Monday, September 17, 2018

What awful bread

When children are preparing for first communion, often parishes let them taste unconsecrsted bread and wine.  Yuk! Is usually the response to the wine. And they bread they don’t find that much better. If you’re wondering why the bread we use for communion is nothing but flour and water, you answer is found in today’s first reading from chapter 11 of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. 

From the letter it appears that in the beginning the Christians did gather on Sunday for a real feast, lots of food and too much drink. Everyone one would bring the equivalent of a picnic and have a great time. And as we read in his letter Paul put a stop to it. Why?

Because as we read,

When you meet in one place, then, it is not to eat the Lord’s supper, for in eating, each one goes ahead with his own supper, and one goes hungry while another gets drunk.

He then instructs them to get back to the foundation of the celebration of the Eucharist.  

the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my Body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my Blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.

It is from these words and the words of the gospel descriptions that the Church over time constructed the very simple Litrugy of the Eucharist that we celebrate in the Catholic Church. The elements: bread made only from flour and water, and unadulterated grape wine. In mass the Liturgy of the Eucharist is preceded by the Liturgy of the Word. 

For those who wish Church looked more like a party or a rock concert, blame the Corinthians. 

Sunday, September 16, 2018

The turn from self

For those who believe that we are saved by faith alone, I would point you to the words of St. James in today’s second reading,

So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 

Our liturgy is practice for life.  From the very first sign of the cross at mass we are called to combine words with actions. And this week, the action the gospel calls us to focus on is self-denial. 

We live in a culture obsessed with increasing pleasure and avoiding pain. One need only look at the opioid epidemic to see where the inability to embrace pain can lead.

As Christians there are two kinds of suffering. 

The first is the unavoidable, those things that happen to us over which we have no control: a medical condition, the loss of a loved one, for example. For these we know that rather than deny, or try to escape, we hold on tight to Christ and His body, the Church. And in faith we know that we, together, will get through and the pain can be transformed into a channel of God’s grace. 

The second form of suffering is the one that St. Peter in the gospel cannot comprehend. It is the truest imitation of Christ. It is the suffering, the self-denial, that we freely choose. 

In the gospel Jesus does not say “put up with your cross.” His command is “take up your cross.” Jesus chose of his own free will, to take up the cross, suffer and die; not for any personal benefit but for the benefit of others— selfless, freely chosen, suffering. That is what Peter could not comprehend, and is perhaps even less compressible in our culture that is centered on the self and our comfort. 

It is not just during Lent that we are called upon to take up our crosses. In the gospel of St. Luke he adds the word “daily.” Every single day, each time our minds drift toward ourselves, we are called to turn away from self, to turn outward and upward. 

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Dealing with the Past

We follow the celebration of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross with the celebration of Our Lady of Sorrows. Any parent who has lost a child can tell you; there is no greater pain.  And so, we look to Mary as the model, the one human being who can truly understand when we are in pain.  

Last night here in Richmond we gathered at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, a mostly aptly named church. And we prayed for healing. Some may say, “What good does that do? You can’t change the past.” And they would be half right. 

We human beings live our lives in space and time. We live in a linear fashion. Our minds wander to the past and the future. Which one of us does not have something in the past that we would change if we could? But we are trapped in the now.  We cannot go back. We cannot even see what lies ahead. We are propelled forward by faith, hope, and curiosity regarding what is to come.

God, however, is not like us. God is not bound by either time or space. God is not only omnipotent (all-powerful); God is also omnipresent.  God is everywhere at every time. What we human beings think of as the past or the future is all present to God, and all within God’s command. 

Can the past be changed? We need only look to the words of Jesus in St. Matthew’s Gospel;

For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.

God who exists beyond the limits of space and time can reach back in time and redeem the wounds of the past. He can heal. He can restore all things to wholeness. The only limitation to God’s power is our own God-given free will. 

We must open our hearts fully before God. Like Our Lady of Sorrows we must stand at the foot of the cross and fearlessly pour out our pain, our fear, our anger. all the emotions that keep us from experiencing healing. And when we have poured it all out at the foot of the cross God can then fill that empty space with Grace. 

Yes, Mary, as any mother would, wept at the horrible death of her son. But she also rejoiced at his resurrection. Today we pray for all who are trapped in sorrow, especially those who feel as if the pain will ever end. We pray with absolute confidence in God’s power to touch, to heal, to restore. 

Friday, September 14, 2018

Why Atone?

Tonight at 7 PM in our Cathedral, the Bishop of Richmond, will celebrate a mass of atonement. In a gesture that is a liturgical aberration, the priests are asked to not concelebrate but to sit in the pews as if we were laity, and the bishop will celebrate mass without any of the insignia of his office. This will be accompanied by other penitential gestures. 

Some will call it show.Some will ask why should we participate, what do we have to atone for, we didn’t abuse children or cover it up. The anger is real and deep, and the question deserves an answer. 

To answer the question we need only look at the word atone.  It doesn’t come from Latin or Greek. It is a truly English word, a contraction for “at one.” Something that was once united has been broken. Something must be done to heal the break, to make it whole, to restore the unity. To atone is to do what is necessary to make it one again, to be “at one.”

At every level of the Church the unity has been broken. Many of the laity look at the clergy with suspicion and distrust. Priests look at their bishop and wonder if he covered something up or will he throw them under the bus to save himself. Bishops and Cardinals attack the Pope, even when it was his predecessors who promoted the bishops in question. The Church is fractured like a piece of glass. 

The original act of atonement was of course that of Jesus Christ. Did he suffer and die on the cross to make reparations for His sin? Of course not. He suffered an agonizing death for the sins of others, for the sins of all, for our sin. 

The Church, as St. Paul tells us is a single body with Christ as the head. What happens to one part effects the entire body. It is because of that unity that the death of one is able to save all. 

We know that we are called to imitate Christ. This means more than being nice. It means that, like Jesus, we must, of our own free will, embrace acts of penance, not just for our own sin but for the sins of others within the Church, other members of the body. 

Many of those who abused and those who covered it up are now dead. There is no penance they can do, no earthly punishment that can be inflicted on them. But we who are alive can walk in the footsteps of Christ. We can offer ourselves up.  We can take up the cross and follow him. 

Tonight in our Cathedral it will feel much like Good Friday. And that certainly seems to be where we are a Church, probably where we are called to live for some time to come. And we need to live there for a while because the only path to Easter is through Good Friday. There is no way around. 

Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself take up his cross and follow me. 

No one is naive enough to believe that a Mass of Atonement is going to fix the problem, but it is the right place to start. If we truly believe that the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life” then where better to start than with the Eucharist. If the bishop is the visible sign of unity then who better to celebrate the mass than him. 

In John’s gospel before Jesus goes to his death for us, he utters his great prayer for the unity of the Church. Now we must pray for that unity. In our prayer let us offer up our hurt, our anger, our frustration, our disappointment. Let us lay it all at the foot of the cross. And in the original sense of the word, let us do it as one, in the power of the one Holy Spirit, that the unity of our fractured Church be restored. 

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Right to Judge

For 18 years I have served as a judge in the tribunal of my diocese. More than once I have been asked “Who gives you the right to judge?” The answer is found squarely in the first reading for Monday’s mass. 

In a scene right out of modern daytime television a man is described as living with his father’a wife. Whether it is cohabitation or whether he is married to her, we do not know. What we are sure of is that St. Paul condemned it and pronounced sentence. 

I, for my part, although absent in body but present in spirit, have already, as if present, pronounced judgment on the one who has committed this deed

He does not say “God has pronounced judgement”. He uses the pronoun “I.”  He not only pronounced judgement but imposed the most severe penalty, excommunication. 

The one who did this deed should be expelled from your midst. 

Over time the Church developed a system for exercising this role of judging and appropriately punishing her members. Much of the world today can thank the Church for its judicial system of laws, tribunals, advocates, judges,assessors, and notaries. They continue to use the structures that the Church adapted from the Romans. 

Sadly, in the latter half of the previous century, following the council. we ceased exercising the judicial function in the Church and even today in many places our tribunals are relegated to dealing only with marriage. 

In Tuesday’s first reading St. Paul chastises Christians for taking each other to civil court, instead of handling their disputes within the Church. Sadly, we now find ourselves in a position where because the Church abdicated her judicial responsibility in the matter of abuse, the civil authorities are being called in to do what we should have done. 

Perhaps this will be the time when the Church will make the necessary reforms to our own system.  As Pope Francis has called to make the system more available to people for marriage cases, let us teach the people of God all of the matters that they can bring to a tribunal. And create some protection for judges and other tribunal personnel who currently serve at the whim of the local bishop.  

Our current Code of Canon Law was promulgated in 1983. Imagine if, even beginning that year. laity, religious, deacons  and priests in the Church could have brought their charges to a panel of judges to be heard, the accused been properly tried, and if convicted, punished. Imagine if the system had allowed a bishop to be accused and tried. Would people have sued diocese after diocese? 

Yes, the gospels tell us that as individuals we are not to judge. But as a Church unless we begin to judge more than marriage, we will be severely judged by the world.  

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Sin of omission

In today’s gospel, we encounter the story of the master who gave coins to each of three servants.. To one he gave five, to one two and to one he gave one. 
As we know, the last one did nothing with coin he was given.

Why? Because he was afraid. His fear kept him from doing anything.

As we deal with the current crisis there are those who love to cook up complex conspiracy theories. But the answer to why many people who knew things did nothing is very simple. They were afraid, afraid to displease their superiors, afraid to tell the “people at the top” anything they didn’t want to hear. 

This behavior is not unique to the Catholic Church. We can look around and find countless examples of organizations where the same is true. A scandal erupts and after some investigation it is discovered that a host of people up and down the chain knew something but said nothing for fear of the blowback. It’s human to behave this way. 

The gospel today reminds us, however, just how wrong it is. The servant who did nothing is severely punished. They are commanded:

throw this useless servant into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth

As we deal with the current crisis in the Church there is much that needs to be said out loud, and there have been and will be a host of meetings at various levels. But how many people will say the things that need to be said? And how many of us will be the useless servants who sit in silence out of fear?

Yes, we all need to find our courage. But there must also be a systematic, an environmental change. 

Our bishops must, in the words of Pope Francis, “smell like sheep”. They must be accessible. The current system in too many places where the pastor talks to the dean, who talks to the vicar, who talks to the bishop, has proven that it does not work.  In the days before modern communication it was necessary. Now there no excuse. 

But all of the access in the world will not help unless the people no longer have to be afraid. Unless people can feel that their leaders are willing to hear hard truth. 

This can happen one of two ways. Either bishops themselves can make it clear they will listen and not punish. 
Or, there will have to be some protections imposed from outside. 

The servant in today’s gospel was paralyzed by fear. In 1 John we are told that

Perfect love casts out fear

We must do everything in our power to make the Church a place where laity, deacons, priests, and bishops can speak without fear. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Patron for bishops

Today the Church celebrates St. Augustine, Bishop and Doctor, and it is my honor to currently pastor a parish dedicated to his honor. 

The story of St. Augustine as it is usually told involves him living a rather debaucherous life and his mother St. Monica praying for his conversion which eventually happened. Tehnrpoblem is not with how we tell the story up to the conversion, but how we like to imagine the story after. 

We like to imagine that after his conversion he was totally transformed. His life post-conversion was as the perfect Christian, the perfect bishop.That version, as pretty as it may be, robs his teaching of its power. 

The real bishop St. Augustine was profoundly aware of his own brokenness, not only before but after his conversion. He did not try to hide or deny his sin and constant struggle with temptation. His personal struggles shaped his, and ultimately the Church’s, understanding of sin and how it operates in the human heart. He moved the focus of blame for sin from outside to inside the human person.

The good news is, he also  understood our absolute dependence on God’s grace in the struggle against sin. He believed in our ability with God’s help to live, not a sin free, but a good moral life.

On this Feast of St. Augustine, let us pray that he may be an example to all Bishop and church leaders.