Tuesday, July 11, 2017

And the Greatest of These is Love

"From the beginning, God contrived ten thousand ways for implanting love within us"
St. John Chrysostom , Homilies on I Corinthians 13

Over the next few weeks, I and the staff of Camp Maccabee will be focusing on the theological virtue of love.  We focus on the virtues, both theological and cardinal, every year.  One year of the cycle, though, we focus exclusively on love.  Why?
We focus on love because there are fewer words so horribly misunderstood and misused as is the word love.  We use the word, in our culture, to denote a feeling about many things.  We use the word to express our like or affection for everything from a food to a sports team to a pet to a human being.  We use the word to express an affection for persons, places, concepts, and things.  We leave it to the context to see if we mean something different by 'love' depending about whom or what we are speaking.  

Let's be honest though.  More often than not, we are speaking of our affection for what something or someone offers us; how they make us feel.  This is a love that is mere emotion; a response to an outside stimulus. For as long as what is stimulating that feeling makes us happy, we keep it around.  When that stimulus either ceases to make me happy or causes me pain, we dismiss it.  It is why people run hot and then run cold in their affection for something.  We fall in and out of love with things and people.  Because it is an emotion based love, it is fickle by its nature.

Love, within the context of our faith, is an entirely different thing.  It transcends the emotions and settles in our will.  Love is a deliberate choice, a discipline, and a virtue.  Its directionality is wholly different from the world.  Where in this world the focus of love is what is done for me, in faith the focus is away from the self and towards another.  This is what the Greeks refer to as 'agape' or divine love.  The love God is has is  not directed at what we can do for Him.  Why?  Because there is nothing that we can give Him that He does not already does not have.  We can add nothing to Him.  However, because God's love is directed towards us it demands an in kind response.

This in kind love is difficult because it requires a heroic selflessness.  This kind of love, because it is a virtue,  puts the beloved first.  It seeks the good of the beloved even if in doing so , sacrifice and suffering are involved.  Jesus tells us, "No greater love  has one than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends." (John 15:13)  To give the full measure of oneself is the kind of love Jesus Himself has and expects of His followers.  It is no surprise, then, that St. Paul, when giving us the attributes of love in I Corinthians 13:4-7, paints the picture a thoroughly selfless and heroic love.  These attributes become the watermarks by which we can determine my love for God and for others.  This goes back, again, to the fact that love is not an act of the emotions, but an act of the will.  It is choice made hundreds of times a day to move us to greater perfection as one who loves.

We focus on this in our camp because each one of the young men is called by God to a vocation.  Most will be called to marriage.  Some will be called to the priesthood or religious life.  All possess the same base.  A man that cannot love will fail at his vocation if he finds it at all.  What we hope to instill is an understanding that here and now they must cultivate love as they search God's will.

A man who cannot love will be an awful spouse and dad.  Even in courtship, he will see his girlfriend as a means to his own happiness.  Insofar as she keeps making him happy, she is useful to keep around.  This kind of selfishness will inevitably lead to sex outside of marriage, as the girlfriend owes him sexual pleasure without the benefit of the stability of marriage.  A man with imperfect love will also train his brain to this using of women through pornography.  I cannot understate the cancerous danger of pornography to warping a man's ability to fully love.  Furthermore, a man who does not properly love his spouse will not properly love his children.  Children will becomes accessories to make him look good.  More dangerous still, a man who will not properly love teaches his sons to do the same and his daughters to not expect it.  It becomes a multi-generational cancer.

A man who cannot love will be an awful priest.  Even in the seminary, he will judge the worth of serving God and His people by what he personally stands to gain. The idea of service will be warped beyond recognition into being a purveyor of goods and service to be given at an exacting price.  His prayer life, if it exists at all, will be functionary.  His homilies will always give him away though.  Homilies are a window into the preacher's soul.  His treatment of those placed in his care will resemble a dad who is faithless to his spouse and sees his children as useful only when they perform whatever duties he deems they should.  The abuse and neglect that are seen in a loveless spouse and dad will manifest itself in a loveless priest or cleric as well.

Because God and Holy Mother Church want better for our families and parishes, we teach the conscious discipline of love.  We teach it as the virtue it is.  We do not reduce it to a mere emotion.  Without the nobility and true heroism of love, we will continue to see the unraveling of the family unit and the plunging of priestly vocations.  

Because love is a theological virtue, it requires the grace of God to grow.  On our camp, we keep focused on the ultimate act of love: The Eucharist.  If a man is to be truly a man of love, then his eyes must be set on the very model of that love.  He must be a man unashamed of prayer.  He must be a man who sees in Christ the kind of selfless and courageous hero he himself is called to be.  We know from studies that when the dad is disengaged from faith, the likelihood of his children pursuing the faith is infinitesimally small.  We know that parishes rise and fall on the pastoral care afforded by their priests.  We know the lasting damage either spouses/dads and priests can do for generations.  We also know the heroic virtue they can instill for generations as well.

We need men to rise up beyond the shallowness of the emotion of love and grasp the greatness of the virtue of love.  We know that everything we bemoan in our society can be turned around, albeit with difficulty, but it can be turned around.  To be sure the culture will fight this as the culture has gone full throttle in emasculating men and keeping them on the level of a boy.  A man who truly loves is a force of nature that cannot be stilled by political correctness or cultural whims.  These are the giants we need to raise.  We need men who will not merely be good husbands, dads, or priests; we need stellar and courageous men who will fill these vocational roles given to them by God.    

Thursday, July 6, 2017

When Scandal Arises

This column is not written to excuse scandalous behavior nor to act as judge and jury on pending cases.  It is not a commentary on any particular incident and is not intended as such.

Over the past few days, a few stories on clergy being charged or arrested on behaving sinfully, in one case in a apartment in Rome and the other being a high ranking Vatican official, has made international news.   They are part of very long lists of either accusations or actual criminal and immoral behavior that have captured the headlines.  They are scandalous to be sure.  They do grave damage.  They hurt people for many years.  They can scorch faith and create doubt.  It is for no small reason that Jesus uses a graphic and horrific example of what would be preferable to giving scandal in Luke 17:2 where Jesus tells us it would be better to have a millstone placed around your neck and be throne into the sea than for one to give scandal.  That He had to say it 2000 years ago is telling.

Scandal is as old as the Church.  The apostles jostled for dominance.  They ran away.  One betrayed Jesus, another denied even knowing Him 3 times.  Quarrels erupted about doctrine, starting with circumcision and never really left.  False teachings and heresies, most of which were begun by clergy, have been with us from the very beginning.  Clergy acting cowardly during persecution, clergy having the sexual morality of a tapeworm, clergy in power struggles, clergy committing all sorts of evil have been with us the entirety of the Church.  There have been horrible bishops and even popes. The latest round of scandals are nothing new under the sun.

The biggest reason for this is that God chooses His clergy from human beings.  As much as we should certainly hope that our clergy would represent the best in modeling the Catholic life, more often than not, clerics prove to be all too human as well.  If history shows us anything within Church history, is that there has never been a golden age of honest and angelic clergy.  The concupiscence that weighs each of us down, afflicts the clergy as well.  The grace of Holy Orders does not make their humanity go away; concupiscence does not dissolve with ordination. Free will is a constant.  This is not to excuse any wrongdoing and sinful actions done by clergy and religious, but to state a simple fact.

Lest we lose hope, history shows us that great saints rise in the midst of even the most foul of circumstances.  That the Church has survived barrage after barrage of clergy behaving sinfully says something about the fact that ultimately God guides His Church and keeps it from collapsing under the weight of the sin of her members.  This said, what do we do when we are hit with scandal?  Scandal does and can ruin faith.  It can make it us abandon hope if left to fester.

As a cleric, it has been hard to witness the scandal given by my brother clergy.  Even if it is a small percentage of them, I am still all too acutely aware of the damage done.  I know like other professions, it only takes few to bring the whole into a bad reputation.  What keeps me from washing my hands of everything and walking away is the following:

1) It is God we serve first and foremost.  It is not a man or a group of men.  I know God can work through sinful men because that is what He has had do to for millennia.  When I go to Mass, it is to encounter the Lord in the Eucharist.  That is where I concentrate.  I don't buy into or want to create for myself a cult of personality.  We focus on Christ and His grace in the sacraments.

2) The Church is bigger than any of her members.  For all the sinfulness of her members, her teachings on faith and morals have remained consistent.  It is this to which I attach. While not all her members may speak the truth or even expound upon what the Church teaches, the teaching remain and are accessible for me to know.  I know that morality is not contingent upon the personality of the preacher or teacher.  Hence it is to what is laid out in the Scriptures and Magisterium of the Church that I focus.

3)No institution is reformed from the outside.  That people spiritually pick up their toys and leave only insures that sinful behavior remains and defines.  I love Christ and His Church too much to do this.  Complaining about a situation is not a solution.  It is getting one's skin in the game that matters.  By getting one's skin in the game, I don't mean the meaningless passivity of petitions.  I don't mean writing terse letters.  I mean that we find charitable ways to uphold the truth.  That is what St. Francis of Assisi did.  That is what St Charles Borromeo did.  That is is what St. Bernard of Clairvaux did.  I could go on with that list.  Not everyone pulled a Martin Luther and parted.

Some of this is a self inflicted wound.  When we saw the priesthood as beneath our best and brightest we starting setting up the game.  This sentiment is as old as the Church.  Many saints' stories are riddled with parents who sternly forbade their son or daughter from pursuing a call to serve God in the priesthood of religious life. When dioceses just started taking anybody because positions needed to be filled, it was because of a shortage of solid candidates.  Catholics wanted all the services to remain consistent, but didn't want to provide capable candidates for the work.  You want a better priest, raise a better young man who is open to serving God as a priest. You want a better clergy, raise strong virtuous men who will serve God wholeheartedly.  This is not to say that every man who went into the seminary was somehow a social reject.  Not at all.  Many have been good, solid, faithful, and holy men.  They don't get the press, but vthe toil in the fields of the Lord wondering if the reinforcements are coming.

Some of this comes  a result of priests forgetting what they promised. Sometimes we priests forget we are priests and not businessmen.  We can forget we are in the world but not of the world. We can get bogged down in compensatory behaviors and vices like anyone else.  We clergy need to remember that we are to be the Persona Christi and it does matter how we comport ourselves.  We need to remember that we live in the white hot spotlight and that the devil desperately wants us to fall.  When one of our brothers does fall, it does hurt.  All the more reason that our non-media garnering attention lives must shine brighter than those who fall.

I wish I could point to an idyllic time in our history where we got it right when it came the living of the faith.  It would give us a clue on what path to trod. There are none.  Looking for boogeyman to blame is an ahistorical fool's errand.  We persevere.  We must.  Each of us tussles with our own sinful inclinations and concupiscence everyday.  We need God's grace to this end.  That those who should know better don't do this cannot be reason for our own defection.  This doesn't mean we turn a blind eye to sinful behavior, it means we don't judge the totality by a minority...or even a majority.  Christ said He will be with us till end of the age.  We must look for the saints in our midst, among our clergy, as well.

As an end note I say this:  Too many times sinful behavior finds a fertile field when a priest has been put on a pedestal of has been forgotten.  For those on a pedestal, they can get an inkling the rules no longer apply to them (human nature there).  For those forgotten, they could look to behaviors and addictions to numb their loneliness (also human nature).   Many times, the cleric will cultivate their loneliness or pedestal.  Befriending him and offering him support can go a long way to helping have a healthy and holy priest.  Never turn a blind eye to behaviors that are sinful and damaging.  But do not treat him as an unconvicted felon in waiting either.

Pray for good men to become good priests.  We need them.  We always have.  We need men who will counter the poor and scandalous witness of the minority with the heroism of a saint.