Thursday, August 31, 2017

Sating the Restless Heart

“You have formed us for yourself, our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
St. Augustine “The Confessions”

If you haven’t noticed, there is a lot of anger out there in society today.  There are many who driven by fear and anger and who lash out.  Some try to numb that anger with various earthly things.  Some seethe in wrath.  Some try to ignore it until the anger takes over. The anger is born of frustration.  It si the frustration you might see a toddler have when trying to put a square into a hole for a circle.  No matter how they shove it, it will not fit. 

Why is that frustration there?

We have to go back to the beginning.  In the Scriptures, when God created us first, He did so with there being a harmony between creation and Himself.  We call this harmony ‘original justice’.  But we know humanity lost that harmony when the disruption of sin was brought into the world.  A void was created in the human heart.  The loss of that original justice left a mark we call ‘original sin’.  That hole left behind by the loss of original justice wants to be filled.  It is why humanity, for as long as records have been kept, has searched beyond itself for something greater.  Humanity has looked to the skies, to nature, to anything that might give him some inkling of what that something greater is. We are born with a restless heart.

We Catholics believe that God wanted to fill that restlessness with Himself.  He creates a people and nation.  He wants to be their God and for them to be His people.  But the consequences of original sin had to be dealt with in a way that the God-sized hole might be filled. He addresses this by sending His Son.  His Son, by becoming one of us, can address the wrong we had done through sin.  His Son, by also being the Son of God, could be poured out to fill that God-sized hole.  The only thing that will fill that God sized hole is God Himself.  Nothing else, no matter how hard we try, will fill that hole.

In baptism, we believe that God gives us in His Son this thing called sanctifying grace.  It is the life of God that floods in to us to fill that God-sized hole. So, after baptism, we’re cool, right?  While that God-sized hole is filled, it doesn’t mean we can’t empty it again.  Adam and Eve did that. We do it the same way they did.  We choose something else to try to fill a spot that should already be full.  We are tempted to believe that the hole is there when it is not.  Adam and Eve were complete.  The devil tricked them into believing they weren’t.  He tricked them into believing they were not complete unless they ate of the one tree that God told them from which not to eat.  The devil instilled fear that God is not enough for them.  The tree is there so that Adam and Eve may positively choose to love God.  God wants a relationship of love, not a forced marriage.

That we keep looking for something else to fill that hole even when that hole is filled by God is called concupiscence. Concupiscence is that desire to fill the God-sized hole with something other than God.  When we choose to sin, we tell God that He is not enough.  Some people will own this and fall into disbelief, into agnosticism or atheism.  Some will be stirred to anger over this and fall into antitheism.  Some will try to fill this hole with earthly things.  Some will look to wealth and power.  Some will look to fame (even infamy) and honor.  Some will look to pleasure.  Everything and everyone become a means to fill that God-sized hole.

I know from my agnostic days this to be true.  I took the wealth and power route.  I figured happiness could be found if I had enough stuff and enough power.  I caught on after a few years that no amount of money was ever going to be enough.  No amount of power would ever be enough. Every pleasure was a drop into a massive chasm.  I was not a happy man. If God has gifted me with anything, it is the intelligence to not follow a path I know isn't working.  It occurred to me that the first time around with Catholicism, I went through the motions but never really allowed God to fill that God-sized hole. Being in a church or even a seminary is not enough to say I am filling the hole, it takes an actual conversion of the will.

 I knew people like me who try to numb that awareness with alcohol, sex, and narcotics.  Certainly that is one way of addressing the emptiness of the God-sized hole.  It’s a not a good way, but it is a way many take.

We are a society hooked on so many things.  We allow porn and the misuse of human sexuality to take the place of love, yet no amount fills us up does it?  The porn doesn't make the isolation go away.  Some use alcohol and drugs to numb the pain, but that pain still waits for them when the high or buzz goes away.  Some consume like locusts, buying things they don’t need and don’t use thinking that the accrual of stuff will make them happy.  Society will fuel these things because you can buy their goods and services until you have expended everything you have.   What then?  Anger.  Lots and lots of anger.  Where God is not allowed, sin will reign supreme and drag our souls to hell long before we die. 

So, how do we keep that God-sized hole filled after baptism so we don’t get fooled into this downward spiral?

First, we have to acknowledge the problem.  Christ gave us a means of refilling that hole.  Sin and Christ will not co-exist in that same spot.  Where we have allowed sin to thrust Christ out, which is what we do when we engage in mortal sin, then that sin must be cast out.  This happens in the sacrament of Reconciliation.  In our taking ownership for our caving in to temptation, we throw out what we invited in and ask God to once again fill that God-sized hole with Himself.  That sanctifying grace washes back in us again and the hole is filled. Be aware, though, that we still possess the ability to shove Christ right back out again.  That pesky concupiscence doesn’t go away.  The devil doesn’t stop trying to fool us into believing the hole is still there.  So what we do?

That is the second part.  We use this life of Christ in us to develop a life of virtue.  If we don’t, we make it easy to shove Christ out.  Virtue helps us to develop the relationship with Christ and to deepen the bond so much that we eventually get to the place that it will be very difficult for the devil to lie to us; it will be very difficult for him to use our concupiscence against us.  Virtues are disciplines we develop through conscious choice.  As with any good habit, virtues are built choice by choice.  The principle virtues we develop are the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. The more we exercise these virtues the more aware we are of what is filling that God-sized hole.

Finally, we need to understand that human effort is not enough.  This is why God wants to fill that God sized hole!  We need God’s grace to fill that hole.  We need the grace given to us through the sacraments in particular.  We need the rush of sanctifying grace given us at baptism and Confession.  We need the grace of the gifts of the Holy Spirit given to us through Confirmation.  We need the Body and Blood of Christ to keep our strength up to live the life of virtue.  We need the grace to live our vocation that is given through Matrimony and Holy Orders.  We need that prayer life to hone in on the virtues we need to build with God’s grace.  This is why the practice of fasting, abstinence, and mortification should not be absent in our spiritual lives as they are divine tools to help build the virtue we need.  Lastly, we need the humility to know we need God’s help and that God and only God can fill that God-sized hole.  God calls us beyond the frustration and anger of trying to fill an eternal hole with temporal things.  Truly, our hearts do rest when we allow them to rest in God!        


Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Called to Thrive...not Merely Survive

The following is my Pastor's Pen to my parishes.  I will expand upon what will be seen in the bulletin (I have to keep it to 2 pages), but it lays out how I see any parish learning to thrive and to expand in its core mission of the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Too many times, parishes get bogged down in a business mentality.  We get in the business of offering holy goods and services at bargain basement prices.  I do not believe for a nanosecond this is what Jesus envisioned when He founded His Church.   As a pastor, I have the goal of developing a thriving parish.  Here is my take on this goal.  I want to point with hope to the future.                 

 Over the past few months, as a new pastor, I have been doing a lot of listening.  In multiple meetings and casual conversation, I have been trying to get a lay of the land and a sense of direction.  As a pastor of 17 years, I have learned that there are three trajectories a parish can take.  It can decline.  It can aim for status quo.  It can thrive. Of course, I do not believe anyone wants to have their parish decline.  This is never a goal for me.  Many, though, do look for a status quo.  They look for something that fits like an old familiar shoe.  Truth is, though, that if a parish is aiming for status quo, it ceases to grow and the status quo becomes a long term death sentence.  The status quo was never what Christ looked for from his disciples or from His Church.  Hence, this is not my goal either.  I do not wish to be a placeholder until someone comes along to set the parochial tombstone .  That leaves option three: thrive.
What does it take for a parish to thrive?  

First it takes God.  All of our human efforts will fall short.  Human enterprises, by their nature, run a course.  They begin, they peak, they decline, and they die.  Whether it be commercial or political, sooner or later they fade away.  Jesus knew this and hence promised the guidance of the Holy Spirit to sustain and guide His Church.  Independent of God, we would have collapsed under the weight of our own sin and selfishness millennia ago. 

The sacraments are not just things we do, lifeless rituals that have no real effect on who we are.  They breathe into us the life of God.  They are avenues of God’s grace. Exempting ourselves from the regular practice of the sacraments is the surest way to strangle one’s faith to death.  Furthermore, the sacraments themselves should be celebrated in such a way that we understand we are there to give thanks to God. Too many times we treat them as forms of entertainment or hoops to jump through so as to appease God.  

These sacraments are given to us to draw us into a lifelong and eternal relationship with Christ and His Body.  They are not all that we do.  We are to have a life of prayer.  We are to exhibit a life of Christian charity.  I am a big believer that a healthy devotional life, both personal and communal, is a sign of a healthy parish.  These are not to be empty actions, but intentional contact.  The Church has a veritable treasure chest of devotions, from the Bible to novenas to processions to Marian devotions and so on.  Our parish needs to be a house of prayer before all things.  The more we do this, the more the other efforts we engage in as a parish thrive.

Second, a parish must be aware of its mission.  A few decades back, mission statements became all the rage.  It was meant to keep us on task. I have seen mission statements so convoluted as to need a hit from an oxygen tank to read it aloud.  For any parish, the mission is simple.  It is the mission Jesus gave to the Apostles at the end of the Gospel of Matthew.  We are to go out to the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  We are to teach all that Christ taught.  There you go.  That’s it.  Everything we do from sacraments to education to prayer is to enable us to get about the mission of the Kingdom of Jesus.    Our mission is the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ so as to draw others into that kingdom.  The Church is evangelical by nature.

Every program we do in education, be it school, PSR, confirmation, adult education, and so on, is aimed at creating disciples who will engage in the mission of the Church.  When we are baptized, we are anointed with Sacred Chrism and told that from that moment on we share in the priestly, prophetic, and kingly role of Jesus Christ.  His mission becomes our mission.  This underscores again the danger of divorcing ourselves from the sacraments.  We cannot do what we were anointed to do without Christ actively a part of our lives.  

Our job is twofold.  First we must reach out for the lost sheep.  We must work towards the return of our non-practicing members of the Body.  We have groups like the Legion of Mary to spearhead this effort.  But a handful is not enough.  It takes each of us.  Second, we must look to those we know who have no spiritual home; the unchurched. In doing both of these, we must realize the Church is a lifeboat and not a country club.  The message of Jesus Christ is meant for all.  Jesus commanded us to go out to all the nations, not just the ones who are like you.  To do this requires knowledge of the faith, which is why we educate and make programs like Formed available to you.  To do this requires a developing spiritual life as well.

This mission must produce fruit.  That fruit is measurable. Are people coming to faith?  How effective are we at bringing the lost sheep home?  How effective are we at calling to conversion those outside of the faith?  Recall, God gives us the grace to do this.  Is the parish producing men and women who will answer God's call?  Is the parish producing priestly and religious vocations?  Are our youth so fired up by our parochial life that they can hear such a call?  Are we seeing an uptick in marriage and family life?  Are our youth answering the call to live chastely and seeing marriage and family as desirable and holy calls?  

Do we have the reputation of being a friend to the poor?  Do we come across in our community as alifeboat for those seeking refuge to find hope?  There is no room for being the frozen chosen in the Body of Christ!  there is no room for the country club mentality!  Our mission is to be that city set on a hill, a beacon to the wandering and weary.

Third, a parish must have the resources to do this!  To do all these things does takes stewardship of resources.  We need space to worship and teach.  We need people who will make it their duty to engage in the mission of the Church full-time so as to help all learn how to be evangelists. There are the brick and mortar things.  There are the tools needed to make this work.  There are the items needed for worship.  Those items need upkeep and replacement.  Those who work to this end should have a just pay for their work.  How well a parish can do this is dependent on what is given not just by God but by our stewardship as well. 

In the Old Testament, the thanksgiving offering was done to address these needs.  As the priests and Levites could not own businesses or lands so that they could dedicate a 24/7 service of God and His people, part of the thanksgiving offering went to them.  Part of it went to the upkeep of the temple.  Part of it was given to the needy.  While the sin/peace offering came to its climax with the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus (which is why we do not sacrifice bulls and sheep anymore), the thanksgiving offering was still in play.  Our task is to be sure we are giving that sacrifice.  I have an additional task to make sure that the offering is used to the ends for which it was given.  I do not look at giving records.  You are not answerable to me.  You are answerable to God.  To withhold the thanksgiving offering, the prophet Malachi reminds us, is theft from God.

As I look at the finances of our parish, I want to build for the long run.  I want to build for us to not survive merely, but to thrive.  Too often our mission is truncated by our stewardship.  Our stewardship needs to be a ready and abundant fuel to fire up our mission.  Part of this is long range planning.  Are we a parish looking to grow?   I hope so.  To do this is to be prudent with what we have and what we think we need.  To this end, I am proposing we do the following with finances.  First, it is wise to have 3 months operating budget in the bank at any given time.  That is just sound financial planning.  

Second, we must look to the plant.  There are a lot moving parts.  We know many of those parts need to be replaced over time: HVAC systems, electric, concrete, roof, tuckpointing, roofs, and so on.  The maddening norm is to wait for critical mass to occur and then do a massive capital campaign. I purpose we start what are called sinking funds.  If we know that we eventually are going to have to replace or repair, why not take up the needed funds bit by bit, month by month and set it aside to that end.  This way when something needs repair, we can just do it without all the drama. The Administration, Finance and Stewardship committees will be working with me to set this up,

I wish to do this because too many times you would think the third task listed, resources, was our first priority.  IT IS NOT.  God and mission come first.  We do the third as an investment to enable us to do the first two.   Let’s get about, then, the mission and do it well, knowing we need God to do it!

Parishes don't exist to maintain their own ends.  They serve at the pleasure of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.  Whether we thrive, survive, or die is up to each member.  So, let's do this...let's get about the business of Kingdom.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Why I Stopped Talking About Money During Mass

There are many topics I like to talk about at Mass. I do not mind taking on the list of forbidden topics (abortion, artificial birth control, marriage, and so on).  There are two topics, though, I do not talk about.  One is politics.  My reason for this is that I have a I have general disdain for politics and resent how they hijack moral issues and turn them into political issues…which form 99% of the so called forbidden list.  I will talk about God’s law which is eternal as opposed to man’s law which changes on societal whims.  I would sooner wade into the cesspool that is politics before I talk about money.
                I have several reasons for this.  First, I am not running a business.  I will grant that being pastor of a parish has businesslike elements to it: payroll, taxes, budgets, and bills.  That said, what we offer in a parish isn’t goods and services.  It isn’t any more like a business than a family is.  A family also had financial aspects to it, especially as it grows, but it is not a business. No good parish is set up like a business franchise in order to sell holy stuff.  A parish that shoots for such is doomed.  When this happens, a parish is continually chasing the consumer demands.  It ceases forming those in its care, but gets formed by those with interest that may or may not have the primary goal of the proclamation of the Gospel.
                Second, while having a sense of business management is helpful, a parish can have all the money in the world and be dead.  One can be wealthy, but be an homage to lukewarmness.  Wealth is not the goal of a parish.  In fact, true wealth is not measured in dollars and cents.  Jesus tells us to store up wealth in heaven.  That wealth is the byproduct of the proclamation of the Kingdom.  That is my focus and the focus of any stable parish.
                I will talk about stewardship instead.  Stewardship is a different concept altogether.  Stewardship is understanding of taking care of what God has given.  Stewardship is expressed in our active care of and for parish and those the parish serves. 
                In the Old Testament, there were two types of offerings: the sin/peace offering and the thanksgiving offering.  The sin/peace offering was the sacrifice of one’s prize animal because one had sinned.  The animal took the punishment due to the person who sinned.  In our Catholic faith, we believe that this sacrifice is done in the Sacrifice of the Mass.  In the Mass, we directly participate in the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross.   This is why animal sacrifices no longer happen in Christianity.  However, the second sacrifice, the thanksgiving sacrifice is not suppressed.  That thanksgiving sacrifice is also called the tithe.
                In the Old Testament, the thanksgiving sacrifice was the first fruits of one’s labor.  It was a thanksgiving to God made as a thank you to God for all the blessings He had given.  To commandeer the thanksgiving sacrifice for one’s own use, God tells the prophet Malachi, was theft from God.  It was the act of a spoiled and entitled child.  The sacrifice was to be used to two ends.  First, it was to be used to the help the livelihood of those who served God.  Priests and Levites were to not own farms or businesses so that they might be dedicated completely to the service of God and His people.  Part of the thanksgiving sacrifice to be distributed to those who were in need.  These are still in effect.
                My task as a priest is the same.  As a priest, I am prohibited from owning a business, having an outside job, or living in grandeur.  Canon Law says we priests should live simply and be dedicated 24/7 to the service of God and His people.  In the same vein, most parishes have staff, clerical, educational, administrative, maintenance, and such who assist the pastor in executing the ministries of the parish and see to the good and upkeep of the property.  Part of the thanksgiving offering goes to helping these things happen and pays for the material necessities (utilities, insurance,   for example) to keep parish programs and building going strong.  When the thanksgiving sacrifice is withheld and when first fruits turn to scraps, the ability of a parish to fully do its mission is truncated.  Stewardship is all about making sure that these things are done and done well.  Part of the thanksgiving offering is to go to the help of the needy. 
                My task in the stewardship is twofold.  First, I too must give a thanksgiving offering.   Second, as pastor, I am directly answerable to God for how I use that offering.  If I misuse the funds to own personal gain, I stand answerable to God for having stolen what was given and dereliction of duty.   My job isn’t to tell you what to give.  I do not look at giving records.  I do not make it my business.  What is given is between the giver and God.  I am answerable to God for what I gave and you are answerable for what you give. 
                Stewardship, though, is measured in more than dollars and cents.  Stewardship is also measured in the participation we give in the mission of the parish.  Many believe that my only obligation to the parish is to show up for Mass.  Oftentimes the collection becomes a cash register: we pay for the services we use.  This is horrible understanding of what being a part of the Body of Christ means.  Our giving of time, energy, and resources should be measured in what is the needs of the Body of Christ in my parish.   What a parish can do is expanded or contracted and even negated by what time, energy, and monies are given or not given.  If we want a lively and holy parish, our stewardship is the fuel we put into the tank.  God puts in His grace and we put in our thanksgiving.
                    Monies are always needed as our creditors will not take, “I’ll pray for you’ in lieu of a cash.  The members of our staff, paid much less than those in the same field in the private sector, have a right for a just wage for their jobs.  Buildings and properties need constant upkeep.  We have a mission to get to.  Our thanksgiving sacrifice fuels these things.  When we give God our scraps and not our first fruits, we tell God two things:  I do not trust Him to provide for me nor do I care about the mission of His Church enough to throw my lot in with it.
                How much a parish succeed or fails is wholly dependent upon the stewardship each parishioner gives.  The collection is not a cash register to pay for services rendered, but part of the thanksgiving sacrifice we make to God.  If we want our mission to expand and grow deeper, we must invest ourselves.  We must invest our time, energy, and treasure to the good of the mission of Christ.  That comes in the form of prayer, of volunteering, and of treasure. AS God is to never be outdone in generosity, the proper giving of the thanksgiving sacrifice reaps what it sows.  Sow sparingly and one will only reap sparingly.
                When it comes to finance, I can tell you the following in how I see my job as pastor.  First, I do not like debt.  I am a big believer in staying on top of our bills and putting money away to make sure that future capital improvements can be done on schedule.  I am a fiscal hawk.  I do not throwing money away or spending money twice because corners were cut.  I believe I am totally answerable to God for every cent you all give.  I am answerable for how the time and energy you give is appreciated and used.  It is unbecoming of a pastor to take advantage of the good will or be thankless for their generosity. In other words, I will use wisely what you give, but I can only use that which you give.  I can only invest the principle you give me to invest.