Sunday, December 29, 2013

Keeping Christ in Christmas

As a child at Our Lady of Lourdes grade school, I and classmates took part in the annual "put Christ back into Christmas" campaign. Some Catholic organization promoted this campaign which I remember being encouraged to accept as a fourth or fifth grader more than 50 years ago. I believe it was a national campaign. Bumper stickers were distributed for cars to use to promote the campaign.

The campaign seemed a little odd to me. I hadn't heard that Christ had been removed from Christmas and needed being put back. Yes, it was popular to abbreviate the word to 'Xmas' but some pointed out that the 'X' was the same thing as the Greek Chi-Rho letter though I don't know how many people knew that. It is true there was as a child a growing materialistic sense of the Christmas holiday. Public displays of the Nativity had not yet been challenged but that seemed fairly secure. What did seem to be a threat was Santa Claus. Santa represented a secular Christmas and some weren't sure he wasn't displacing Jesus from his place in Christmas.

"Miracle on 34th Street" was a 1946 film that attacked the growing commercialization of the Christmas holiday itself without ever specifically mentioning a religious theme. But it also focused on a sense of faith as "believing in someone or something when common sense tells you not to." The buying and selling that increasingly occurred during this season seemed to be the real culprit and the cause of Jesus' displacement.

The secularity of the holiday does not really frighten me though. It has all become a part of the total mix. Santa Claus has been around quite a long time with roots in a Turkish bishop. And modern day Christmas carols like "Silver Bells" and "Winter Wonderland" and "White Christmas" all have a somewhat inspirational feel to them if not a religious one.

The secular Christmas holiday simply offers another opportunity to evangelize. Too many religious people are too comfortable in misunderstanding the Christmas story. Some seem unable to care if anyone else really believes in the Christ story or not. qJesus is indeed the reason for the season but we can best keep Christ in Christmas by living out of his ideals and not those of the American consumer.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The first five days of Christmas

For people of faith the Christmas season has just begun. Christmas Day was its first day. Some members of my own family have already taken down their Christmas tree.  For some it's already over because the economic engines have left the Christmas stations behind.

A local TV station has warned us about the dangers of burning your own live Christmas tree near your own house. But that's a message I only remember hearing later in this season. I recall a big local event being the burning of Christmas trees in Broad Ripple Park on the Twelfth Day of Christmas, that is, the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6. Of course, January 6 isn't always the Feast of the Epiphany anymore since the Church calendar now transfers it to the nearest Sunday for worship.

There are holdouts, of course. Purists continue to observe January 6 as the Twelfth Day of Christmas and celebrate accordingly. The combination of Advent preparation and Christmas celebration has been re-engineered by bureaucrats so that all the major feasts fall on Sundays because it is too much trouble for us to celebrate it on a weekday when the business of America and our societies must be maintained first.

Many Orthodox Christians fast before Christmas Day. They identify the Nativity Fast as the period of preparing to celebrate Jesus Christ’s birth. It is believed that fasting helps people shift their focus from themselves to others, spending less time worrying about food and using more time in increased prayer and caring for the poor. In return, fasting before the Nativity enables one to fully enjoy, appreciate and celebrate the Nativity of Christ. Does that sound like Lent? Why would anyone want to do that twice a year?

For many Orthodox Christians, Christmas Day is not about presents, eggnog or Christmas characters that have become popular through commercialization. Christmas Day is a time to heal the soul. It is also a time of peace and unity.

White cloth is used on dinner tables in some countries to symbolize purity and the cloth that baby Jesus was wrapped in. Straw may be placed on these tables to symbolize the simplicity of the place where Jesus was born.  Candles may be lit to represent the light of Christ and the festive Christmas meal represents the end of fasting.

On December 27 we celebrated the great feast of John the Evangelist. On December 26 we celebrated the great feast of Stephen the first martyr. The first day of Christmas was full of joy over the birth of the child born poor. The second day of Christmas was full of sorrow for the first follower of this child who would be murdered because he accepted the poverty of the child. The third day of Christmas honors the man who stood by the child in his adulthood, the man who loved him so much that he accepted responsibility for his remaining family. December 28 was the fourth day and we remember those who never knew the child, those who suffered and died in anonymity because of the jealousy of those who held power in the secular kingdom in which Jesus was born. This year on the fifth day we celebrate the family of Jesus as an encouragement to each of our own families to identify the diversity of husband, wife, child - man, woman, and young boy or girl - a diversity that joins together to make up the first unit of any society, a building block of hope, faith and charity in a world hell bent on destroying anything that smacks of unity and achievement.

The remaining days of Christmas until January 6 refuse to acknowledge the death of pine needles in our waste centers. There is so much more to glean from the birth of this child than a pretty picture for our photo albums. Jesus is not about egg nog and cheap ornaments. Jesus is about healing the soul. Jesus is about living and dying.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Four versions of the same story

There are four Gospels in the Bible. That is, there are four accounts of the life of Christ and each of them differs from the other because each of them wants to make a different point about Jesus. One place in which that difference is revealed is in the accounts of the birth of Christ.

The Gospel of Mark does not contain the story of the birth. That Gospel begins with the preaching of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus. The birth did not interest Mark. Mark was excited by the good news that the kingdom of God broke into human life. Mark's Gospel cries out with one incident in the life of Jesus after another so that we can share that excitement.

The Gospel of John is completely different from those of Mark, Luke, and Matthew. It is more of a reflection on the life of Christ, an example of someone sitting down and answering the question, what do you think Christ was like? So for John, the Word, that is, God’s word, became flesh, became a human being, and made his dwelling among us. This is John's theme. John wants us to consider the larger meaning of Christ's birth. Why did God choose to become human? is one of his questions.

It is only in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke that we have the story known as the Infancy Narrative. Beginning with the Annunciation, the angel asking Mary to become the mother of Jesus, and then the Visitation, the visit Mary made to her compassionate cousin Elizabeth, followed by the birth, the visit of the shepherds and the kings, these two Gospels place different emphases on the same story. Luke is particularly interested that Jesus was born poor. He was not a king born in splendor. Matthew, whose Gospel we hear this cycle, is the one who is most interested in the family of Jesus. This is why we hear that long genealogy. Matthew wants us to understand that Jesus comes to us as part of the family of a long line of believers.

Pope Francis, in a homily this past week, spoke of a third coming of the Lord. Jesus came into history 2,000 years ago. He promises to return for a second coming at the end of time. But the Holy Father spoke of another third coming of the Lord. “The Lord visits His Church every day!,” the Holy Father said, “He visits each of us, and so our souls as well: our soul resembles the Church, our soul resembles Mary. Our soul iwaiting for the coming of the Lord.

He asked, “Are we expectant, or are we indifferent? Are we vigilant, or are we closed up ‘safely’ in an inn along the way, without desire to go forward. Are we are pilgrims, or are we wanderers? For this reason, the Church invites us to pray, ‘Come!, in order to open our soul and in order that that our soul be, these days, vigilant and expectant. Is there a place for the Lord, or only for parties, for shopping, for revelry? Is our soul open or is our soul rather closed, with a “Do Not Disturb!” sign hung on the door to it?”

At this Christmas feast Pope Francis asks us to repeat this call many times – ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’ and look to see our soul be not one of those souls that say, “Do not disturb!” Let ours be great souls – souls open to receive the Lord in these days and that begin to feel that, which on this feast the Church will speak to us in the antiphon: ‘Know that today the Lord will come, and in the morning you will see his glory!’

Monday, December 23, 2013

Man of justice

Joseph was a just man. That’s what I always heard growing up. Joseph was a just man and though Mary was betrothed to him and pregnant, but not through Joseph, he sought justice for his wife-to-be, not vengeance upon her. He could dismiss her, he could divorce her (which he decided to do quietly), but there was no thought for him to destroy her. Joseph was a just man.

Fear of the Lord is often misappropriated in the Old Testament as it is in the first reading for the Fourth Sunday of Advent this year. Ahaz is the local ruler and the prophet encourages him to turn to the Lord and ask for what hiS people need. Ahaz views the encouragement as a temptation for the Lord to destroy his people. What kind of god does Ahaz know that would destroy the very beings seeking his help?

Ahaz refuses to seek a sign from God but God gives a sign anyway – the young girl, the virgin, who will be with child by the Holy Spirit. Even so, this sign causes confusion and uncertainty among the people of Israel, for it is beyond the boundaries of what people could understand. It was not culturally acceptable for a young girl to be pregnant and unmarried.

What could be more different from our own age? It is so accepted in our own society that the story of Mary and Joseph is almost meaningless to us. So what, some may ask? Because human relationships today are often looked upon as me getting my need satisfied and you are just an object through which I can obtain satisfaction, Mary and Joseph might as well be from another planet. What is at stake here is the intervention of God. God inserts himself into our history. This pregnancy does not occur in the normal human way. It was not caused by a casual relationship between a man and a woman. Mary has become pregnant because the Lord has intervened. The pregnancy of Mary and the birth of Jesus are events that force us to reflect on the place of God in our human history.

In terms of the whole of human history, the birth of Jesus occurs so that the whole human race can start over. Humanity begins again when Mary says yes to the angel and when Joseph says yes to his dream. He is a just man and would not bring shame upon Mary. God alerts Joseph to God’s work. And all this is in the midst of evil. The world in which Mary and Joseph live is evil. There is great injustice in it. Catherine de Hueck Doherty wrote that because we are free to choose good or evil in our lives, the good news of the Gospel is not fulfilled in us. We say no to the Holy Spirit. But Mary said yes. Her life was full of hope. She agreed to a fullness in her own life that meant giving birth to one who would fulfill the hopes of all humankind.

Ahaz lived in fear. In his dream Joseph is told not to fear. God is with him. God is with Mary. Is there such fear in us that we live without the kind of hope that Mary and Joseph displayed? The point of this story is to show us that it is possible to begin again at each moment of our lives. We are not robots that are determined to function in a certain way. We can begin anew whenever we want. We can choose. We can ask God and wtoo can say yes.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Silence of Joseph

""The website Catholic Online reported that "Pope Francis has directed those closest to him in the Curia, notably the cardinals and the archbishops, to hear confessions at the church of Santo Spirito just outside the Vatican" this weekend.

Confessions are already heard there on a daily basis. But now these high profile Churchmen will be doing same and Pope Francis expects to join them as well. It is one more sign of the Holy Father's efforts to remind all Catholic priests - be they parish priest or administrative cardinal - of their primary duty as pastors. 
The motivation for the order, according to Catholic Online, is to emphasize for the people the importance of the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the greatness of God in forgiving human sin. 

On this date the Holy Father also gave his "state of the union" address to members of the Roman Curia. He identified two important qualities these members must have - professionalism and service. He encouraged them not to fall into the weakness of gossip which is an all too familiar habit among bureaucrats in any institution. Pope Francis believes members of the Curia must behave like St. Joseph, who, he claims, "is so necessary at the side of Mary." Joseph's silence is a model for these men to emulate.

Pope Francis is clearly getting back to basics - certainly in terms that remind the clergy of their calling as priests. He has already clearly ruled out the fascination with a clerical lifestyle and he has called for bishops to spend less time in airports than in their own dioceses. It is not our vocation to be solely engaged in polemics. It IS our vocation to be with people and listening to their joys and sorrows.

Catholic Online concluded its story by saying "This appears to be the dominant theme of Francis' pontificate. That God is great, powerful, and merciful, and that when we act with humility, we truly serve God and one another."

Saturday, December 14, 2013

What did I go out to see?

John the Baptist wondered who this man Jesus was. Jesus responded by asking John's followers what they saw. The blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised. The poor have the good news proclaimed to them.  What do we see? Where are the blind, the lame, the deaf, the leper, the dead and the poor? Are they not all about us and maybe even within us?

Shoppers defied bad weather to spend money on two successive bad weather weekends. Another high schooler shoots a classmate in a school and then kills himself. Butler beats Purdue in basketball. Peter O'Toole and Joan Fontaine are two well known celebrities who died this past week. Nelson Mandela was laid to rest. Congress is finally getting a little work done. Those are some of the headlines. So just what is Jesus talking about anyway?

He does not seem to understand that gas prices are high and I have less to spend on necessities. He does not seem to grasp that a friend's family life is falling apart. He doesn't emphasize the pain of same sex couples who want to marry or of heterosexual couples who are divorced and want to remarry and receive the Eucharist. Or do none of these represent broken lives?

What did you go out in the desert to see, Jesus asks? John was unlike anything they had known. Jesus is even more so. Perhaps I am too caught up in my own self to notice the blind, the lame, the poor all around me. Perhaps I do not any longer recognize what good news is unless it is the value of the hamburger at the local fast food restaurant on which I can gorge myself. Why should I even care about the deaf and the poor anyway?

It is only of value if the person of Jesus has made a difference in my life. Otherwise I am traveling a road that leads nowhere fast. Still there are some who prefer that road to one that is well lit and safe, one that has an end to it, an end that makes absolute sense and that offers satisfaction.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

No exceptions allowed

Alas! Big business - especially big retail business - is so hurting these days that Thanksgiving Day was pulled in to assist the struggling big retail department stores from going under and causing Americans to lose out on all the junk we might not otherwise be able to buy for Christmas. We schmucks who struggle from paycheck to paycheck are now enlisted in the cause helping the rich to get richer and rightly making ourselves poorer by spending all our money on useless goods so that we don't miss out on the Fight Club experience held annually on what is known as Black Friday. Brown Thursday is now an anticipatory event leading up to that nonsense. I once erroneously thought Brown Thursday referred to the gravy on my turkey and dressing but now I find it is mostly on my face for not admitting to the stupidity and ignorance of the American character. I've been duped, Jeremiah said to God after prophesying and realizing how much trouble it gave him. And I've been duped into thinking that Americans can still revere a holiday tradition for our families. But American families aren't families anymore. They are something else which no word can define.

In Indianapolis on November 29 the youth membership of Christ Church Episcopal Cathedral on Monument Circle was raided by city code enforcement officials because they were selling cookies and hot cocoa to the crowds gathering for the lighting of the monument's Christmas tree. This violated a city ordinance that regulates vendors from taking advantage of innocent citizens during special events held in the downtown area. There is a 'clean zone' in which such vendors must refrain from all sales.

The Indianapolis Star reported that Christ Church has been giving away hot drinks during the Circle of Lights for decades, and selling a few cookies on the side as a youth fundraiser for quite a while.

But because big business is hurting so much, on Friday night city code enforcement officials sent the youth membership packing and their cocoa and cookies went undrunk and uneaten. The city ordinance enacted before the Super Bowl in 2012 enables big Downtown special events to establish a "clean zone" where vendors are closely regulated, if not out-and-out prohibited. According to the Star, Christ Church "and its outlaw cookie operation — fell into the clean zone for the Circle of Lights."

The church requested of city officials they be allowed to give away the left over cookies. But no way! That would harm the city's ideals assisting only the biggest of vendors. How dare those youth try to undercut the greedy city's aims. You see, the ordinance protects the hosts of large special events, such as the Super Bowl, the Final Four, Indiana Black Expo's Summer Celebration or the Circle of Lights from competing interests. It should be emphasized that these expensive venues can compromise not at all with the aggressive and unruly youth wanting to earn a pittance by selling cookies and cocoa. Why waste your pennies on such foolishness? It means less income for big business.

A curious addenda to this incident is that even the neighboring Starbucks had to close down a sidewalk sale at the same time. I would have thought Starbucks would have regarded the youth as unnecessary competitors.

I believe both youth and church hospitality events have been put in their place!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The malady of contemporary life

Ah! First Sunday of Advent and this morning was not much different from yesterday morning. Same people, same headlines, same wars, same crimes, same habits, same lies, same movies, same prices, same, same, same. It does not feel very different and that is probably consolation. If it felt different, it wouldn't be human life on this scarred and blessed earth.

My favorite annual reading is a 28-page booklet I've had for many years by Johannes Metz titled "The Advent of God" in which Metz argues that "the malady of contemporary man is his  deliberate effort to forget the coming of God into human history." Each year when I re-read this tome the truth of it seems to me more and more palpable. Our attention in Advent is one of preparation for the coming of Christ but we are more attentive to the bargains we can obtain that we will throw away in the new year. It would also appear that shopping these first days is not the kind of family ritual that brings us together but the implementation of some kind of economic war game that requires law enforcement to intervene when someone else grabs first the item I want. We human beings are flawed characters in the book of life.

My Christmas shopping memories are a very young age with my mother and two siblings going to see Santa Claus at a downtown department store, the bell of the Salvation Army Santa outside the store, the endless stream of dimes on the sidewalk placed there for the March of Dimes appeal for polio research, a bus ride home, some snowfall as we walked two blocks to our door and knowing we would be warm and happy once inside. That is nostalgia. Tyranny has replaced the memory.

The current season takes on many colors - Thursday was once Thanksgiving Day, now it is Brown Thursday; Friday is Black Friday; Saturday is Small Business Saturday (is that a neutral color?) and Monday is Cyber Monday (that probably is multi-colored like fireworks). None of it revolves around people anymore. It is all about economics. 

For many Americans today, God is a thing of the past. The Christian believes that God entered human history and it is up to us to make "a continuing effort to keep ourselves open to the coming of God." We do not know when the Lord will return, Metz writes. This gives us a "lowliness and poverty" that are intrinsic to "any genuine faith in God's first Advent." But Americans can't stand to be poor and wouldn't admit their impoverishment because of the absence of God in their lives anymore than an alcoholic can admit to being unable to not drink.

Advent is a season of preparation. The preparation is not for recognizing our wealth. It is for admitting our poverty. Our lives are quite definitely and absolutely meaningless without God.




Saturday, November 23, 2013

What's in a gesture?

A priest recently remarked to me that he is waiting for Pope Francis to make his mark. For this priest, Pope Francis has not yet defined his papacy. He has not yet grabbed onto the Pope Francis band wagon and he is not a critic of Francis but he believes Francis has yet to make any significant sign that makes his papacy stand out. Perhaps today's release of the pope's apostolic exhortation will begin to make him more of a believer.

Maybe. I read a claim that the crowds in St. Peter's Square during the almost eight-month pontificate of Francis have already exceeded the entire pontificate of Pope Benedict. At the same time the Pew Research people have surveyed U.S. Catholics and found that Francis' pontificate has not made a difference in terms of Mass attendance in the U.S. I'm not sure what that means other than that Francis can draw a crowd and that perhaps U.S. leadership in the Church is on life support.

Has Francis from the beginning identified his papacy with the gestures he makes? Like Therese of Lisieux and her Little Way, do Francis' embrace of babies, a tumored man, and others not identify a markedly different papacy as if to say we didn't get it quite right. We are concerned like Martha with many things and yet Mary has chosen the better part. Jesus spent his time healing people of their illnesses. The political world around him did not change much. In fact, it got worse. Is Francis here to prevent WW3? Or is he the great preacher of love your neighbor to each one of us individually? Maybe he really is the reincarnation of his namesake.

Some have noted that Pope Francis certainly seems to have been effective in keeping the situation in Syria from boiling over. He asks for prayer and a week later there are negotiations going on. Tensions have decreased. Is the situation in Syria solved? Not at all. But faith is not measured in nuclear explosions or comets streaking through the sky. Faith is a step by step process of giving oneself over to one greater than oneself.

What Francis has done so far is to ask us to rethink our way of business. What we've been about has had diminishing returns. Can Francis take us off life support and offer us real food once again?

Monday, November 18, 2013

Out with the old

Among the things I have learned in my lifetime - as we grow older, change and make decisions for ourselves, it does no good to linger. Move on! I have experienced life in enough institutions - schools, sabbatical programs, parishes, etc. - to know that there is a time for each of them and a time to leave them. Leave behind the old life. Put on the new. Don't try to take the old life with you.

Some seminarians make a disagreeable choice when choosing to leave seminary formation by not really leaving at all. Some discern well, pray and talk things over with their formators, pack up, leave, and then return to the seminary to visit old friends regularly or meet them in neutral locations to share good food and drink. Retaining and developing healthy friendships is always a great experience. What is not so great is clinging to such friendships when there is so much life to experience beyond the seminary. I have seen too many individuals from high school and college and other programs hang on to old haunts and older relationships as if nothing has changed.

I cannot believe this is healthy. We all grow at our own pace, we are not one size fits all, but when the former friends in one lifestyle keep reappearing as if that lifestyle were continuing for him or her there is a problem. A former seminarian, for example, whose relationships continue to be other seminarians without any new ones developing risks an arrested development. Oh, yes, it is important to maintain good relationships with good friends, but the nature of the relationships have changed and too many people act as if they are still in the former place rather than the new one. Cut the cord, as a wise man said.

Discernment is not a simple process and some try to circumvent it with quick decisions. There are those who know they need to make a change and do and slowly but surely their whole base of friends gradually change so that there are now acquaintances in the past and new friends are now the closer relationship. But some make the change and continue to cling to old relationships as if life has just made a slight turn rather than a full detour. Such relationships gradually feel strained among those left behind while the one moving on often clings to former ways of life.

There is nothing so sad, for example, as a former seminarian defensive about the seminary, the diocese, the religious order, the Church, etc., yet who has not fought the current battles and lacks the knowledge of what is current and who continues to think in an environmental awareness that ended years ago. Such people can often do damage to the continuity of such religious life or even Church life. For those who continue within the structure there is often a misunderstanding and ignorance of the truth that one is separate from other worlds. The call of Christ in Church life as a cleric or religious is all-encompassing and requires total commitment.

Forty-five years ago when I was ordained priests tried to prove to the Church that we were just like everybody else. But the truth is that we are not. We really are called to give up father and mother and brother and sister. God wants no mediators between Himself and His disciples. For the person called to be a priest among disciples, there can be no accompanists other than the Lord Himself.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Do things just stay the same after reform?

As a young child educated in Catholic schools, I remember being impressed in my study of Catholicism with the importance of the Council of Trent in solidifying and unifying our Catholic faith in the face of challenges made by the Protestant Reformation. As a young Catholic growing up in the 1950s the Reformation was the great enemy of our faith. There was nothing good about it. It upended and destroyed the Catholic faith that I understood made me the Catholic that I was. We always regarded the neighborhood kids who attended P.S. 82, the public school two blocks from my Catholic school, as less than human. They were, after all, Protestants.

That view has been altered since I finished reading Fr. John O'Malley S.J.'s book on the Council titled Trent: What Happened at the Council. Primarily I was left underwhelmed by the results of the Council's work. Given the corruption that existed in the Church of the 16th century, that the Council had any effect at all is most remarkable. Reform was not encouraged so much by churchmen themselves so much as by the political powers of laymen in the form of kings and emperors and their representatives who realized Europe was being torn apart by religious controversy. What was needed was not so much churchmen making changes but churchmen living the ideals they claimed for themselves.

By the time it closed after 18 years the Council had not really accomplished all that much. What really made its decrees work were the efforts of individuals - Charles Borromeo is specifically an example - who understood the necessity of reform and who began implementing reform in their own home dioceses. Just residing in your own diocese was a huge change for bishops who, to that time, often either lived elsewhere or who headed several dioceses at once.

Among the myths about the Church that I grew up with was the distinction between the authority of Scripture (important to the Protestant Reformers) and the authority of Tradition (important to Catholics). Yet, as O'Malley explains, Trent never spoke of Tradition but only of traditions. The Council did not decree a global category of transmission but only of specific traditions, e.g. doctrinal traditions, pastoral traditions, liturgical traditions, etc. The Council decreed there were two ways in which God's message is communicated - Scripture and traditions - but it did not determine the relationship of those two media.

The Council had begun with an eye toward reconciliation with the Lutheran Reformers and it might have happened but because of internal squabbling within the Roman Church and because the backs of Protestant Reformers were by then in fixed positions, any attempts failed. So we have today what we have. What most impressed me is that men like Charles Borromeo among others carried out real reform in their dioceses and so began real reform that continues well into the present day. Trent did not solve all the problems that existed in the Church of its time. But it did set in motion the possibility of reform and also real discipline by recognizing the dangerous path the Church was traveling by not striving toward internal holiness.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Acting or watching

Jansenism is a heresy in the Church that - forgive my oversimplification - would make Calvinists of us. Jansenism professed that one could not receive the Eucharist without receiving the sacrament of penance first. Today's youth are a bit more sophisticated about it for they know not to receive the Eucharist if in mortal sin but the heresy seems to have redefined itself by convincing many young people that nearly every sin they commit is a mortal sin.

Jansenism's effect was to make reception of the Eucharist a once or twice a year event. It has only been since the early 20th century, when Pope St. Pius X, decreed frequent, daily communion the norm that we have known such a practice. I suppose Jansenism isn't all to blame. The practice of receiving communion infrequently dates from the early Middle Ages. Jansenism just codified it.

Eucharistic adoration has regained its popularity and rightly so. But occasionally there are signs that adoration may even be preferred to reception. Some young people will deem themselves unworthy of the Eucharist - not always because of sinfulness - and will spend long periods of time in adoration but will not receive during Mass. This is a particular problem for the scrupulous but scrupulosity isn't always the culprit.

Moreover, one has to wonder about the theological training and understanding of the young. Chapel visits seem not to be popular unless the Blessed Sacrament is exposed. And yet Jesus is just as present in the tabernacle as He is in the monstrance. Is our respect for the tabernacle to be lessened?

Every age seems to develop its own sacramental aberrations. The return of Eucharistic adoration has had a tremendous impact on the incipient faith of the young. But the Eucharist was not just made to be seen. One former theology professor is known to have exclaimed, "Jesus didn't say 'Take and look!' He said 'Take and eat!' " The lesson here is that reception of the Eucharist is an action that moves us to live our faith and not only savor the flavor.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Whose prayer is heard?

There are two prayers stated in the Gospel today. We just heard both of them. One is prayed by the Pharisee:

            ‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’

The other prayer is prayed by the tax collector:

            ‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’

Jesus tells us that the tax collector went home justified but the Pharisee did not. But Jesus does not stop there. He reminds us that if we exalt ourselves, we will be humbled, and that if we humble ourselves, we will be exalted.

What is wrong with the prayer of the Pharisee? What is right with the prayer of the tax collector?

The Pharisee recognizes that he keeps the commandments. He is not greedy. He is not dishonest. He is not adulterous. Moreover, he fasts twice weekly. He tithes generously to the Temple. Why is this prayer not acceptable? Are you and I not to rejoice that we keep the commandments? Ought we not give thanks to God when we are tempted to lie, but do not; tempted to steal, but do not; tempted to commit adultery, but do not?

The difference, of course, is the humility of the tax collector and the pride of the Pharisee. It is one thing to be grateful to God for being sinless. It is another to claim that I have it under control. Notice, by the way, that the Gospel tells us the Pharisee is speaking to himself.

Which of these two do we recognize in ourselves? The proud Pharisee or the humble tax collector?

Today’s first reading is from the Book of Sirach, one of the Wisdom books of the Old Testament. It is a book of wise sayings. This particular passage begins with the writer acknowledging that the Lord plays no favorites, that He is a God of justice. The prayer of the tax collector suggests that God is likewise a God of mercy.

Our God is not unduly partial to the weak, yet he hears the cry of the oppressed. Among the oppressed in the time of the Old Testament was ‘the wail of the orphan’ and ‘the widow who pours out her complaint.’ Neither the orphan nor the widow had anyone to speak up for them in the time of Jesus. They had no resources of their own because their society did not acknowledge them any rights of any kind. Someone had to protect them. God is saying that he will.

In our own time, who lacks rights of any kind? Who has no one to speak up for them?

A powerful image in this first reading suggests ‘the prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds.’ This prayer does not rest until it reaches its goal. It does not withdraw until God responds, judges justly and affirms the right.

The Pharisee fails to recognize his own need for God. But then, he seems not to need God at all.

How unlike the second reading is to the prayer of the Pharisee. The Apostle Paul acknowledges his years of work preaching God’s message, the Gospel. He recognizes that his time is coming to an end. He is grateful to God for all the work of God he has been able to accomplish through Him. He does not write as if he accomplished it by himself.

The Pharisee never acknowledges his dependence on God. Paul knows he could not have been a successful preacher had not God been with him. The Pharisee compares himself only to other human beings and he does so claiming his own superiority. Paul says that some of his own friends deserted him, but God never did. Paul speaks of the crown of righteousness being awarded him. The Pharisee speaks of his own righteousness as if he is responsible for it. Paul’s words tell us that his reward comes because he has kept pace with God. The Pharisee has kept pace with his own wants. He thanks God because he sees himself as different and unlike other human beings. The tax collector is different yet he is more human than the Pharisee.

The prayer of the tax collector was taken by spiritual masters and reformulated as “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner.” This has become known as the Jesus Prayer and it fits all occasions. When we know not what else to pray, this prayer ought to become our own. We can pray it at any time of the day. It is easy to learn. The ritual has been to breathe in when we say the words ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God’ and to breathe out when we say ‘have mercy on me a sinner.’ We breathe in the life of Christ and we exhale our sinfulness.

Who is our own mentor – the Pharisee or the tax collector?

Monday, October 14, 2013

Cafeteria Catholicism

Cafeteria Catholicism was a pejorative term used to describe Catholics who pick and choose what they want to believe in. Some years ago it was applied specifically by conservative-leaning Catholics who wanted to describe left-leaning Catholics. I haven't really heard the term used much these days but the concept still exists. But the shoe is on the other foot. Now it is being applied more frequently by left-leaning Catholics to descrzibe conservative-leaning ones.

It is curious the difference a pope can make.

There are many conservative writers and bloggers who seem to feel the need to try to explain just exactly what Pope Francis means when he speaks. They seem taken aback by his spontaneity, or seeming spontaneity. In the past liberal writers felt the need to apologize for what they felt were Pope John Paul's and Pope Benedict's statements and encyclicals and letters.

The truth is we are all cafeteria Catholics on some points or issues. We like some things the church teaches but not others.

Pope Francis seems to me to be putting into practice some of the spirit of what Paul John Paul and Pope Benedict said and wrote. Francis is turning their theology into ministry. What were philosophical constructs to them are ideals to be lived to Francis. It is not enough to put words on paper or float ideas in discussion. Sooner or later those ideas, thoughts, constructs, etc., must become actions. If you look seriously enough, you will find the actions of Francis mirrored in the ideas of the two previous pontiffs. Nevertheless, it disturbs us when an idea takes shape as human interaction.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Of earth and gratitude

Naaman the Aramean bathes in the Jordan River at the behest of Elisha the prophet to cure Naaman's leprosy only after an argument and the pleading of Naaman's retinue. He is insulted by the proposal. There are far greater rivers in Aram. Why should he bother with the small stream known as the Jordan? Still he does. He is cured. And now he recognizes the God of Israel as his own.

Jesus heals ten lepers who appealed to his goodness and ministry. Ten lepers obey him by going their way only to recognize healing within themselves. One leper is so astonished that he returns to Jesus in gratitude. Where are the others, Jesus asks? The one who returned is a foreigner. There is a note of disappointment in Jesus as he realizes that none of his own returned to thank him.

Naaman the Aramean recognized more than just his own physical healing. Naaman recognized that he had encountered the God of Israel. So he asked Elisha the prophet for the privilege of removing two mule loads of earth to take with him back to Aram. He will now worship only the God of Israeli earth.

The leper who returned to Jesus likewise encountered God, this time God as seen in Jesus Christ. He too acknowledged not only that he was cured but that he had also encountered someone more powerful and greater than he. He met Christ and that changed his life.

In the sacrament of penance we focus so much on our sins and sinfulness that we forget the most important aspect of the sacrament. Ridding ourselves of sin is only the first step. Too often we fail to recognize that we meet Christ in the sacrament, in this encounter. Too often we fail to grasp the mercy and consolation that Jesus brings to us when we give over to him our sins. Mostly we are anxious about speaking the words to the confessor lest we become known. Yet Jesus wants to know us, to know our sins, so that he can forget them.

When her confessor refused to believe St. Margaret Mary Alacoque's visions promoting the Sacred Heart, he asked her to have Jesus reveal what he told his own confessor in his last confession as proof of her visions. St. Margaret Mary returned to her confessor and startled him by announcing that Jesus had forgotten his sins thus convincing the confessor that St. Margaret Mary was truthful.

There is a kind of aberration within us. We are anxious about revealing our sinfulness and yet there is a part of us that wants the world to know our sinfulness. We know this from the hundreds of self-revelations we witness on various kinds of television talk shows. We strive to entertain strangers with our defects.

The leper returned to Jesus and was grateful to him. This is the most important part of the story. It is our encounter with Jesus that takes priority and not the verbal laundry list of sins we present to him.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Back to the past with respect

Forty-eight years ago on October 11 the Indianapolis Times ceased publication. It was one of three daily newspapers in the city at that time and its demise marked the beginning of a downturn in newspaper publication here. My father spent 26 years at the paper first as a police reporter and ending it as assistant managing editor. In high school I worked part-time as a copy boy. A brother worked in the composing department for a time.

A third brother joined the two of us today and a couple dozen other folks for the unveiling of an historical marker on the site of the Times building torn down many years ago. There is now a green commons area surrounded by the Hyatt Regency hotel to the east and the Westin hotel to the west. The marker is located near the center of the commons, a bit outside the actual former site, but close nevertheless.

Several former Times employees were present for the ceremony. Dick Mittman was a sports writer. George Totten worked in the composing department. Kathleen Van Nuys reported society news. Donna Mikels Shea reported hard news. Carl Henn worked at the city desk and Gerry Lafollette was also a reporter. Jeff Smulyan, who now heads Emmis Communications, was perhaps the youngest former Times employee present. He was a copy boy in 1963 while in high school.

I was very touched to hear Gerry Lafollette speak of my father as the "Monet of makeup." My dad's principal job on the Times was composing the design of each day's front page. Donna Mikels Shea worked diligently to see that my dad was recognized in the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame.

The employees fondly remembered the hard work each of them put in  particularly when such tragedies occurred as the explosion at the Coliseum in 1961 and the Kennedy assassination in 1963. Though none of them was around to be involved in it, the Times is also remembered for the Pulitzer prize it won in 1928 for its two-year coverage of the Ku Klux Klan which dominated the corrupt politics of Indiana during that decade.

The hour or so we spent at the event was sobering. It was good to step back and to recall what preceded our present life. The Times building was not particularly outstanding in appearance and, as I remember it, seemed a bit ancient and in need of an update. Its location at 214 W. Maryland St. was 
then not a particularly pleasant one. It was a bit out of the way in the downtown area. Now it is very much in a high profile neighborhood with the Indiana Convention Center directly across the street. The historical marker sits in the center of the commons and it is hoped that it will survive the vandalism and weathering that a former marker suffered after first being installed on the street sidewalk in 1979.

The former employees are all survivors of a business that doesn't really exist anymore and one that is now difficult to explain. These employees were all professionals who believed it was important to report the events of city, state, nation and world. Their subject was the world in which they lived. Unlike newspaper and broadcasting today, the subject was not themselves. The generosity of their lives and work made reporting the news worthwhile and responsible.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Rewards points gone wild

There must have been three or four of us waiting in the checkout line at Walgreen's this afternoon, waiting for one of two cashiers to open up. One man at the first cashier had questions about a sale price on some cigarettes. A woman with the second cashier had many questions about the reward card points Walgreen's offers. She had accumulated something like 14,000 points and seemed to think the points would double or possibly even triple at some point. Perhaps she thought she would be earning air miles but she wasn't very clear. After a time, however, it became clear that she assumed the reward points automatically increased.

I suppose this expectation follows from all the gimmicks retailers and others offer to gain customers but it seems to be working against them. If children are paid to study, or for taking an exam, when will they begin to demand payment for going to school rather than paying tuition to be schooled. The American psyche seems to expect rewards for doing nothing.

An advertisement for Dish TV features a woman proclaiming that with Dish you get more of everything including more channels. Car commercials have long touted the incredible number of cars available on dealer lots and tried to convince us we should buy from them and not the dealer across the street who has fewer cars. We are used to having just about every kind of food available in grocery stores much to the amazement of foreigners who can be overwhelmed by the variety of food available.  i recall many years ago hearing an Irish woman flummoxed when trying to buy some milk only to discover she had to make sense of the differences between whole milk, 2%, 1%, skim, buttermilk, and perhaps other variations.

The disciples plead with Jesus to increase their faith in Luke's Gospel for the 27th Sunday. We want more, they seem to say, while Jesus reminds them how much they could do with only a mustard seed size faith. For an American Christian, that goes against everything we learn as loyal citizens. If faith is any good, it must be splattered all over our Sunday morning worship like a movie with a cast of thousands and a pea brain intelligence. Let us have a faith that does miracles and we will all become believers.

The point of the unprofitable servant is that he expects to be rewarded for what he is expected and obliged to do. How much we seem to marvel when someone does a good turn and asks nothing in return. How is it possible that such human beings exist? The missing virtue is, of course, humility and it is consistently denigrated by the icons of our pop culture as well as the captains of modern industry. The meek don't inherit the earth, they proclaim, they inherit the dirt.

Pope Francis this week said, "Without the Cross, without Jesus and without stripping ourselves of worldliness, we become pastry shop Christians… like nice sweet things but not real Christians.” The Christian cannot enter into the spirit of the world, which leads to vanity, arrogance and pride, he continued. And these lead to idolatry, which is the gravest sin. “Our Lord told us: We cannot serve two masters: either we serve money or we serve God.…We can’t cancel with one hand what we write with another,” he remarked. “The Gospel is the Gospel.”

Our worldliness and demands for rewards are infecting and destroying us.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Unique and original

In our youth we reject the advice and direction of family so that we may be different and stand out from the crowd as unique in the entire universe. Then we quickly fall into a sameness with friends lest we seem unusual to the crowd with which we run. In the eighth grade corduroy was the acceptable fashion for boys of the late 1950s and for some months the corduroy pants and accompanying shirt had to be pink and black. It could be a pink shirt or black shirt and the pants had to be the alternate color. But when the fashion trend began each of us had to have some combination of those colors. Otherwise one was not accepted comfortably among one's classmates.

The 1961 musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying featured a scene in which a secretary sang about the most unusual and original dress she had bought that day for a date with a junior executive only to discover that several other secretaries had made the same purchase. What made her unique had suddenly turned her into a carbon copy.

Luke's Gospel for today commissions 72 disciples as missionaries to the surrounding towns Jesus wants visited. He offers specific instructions and is quite blunt in telling these disciples what to do and what not to do. Most important in his bluntness is the direction that the disciples are to shake the dust from their feet if the Gospel preached in a certain place is rejected. And Jesus states that there is a serious price to pay for such rejection. It will be easier for the sinners in Sodom than for those who reject Jesus.

We too are sent as missionaries to our nearest neighbors. Pope Francis has made that emphatic in many of his homilies. Many of us want to let well enough alone and not disturb the peace among those who do not believe as we do. We want to fit in and not be seen as different. We don't want to stand out in our beliefs lest we be politically incorrect or offensive. Our goals and objectives in life aren't much different from everyone else's.

But Jesus calls us to be missionaries of his Gospel. If we can water down that Gospel, we gladly follow and perhaps even preach. It is more difficult to speak of living a virtuous life or loving one's neighbor or bringing peace to the world or living unselfishly or seeking justice than it is to indulge our senses and passions for our own personal pleasures. It is also easier to issue broad condemnations of one another. The Gospel still calls, however, and Christians are called to preach it. Moreover, we are called to live it. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Meaning and language

The Theatre of the Absurd produced a host of plays in the mid-twentieth century that seemed to underscore the decline of meaningful communication in Western society. Among others, Eugene Ionesco created dialogue for The Bald Soprano based on phrases, idioms and small talk he learned while studying English. Edward Albee began The Zoo Story with a man sitting on a park bench being confronted by another man insisting "I've been to the zoo!" Some analyzed Western culture in general and the English language in particular as losing any sense of meaning and the only meaningful thing to be the meaninglessness of both language and culture.

Language is always changing. Purists would like to believe there are unchangeable rules that apply to language but a simple study of grammar reveals this fallacy especially in the changing meaning of words. One example of this is the common usage of the word "awesome". This word dates to the 17th century and originally meant "profoundly reverential."  Since the early 1960s the word has tended toward the meaning "impressive." It does not take much insight to see the difference. Some things that are impressive are not necessarily reverential.

The Apostles, early on in their ministry, argue among themselves who is the greatest.  Jesus takes the steam out of their discussion by pointing out the qualities of a child. Whoever is least in the kingdom is the greatest, somewhat like an innocent and naive child who knows no more than to openly offer himself or herself without qualification. The word "greatest" has no meaning in the eyes of Jesus, that is, no more meaning than doing God's will innocently and willingly.

Do my words to the Lord have meaning or am I just reading lines? Am I profoundly reverential before the Lord or just impressive? Who is greater? Me for trying to communicate with God? Or God who communicates with me?

Monday, September 23, 2013

Good news is bad news

Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Gospel of Luke 16: 1-13

The good news today is bad news.

For about five seasons I was a faithful follower of “Mad Men.” Though the scripts were well-written, it took only a single episode for me to realize that there was not a single redeeming character in the story. No one ever learned from their mistakes and each character kept making the same mistake over and over. But sin is fascinating to watch. Each week each character sank deeper and deeper into a bottomless pit of moral indifference. And so, after five seasons I just lost interest. In the end I became bored by characters whose concerns were all totally self-centered.

Today’s Gospel features two unredeemed characters. The rich man master is not admirable. He thrives in a system of injustice that preys on poor people. He is a businessman in a world in which the custom is to exact 100% interest on the cost of goods he sells. This system was quite common in Jesus’ time.

The steward is not admirable. We are told in the beginning that he squanders the rich man’s property. The steward, however, is clever. He knows that as a result of having been caught he will lose his job and have to fend for himself. So he goes to his master’s debtors and rewrites their debts effectively slashing the 100% interest from what they owe the master. Of course, this further harms the master because he makes no profit. He will receive the return of the debt owed to him but he will make no profit.

The master applauds the steward’s cleverness. He commends him for his prudence. But the English word prudence does not express the meaning of the word well. The Greek word is phronimos, an adverb describing practical action aimed at accomplishing some particular end. The steward knows how to look out for himself.

Is Jesus suggesting we admire the steward? I think not. The children of this world, he says, are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. In Luke’s Gospel ‘world’ is the world of evil. ‘Light’ is that world begun by Jesus. Trustworthiness, Jesus says, is the great virtue. The steward is not trustworthy with the dishonest wealth of the master. So who would trust the steward with true wealth?

True wealth is not found in the business dealings of the master. It’s not found in our own worldly business dealings. Neither is it found in our malicious or devious dealings with one another at any level. No. True wealth does not exist in our manipulative business dealings or in our manipulative personal relationships. If we are not trustworthy with the belongings of another – and perhaps ‘belongings’ refers to a person’s integrity, joy, sorrow, talent, etc. – then who will give us what rightly belongs to us?

Jesus then gets very direct. We can’t serve both God and mammon, that is, we can’t serve both God and money or material wealth. Christians cannot serve false wealth.

In a way, you could say that Luke sticks it to us today. In the Gospel for the feast of St. Matthew, Jesus chides the Pharisees when he selects Matthew as one of his followers by saying, “Go and learn the meaning of the words, I desire mercy, not sacrifice. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”

The master in today’s Gospel is a righteous man by virtue of his wealth. The steward is a sinner. But unlike Matthew, the sinner who responded to the call of Jesus, neither the master nor the steward are capable of recognizing their sinfulness. Each is righteous by virtue of his own self-interest.

Pope Francis has reiterated over and over during the short term of his papacy the importance of mercy, and the importance of being concerned with the needs of others.

So today’s Gospel is bad news for us if we think we are superior to anyone else because we have the money, or because we have the privileged position, or the good looks, or because we are holier, or smarter, or a better athlete or whatever. In the beautiful interview Pope Francis gave this past week, he was asked who he is. I am a sinner, was his reply. As he reflected further he completed the response, “I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept in a spirit of penance.”

Are you and I masters, stewards, or sinners?



Sunday, September 15, 2013

Hand or mouth?

Distributing the Eucharist nowadays is not a simple matter. In the U.S at least one can choose to receive the host in the hand or on the tongue. Growing up we were never allowed to receive the Eucharist except on the tongue. It was only a couple of years after I was ordained that reception in the hand became an option and it quickly became the norm. For those of us who received our first communions in the late 40s and earlier or until the early 70s, it was a relief to receive in the hand.

Our training for our first communion in 1948 included numerous fear tactics. The hosts we used at that time were fairly tiny wafers of considerable softness. We were instructed, under pains of some terrible disaster that could befall us, not to chew the host and God help you if you touched it. I remember getting the host stuck on the roof of my mouth - more than once - and waiting to be struck dead when I finally had to loosen it with a finger after it became a curled up ball still stuck on the roof of my mouth. The penalty for touching the host under any circumstance was truly frightening, but we never learned what the penalty was. At times I thought it to be a mortal sin and I think one passionate and merciless sister or other taught us that. 

During my first year in the seminary, a priest on the staff who offered our Mass regularly was notorious for picking up a host with his thumb and index finger and then putting it into our mouths in such a way as to slide his thumb on our tongues. Thus, each successive communicant was greeted with a saliva-filled thumb facing oneself holding up an already wet host.

I have told our seminarians about him when I ask them to please - if you are going to receive communion on the tongue - make sure your tongue is extended sufficiently so that the priest does not have to pry open your lips to get the host in your mouth.

For many of us in the early 70s it was a relief to be able to receive communion in the hand. For one thing it seemed to us much more like a gift being received and accepted than like the action of a parent trying to put baby food into an infant's mouth. That being said it remains an option and many do indeed choose to receive on the tongue. I don't personally find that acceptable when I am on the receiving end but that doesn't happen often as I am usually the celebrant.

A religious woman I know once argued with me when she became aware that many of our seminarians choose to receive on the tongue. "You can't let them do that," she screamed. "Don't let them do that." Well, they can do that and I do let them do that if they choose to. I do not know the piety for making such a choice but it is indeed an option to receive in the hand. It is not mandatory.

What is interesting to me is how we make dogma of things that change more quickly than a flash of lightning. How one receives the host is of less importance than that one does indeed receive it. In the hand or on the tongue - Jesus is a gift in many different styles.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

'Evil is DEPRAVED of meaning'

Joe, a former seminarian, is not a perfect speller. But he writes an occasional blog (The New Orthodoxy) with great thought and reflection and recently his topic was evil. Evil, he wrote is 'depraved' of meaning. Knowing Joe fairly well, I think he meant to say 'deprived' but what he published was more clever and perhaps closer to the truth. Evil is indeed depraved of meaning.

Depraved evil is all over the new film "The Butler." I have not been so disturbed by a film in a long time. The film relates a part of history that I lived through but wasn't always aware of individual events. I only read about most of them in the newspaper. "The Butler" reminds me why Jewish people constantly remind the world about the Holocaust. If I forget my American history and the evil that was racial discrimination in my youth, then I will live it again. In fact, there are indeed instances in which it continues to live like a monster that keeps reshaping itself into something more horrifying with each new incarnation.

The juxtaposed scenes of the butler's training for a job in the White House with those of his son's training as a freedom rider in the early 60s frightened me and made me squirm in my seat. All this was going on while I was safely attending the small Catholic liberal arts college from which I graduated. It was all mostly unreal to me and the subject of television news programs.

The saddest scene for me was the one in which the butler and his wife are invited to attend a state dinner instead of his participating as a butler. It reminded me of another dinner, one I attended as a 23 year-old seminarian, a dinner planned and carried out by the priests who staffed the college seminary I attended in rural Kentucky in 1965. The priest in charge of the kitchen decided that we seminarians would prepare dinner for our cooks in their honor. It went off fairly well except that many of the staff seemed embarrassed by the honor and one older woman who cooked for us could not eat the rich food we prepared. She had never been fed so well before.

The film reminds me also that neither history nor our lives are ever as simple as we later determine. This man served eight presidents. He watched as his father was murdered by a man who raped his mother. He lived through the civil rights era trying to keep his own children safe. He lived through the assassinations of three political figures during the 1960s as well as the Vietnam war in which his second son was killed. After all of this and the personal difficulties of his marriage, he sees the election of the first African American as president of the United States. This event is as much a statement that the butler's life has not been lived in vain as it is an historical event. The butler's life has been one of integrity and dignity. Moreover, an era in American history has officially ended even if there are still battles to fight.

Where is God in all of this? A visible crucifix on the wall of the bedroom of the butler and his wife signifies God's constant presence in the suffering of these men and women. Evil is indeed depraved of meaning. Evil cannot overcome the inherent goodness and integrity of men and women.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Living the grace of God

Recently photos of Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis appeared in the diocesan press with the following captions - under Pope John Paul II was the quote "This is what we believe." The caption summarizes to a great extent the direction of that pope's reign. Under Pope Benedict's photo was the quote "This is why we believe it." Again, to a great extent, the quote summarizes the direction of Benedict's papacy. Under Pope Francis' photo was the caption, "Now go do it."

If you have even a smattering familiarity with the homilies and talks given by Pope Francis, you will recognize the emphasis he gives in reminding Christians to actively live their faith. To love God, we must love our neighbor. To love our neighbor, we must love God. "To live" and "to love" are active verbs.

In the Old Testament Book of Joshua, the leader Joshua gathers the Israelites together as they are about to enter the Promised Land and reminds them of all that God has done for them. Yes, he says, you needed to extend yourselves and make your sacrifices and utilize your strengths, but none of that could have made any difference had they not cooperated with God's grace.

The Gospel of Matthew recounts the admonitions of Jesus to the Pharisees over their stubbornness regarding marriage and divorce. What Jesus emphasizes most is that living a life of fidelity to spouse or to celibacy is not possible without cooperating in God's grace.

No matter what our situation in life is, we will not find meaning or purpose or satisfaction if we do not give up our own agendas and cooperate with God's grace. This is especially true of young men who have their eyes on the priesthood or religious life. It is likewise true for women interested in religious life. Am I open to the grace of God or have I already decided what God has in mind for me?

We know what we believe. We may even know why we believe it. The hardest part is living it. Living it means cooperating with the grace of God as God reveals his grace to us.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Vanity of vanities

The Gospel of Luke proscribes the accumulation of wealth and possessions exemplified by the rich man who decides to tear down his silo and build a newer, bigger one in order to hold on to them. After 71 years I too wonder what I will do with all my possessions. But I can't touch my most prized possessions because most of them are attitudes, opinions and prejudices I've accumulated in that time. It is indeed difficult to give up such things without a sense of disorientation.

Where will I keep my anger, for example, if I have to give it up? See? I only thought about moving it to a safer place. Why not just give it up altogether? But how does one do that?

There are still people I hate and despise, people I think less of than myself. But perhaps that is a ruse. Perhaps it is myself I hate and despise. That would take some serious work rooting that weed out of my garden. Perhaps I am too lazy to even consider it. Do I come by it naturally? Did it get nurtured by repeated bad examples of others in my life?

There is a scene in the film "42," the biopic about Jackie Robinson, in which a young boy is taken by his father to his first professional baseball game. When Jackie Robinson appears at bat, scores of fans begin name calling (yes, the "n" word) and cursing Robinson to get off the plate. The boy looks around at his father and other fans and he too joins in the chorus using the "n" word. The boy simply mimicked what he saw his elders doing. What was his father's possession has become his own.

Jesus calls the rich man a fool for thinking he could hold on to his possessions. He would be called to his death that very night. I am in the process of ridding myself of material possessions. But what about the internal ones? Will I have to wait until I am called to death to rid myself of them?


Monday, July 8, 2013

Summer of surprises

Wheatland, Wyoming, is a center of ranching and farming about 75 miles north of Cheyenne and boasts the largest privately owned irrigation system in the U.S. At least that's what the town's web site claims. There are 3,500 people here and I am substituting for the pastor of St. Patrick Parish for two weeks while he is on Air Force reserve duty. St. Patrick's boasts a congregation of 200 families and many of them drive up to 25 or 30 miles to get to Sunday Mass. There is a mission parish at Chugwater, about 25 miles to the south. Only a dozen families make up its rolls. Several of them have keys to the church and I had to wait for them to arrive to get into the building. This is the summer and some are away. Our census this Sunday showed five people attended the service.

Chugwater has a very old building identified as Wyoming's oldest soda fountain. There is an annual chili cook-off held in June. I'm hoping to try both - a great shake and a bowl of chili. The temperature here is in the 90s and it is, of course, very dry. Surprisingly I am now hearing thunder as heavy clouds roll through but the area is not expecting rain. There is a drought going on and I heard one of the young lectors say last Sunday that she had only been able to bail eight bails of hay so far while last year she and her had bailed at least 100 by this time.

The work in the parish is minimal as there is a deacon who is actually in charge right now. As a result, these two weeks may be more of a retreat. That would be another surprise of the summer. I traveled to my usual place of retreat at Gloucester, Mass., at the end of May. But on the first full day of retreat I lost my balance while walking toward the beach and fell face first on rocks. I gashed my head above my left eye requiring stitches but also bruised my chest and left arm and broke the small finger on my left hand. My retreat was spent in the ER and going to an orthopedist. I have more time now for prayer and reflection than I did them.

The accident has changed all my summer plans. One of the good things about the forced slowing down is that I am paying closer attention to my reading, specifically the homilies and addresses of Pope Francis. He is very different from both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Francis is the seventh pope who has passed through in my lifetime and I see the continuous progression in each. John Paul and Benedict were the intellectuals who gave substance to our faith but Francis is the pastor who is showing us how to be faithful. I emphasize "showing" as opposed to "teaching." I hope our seminarians are able to see how Francis is showing us how to use what John Paul and Benedict taught.

Lastly, I am elated that he has brought John XXIII forward for canonization. For my generation particularly Pope John XXIII was the refreshment that revealed to us that living our faith is the most important expectation of Christians, not just talking about it.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Listening at Eastern Point

Almost annually since 1988 I have been making my eight-day retreat at the Jesuit retreat house at Eastern Point near Gloucester, Mass. This year I hoped for lots of silence and time to listen to God. The second night I went for a walk down a path that separates a large pond from the cove that drinks from the ocean. Nor'easters last February spilled good-size rocks onto the path. At first I proceeded thinking I would locate the path. Almost immediately I lost my balance, fell forward, gashed my head above my right eye, came down hard with my left arm, broke the small finger of my left hand, bruised my hand and later discovered large bruises on my chest. That was five nights ago.

I spent four hours in the ER at the local hospital. The doctor that night was an Irish doctor who served me well even after I whooped loudly when she pulled my finger back into place. She also sewed five stitches in the gash. Today an orthopedist at a sports medicine clinic half an hour away put a cast on the hand after removing the splint and wrap that held It together from that night in the ER.

On Sunday the stitches are to be removed and I will hopefully be returning to Indianapolis. Eastern Point maintains the wildness and harsh beauty that has been here for ages. Each year I look for the pair of swans on the pond. One year momma swan swam right up to me on the shore to show off her seven babies (cygnets). Two chatty women walking by with a leashless dog were confronted by an angry momma swan when the dog took after it. I was betting on the swan.

This year the swans are gone. Two years ago a coyote reportedly got papa swan and last summer there was only momma swan. Now she has gone. Nor'easters have caused the ocean to intrude into the pond so frequently that it is no longer a fresh water pond. Retreat directors have explained that in recent years a couple of folks have had to be rescued from the ocean after being swept off the large rocks that line the coast. Apparently they either did not understand tides or know the power of water or didn't care.

I always enjoyed Eastern Point because it seemed to represent a harmony between God and nature. We humans were invited to enjoy it but also to respect it. Even my limited injuries suggest to me that perhaps I too have been taking it for granted. Genesis 1:28 reports God's command that human beings fill the earth and "subdue" it. Does that not mean we must get to know it, respect it, and learn from it?