in humanity is a fear of darkness.  Darkness makes us vulnerable to unseen forces and obstacles, be it the coffee table or a predator.  It is hard to make sound decisions when our senses are obstructed. 

                There is a reason why we refer to the devil as the Prince of Darkness.  He is the father of fear.  His modus operandi is fear.  He feared the creation of humanity as a diminishment of his own creation.  His fear led to resentment.  His resentment led to rebellion.  His fear created pride, a response to his fear: “I must be better than man, for if I am not, I must be inferior.”  The Devil is like many other entities; what motivates him is how he motivates others.

                In the Garden of Eden, the Devil first appeals to fear to manipulate Adam and Eve.  “Did God really tell you not to eat of the trees of the garden?”  He gets them to doubt that God does not love them and is withholding the knowledge of good and evil because He doesn’t want them to be gods.  Notice after the fall that the first  thing we see Adam and Eve feel is fear; they hide themselves from God.  To act in fear gives a sense of shame.  They admit to their fear.  That fear creates a rift between God and them.  The resulting sin leaves a two-fold hole in them: they lose the grace that united them to God (sanctifying grace) and  now must struggle against the disposition to sin (concupiscence) until they are called from this life.

                Fear still remains a lethal weapon of the devil.  Fear is a powerful motivator.  Fear can keep our mouth silent when we should speak.  Fear can lead us to sin as a matter of perceived self-preservation.  Sin can keep us from pursuing God’s will, especially if that will leads to priesthood or religious life.  Fear is a fuel for selfishness, which is essentially the heart of all sin. 

The Path of Fear

                Fear is potent when it comes to what we call sins of omission.  When we fail to act in such a way as to address the needs of others, it leads to injustice.  Fear can paralyze us into thinking that if I give to you, I will do without.  If I give to God, it will result in my destruction.  If I stop and help a person in need, whether they deserve it or not, then it will adversely affect me.  I might get taken advantage of.  I might get played.  I might get conned. 

                I am not saying some fears are without merit.  Giving of the self does demand that we have the willingness to risk being taking advantage of.  Forgiving a person who hurt us does leave us vulnerable to be hurt again.  However, refusing to take these risks to show mercy and forgiveness, because we fear, only results in poisoning of the soul who carries it.  It embitters the soul.  Fear is a poison that grows stronger the longer it is allowed to persist in the soul.  It isolates the individual because it cuts off the ability to build healthy and truthful relationships.

                Life is difficult and fraught with events and people that might well tempt us to fear.  God knows this.  What is His answer?  Simply put, we are told 365 times in the Sacred Scriptures to not be afraid.  As with all things dealing with God, He does not tell us something and then not give us what is necessary to carry out His requests.

The Cure to Fear

                In Exodus 14, the people of Israel find themselves hemmed in by the Red Sea and the full power of Pharaoh’s Chariots.  It would be natural to be deeply in fear.  They cry out in that fear to God and Moses.  God responds through Moses, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance The Lord will accomplish for you this day! (Exodus 14:13) In this verse, the Lord asks for three things.  First: Do not be afraid.  Second: Stand firm. Third: See the deliverance.

                Do not be afraid.  This would seem a tall order for the Children of Israel, no?  In the face of what seems certain death, God tells them to not be afraid.  He is asking them to trust his providence for them.  Adam and Eve fell because they failed to trust in God’s providence for them.    A failure to trust God’s providence is to doubt the love of God itself.  The first tool to combatting fear is to trust in God’s providence for us and that no matter what transpires, God is there with us to help us through.  When we cut the devil at the knees by believing in God’s love for us, it is easier to progress in faith.

                Stand Firm.  God asks for the people of Israel to be brave.  They are to stand their ground, physically, mentally, and spiritually.  They are to not cower.  This is a call to the spiritual gift and cardinal virtue of Fortitude.  Fortitude is what drives men and women living in lands where persecution takes place to practice their faith anyway.  Fortitude is what spurs us to take the chance to risk speaking and acting when we should.  It gives us the ability to rise above fear and act with forgiveness and compassion; risking that we might well be burned again.  When we stand firm in fortitude, we withstand the call to weakness the devil tempts us to.

                See the Deliverance.   This is a call to faith.  It is the resolve Jesus asks of Peter in Luke5:10 when Peter becomes aware of his own sinfulness in the presence of Jesus after the miraculous catch of fish. “Do not be afraid, from now on you will be catching men.”  No victory is ever won by running away. Peter would indeed catch men as Jesus said.  The people of Israel would see the Egyptians defeated.  Even the martyrs did not see defeat; for they have witnessed the faith for which they gave their lives grow beyond their wildest expectation.  Faith in God flows from love of God.  St. John tells us, “Perfect love casts out all fear.” (I John 4:18).

                The armaments and armor we are given to fend off fear and repent of our fall to fear are faith, trust, fortitude and love.  These God gives us to win against the devil.  We must use them.      

Spiritual Warfare: An Advent Reflection Part 1


We are coming up on the 1st Sunday of Advent.  This weekend we celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King.  This weekend should remind us that we belong, as those baptized in to the Body Of Christ, the Church, to an entity much larger than one person, one parish, one diocese, or even as the Church Militant.  We belong to the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.  Within that Body, we serve God and each other.   Within this kingdom, we seek to expand the Kingdom and to protect the Kingdom from what would seek to despoil it.   Every Kingdom has an army.  We, the Church Militant, are that army here on earth.  While in this life, we engage in warfare.  Our enemy is not our fellow human beings, but the devil.  As St. Peter reminds us in his 1st Epistle, “Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (I Peter 5:8)

Not the Stuff of Myths and Fairy Tales

                It has been said many times that the greatest trick of the devil is to convince people he doesn’t exist.  It is hard to fight an enemy that you do not think exists.   Certainly, in our culture, the devil and the demonic has become a sideshow for horror movies, TV shows fascinated with the paranormal, and otherwise dismissed as the stuff of myths and legends.  The devil is reduced to a red-faced, horned, pitchfork- carrying, and smiling trickster.  Some pooh-pooh the idea of the devil and demonic as mere early man’s misunderstanding of mental illness.   Some find the necessity to do away with the concept of the devil as they also wish to do away with the concept of God.  Indeed, modern morality, given its desire for no objective truth, pans the idea of a devil because to have such an idea would take morality out of the mere subjective (opinion) and bring it into the objective.

                It doesn’t take much effort to know our society is in the midst of major battle over morals.  The lines are drawn over most anything to do with human sexuality.  The lines are drawn on many life issues (abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, suicide, and other end of life issues). The lines are drawn in every field of life from faith to economics to politics to education.  The battles take place on out airwaves and an internet.  The battles rage in the halls of power, both religious and secular, and in boardrooms across the country.  The battles wage in our homes, our families, our churches, and within our own individual hearts.  The battle is often a scorched- earth winner- takes- all endgame.

                To effectively fight these battles, personal and corporate, we have to know who we are up against and how to do battle.  If we consign our foe to a theological ash -heap, we leave open our flank.  Our foe will have no problem mercilessly overrunning us.   I can assure you, with devastating realness, that the devil and demonic do very much exist and are not to be toyed with or dismissed.  I have come into contact with these things over the course of 20 years of priesthood and there are things I have seen I wish I could unsee.   

Our Forefathers Understood

                In the Gospels, we see Jesus often doing battle with the Devil and his minions.  Some of the more effete of scholars try to dismiss these encounters as myths and other forms of analogy.  They do so for the very same reason anyone dismisses the Scriptures: it is hard to make your own God and religion when one already exists.    Jesus, however, did not do battle with a myth.  He wasn’t tempted by a mythical theological construct in the desert.  He didn’t cast demonic analogies from the possessed.  He didn’t defeat a fanciful figment of the imagination on the Cross.  He did battle with an entity who desperately wanted Him to fail. 

                His apostles knew what they were up against.  For them, as we see in the Epistles of the New Testament, the devil was a very real and deadly enemy.  They understood the root of the battle.  St. Paul talks about the concept of spiritual warfare extensively.  St. Paul understood the brutish nature of the devil and his desire to take down those who were of God.  In Ephesians 6:10-20, St. Paul talks about the armaments and armor to be used by a follower of Christ in defeating the devil.  Again, St. Paul is not prescribing battle against a myth or an allegorical figment of imagination.  St. Paul knew the battle was real.

                Throughout the centuries of Catholicism, we have long understood that the devil and his influence are not myths to be dismissed.  In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, when reflecting on the petitions of the Our Father, remarks in section 2851, “..Evil is not an abstraction, but refers to a person, Satan, the Evil One, the angel who opposes God. The devil is the one who ‘throws himself across’ God’s plan and His work of salvation accomplished in Christ.”  To the Church the devil is not a myth, but is very much real. It is why the last two popes have been insistent in the training of exorcists to be stationed in every diocese in the world.  This should signal the Church understands it does not battle a mythological construct, but battles a very dangerous foe.

                The Church does recognize that through Christ we have the upper hand in this battle.  AS is written in the Catechism, section 395, “The power of Satan is, nonetheless, not infinite. He is only a creature, powerful from the fact that he is pure spirit, but still a creature. He cannot prevent the building up of God's reign. Although Satan may act in the world out of hatred for God and his kingdom in Christ Jesus, and although his action may cause grave injuries - of a spiritual nature and, indirectly, even of a physical nature - to each man and to society, the action is permitted by divine providence which with strength and gentleness guides human and cosmic history. It is a great mystery that providence should permit diabolical activity, but we know that in everything God works for good with those who love him.”

                We can defeat the devil through God’s grace.  We can regain ground lost to him.  Through the grace of the Sacraments, in particular Confession, we can beat back the foe. 

                To do this, though, requires some understanding of how we are attacked and how we fend off these attacks or regain ground lost to previous attacks.  What are his weapons?  I posit the three most potent weapons are fear, wrath, and selfishness.  Knowing the weapon being used against you gives you the ability to use properly the weapons and armor given us through the sacramental life of the Church.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Be watchful! Be Aware! Homily for 1st Sunday of Advent

When I was a kid, our home was generally clean.  When guests were coming, there was a whole new level of clean, though.  I will just call it 'mom' clean.  Mom clean wasn't just about making sure that what could be seen was washed, vacuumed, mopped, dusted, and arranged properly...no, it was what would not be normally seen as well: contents of dresser drawers, under beds, in the pantry and kitchen cupboards...all of it had to be clean.  Just in case, you know, the guests happened to be a busload of OCD drill sergeants.
 
This time a year is a time of preparation, isn't it? People scurry about shopping, decorating, wrapping presents, and whole host of other things for Christmas.  The secular world even refers to this time of year as the Christmas Season.  Everything climaxes in Christmas day.  For us  in the Church, the opposite is true.  We are not in the Christmas season. The Christmas season doesn't begin with the consumer frenzy that is black Friday (or mid-September), it begins on Christmas.  Today we begin the Season of Advent; a time when where we prepare for the dual coming of Christ.  We prepare for the celebration of the Birth of Christ, the coming of the Incarnate God into our time and space, to be sure.  That is not why we light candles or have an advent wreath.  The wreath and its candles point to preparation of another coming of Christ: when He comes again at the end of time.  How so?

If you have a guest coming at night, don't you turn on the lights by the door you want your guest to enter?  To do so shows you are expecting your guest and and are ready for your guests arrival. The candles are lit in anticipation of a coming guest.  Certainly the Gospel asks us to be watchful and aware.  But is lighting a candle, an exterior sign, enough.

When Jesus bids us to be watchful, He is looking for 'mom' clean...not cleaning what can be seen, but that which can not normally be seen. The watchfulness He seeks goes to the core of our souls. Are our souls prepared and ready for the coming of Christ on a daily basis? You see, upon our baptism, the light of sanctifying grace flooded our souls and gave us a relationship with God not possible prior to baptism.  This flood of grace is signified by a candle; our baptismal candle.  That light, lit from the Paschal Candle, signifies the flame of Christ's life meant to be constantly at work within us, bearing fruit and transforming us into what it is God would have us be.  When that candle is given, it is given with an instruction: keep this flame of faith alive.  Your soul is like the candles of the advent wreath..something to burn brightly awaiting the coming of Christ again.

Our attentiveness to this flame matters.  Hence, Christ bids us to be watchful and aware.  We do not want to be caught with that flame extinguished.  What would extinguish that flame?  What would cause us to be found unaware and off-guard?

In a word: sin.  Some sins can dim the flame and endanger it being eventually extinguished.  We refer to those as venial sins.  Some sins extinguish that flame altogether.  Some sins snuff out the flame.  With that light gone, we push out, by our own hand, that sanctifying grace given us at baptism. The flame must be relit.  How, though?  If it is by God's saving gift through sacramental grace that first gives us this light, so it must be God's saving gift through sacramental grace that relights this light.  We do not re-baptize a person.  No, the candle is relit through the sacrament of Reconciliation. It our owning up to how we blew out the flame of Christ's life, showing sorrow for what we did in blowing out the flame, asking God for His loving grace to relight the flame, and an amendment to not engage in behavior that endangers the flame..God once again relights our flame and returns the lost sanctifying grace to our souls.  We again are prepared.

Now, undoubtedly, there are some among you who will claim that confession is not necessary for the forgiveness of sin or the restoration of sanctifying grace.  Some will say they can do this independently with a 'me and Jesus' moment.  I tell you what:  I will give you any legitimate  translation of the Bible you want and if you can find that, I will let you believe it.  I will save you the problem though: it's not there.  In fact, you ill find the opposite many times over.  While Jesus does tell us to pray to God in all circumstances, including in the quiet of our heart, the forgiveness of sins is always mediated.  This is true in both the old and new testaments.  After the final sin/peace offering is done on the Cross and vindicated by the Resurrection, in the Gospel of John, at that first meeting with the apostles after the resurrection, He tells them, "Whose sin you forgive are forgiven, whose sins you retain are retained."  Why do this?  Because all sin is forgiven through Christ in the way He has chosen it to be done.

Do not forget God created us and hardwired us.  God knows we need to hear the words coming out of our mouth to take ownership of our choices.  Therapists and counselors know this.  Nothing can be done to help a person until they have communicated what is wrong.  Anyone who works with or lives with addicts knows that help cannot be given until the addict admits their addiction. We need to vocalize our sin.  God knows this.  There is also another necessity" the need to hear 'you're forgiven.'  If you want to crush somebody, have them apologize to you and say nothing in return.  It stymies the process. It leaves the wound open.  God knows this as well.  Hence this exchange happens within the guarded sacrament of confession. is exchange tells God we want that flame relit and we are committed to keeping that flame lit.

I will be honest.  I know that there is confusion about this.  The way most parishes treat confession would make you think that we don't think that it is all that important.  Maybe 45 minutes on a Saturday afternoon, an occasional penance service, and we're done.   The ubiquitous 'or by appointment' is left up there as an offer rarely used.  Good look nailing down your priest on that one.  I am aware that I cannot get into this pulpit and say one thing and offer another.  Confession times are before every weekday Mass now.  Confession times are before all Holy Day Masses.  Were it not for the 20 minute commute between parish masses on Sundays, there would be confession times then too.  On 1st Fridays, I am in the confessional all morning to give our grade school students the opportunity to develop the good and holy habit that is regular confession.  I do not force them to do so.  I cannot do that.  But as with them, so with all my parishioners, I cannot make you go, but I can remove your excuses.  I will stand before God and try to defend starving my flock from such a grace.

I know some have been away from this sacrament for months, years, and even decades.  Fear of messing up or what will the priest think of them are strong enough to keep people permanently away.  Most priests I know will happily walk you through how to go to confession and will be so happy you are there to have that flame reignited, that there won't be time for disdain.

Christ tells us to be watchful and aware today.  Of all of the preparations we make this time of year, do not neglect the preparation of your soul.  Do not let this Advent come and go with that flame of the life of Christ extinguished! Christ tells us we know neither hour nor the day; the time is always at hand...right now. We will hear those words of John the Baptist, "Prepare the way of the Lord!" Let us prepare by making sure that flame given us baptism is alive and well...lit like the candle of the advent wreath awaiting our Master's return.  Don't focus so much on preparing what can be seen that we neglect that which cannot.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

In Whose Army Are You?

In the Scriptures, the most dominate image of the relationship between God and us is that of family.  We use familial terms such as groom/bride, son/daughter/father/mother, and brother and sister to describe the relationships that are supposed to exist between God and us and among ourselves.  However, when the Scriptures  speak of the relationship between good and evil, between God and the devil, and between us and the devil, war/battle imagery is almost exclusively used.

The Scriptures understand that the battle lines are drawn and the fighting has been fierce.  In his pride, the devil truly believes he will win this battle.  He has waged war on billions of battlefields: each and every human heart.  His weapons are deadly.  He trains his soldiers well how to use his armaments.  He uses pride, fear, greed, sloth, lust, gluttony, wrath, envy, and indifference to arm his foot soldiers.  His soldiers cannot hurt God so they attack that which God loves: us.  The devil has managed to wage war successfully, tearing apart every civilization, every human enterprise, even to do significant damage among God's holy people.  He has us battle one another.  He has us inflict the brutality of sin on each other as frenzied soldiers in the heat of battle.  The devil and his minions mean us not merely harm but an eternal destruction as well.  As the father of lies, he has deluded himself with the ultimate lie: that he will win.

God wins.  The created cannot defeat the creator.  Jesus Christ, by the Passion, Death, and Resurrection has defeated the devil.  The devil cannot win. His war on humanity only deepens.  However, Christ does not send his followers unarmed into the battle that life is.

In Ephesians 6:10-20, St. Paul uses this image of war to explain the defenses and weapons Christ gives us to do battle every day.  He reminds us that our battle is not against flesh and blood (each other) but against the powers of darkness.  We are given the armor that is righteousness, the Gospel, faith, and salvation.  We are given the Word of God as a weapon to combat the devil.  These God offers us.

How do we use them?  That is the thing that lacks many times.

In the military, no professional fighting force is given weaponry and sent out on the field the nanosecond they sign up.  No, basic training takes place.  A regimen of education and discipline takes place.  The new soldier is taught how to use his weapons effectively, what to do when hit, and the basics of warfare.  To simply hand weapons to a new soldier, pat them on the head, and send them into battle is to basically create cannon fodder. No general who wants to win would be so foolish.  No king who wants to win would be so haphazard.

When God gives these weapons and armor, He also has a plan on how to teach us to use them.  Without instruction, both the armor and weapons are relatively useless. How are the armor and weapons given us?  We Catholics believe that the armor and weapons are given us from the moment of baptism forward.  It is God's transforming grace that deposit these gifts within us. The seeds are all there.  Like any armor and weapon, we do need to know how to use them.  The purpose of education in the Catholic Church is merely to teach us the same classes that can be taught in the secular world, but to teach us how to use these weapons and armor given us by God's gracious action  in the sacraments.  For we believe than in the proper reception of the sacraments, the Holy Spirit is deposited within us to breath into us the grace of God.  When we are sloppy about the training, we create not soldiers for Christ, but cannon fodder for the devil.  This is why a woeful education apparatus is leaving so many of our brothers in arms easy to pick off in battle.  This is why pablum from the pulpit is akin to poisoning the troops.

Christ gives us the armaments of humility to conquer pride, faith, hope, and love to conquer fear, generosity to combat greed, industry to combat sloth, justice to combat lust, temperance to combat gluttony, forgiveness and patience to combat wrath, thankfulness to combat envy, and mercy to combat indifference.  Furthermore, because all of these are bound in the Holy Spirit, we also are given the boldness of courage and fortitude to use these arms effectively.  The use of these weapons and armor does require a deep discipline and cognition of what we are doing.

That said, there are going to be times, especially in that period where we are unsure about how to use our armor and weapons effectively, where we will be injured (usually by our own hand) and the wounds created will need to be addressed.  The medicinal value of Reconciliation is at the heart of the healing.  The medicinal value of Anointing of the Sick  also can be used in some circumstances, when life has inflicted a bodily blow.  God will not leave us on the field of battle to die.  His Church acts as not merely a means of preparing for battle, but as a field hospital for the wounded.  It is horrifying that any priest would limit or close these field hospitals by limiting access to Confession or eliminating them altogether.

At the end of the day, though, we must choose a side.  We cannot fight for both sides.  We cannot fight on God's side when it suits us and the devil's side when it suits us.  We will side with the side that we think will win.  We can share in the delusion the devil has and believe he wins and so drop our armor and weapons and pick up his.  We can believe that God wins and pick up our armor, our weapons, and engage in the battle.  There is no middle ground.  In fact, trying to stake out a claim in the middle ground between 2 armies is probably the deadliest place to be.

Jesus, Himself, says that "you are either with me or against me." He compels a choice.  Whose side you are on determines whose camp you stay in for eternity.  The battle wages on whether we want to acknowledge it or not.  Too  much ground has been lost because we dropped our guard, our armor, and our weapons.  We can either surrender in defeat or rally the troops and retake the field.  We will have to decide whose side we are on...to whose army do we belong.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

You Can't Say You Weren't Warned: Homily for Christ the King

A few years back, I was having a particularly busy day.  I hit the ground running and had no time for breakfast.  The evening schedule made supper look like a no-go also.  I went to the rectory and reheated leftover spaghetti and sat down at my desk to eat while I looked over e-mails. No sooner had I finished the sign of the Cross after praying grace did the doorbell ring.  I was less than pleased.  It figures, huh?  I get up to answer the door and there stands a Hispanic lady with 2 children: a little boy who is maybe 5 years old and an infant.  She needs help but knows very little English.  My Spanish is little better.  Between us we were searching for words to get across what was needed.  After about 5 minutes or so, the mother's eyes start to dart about frantically.  Finally she looks behind me and horrified screams, "Jesus, Jesus, nooooo!" I turned around to see the little boy scarfing down the last of my lunch.  In other words, Jesus ate my lunch.  The irony wasn't lost on me.  Here I was griping to myself about my misfortune.  The Gospel for today came immediately to my mind.  I felt ashamed of my anger and reluctance.

God is like that teacher who tells you what is going to be on the test and what the answers are.  There is no surprise if we pay attention.

Before I get too much more into this passage, it is worth noting two things said by Christ to those being judged.  To those on the right, He says," Come you blessed by the Father, enter the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world." It is a reminder that no person was created to be sent to hell.  When God created each of us, it was with the hope of heaven.  We are not made for hell.  We are not made to be damned.  We are not made to be condemned.  Nonetheless, it can and does happen.  Witness what He says to those on His left, "Depart from me, you accursed, into the fire prepared for the devil and his angels."  While God does not create us for hell, many will choose hell.

How is hell chosen?  That is at the crux of the Gospel.

Notice the criteria.  There are some obvious missing criteria.

First, they are not judged by how often they went to Mass or prayed.  Many will run with this and say this means God just wants you to do nice stuff and we're good.  It's like Pelagianism for the half-hearted.  Notice, though, who is the Last Judgement Sequence aimed at?  As with the parables of the last two weeks prior, this is aimed at those who follow Christ...or at least claim to.  There are rightful presuppositions that those who follow Him would worship Him.Worship is not enough.  Recall the many times God tells the people of Israel in the Old Testament how loathsome He finds their worship and their worship is empty and disconnected from their lives.  That doesn't mean God doesn't want worship; that He doesn't want that intimate contact given through worship.  If that worship doesn't lead to a transformation, then the worship is destroyed.

Second, we see nothing of the 10 Commandments.  Some will see this as an open invitation for buffet Catholicism...as long as you do nice things once in a while, we're cool, right? Uh. no.  Again, like worship, since we are talking to those who say they follow Christ, it is also presumed that the commandments are being kept. It should come as no surprise that following rules isn't enough.  Jesus had no qualms about the Scribes and Pharisees following rules, yet He still calls them white washed sepulchers. No surprise then, that this is not the criteria either.

So what is the criteria?  Notice in the Gospel passage that the criteria catches both sides off guard.  The criteria is centered on mercy.  Those on the right see the needs of others and address them.  What is so profound about that?  It says the worship of God transformed them into being able to love as God loves. It says the keeping of the commandments helped them to love as God loves.  We should not be surprised at this.  The higher standard of mercy and divine love is constantly preached by Christ and most powerfully shown by His Passion, Death, and Resurrection.  His mercy is a reflection of the mercy of the Father.  If we follow Christ authentically, then that same mercy is at the heart of who we are.  Those on the left are without mercy.  So wrapped are they in their own desires that the needs of those around them escape them.  perhaps those in need, they felt, got what they deserved.  Maybe it was somebody else's problem. Maybe they just needed that time and energy for themselves.  Whatever the excuse, they show that the mercy of God has no home in their lives.  In rejecting mercy, they reject God.  In their lack of mercy they disown their familial bond to the Father. In that rejection, despite their worship and adherence to the law, they lose eternal life.

This sounds harsh?  It does. Then again, is not Our Lord warning us?  Why should this last teaching of His before we enter into the Passion be any different to everything before it?  The Last Judgement sequence is the recapitulation of what Christ has taught and is the setting for why He is about to do what He does in laying down His life.  He is approaching His throne...the Cross! The only path to heaven follows in the footsteps of Christ who prayed to His Father, who was obedient to the will of His Father, and who was the very reflection of the mercy of the Father in His willingness to give the entirety of who He is for our good.  The Cross is the ultimate act of mercy.

The early Church understood this.  For the first 3 centuries Christianity found itself persecuted.  It upset the Roman order.  Part of that Roman order was the view of the poor, the sick, the dying, and the needy.  Roman philanthropy was not directed to such people (although some bread might be thrown at the rabble to keep them sated).  Roman philanthropy was measured in building projects and games.  Here comes this Christian group, though, who start helping these groups of the suffering.  They don't merely help the poor and needy of their own kind, they help anyone.  This witness had the double effect of their being witnesses to the mercy of God, but also publicly marked them as followers of Christ.  It was by being these agents of God's mercy that helped the Church wildly expand despite persecution. It was the early witness of the Church, "See how those Christians love one another," that provoked conversion in the face of persecution.

I strongly believe that so many have abandoned the faith because this witness is gone.  Without the selflessness of mercy, our worship rings hollow.  Without the selflessness of mercy, our following rules seems self-serving. Many who left might not be ale to articulate this, but it is there.  This is sinful in that our worship and obedience must be ordered to God; hence the selflessness of  mercy is a necessity.  Our ability to love without condoning sin, to show mercy without condemning the poor to a life of poverty by enabling it, to show ourselves God's sons and daughters is what draws.  This is unsettling for the minimalist.  Then again, Jesus is never concerned about our comfort.

Worship?  Absolutely!  Where else will we get the grace we need to live such a high standard?  NO sacraments and one starves themselves of grace necessary to be selflessly merciful. Follow in obedience the totality of the revealed truth of Jesus Christ?  Absolutely!  Where else do find the standards for what God expects of us?  To these two, if we are to want heaven, must be added that third element: selfless mercy.   With selfless mercy in place, we can no longer wait for someone else to address needs.  This is true whether we talk of the selfless mercy needed by our young men to follow Christ into the priesthood, whether  this is the selfless mercy that provokes us to give of our time, energy and resources to build up the Kingdom and to help those in need, or whether this is those actions that makes up the corporal and spiritual works of mercy being enacted daily in our lives.  Without this selfless mercy, our faith dries up, our parishes dry up and eventually die.

Heaven is not as easy as rolling out of bed.  It isn't gotten by merely being nice.  It isn't gotten through making sure we got full sash of sacramental merit badges.  Heaven is a result of making that choice here and now that we wish to be God's sons and daughters, not merely in name only, but by incorporating the mercy of God into our lives.  We can't say Jesus didn't warn us.  If we have fallen short, whether in worship, or obedience, or mercy..then I suggest we avail ourselves of that sacrament by which God breathes His mercy into us to heal us: the sacrament of Reconciliation.  Now is the time to attend to these things.  Let us not be caught off guard.  Let us strive to be true sons and daughters of our Father in worship, in obedience, and in mercy.       

Saturday, November 18, 2017

3 Masses and a Home Visit

Many times I will get asked what I do 'the rest of the week.'  I imagine there are some Catholics who have little clue what their pastor does.  It is a hard question to answer because one of the things I have found about priesthood is that it is unpredictable.  Many times, I have a rough idea in my head what will happen, but the particulars and order vary.  Yesterday, 11/17, was a rare day.  I had a schedule and nothing moved it.  Going through my schedule would be boring, so hitting the four highlights of the day might give you an insight, not merely into my life, but the life of many pastors.  Hopefully, it might hit on a few other points as well.

8:15 Morning Mass in the Parish

Mass is the anchor of my day.  Although the ritual is the same ( I am very by the book), they are unique as fingerprints.  Sometimes a congregation dictates much of the homily for me.  The Feast of St Elizabeth of Hungary and its proper readings afforded me a lot of room to custom fit a challenging homily for what group I am preaching to.  In this case, it was 20 or so older parishioners and the 200 or so school students and staff.  Being able to hold up such a splendid role model as St. Elizabeth who used her great wealth to serve the needs of the poorest and sickest of her kingdom, using her time and energy nurturing a deep relationship with God, and her willingness to give completely of herself were the heart of the homily.

I look at this group and see so many young men and women whose vocations are yet unknown to them.  I see a group who our Church needs to invest themselves in their faith, not holding out for a minimum effort or waiting for someone else to pick up the ball.  I see a group our parish needs to invest heavily in. They need to know about the heroes.  They need to be prodded to such heroism.  Heck, there isn't a person in that room, young or old, that doesn't need that call to excellence.  We need more St. Elizabeths. And more St Martins and St Alberts, and.... Many more.

The words that come out of my mouth challenge me as well. Perhaps knowing I am an unfinished product, knowing that my relationship with Christ and His Church still needs growth, and that my own holiness lacks at times drives me the way I want to drive others. I often look out at the parishioners gathered and think the same thing that I think many parents do when they look at their children: I am responsible before God for these people.  I better be using the gifts I am given to lead them towards Christ.

10:15 Mass at a Local Care Facility

I said before that each Mass is as unique as a fingerprint.  Even though I use the same Mass reading and prayers, I am now in front of about 15 elderly people.  Having worked with the elderly for so long, I know they are in a somewhat different place than the young faces I just left.  For one, most of them are in self contained community.  They see the same people day in and day out.  They are also in the waning years of life.  Questions of what might have been and evaluation of their lives are in the forefront of their minds, especially as death draws near.

That said, the same principles are in play.  The challenges the have towards kindness and patience are a daily thing.  Having sat down for an untold amount of hours in facilities like these, in their homes, and  by their hospital beds, I know the questions they have, the joys they have, the fears they have, and the doubts they have.  The call to strive for holiness becomes more needed as they enter that time of life where we prepare for what happens after we die.  To wisely use what time is gifted us helps to hold out hope.

As I wander into my 50's, I am aware that more than half my life is done and about half of my priestly ministry is done.  As I drove home, I thought about what might have changed not just in my lives, but in the lives of all I have ministered to had I stuck to my guns 25 years ago and refused to re-enter the seminary.  I am sure God would have provided for these people somehow...maybe.  I know that the joy I feel now in my call would not be here.  It occurs to me as I drive home that I am thankful and very blessed to be where I am now.

1:15 Mass at the Boonville Correctional Center

My third Mass of the day happens at the local minimum security prison in our town.  I had done limited prison ministry before in my last assignment.  I say Mass once a month out there.  As I am driving there, I got to thinking that there is no reason I cannot do this twice a month.  My congregation there is about 7 residents.  I hear confessions before.  There, we do the following Sunday Mass.  So the Parable of the Talents is in play.  It would be easy to brush over it and give some pablum.  However these seven men don't need pablum.  Neither do I.

The gist is that God gives us a great wealth in out freedom, our abilities, and our other gifts from Him.  These gifts are not entitlements, but investments for which are held accountable.  Jesus tells this parable to His disciples...to those who say they believe. The beauty is that if we have buried out talents by misusing them or burying them, there is still a chance here and now to right that ship through God's grace.  Sooner of later, though, the master comes home, and we are held accountable.

Not one of those men in that chapel are a finished product, no more than those young faces I saw in the first mass or the older faces I saw in the second Mass. I am not a finished product.  Holding out hope that we might well learn how to master our use of the talents is with us till we die.  My job, in that prison chapel, was to hold on the certainty of hope and that the love of God can turn us around from what we have previously done.

6:15 Home Visit

My last event of the day is a home visit to a family in the parish.  It wasn't about going over their giving, their stewardship, or their obligations. It was a time to just get an opportunity to get to know my flock.  The couple and their three children provided good food, good conversation and a delightful time.   We talked about family, God, music, sports, the parish and school, and just relaxed.  Being a thousand miles from my own family sucks a lot of the time.  It can be isolating.  However, these home visits remind me of something my oldest sister told me last year, "Bill, We (my siblings) understood a long time ago that your pairsh is your family.  We respect that."

I hear so many times that a fear young men have about being a priest is that they will be lonely.  I figure a priest is lonely so many times because he doesn't engage.  Over the years I have made close friends with former parishioners.  I have had open doors in many places.  Earlier this week, I stopped by a cemetery in my home parish and walked through tombstones with the names of people who opened their homes and lives to me over the years.  I remembered meals, laughs, tears, long discussions, and every other thing hat goes with family life.  More than a few I buried in that cemetery.

They were there for me, I was there for them.

As we look at a shrinking clergy, I suppose we can find ways of doing things, but let's be honest, it not going to be the same.  It is not about goods and services being rendered.  Sure, a good deacon or lay person can do communion services at the nursing home or prison.  In many places, that is the only choice.  But the dynamic is different.

It is days like this that remind me that I am called father for a reason.  It is constant reminder of the role I play in this parish.  Like in a family, I can delegate the care of the kids to others, but do it enough and the kids start to wonder if you love them. The most dominant image given in the Scriptures to describe God and His people is that of marriage and family.  It can't be faked.

I was in that 8:15 Mass because I am father of the parish and my kids were there..
I was in that 10:15 Mass because I am father of the parish and my elders were there.
I was in that 1:15 Mass because I am father of the parish and my brothers were there.
I was in that home at 6:15 because I am father of the parish and part of  my family was there.

We don't need less men stepping in the role of priests.  We need more.  This isn't to denigrate the dedicated ministry of deacons and religious and lay people.  Not at all.  But it isn't interchangeable.  Many families don't have dad around and no matter how great the mom is, dad is needed.  Same for our parishes.  We can have lay people and deacons fill in as administrators.  Many of them do a great job.  But it is not the same.  Our society suffers because of so many fatherless households...so too do many parishes.

It is time young men to step up and be courageous.  It's time to be a man and surrender your desires for something far greater.  If one is called to marriage, then quit playing around.  If one is called to priesthood, quit dodging and weaving.  One day, I will be gone.  It happens.  I want to make sure that when that day comes, there is someone there to take care of my family.      

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Stop Hitting Yourself: A Few Ideas on How Parishes and Dioceses Can Turn Things Around



When I was a kid, one of the many, many ways my brothers and sisters would torture each other was by grabbing each other by the wrist and using their own hand to hit them with, we would say, “Stop hitting yourself!”  We thought it was riot.  Mom and dad did not share in our assessment.  In it, though, is a little life lesson. Sometimes, we hurt ourselves.  Sometimes we inflict our own wounds.  Many of those wounds come as a matter of stupidity (as my trips to the ER and resulting stitches will bear witness to) or recklessness (also involving stitches, and casts).   Sometimes in fear or depression we can inflict further wounds.  Sometimes the self-inflicted wounds come as a result of poor stewardship of our health.  Many times, we can be our own worst enemies.

               What is true for individuals is many times true for institutions.  It makes sense as institutions are made up of human beings.  Even when that institution has a divine helper, its human element can inflict grave harm on itself.

               However, the opposite can also be said.  Inasmuch as we inflict harm on ourselves, we can also do great good for ourselves.  Being wise and prudent bears great benefit.  Being good stewards of our health bears great fruit.  Taking the time to learn, to grow stronger physically and otherwise, to use the benefit of discipline, and investing ourselves in life-giving relationships all can bear positive results.

               Which course we follow, though, is up to us as individuals and collectively as institutions.  Whether we thrive or decline is largely up to whether we are willing to do the things to thrive.  It is also determined by how well we learn the lessons from our self-inflicted wounds.

Where we are
               Our diocese is doing what many dioceses are doing in this country.  We are gathering together to try and map out where we go as the number of priests decline.  This has been a long time coming.  The influx of borrowed international priests has afforded us the opportunity to kick this can down the road.  Now, though, there is no more road. 

               I posit that the decline in the numbers of priests is a symptom of the disease and not the disease itself.  This number corresponds with other numbers: Mass attendance, religious sisters and brothers, number of marriages, children in Catholic schools, and now the number of parishes as a whole. According to the figures released by CARA (Center for the Applied Research in the Apostolate), between 2000 and 2016, the number of priests dropped by 8500.  That means we lose 530 or so priests every year.  About 7200 new priests replaced them.  That deficit will increase as the Baby Boomer generation of priests, the largest group numerically, starts to retire. The influx of ordinations to replace those retiring will not keep up with the departures.

               In the same time period, dioceses in the United States have closed a net total of 2003 parishes.  There are now 17,233 parishes in the USA.  Although the Catholic population has risen by 3.2 million in the same time period, only 22% on average go to Mass regularly.  In that same time period, a net of 1527 Catholic parochial schools were closed.  This trend will continue.  In fact, just about all numbers, save Permanent Deacons and Lay leadership, are trending down, in some cases steeply down.  Bishops and dioceses are left to wrestle with how to shepherd in such circumstances.

               So are we on a sinking ship?  I don’t think so.  There is no self-inflicted wound that cannot be undone.  We have to learn to quit hitting ourselves. We have to learn from our mistakes and change course.
Changing Course

               Changing course isn’t so much going to uncharted waters, but returning to the shipping lanes from which we departed.  It isn’t as if the Gospel has been found wanting.  It may have been dismissed as inconvenient or difficult, but it is not wanting.

               The answer is simple: learn the truth, preach the truth, live the truth, and provide for the future.  It sounds simple, but it will be difficult.  It will require us to right the ship. It will take us admitting the path we took didn’t work.  It will require us to stop making the same mistakes.  It will require us to stop hitting ourselves.

1.      Learn the Truth.  It is the responsibility of every individual to take ownership of their faith.  The Catholic faith has content.  We call it the Deposit of Faith. It is not a buffet.  I know many catechetical tools have fallen far short in passing on the faith, treating the content of faith as if it were all a matter of opinion or as a lifeless body of facts.  The truth is to lead us to a relationship with God and His Church.
2.      Preach the truth.  The Christian message is not one that lies dormant.  It is by its nature to be proclaimed.  Having found the truth, we have a responsibility to proclaim the truth.  Given that only 22% of Catholics see Mass as necessary, we have a lot of proclaiming of the truth to do.   Given that there are 30.1 million that call themselves former Catholics, we have a lot of proclaiming to do.  Many left because of poor catechesis before, here is our chance to right the ship.
3.      Live the truth.  We can’t put our faith and God into a compartment separate from everything else in our lives.  The truth, because it is based in God’s self-revelation to us BECAUSE He wants a relationship with us and how we model our faith through our interactions with others matters.  We cannot preach one way and then live another.  That we have done that repeatedly within the Church has been the ultimate self-inflicted wound that, like a cornucopia from hell, has brought much harm.  Allowing others to see how our relationship with God transforms us, especially in that grace given through the Eucharist, makes the strongest compelling case for people to come home or find a home with us.
4.      Provide for the Future.  This falls in three parts.  First, we have to make sure we keep up the parish structures we have; not to just maintain the status quo, but plan for and expect growth.  The lower our expectations, the lower our results.  The higher our hopes, the higher the results.  Our parishes, even in their physical structures and programs, must plan for a bright future. Second, we must be willing to invest in that future with our time, energy, and resources.    We have to put our time, energy, and money where our hopes and mouth are.  Third, we MUST get serious about promoting, nurturing, and sustaining vocations.  We need more priests.  Many more priests.  We need more religious sisters and brothers engaged in the work of the Church.  We need more sound and holy marriages which are THE incubators of all vocations.  The health of the family will determine the health of every other structure in our parishes and dioceses!
We can do this!  I have no doubt about that!  With God’s grace and our obedience to God’s grace, we can do this!