Sunday, October 15, 2017

Okay, That's Just Messed Up! Men, Women, Sex, and Image

The news had been riddled with a lot of messed up things.  A Hollywood movie mogul has been discovered to have the morals of a tapeworm and had a, shall we say, highly questionable view towards women.  I mean, it isn't like we couldn't have picked that up from his body of work.  Off with his head! Not long before that, society acknowledged the death of man who made pornography mainstream.  Lauded by many as a trailblazer and genius, he did little more than turn women into something for pimply faced boys and sad men to ogle over as pieces of meat. Interesting, no?  Not that men are exempt from such ogling themselves anymore.  Sadly, even now, there are groups who don't want age limits placed on who we may ogle and objectify.

Be Fruitful and multipl...on second thought!

There is an underlying philosophy here.  The philosophy is that you are an animal.  Worse yet, you are an animal whose herd needs to be culled.  I am guessing if you want to cull a herd and start picking off members, then you must create confusion and panic.  I have seen enough nature shows to know that when a predator attacks, they stealthily get into position, identify the weaklings, and pounce, causing panic and confusion lest the herd unite and attack the predator.  If anything identifies this culture now, it is the message of confusion and panic that comes out in our society and its media. 

Pick up a women's magazine sometime.  Interspersed in the pages, are multiple ads featuring women who look like size 0 heroine addicts wearing strategically placed dental floss and handkerchiefs and articles telling you to empower yourself and accept yourself as you are...unless, of course, you aren't a size 0 waif.  Motherhood and marriage are seen as a detriments to a lifestyle dominated by consequence free sex,  money grubbing, power grabbing, and hedonism that would make a Bacchanalian feast look tame.  We will give you bucket-loads of contraceptions, tell you how empowering they are (even if they do long term damage), and teach you to use sex as a way of manipulation to get what you want. If you do happen to get 'in the family way', we have a nice trauma inducing  event we will euphemistically call 'choice' and let you continue on as we cull the herd of people like you.  We must cull that herd, after all.

Guys, pick up a men's magazine or sports magazine.  It's really not that different.   You better have that ripped physique.  You, too, better claw for all the money, pleasure, and power you can get.  But, there is that whole culling the herd bit.  Hence, we will get a supertanker boat load of porn, get you addicted as young as humanly possible, make it as easy to get as possible, and tell you that relationships are a drag...a crimp on your playboy lifestyle.  Invest yourself in the doesn't say no. However, if one must have physical contact and mingling with your own gender doesn't do it for you, we will also give you bucket-loads of contraceptions  and have you turn the lady in your life to a means of self-satisfaction (call it love if you must) and press you to push 'choice' as a way of getting rid of any mistakes. If either of you end up with a disease that maims or kills you, well we got to keep culling that herd!

Truth be Damned!

If that doesn't create enough pandemonium, we will simply blur the truth.  We will tell you on the one hand that homosexuality is a matter of being born that way as we tell you it is a legitimate lifestyle choice.  All the sex, none of the danger of pregnancy.   We will go one step further and tell you that even though sexual orientation is a matter of being born that way, your gender is not.  Heck no, that's fluid.  Genetics be damned. Feelings, however irrational they might be, are wonderful ways to confuse the herd.  Want to surgically alter  yourself, heck we'll press for John Q Public to pay for it.  Change, change back, change again. It is that natural next step in the blurring of anything that makes genders specific.  Good luck reproducing in that atmosphere, huh?

After all the confusion and double messaging is done, then those who disagree must be isolated and destroyed.  Nothing annoys the predator like the members of the herd that fight back and alert the herd they are under attack.  The predators will find a wall of -isms to hide behind.  They will hurl labels like well thrown javelins at those who alert the herd.  All the better if the herd will see those alerting them as the enemy.  It is easier to get picked off once the protectors are done away with.

Feel regret yet about this?  Don't worry.  We got you covered.   Don't worry about that stuffy good and bad thing.  Don't worry about life after this.  But, if you must, then ...golly...ummm...yeah...everyone goes to heaven!! That's it.  No consequences.  Just consider it artificial contraception for the soul....all of the fun with none of the consequences.  Slather a good layer of universalism on top of the feces laden sandwich and call it Beef Wellington!  All the better if clerics will imbibe in this filth and encourage others to do the same.  All the better if the wolf can wear shepherd's clothing!

The Invisible Predator in Plain Sight

Who is at the center of all this pandemonium?  An enemy more and more people don't even believe is there.  In a recent study done of Catholics, 84% do not believe in the devil as a person.  I would suppose that a major victory for the Universalist! The herd is thoroughly confused and ripe for destruction.  The devil is our adversary.  His fear and rebellion know no boundaries.  Like any motivated by fear, rational thought is thrown away and replaced by the tyranny of emotions.  He hates us because he hates God.  His hate is complete.  He prowls like a predator, looking for who to pick off next.  The  herd must be in disarray.  He can't cull off what isn't panicked or weak.

He has a problem, though.  The shepherd.  He will isolate us from the shepherd if he can. He will tell us the shepherd is the real enemy. That nasty shepherd won't let you roam free and unprotected.  He doesn't trust you after all.  If you are to be truly free, you must break away from the shepherd.  Why do you suppose the purveyors of smut and porn have such an antipathy towards the teachings of Jesus Christ?  That He came means that God loves us so much.  I can't reduce you to a piece of flesh while a God is willing to die for love of you!

The devil has managed to convince us he doesn't exist.  He can't.  Universalism doesn't work with a devil.  A devil means there just might be consequences.  If there is a devil and consequences, then maybe there is a right and wrong way to look at ourselves and our dignity.   If there is a dignity to the human person, then culling the herd is not a good thing.  You might just an animal.  If you are not just another animal, I cannot do to you what I want.

Truth is...

Truth is, a part of us knows this.  Why are we reviled by a movie mogul who gropes and sexually assaults?  We know, on some level, it's wrong.  It's wrong not just because he groped a movie star, it is an assault to the dignity of any person. We can relate to that. Now, take it one step further.  Why is bad to grope with our hands but not our eyes?  Does not groping with our eyes also assault the basic human dignity of the person?  Whether it is in the form of porn or the numerous skimpy costumes women are encouraged to wear for Halloween, when we reduce a person to a piece of flesh and call it 'empowerment' all we do is cheapen what should be truly treasured.

The Catholic Church officially teaches that each human person has a dignity that must be respected and protected.  This is why when a cleric in particular, reduces a member of his flock to prey, it gives great scandal.  It should.  Covering up the behavior should as well!   That said, it is not okay for anyone to prey on others in any circumstance. Whether that predatory action comes in the act of groping as did the mogul, or the act of porn as the magazine publisher...either teaches us that preying on the herd is fine and that the herd must be culled.

Christ came because we are worthy of love.  We are worthy of dignity.  He came because there are consequences for actions.  The teachings on human sexuality within Catholicism don't come from some puritanical 'flesh is bad' place.  They come from a place where we understand that sexuality, like any other component of the human person, made in the image and likeness of God, is due respect and dignity.  How we treat each other matters.How we protect our fellow members of the herd matters.



Sunday, October 8, 2017

Homily for 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time: A Vintage Worthy of our Calling

As a child, I was taught the importance of the words 'please' and 'thank you.'  Both were to be used liberally.  It more than just a matter of good manners.  It was to help me understand that what was given to me was out of the hard work and love of others.  No matter how little the gift, a thank you was to be forthcoming.   It was an understanding that it was not by my hand that I had the roof over my head, the clothes on my back, the food in front of me, and the comforts provided.  It was not me who paid the rent, utilities, groceries, and various things that were just a part of day to day life.  This thankfulness would hopefully provoke me to take care of these gifts.

That's important.  A thankful heart fends off much sin.  If we do not cultivate thanksgiving, then something else will take its place.  The sins of envy, jealousy, greed, and gluttony will try and fill that hole where thanksgiving should be.  We see this in the readings today.

In the first reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, God warns the people of Judah and Jerusalem that they are on the wrong path.  He reminds them that all that they are is a direct gift from Himself.  It was He who set them free from slavery, He who led them into the land, and He who made them strong and wealthy.  But the thanksgiving due Him was being rerouted. The people of Judah would go to them Temple and make their prayers and sacrifices to God. Had they stopped there, all would have gone well.  However, they would go into the Valley of Hinnom and worship the idols in the temples built there; built as a result of seeing what the pagans were worshiping and wanting to be like them.  The thanksgiving due God was stolen to be deposited at the feet of pagan idols.  The trust the people of Judah were to show in God alone was rerouted to lifeless stone and metal.  The vineyard God has planted bore an evil fruit unworthy of the builder of that vineyard.  If idols were what they wanted, then idols would be what they have.  They would soon find out that these idols would not save them from the coming destruction at the hands of the Babylonians.

In the Gospel,  Jesus is speaking to those who have long ago put aside these pagan idols, but still found a way to deny God the thanksgiving due. This time, that honor was hoarded by those who led the people.  The parable of the Vineyard, we are told, is specifically aimed at the Chief Priests and Elders of the people.  We are told the religious authorities liked being honored and praised.  The vintage that properly belonged to God was being kept and misused.  As with the people to whom Isaiah is speaking, this sin will also merit the taking away of the kingdom; this time to be given to those who will produce the vintage at its proper time.  We are that people.

Christ bids we bear fruit for eternal life.  What is this fruit of vintage?  It starts with thanksgiving. What we do when we come here to Mass is a microcosm of what that the macrocosm is supposed to look like when we are not at Mass.  One of the words we use to name what we do here is Eucharist.  The word Eucharist comes from the Greek for thanksgiving.  We give thanks here so that we may live as thankful people out there.  You'll notice that musicians, cantors, lectors, and servers volunteer here to help with right worship.  That again is reflected by what we volunteer to do out of here.  We take up a collection as a gathering of the thanksgiving sacrifice. This to points to a life of selflessness to be lived outside of here.  All of this is answered by the grace of God in the worthy reception of the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ made truly present in the Blessed Sacrament so that we might rise to the high standard of the Gospel.

It is important to ask ourselves what have we given thanks for today?  When we came into this church and knelt in preparation for Mass, for what did we give thanks to God?  If we are honest, there is much.  What you may ask?

It's like this:  one of the things that pushed me over the edge to follow God's will into the priesthood was an epiphany I had.  It was an understanding that I did not create myself.  I did not make my body.  I did not breath life into that body.  I might have nurtured that body, but it was given to me.  I did not place within myself my talents and abilities.  They also were there for me to develop.  All was given to me: I did not will to be born in this time, in this country, in this place, or to the family I was born into.  That all was given to me.  It was given out of the love that God and my parents had for me.  Understanding this and using wisely what has been given is an act of thanksgiving.  Using wisely what has been given, also known as stewardship,  is a needed part of our relationship with God.  Anything I do for God is a mere fraction of the what has been given to me.  Without that thankfulness, a dissatisfaction with those gifts and an annoying sense of entitlement grow and consume anything that brings true joy.

As with all things that God asks of us, thanksgiving is to our own good.  Furthermore, it is to the good of those around us.  Our thankfulness shows we have something unique and special that the world cannot give; something worth abandoning worldly allurements for something greater.

Thank you cannot be merely be confined to words alone.  Our life and actions must follow suit lest we fall into the traps that entrapped Judah and later, the chief priests and elders.  It's like this: say, as a teenager, when I had a bottomless pit for a stomach, that I thanked mom and dad for the food they had prepared and then gobbled it all for myself.   my thanks might well be suspect.  Part of thankfulness is mimicking the goodness shown us.   That goes back to the thanksgiving offering.  That offering, a small portion of the abundance of gifts God has given us, is used to ensure the mission of the parish and church and to help those in need.  Today is a perfect example:  the first collection goes to the ensuring the continuance of the mission of the church and the second collection will be given to those who suffered as a result of recent natural disasters.

The thanksgiving offering is your thank you to God.  This is why I do not look at, nor will I look at, giving records.  That is between you and God and the IRS if you claim it for taxes.  As I am not God, you are not answerable to me for what you give in thanksgiving; you are answerable to Him, as the readings remind us today.  My job is to give myself and to be a good steward of what is given, making sure it is given to ends for which it was given.  I stand responsible before God for that.  How well I can steer the activity and mission of the Church is enabled or constrained by what is given in thanksgiving.  However, thanksgiving is not limited to money.  It is the time and effort we give in executing the work of the parish and its ministries.  Sometimes that is a fundraiser, but more often than not it is a hands on help with ministry and education.  It is taking time for prayer every day.

By the same token, you have gotten an envelope from the diocese for the Catholic Stewardship Appeal.  The same applies to the diocese as applies to us.  What the diocese can or cannot do is enabled or constrained by what is or is not given.  If we believe that we can punish the diocese or parish by withholding funds, just remember, it is not a bishop of priest you end up hurting...but those who served by the diocese.

The upshot is this:  Our relationship with God and each other is built up by this vintage of thanksgiving.  We are stronger for it.  Let us use wisely what we are given, being good stewards.  This is especially true for those who present themselves this day for Communion.  Let us use this Body and Blood of Christ for the ends for which it is given: to make us stronger, better witnesses, and eternally grateful for God's goodness.  Let us reap an abundant harvest for the Lord; a harvest that draws otehrs to God.   

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Feasting on Demonic Fruit

 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.  You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Therefore by their fruits you will know them."  Matthew 7:15-20

We are told in the beginning of the Book of Genesis, that there was a unity and perfection within the created order.  Satan introduced a fear into humanity, the only species able to freely choose, that God wasn't enough for them.  They would need to supplement what God lacked.  Fear bred sin.  Sin introduced division.  Division started between humanity and God, then between man and woman, then between the ground and man, then between brother and brother, then between man and the animal kingdom, and so forth.  Sin's natural fruit is division.  Sin pits parties against each other.

In sending His Son, God the Father sought to restore that relationship between us and Himself.  In His Son creating a Church, He shows us that He wants us to act in union with each other.  Jesus likens His Church to a body of which He is the head.  On the night before He died, He prayed that we might be one as He and the Father are one. Yet early on, sin introduced division into that early Church.  St. Paul wrote his letters to the Corinthians to dissuade them from cultivating such division.  Human hubris displayed in the adaptation of heresy after heresy, schism after schism into the Body of Christ has shattered Christianity into tens of thousands of pieces.  We, who are supposed to model the behavior of Christ find ourselves unable or unwilling to model the behavior and the world suffers for it.

In our culture, we seem to now have a love affair with division.  We have allowed the demonic to find and exploit any and all divisions there can be.  Look at the fault lines that constantly erupt in our society: divisions based in race, gender, culture, politics, religion, economics, and anything else we can imagine. We will even create falsehoods to further more division.  We have become a society that makes the Lord of the Flies look like the Von Trapp family.  It infects every avenue of life without mercy, draining any avenue of joy we might have into yet another scorched earth battlefield where opposing parties cry 'give no quarter!' to their perceived enemies.  Gone is "Father, may they be one and you and I are one, "(John 17:11) and in its place we now hear, "Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war!" (Shakespeare: Julius Caesar) 

The devil hates us.  He always has and always will.  His hate is born from his fear, so it is his fear with which he infects us with.  He breeds division because a divided humanity is easy to manipulate.  An enemy manipulated is an enemy defeated.  His cancer has spread throughout our culture, he knows exactly where to attack.

First, he divides the family.  In Genesis, he sets the woman and man against each other.  He sets sibling against sibling.  The family unit is a grave danger to him.  The more discord he can accomplish, the better.  No institution in the Christian west has been more attacked than the family.  The family is the most basic building block of any society or group.  If you wish to weaken the group, weaken the family.  Convince men and women that children are burdensome and onerous while convincing them to use the bond of sexuality in a way that objectifies the other!  Check! Convince women that motherhood is beneath them.  Check! Breed a mistrust of authority even within the family unit.  Check!  Convince men it is okay to abandon their children to pursue a self gratifying lifestyle!  Check! Convince people that the death of unwanted children is desirable and just!  Check!   Make divorce easy.  Check! Make birth control the normal. Check!  Regularly mock parents, especially dads in entertainment. Check!

Fracture the family and it is only a matter of time before every other institution falls like dominoes.  If we can turn the family on each other, then one can exacerbate other divisions.  Politics has rarely been about union.  Nowadays, it has become a nasty blood-sport where the winner is irrelevant and the divisions so grinds the mechanism of the body politic to a screeching halt that even the most basic operations of government are stopped.  Once the infection has been introduced, it is hard for it not to infect any member of the body.  Good heavens, we can't even play a football game without it becoming a moment of contention!

All of this division is toxic.  Some will  cite Jesus saying He will be a cause for division as a platform to justify their own introductions of strife and disarray  as a Godly quest,  except He was talking about he division between those who believe and don't believe...not among those who say they believe!

All of the nurturing of division will produce no good fruit.  It is exhausting and infuriating to have such division.  Even within our Church we have divisions based in ideological camps, even incorporating the divisions we see elsewhere.  Mass has become a battlefield in many parishes; it certainly has in the social media sphere.  Every time I see these posts, I think, "Good heavens, if I weren't already a Catholic, I would want no part of Catholicism if this is how they treat each other." It is one thing to point out doctrinal error, it is quite another to assassinate the character of the individual making the error.  What does all our public infighting say to those who do not believe?

As the Body of Christ, we are to stand with Christ our head.  His way is our way.  Period.  It is when we want our way, believing that Jesus' way isn't enough, that we get into problems and scandalize others.   In Christ, to paraphrase St Paul, there is no "Jew nor Greek, slave nor free"...or any of the other  man-made distinction we use to create rifts and tribes.  As a Catholic Church, we have members of every culture and race, of every socioeconomic class, of every country and people!  We have people who struggle with every imaginable sin there is.  If we are to bind the wounded and draw together the lost; it will be by not merely presenting a united front, but by living a united front; not looking for what separates us and picking at it until it is gushing wound.  We should be working towards that prayer of Christ, "May they be one" and not allow ourselves to eat nor serve up the demonic fruit that only brings division.

If we are to be effective witnesses to the world, we cannot look like the world.  Their hate and division can't be adopted by us.  We have such a great opportunity here.  Where the world is isolating individuals, we should be able to say, "Come here...find rest from turmoil here!"  We have that perfect opportunity to say, "Come here...we don't care what race you are, we don't care how poor or wealthy you are...and so on."  We can say, "Come here, we will recognize your dignity and humanity...we will help you rise above the sins that enslave you."  We can cry out, "Come here, lost sheep...we have a home for you." We can't do that and support the melee of division the world delights in.

We cannot offer the same demonic fruit the world does.

People must be able to see that difference clearly.   

It starts in our families and our parish family.

We must be different.


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Am I dangerous?

Tonight, as I was celebrating Mass, I preached about the bravery of saints like St. Andrew  Kim Taegon and his companions.  I remarked on the courage he showed is insisting on being a priest in a land where being so was dangerous.  I then remarked how such men stood up in the face of persecution, allowing themselves to be seen as dangerous by the enemies of Christ and His Church, and boldly lived the Gospel.  Whether it was the Douay priests who courted certain death by returning to Elizabethan England,  or the Cristeros in Mexico, or St. Isaac Jocques, who returned to preach the Gospel to a people who had already tried to enslave and kill him, the faith has been built and sustained by those who employed the spiritual gift and cardinal virtue of of fortitude in how they lived the Catholic life.

At the end of Mass, during the closing collect, a phrase leapt out at me, "Nourished with the food of the valiant..."  The food in question was the Body and Blood of Christ.  Food for the valiant.  Those words have burned into my thoughts ever since.  Am I valiant?  I would imagine the answer to that would be the same as the question, "Am I dangerous to those who hate Christ and His Church?"

Am I dangerous?

I guess you can be dangerous in a few ways.  You can be a threat to the health and well being of others through selfishness and violence.  That is not the kind of dangerous the martyrs were.  No, they were a different type of dangerous.  That their actions exposed the selfish and violent made them dangerous. Their ability to love made them dangerous. That's the kind of dangerous I am talking about.

Jesus was dangerous,  I used to hear that and cringe.  It wasn't that I merely saw Jesus as some sappy do-gooder  who the killjoy religious authorities resented, but I did see a kind of 'peace, love, and crunchy granola'  kind of  hippie who died a tragic death at the hands of persecutors.  Let's be honest, though, he was incredibly dangerous.  People wanted him dead.  They were so afraid of him that they plotted against him, put him on a show trial, and made sure he was executed in such a way as to scare anyone who might want to pick up his mantle.  Jesus knew this.  He was warned by his own disciples that going to Jerusalem meant death.  He went anyway.  He didn't back down.

His followers were seen as dangerous, as disruptive to the good order of the empire.  In their book, "Seven Revolutions', Mike Aquilina and mark Papandrea talk about the seven ways that Christianity wildly upset the Roman Empire.  The threat came not in swords and weapons, but in redefining huamn beings, family, and who God is.  No amount of persecution could kill off the faith.  In fact, the courage of those deemed dangerous by the Roman Empire (and many other empires thereafter) fed the rolls of converts who saw in the brave something worth giving up all for. Their bravery showed something worth living and dying for.

But am I dangerous?

Am I willing to go out on a limb for my faith?  Will I stand for truth when truth is unpopular or reviled?  Will that stand take on compassion in the face of sin?  It is easy to stand behind the relative safety of a keyboard or even a pulpit and talk big words.  It is quite another to go out and live them.

I will give you an example.  I follow the story of a man named Joseph Sciambra. He was a former gay porn star who had a massive conversion experience.  He reaches out to the gay community, going where they are, preaching that there is something better in Christ, something worth breaking the chains of enslavement to the flesh.  He assures them Christ loves them and wants better for them.  He goes to the parades and street fairs wearing a "Jesus loves gay men".  He talks to them.  He shows compassion to them.   He knows they know what he is coming to preach and he treats them with the love of Christ.  Instead of taking the noxious tactics of a certain baptist church which I will not dignify with any press, he shows the way home.  I could use the same example with Abby Johnson and her work with those who work for Planned Parenthood and other abortion industry outlets giving them the route to freedom she took.  She made some powerful enemies there.  Love, though, will provoke a person to such bravery.  Love and bravery seek the redemption of those to whom they speak.

As love is at the heart of the Gospel, and we are told that perfect love conquers all fear (I John 4:18); then such love should lead us to risk being dangerous in the world's eyes.  If I am not dangerous to those who hate Christ and His Church, then I am dangerous to those who love Christ and His Church.

Let that sit for a second.  How can I be dangerous to those who love Christ and His Church?   The greatest way is in teaching others to compromise truth for convenience or popularity.  I can be dangerous when I allow my own self love to lead me to use, deceive, and abuse those I am called to protect and serve.  I see it in clergy who are all too ready to be the darling of the progressive cocktail party crowds by espousing the teachings of the Church to be outdated and archaic.  I see it in clergy and parents who said they are Catholics but abuse those placed in their care.  I see it in those who steadfastly hide any public display of faith, worried that it will draw unwanted attention.  I see it in those who hijack a moral issue, even taking the moral side, and use it as a weapon to beat down those who dare to disagree with them!  It is not about calling people to conversion. It is not about defending what is right. It is only about being right.  That is not fortitude.  That is not the boldness we are called to exhibit in the proclamation of the Gospel.

I can't help sometimes but wonder if we have such a shortage of clergy because the clergy doesn't exhibit the fortitude necessary.  It is necessary.  I think that deep in the heart of every young man is that person who wants to be the hero.  They want to be that brave man who is noble.  Many leave it in their heart for fear of the cost that being the hero carries.  They look for men who will stand tall, who will go to the wall for what is right, and who will fight to their dying breath for those they love: God and their neighbor.  Banal milquetoast inspires no one.  I also believe that might be why so many men abandon faith. We don't want to be nice. We want to be heroes.  That heroism must be modeled.  For that heroism to be modeled...I and my brothers, lay and clergy, are going to have to be dangerous to those who hate Christ and His Church.

The oft quoted and misquoted line of William Shakespeare's play, "Julius Caesar", "A coward dies a thousand deaths, a hero dies but once." should be how we men approach the living of our Catholic faith.  The future of the Church does not belong to the banal, the squeamish, the bullies, or the compromisers.  No, it belongs to the dangerous, the bold, and to those loyal to the truth o the Gospel.  What side do you want to be on when you stand before God?   If we are indeed 'nourished with the food of the valiant' in the Eucharist, then we better aim to be valiant!


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Spirit Is Willing, but the Flesh is Weak

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus bids His apostles to stay awake but warns them, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”  (Matthew 26:41, Mark 14:38)  One of the things we must contend with in our life as followers of Christ is the fact that we are susceptible to temptation.  We call this susceptibility ‘concupiscence.’  The Catechism tells us, “The new life received in Christian Initiation has not abolished the frailty and weakness of human nature, nor the inclination to sin that tradition calls concupiscence, which remains in the baptized such that with the help of the grace of Christ they may prove themselves in the struggle of the Christian life.” (CCC 1426)  When are baptized, we are given sanctifying grace, a sacramental grace by which we are united to God in an eternal bond.  In previous columns, I have written how that grace can be ejected from the life of the baptized though their decision to mortally sin.  I have also written that through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, God restores the sanctifying grace lost through mortal sin.

               This begs the questions:  Why do I keep sinning then?  Why am I still tempted? The world and the Church answer this question in wildly different ways.  The answer is based on how the human person is defined.

               For the world, the human person is a mere animal.  Humanity is a beast like any other, albeit with advanced communication skills and opposable thumbs.  It is bound by instinct like any other species that walks the planet.  Humanity is a slave to this instinct.  This is why the ‘born this way’ argument is so important to the world.  If I am born a certain way, then instincts dictate the rightness of my actions.  Hence, right and wrong are dictated by the individual based on whatever instincts he or she has.  That one should rein in their instincts is increasingly seen as unnecessary.  In this world, personal sin, as such, does not exist and the only sins that do exists are corporate sins that are intolerant of a person’s instincts.  This is why the ‘science’ of eugenics (a belief that a species can be purified or improved through elimination of lesser strains of the species) is at the heart of beliefs about human reproduction.  We cannot expect the human person to will against his or her instinct, so we need to breed it out of the human species.

               The Catholic world view is different.  We believe that humanity was given a singular gift of free will.  It is free will that makes us “made in the image and likeness of God.” (Gen 1:26-27)  Free will gives us the ability to rein in instincts and rise above them.  Free will gives us the capability to go beyond emotion and into virtue.  Concupiscence might well be with us through our instincts, but we possess the ability to rein them in; we have the ability to be their master and not their slave.

               Because God calls us into a relationship with Him, we must be able to freely will to love Him as He loves us.  What stands in the way is the selfishness of concupiscence.  To rein this in requires the development of virtue.  Virtue is a good habit which breathes life into us, which sets us free from the tyranny of instinct.  Virtue is built choice by choice.  It requires reason and self-reflection.  If we are to break free from sin, it will not come in denying the existence of personal sin nor in the excusing instinct as the reason we are just powerless to do anything but sin; it will come in exercising the growth of virtue.  Virtue conquers concupiscence.

               In Catholicism, we have 7 specific named virtues that we believe are absolutely essential to our freedom from sin.  Four are called Cardinal virtues.  They are considered hinges by which we conquer mere instinct: prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude.  Three are called theological virtues, denoting that divine intervention will be needed in our growth of these virtues: faith, hope, and love.
Let’s take a brief look at them.
Prudence: Called the charioteer of the virtues, prudence is “the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it.” (CCC 1806)  Prudence “guides the judgement of the conscience” (CCC1806).  The virtue of prudence gives us the ability to judge right and wrong and to act in such a way so as pursue the right, even when our instincts would tell us different.  Prudence helps us to see the truth and to act accordingly. 

Justice: “Justice is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor.” (CCC 1807)  Justice helps us to see what is due from us as members of a society and as children of God.  It helps us to seek equity and harmony.  Justice concerns itself with not what I am owed, but what is owed by me.  Justice seeks the good of the other.

Temperance: “Temperance is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods.  It ensures the will’s mastery over instincts and desires within the limits of what is honorable.”  (CCC1809)  This is the virtue we exercise in reining in our appetites.  Temperance looks to the correct use of worldly goods.  It is temperance that is on full display when we use the tools of fasting, abstinence, alms-giving, and mortification.  We know that healthy self-denial or limiting our use of worldly goods is a positive for us.  Temperance helps us to be owned by no addiction.  It raises us above whatever instincts might reside in us and order them in a way where we are their master and not their slave.

Fortitude: “Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness is difficulty and constancy in the pursuit of the good.  It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and overcome obstacles in the moral life.” (CCC1808)  Knowing the right thing to do and doing it are necessary.  Fortitude gives us the ability to make the leap we need to make so as to rein in sin.  Fortitude gives us the will to rise above weakness and sin; to hold off the naysayers who say we cannot or should not have to overcome our instincts and sins.

Each of these virtues are God-given abilities that each of us can use to rise to the promise of our creation.  The weakness of our nature shown in concupiscence is strengthened by our acts of will in developing and maintaining these four virtues.  That we can do these means we have the ability to rise above mere instinct.  It also means that when we cave to concupiscence, as do we do when we sin, that the medical quality of sacramental grace is necessary to rebuild our resolve.  We are not slaves of instinct as the world would have us believe. 

I did mention the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.  I will deal with these three in the next columns.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

No Place For Cheap Grace

How we treat something tells us much about how much we value that thing.  If something is really important to us, we will expend tremendous amounts of energy and time on it.  If we value this thing as special and precious, we will be cautious on how it is handled.  If we find it cheap or throwaway, we will also treat it accordingly.   We will not take care of it nor expend much time nor energy on it.

We do this because we do not have unlimited amounts of time or energy.  We have to allot that time and energy on those things we believe to have the greatest benefit in our lives.  If we hold a goal particularly valuable, we will endure the sacrifice and even suffering to attain that goal.  Athletes do this all the time.  Becoming great at a sport requires the extra sweat and sacrificing of time, energy, and resources.  I could draw similar comparisons for many other things.  The point is we prioritize the expenditure of time and energy on what we believe is worth it.

In our society, faith has been deemed as unworthy of such effort, time, or priority.  Faith is to serve the purpose of the spiritual dopamine; something that makes me feel good. Once it ceases to make me feel good, it loses its value.  Faith is supposed to easy and promise great things that are easily acquirable.  Certainly, there are faiths that cater to such a desire.  In Christianity, it is faith without a cross.  It is cheap grace.  It is eternal life with no effort; a spiritual comfort food with no nutritional value.  It is a custom made faith that allows me to mold something that feed my whims.  It is spiritual but not religious.

This kind of faith is easy to fit into a lifestyle that places many other things before it.  However, it is largely unfulfilling.  It is the quickest way to agnosticism or atheism.  It doesn't work.  Why?  Because the reality of life intrudes upon cheap grace and rolls it.  Cheap grace, a crossless Christianity, has no ability to answer life's tough issues.  As it doesn't grow strong, it goes into atrophy.  If we want a faith that can take on the hardest life is going to throw at it, we cannot strengthen it without the weight of the cross.

The cross, in Christianity, is the willingness to love.  Love requires us to put ourselves second to the good of another.  That is not easy.   It fights our every instinct of self preservation.  Yet, the ability to embrace the selflessness of love is essential to our ability to grow in faith. Decades ago, within the Catholic Church, there was premium put on acts of mortification, fasting, and abstinence.  These were not constructs there to make us miserable, but actions by which we endure the self denial necessary to become stronger.  They reminded us that the cross entailed deliberate self denial.  These were simple and little crosses.  For some reason, they got swept away by the spirit of Vatican II, a demonic force that sought to cheapen the Catholic life into a trite kingdom of nice.  That we whine about Lent and its oh so hard disciplines shows we have gotten seen the cross as undesirable.

Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that we do these in place of love.  It is not an either/or proposition.  Consider them to be spiritual weight training.  Taking time to pray and learn about our faith are also necessary.  Participation in the sacraments is absolutely essential.  O Father...all these demands!!  Think about it:  if being physically fit is your goal, does that come without effort?!  If mastering an art is your goal, does that come without effort?!  Let's be honest, these are goals, noble though they may be, that have no real eternal stake.  Your ability to love God and neighbor does.  Your ability to pick up your cross does.

We must stop preaching and teaching cheap grace.  We must stop preaching and teaching a crossless Christ!  We have done such and wondered why our churches have emptied..especially of men!  We wonder why priestly vocations dry up?!  We wonder why marriage and family life are falling apart?! It is because a church of cheap grace and no cross might look great on paper to the spiritually slothful, but it has no meat or nutrition.  It is easy to dismiss and toss aside like rubbish.   Christ didn't say it would be be nice if you picked up your cross, He said it was absolutely necessary!  This nonsensical 'we're a resurrection people' is cheap grace at its worst!  There can be no resurrection without a death first; you have to die to be resurrected.  They go hand in hand. No cross, no crown!

It is hard.  I saw a story today of a group of young men, standing arms locked together, in front of a Catholic Church in Argentina.  They placed themselves between the church and a group of topless and abusive pro-abortion demonstrators who were looking to desecrate the church.  Those young men were being slapped, punched, kicked, and vandalized.  They stood strong without returning violence for violence.  That took guts and strength.   That's the Cross.  When so many clergy belch candy coated bile as preaching and teaching, so afraid that they might not be liked or the collections might go down,  they do a disservice to every man, woman, and child who embraces the Cross. They mock Christ Himself, turning the Cross into shame.  Our faith and has and always will call us to excellence.  It calls us to strive for the high standard.  There is no place for cheap grace and a crossless Jesus.  We have work to do.  That work can only get done with real grace.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

A Healthy Necessity

The following is a pastor's pen written for my parishes.  It is a follow up to last week's pastor pen, which is also available on this blog.

When I was a child, I hated taking medicine.  I hated its taste.  Some of them made me drowsy.  I was like most children.  I was a Petri Dish with legs.  Try though my mom would, convincing me to willingly take my medicine was a chore.  However, without that medicine, the illness could stick around and even morph into something that might well be more serious.

Truth be told, I still don’t like taking medicine.  The way I avoid it is by making healthy choices about diet and exercise.  Even with this, there are times that I still get ill from some bug going around.  I will begrudgingly take the medicine needed, if for no other reason, so that I do not infect the people around me.

What is true for the body is true for the soul as well.  Our souls get sick.  An outside agent we have introduced into our system causes an infection which simply cannot be ignored.  Last week, I talked about this illness: sin.  I talked about the difference between mortal and venial sin.  I talked about the effects they have on our souls.  There is medicine that must be taken to cure these illnesses.  They come through the grace of God.  For venial sins, there is the need to ask God for forgiveness, which we do at Mass during the Penitential Rite.  But not all sin can be forgiven there.

Why?  Like human illnesses, not all illnesses have the same effect.  We don’t treat cancer with baby aspirin nor do we treat a simple headache with chemotherapy.  The medicine is dictated by the disease.  Venial sins do not require confession.  But they must be forgiven nonetheless.  Unattended they become a habit that leads to mortal sin.  They are like the sniffles left unattended that morphs into pneumonia.  Mortal sin, because it has severed the relationship with God requires a greater medicinal application.

When we mortally sin, we have lost the sanctifying grace given us at baptism.  Venial sin damages it, mortal sin destroys it.  As the grace is originally given through the sacraments, it is given again through a sacrament.  Without that sanctifying grace, we forfeit heaven.  Hence we have a need to reach out again for that grace.  This is what the Sacrament of Reconciliation affords us the opportunity to do.

What is needed to make a good confession?

1)      Sorrow.  I must understand that my choice has born a rift between God and me.  I must understand that it has caused a rift between me and my fellow members of the Body of Christ.  I must regret the harm done.  I must be sorry. 
2)      Humility.  I must be honest.  In speaking the truth about my sinful actions, I am taking ownership of those actions.  Humility keeps me from shifting blame.  In the confessional, if I deliberately withhold the confession of a sin because of embarrassment or stubbornness, I introduce the sin of deceit into the confession and negate the entirety of the confession.  Think about it, if I go into a doctor and give him or her the symptoms of my illness but leave a symptom out because I am embarrassed to say it or too stubborn to admit it, I have left the doctor no choice but to misdiagnose the disease, give me the wrong medication, and only guarantee that I do not get better.
3)      Amendment of life. I must understand that in confessing a sin that I do not want to go back to said action.  For any serious illness to be cured, it often requires a lifestyle change.  Sometimes those changes are hard: stop smoking, giving up certain foods, exercising more.  If we don’t change the habits, we end up back where we began.  By the same token, in restoring that relationship with God through the outpouring of sanctifying grace, I must want to change my future actions so that I do not sever that relationship again.

4)      Penance. I must understand that as I used my free will to break the relationship, I must also use my free will to undo the damage of the sin.  To give an example:  If I willfully damage your car, regret my choice, ask your forgiveness, and am forgiven by you, I am still responsible for the damage to your car and have an obligation to repair the damage.  While no action of ours will ever be sufficient to undo all the damage, a show of good faith is important.  Penance shows I am willing to use this sanctifying grace to amend my life.

Each confession gives us the chance at a new beginning.  That state of grace is restored.  While it is possible that I will never have to go again, it is not probable.  This is why humility is a good thing.  It helps us understand when we have crossed that line and once again lost that necessary sanctifying grace.

Some Christians argue that we are, ‘once saved, always saved.’  This is a nonbiblical teaching.  If we are saved once and done, then St. Paul’s Letters and the warnings to the 7 churches in the Book of Revelations make no sense.  If we are once saved, always saved, then Jesus giving the Apostles the duty to forgive sins in His name (see the post resurrection story in the Gospel of John, for example) is an empty and meaningless gesture.  The fact is that we can lose what we were given through baptism.  If that stays lost, we choose hell over heaven.

In all of this, I am aware that for the better part of a half century most would get the impression that the Church found confession unnecessary.    I think it says much that the only scheduled time for confessions in most places is 45 minutes on Saturday afternoon, regardless of the size of the parish.  I know there is the ubiquitous ‘or by appointment’, but good luck with that!  It is why I greatly expand the times offered.  In SS. Peter and Paul, confessions are ½ hour before all weekday Masses Tuesday through Saturday.  There is also the customary 45 minutes on Saturday afternoon.  On 1st Fridays, I am available from 8:50-11:45.  At St Joseph, I introduced a regular confession time from 5:30-6:15 before the Wednesday evening mass.  Truth be told, unless I am going to give Last Rites, I will drop what I am doing if asked whether I have time to hear a confession.

If it has been a while since you have been to confession, do not worry about what to do.  I will walk you through it.  I will not shame you for the length of time.  I will not yell at you.    I will not think less of you.  I have been doing this for 20 years and have felt nothing but joy when someone returns to the sacraments.  It worth remembering, that a confessor is bound by the seal of the confessional.  He may not speak about what happens to you or anyone else.  If God has forgiven you, the priest must recognize that as well.

Just as taking medicine is important to curing diseases, so confession is to curing the effects sin leaves in our souls.  This week, I have talked about curative medicine.  Next week, I want to talk about preventative medicine.