Monday, October 16, 2017

The only acceptable slavery

Today the Church begins her reading of St. Paul's Letter to the Romans. And the first words alone are worth reflection for all of of.  He introduces himself as Paul, slave of Jesus Christ - not follower, friend or brother; but slave. 

If we examine the Greek word for slave, we discover that it comes from the verb to bind. It is the paradox of the Gospel.  True freedom only comes from surrendering ourselves to Jesus and allowing ourselves to be bound by Him, to be bound to Him.

Of course this means that the opposite is also true. If we search for freedom as the world defines it (the ability to do what we want), the we end of in other kinds of slavery, most commonly slavery to our feelings. We begin to loose the freedom that is characteristic of humans, and begin to act more like animals. We react to stimuli. One of the best examples is the entry of the verb " to troll."  To troll someone on the internet refers to intentionally posting something offensive or provocative with the goal of eliciting a response.  People who are free in the true sense can't be trolled.  People who are free are not slaves to their phones. 

St. Paul who declares himself a slave in his opening today, is the same person who elsewhere proclaims that he has learned to be content in any circumstance. St Paul is bound so tightly to Jesus that he is not tossed around by life, by circumstance, by his emotions. He is free to think, to choose, to act. His true humanity shines forth because he is a slave.

The difficulty is that this surrender is not something done once. The surrender to Jesus Christ must be constantly renenewed by each of us. Because of original sin, the urge to pull away is strong in all of us, the urge toward so-called independence. This is where prayer comes in. It is in the quiet time alone with that we can renew our surrender, check the bindings, allow the Holy Spirit to pull them tight. Even just a few moments here and there throughout the day can help us remain tightly bound. 

Perhaps today is a good time for each of us to examine our lives for signs of slavery. Are we slaves to our work, our feelings, our technology; or are we, like Paul, slaves of Jesus Christ. 

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Another kind of conversion

At the end of today’s gospel reference is made to those who did not change their mind. In fact, the text suggest a more nuanced change. The word used in Matthew’s gospel is not about a general change of mind (meta-noia) , but change of what you care about (meta-melo). This, of course, calls us to ask ourselves: what are the things I truly care about? And, how is the list of things I care about different for the lists of people who are not Christian or religious.?  

St. Paul gives us some important guidance in the matter in the second reading..

Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others.

Which of us is really willing to consider others more important than ourselves? When we are having the debates of our day about taxes, immigration, the economy or eveen civil war statues; how many Christians are willing to put others’ interests ahead of their own?  All too often, we are indistinguishable from society in general. We get sucked into asking the same self question. How does this benefit me and mine?

Because or original sin, we all have that tendency to turn inward, to look to the self. The Gospel challenges us to turn outward to look to God, to look toward the needs and concerns of others. Today we are reminded that it is not enough to say, “I consider that person my equal.” To be Christian, I am required to take the extra step, and consider that person more important than me. 

Monday, September 25, 2017

The gift of deafness

Tucked into today’s gospel is a command that can easily be overlooked. While we are focused on not hiding the light, the well known part of today’s gospel we can miss the simple command

Be careful how you hear.

Like many people I took normal hearing for gratntd. Even though I had worked with deaf people over the years, I now see that I had no real appreciation for the challenges.  For example, in my ignorance I thought that deafness meant living in silence. The constant roar of tenitis in my deaf ear means my world is never quiet. And I can also look back now and see how I did not use the gift wisely. 

The simple truth is that we human beings cannot focus on more than one thing at a time. This often makes it hard for us to listen, to truly hear what another person is saying. We listen up to a point, and then an idea pops into our heads, perhaps a response or a reaction to what the person is saying. The minute we turn our attention to that idea, we are no longer listening. We may have enough self control not to interrupt, but that does not mean we are listening. 

It has been less than four months but I can already begin to see how joining in world of the Single-Sided Deaf (as it is called) has been a gift. It has forced me to pay attention. Even with the hearing-aids I have to focus if I am going to hear what someone else is saying. If my attention wanders, I lose the words. But this is not a bad thing at all. It forces me to listen, then process, then respond.  As I see it, it cannot but make me a better person, and certainly a better priest. 

Even partial hearing is a tremendous gift that we should never take for granted. Like all gifts from God, it uses be used with the greatest care. Today’s gospel offers each of us the opportunity to pay attention throughout this day to how well we use this gift. In order to hear, we much choose to listen. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Day 25

When most  Catholics think of the church, they think of either the Vatican or their parish. This weekend we will mark one month with a Vacant See. This time without a bishop can be a time when we reflect on our understanding of what might be called the intermediate church. 

Interestingly when our theology uses the term local church or particular church, it is not referring to the parish but the diocese or an equivalent structure. A pariah is a "community" or a "part" but it is never called "church." In our creed we proclaim a Church that is "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic." It is the bishop who in a unique way preserves the unity and apostolic nature of the Church. Without a bishop seven sacraments are not possible. Yes, if a diocese is without a bishop you can bring one in to ordain, but this is never to be seen as normal or normative. The norm remains that a bishop of a diocese should ordain priests and deacons who assist him in ministering to the people of the diocese. 

In this time known as a vacant see that the Church calls priests to offer the mass "For the election of a pope or bishop." The word election can be confusing particularly because we do not in the modern sense elect or bishop. We use the word "election" because in Latin it refers not to ballots and votes but to choosing and being chosen. We use the word election in the same way in the RCIA. We pray for the 'election" and we will call him "bishop-elect" until he is installed,  becuause he has been chosen, by the Pope and by the Holy Sprirt who we believe still guides the Church. 

It is easy for any of us to slip into a very narrow vision of church, to see the diocese as merely bureaucracy. Perhaps in these days when we are without a bishop, it is not only a time for us to pray for the one who will be chosen, but also for us to deepen our understanding of what it means to be part of a diocese and what it means to have a bishop. Perphaps now would be a good time for all of us to read at least the first few paragraphs of Christus Dominus the Vatican II document on the role of a bishop. Jesus  not only calls us to be individually disciples but we are called to be one Church. 

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

What real power looks like

Today we celebrate the beheading of John the Baptist. It sounds strange to use the word celebrate, but it is the right word because we know that he was the truly victorious one in the story. 

If we look closely we will see the irony of this gospel. The king is the powerless one. He could have been powerful. He had the potential as king but he allowed himself to be manipulated by fear. His fear of looking weak was precisely what made him weak. The gospel tells us,

The king was deeply distressed, but because of his oaths and the guests he did not wish to break his word to her.

His step-daughter, his brother's wife, the guests, all in different ways held power over the king. And because of his weakness John the Baptist died. Herod looked powerful because he could order an execution but it was merely a kind of faux power. 

When I was a seminarian, a retired navy captain gave me several pieces of advice about leadership. One was, "The day you have to tell people you're in charge, you're no longer in charge. You've already lost control of the situation."

Real power doesn't have to look powerful; it just is. 

We can sometimes forget that we have the example of absolute power to follow.  Jesus Christ was the most powerful person in the history of the world. After all, he is God. His power, his strength, his authority are unmatched. And yet, how did he demonstrate those qualities to the world.

As Christians, on this feast of the Beheading of John the. Baptist, perhaps it is time for each of us to step back and ask if we are truly ready to put our faith into action. Are we ready to challenge all of our leaders, all those who exercise authority over others, to do so according to the model of Christ? One does not have to be Christian to learn from his example.  

Monday, August 28, 2017

Universal Call to Holiness

Today the Church celebrates St. Augustine, undoubtedly one of the great theologians of Christianity. 

Turn on your television and you will see program after program that deals with the supernatural. Go to church, and in far too many places the supernatural aspect of Christiany is gone. Jesus is reduced to a moral philosopher. Let me be clear. By supernatural I am not talking about ghosts and haunting. By supernatural, I am referring to things like the real power of grace. 

When we speak and sing of the grace of God we are not simply speaking about  God's forgiveness. Grace is something real. Grace is powerful. And we receive it in the sacraments. 

In our profession of faith we proclaim our belief that the Church is holy, and it is precisely the grace of God that transforms and makes the Church holy. It why St. Paul is able to refer to the memebers of the Church as "saints," holy ones. 

Some talk as if we are still slaves to sin, and the best we can do is hope that when we die God will be merciful. That is not our faith. As the Catechism says, "By canonizing some of the faithful, i.e., by solemnly proclaiming that they practiced heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God’s grace the Church recognizes the power of the Spirit of holiness within her and sustains the hope of believers by proposing the saints to them as models and intercessors."

The Second Vatican Council reminded us of the universal call to holiness.  The saints we venerate in the Church, the statues and icons of them, are constant reminders to us that heroic virtue is possible, living in fidelity to God's covenant is possible. No matter how strong the pull of sin is in our lives, we believe that the power of grace is stronger. We never give up the struggle. 

We venerate Saints like Augustine to remind us of the words of the Letter to the Hebrews 

We are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. 

It is not old-fashioned, outdated, or superstitious for us to reach out to the great cloud of witnesses for help. On this feast of St. Augustine let each of us renew our belief that we are called to be holy, and let us renew our belief in the power of grace in our lives. 

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Empty Chair

In today's first reading we hear about the role of the judges in Israel. In our American culture the symbol of the judge is the bench.

For us in the Catholic Church, the parallel symbol for a bishop is his chair. We often use the Greek word Cathedra, or the Latin word Sedes. We call the building that houses the chair a Cathedral. And, somewhat confusingly, Sedes makes its way into English as See. So we have terms like the Holy See, to refer to the Chair of Peter occupied at present by Pope Francis.

The chair for us is not primarily a symbol of judging but of teaching. If you watch the Pope, you will notice that he sits to preach/teach.

When a bishop dies, we call it a Vacant See, meaning the chair sits empty.  Indeed,  in some Ancient Eastern Christian Churches the chair is interred with the Bishop.  In the Catholic Church, the chair in the Cathedral will officially sit empty until the 13th Bishop of Richmond is installed. During the installation mass, the Archbishop of the Province (in our case the Archbishop of Baltimore) and the Nuncio (as representative of the Pope) will escort the new Bishop to the chair. At that time the See will no longer be vacant.

Our Catholic language and symbols can seem strange even to those who have grown up Catholic. The strange language reminds us that we are talking about the spiritual not the worldly. And as physical beings we need symbols, tangible points of reference.

Between now and the installation of our new bishop, perhaps it would be good for those who can to make a visit to the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. As we look upon the empty chair, we pray for the last occupant of the chair, the Most Rev. Francis X. DiLorenzo, that he may be welcomed into the company of the saints; and we pray for the next occupant of the chair, to  be chosen with the help of the Holy Spirit to lead the faithful of the Diocese of Richmond.