Monday, February 28, 2011

What are we missing

In today's gospel we have the famous story of the rich young man who is told to sell all that he has. What is more fascinating is the unanswered question that the preceding sentence leaves us with.

In the preceding sentence Jesus says, "“You are lacking in one thing." But Jesus never tells us what this one thing is. He leaves us to reflect on the question. We get a hint from the fact that the next verse speak about how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven, but again never tells us why. One of the patterns that we can see as we look at the vocations crisis in country after country is that as the economy improves the number of vocations to the priesthood drops.

It strikes me that part of the answer to the question, what is he missing, may be a sense of need. It's the middle class American problem when it comes to birthdays or Christmas. We often don't know what to get someone because "They don't really need anything." When one is rich, one may have a list of things they want but rarely do they have a real sense that there is something they need, not even God.

Ash Wednesday is coming and in churches around the country we will sing the most arrogant song in our repertoire, Ashes, "We rise again from ashes from the good we fail to do, we rise again from ashes to create ourselves anew." We don't need God we can do it ourselves.

Lent has become about the health benefits of fasting, or giving up certain foods. The sense that it is about recognizing our sin, our need to do penance, our need for God's forgiveness has been all but lost.

The reality of today's gospel is that we are spiritual being and no matter what we have or achieve in the material world we still need God. We may not feel that spiritual need in the same way we feel our physical need but it is no less real. Perhaps that is the challenge, to tune into that spiritual hunger within us, so that we may truly acknowledge our need for God.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Simple but not easy

Today's first reading addresses one of the most timely pieces of wisdom, a simple call for civility in our speech.

A kind mouth multiplies friends and appeases enemies,and gracious lips prompt friendly greetings.

Why does it seem so hard for us and why do we refuse to recognize the seriousness of the use of words. It was Jesus who reminded us that it is what come out of our mouth that makes us unclean, not what goes in.

Egypt has shown us how words can be used for good, and we only need to turn our televisions to see how words in our own country are used to stir, anger, hatred, and violence,

We should however never forget that it has to start with us as individuals. The simple act of one day at a time, one interaction at a time, choosing the words that will speak the truth, but with love. And sometimes we just need to keep silent.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The sin we don't talk about

The first reading from Sirach today regards a sin about which we rarely speak any more, the sin of presumption.

Sirach warns us not only against trusting too much in our own wealth and power, but that it is also possible to trust too much in the mercy of God. At first, you may being asking how can we trust too much in the mercy of God.

What he is referring to is telling ourselves that because God loves us we don't have to worry about our sins. It is true that God's love and mercy are infinite and he will forgive any sin that we commit, but..

We must first of all have some contrition for the sin, which requires that we acknowledge that we have sinned. The sin of presumption is to go forward with our sin simply telling ourselves, "God loves me. God Is merciful. I can do whatever, and God will forgive me,"

Which of us would have ever believed that about our own mother or father? And what do we think of parents who let their kids get away with anything?

The Talmud captures the balance that we Christians continue to share. 'If I create the world with the attribute of mercy, sin will abound; and if I create it with the attribute of justice, how can the world survive? Therefore I create it with both attributes, mercy and justice, and may it thus endure'"

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Our basic stance

How do we see the world? If the goal of terrorism is to sow fear in the hearts of their enemies (which is why we call it terrorism), then it appears the 9/11 terrorists won. Beyond the two wars and billions spent on security, their most striking success seems to have been in the hearts and minds of the American people.

If you ask the average American today what is your basic attitude towards people in general, and particularly strangers, we find an anthropology that is not at all in line with our Christian faith.

In today's gospel we see the disciples approaching Jesus from a stance of fear and suspicion, feeling that they must stop anyone who they do not personally know, anyone who hasn't been properly checked out and approved.

Jesus on the other hand begins from a stance of trust, an "innocent until proven guilt" posture.

He who is not against us is for us.

Where is our starting point? Do we begin with a belief that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God? Do we believe that every human life is sacred? Do we believe that every person has a soul, and possesses God-given rights?

When the protests broke out in Egypt how many immediately jumped to the fear of some terrorist Islamic state on the rise?

Is there evil in the world? Yes. But will we let that evil shape the basic attitudes of our mind and heart, or will we continue to be shaped by the example of Christ.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Ben Sira

Today we begin reading, and will be reading for the next two weeks, from one of the books of the Bible that many are not familiar with. Some translations name the book Sirach, some call it Ecclesiasticus (not to be confused with Ecclesiastes), the wisdom of Ben Sira, or the Proverbs of Ben Sira.

In style it is similar to Proverbs, with one notable exception. While the Book of Proverbs is a collection of Proverbs gathered from various sources, it appears that this book was the work of one inspired author who was a scribe living in Jerusalem in the second century before the birth of Christ.

Being one of the Old Testament books we only have in Greek, as English speakers we should not read anything into the fact that wisdom is referred to as female. In Greek, like many other languages, nouns have gender. In German girl is neuter, in Spanish a dress is male. One will notice that the Church in the new English translation of the missal is referred to as female, because in Latin it is. It says something about how egocentric we are that we expect gender to be used in the rest of the world the same way we use it, and can get into fights over using the pronoun "He" to refer to God, in translations of documents written in Hebrew, Greek or Latin.

In these two weeks as we read the wisdom of Ben Sira, may we move in every aspect of our life beyond the superficial and seek true wisdom, found only in God.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


This morning at 10:30 we will ordain our latest class of transitional deacons. They are called transitional as opposed to permanent because they are being ordained deacons with an eye toward being ordained priests.

Someone recently asked why they had to be ordained deacons first, a reasonable questions. There are two parts to the answer.
One is of course the hierarchical structure Christ gave to the church.
Second and more importantly, in my opinion is our theology of orders.
Deacons are ordained to serve. The scriptural foundation of their ministry is service, particularly to the needy. Theirs is not a leadership role in the church. Recent church documents clarified this distinction between priestly and deacon ministry. Contrary to the common perception, deacons are not "mini-priests"', nor should these men today see their deaconate ordination as simply a step on the way to something better. The limited liturgical role they have is tied to the ministry of service, the meaning of the word diakonia.

Why are priest first ordained deacons? Before one can lead as a priest or bishop, even as the focus of one's ministry shifts when one is ordained priest or even bishop, it must always remain rooted in service. Even the Pope remains a deacon, one who is called to serve and not be served. One of the many titles that can be used by the Pope is Servus Servorum Dei , the Servant of the Servants of God.

We pray for these men and all those ordained deacons, that service may remain throughout their lives the foundation of their every word and work.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Development in understanding

While God does not change, and the gospel does not change, our understanding of both does over time change. With prayer and reflection our understanding develops and deepens.

People in defense of the death penalty will often quote today's first reading, "If anyone sheds the blood of man,by man shall his blood be shed."

This was for a primitive world in which the technology we had today did not exist. Pope John Paul II would go to an earlier story in Genesis as the foundation of our understanding. When Cain killed Abel, his own brother God forbid anyone to take his life, "If anyone kills Cain, Cain shall be avenged sevenfold." So the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest anyone should kill him at sight."

It is a reminder to us once more how simply playing pick a bible verse is not the best way to arrive at a true understanding of the Gospel. So how do we reconcile the conflicting texts on the death penalty.

The Catechism summarizes the argument this way.

Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically nonexistent."

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Life after Death

Today we read the story of Noah's ark. At first glance it can seem as destruction and punishment. In fact, if we look more closely, we see a story of love and second chances. Does it depict a God who is disappointed in his creation? Yes. Does it depict and vengeful God? No. If God were vengeful, he could have wiped away the whole thing and started over. He did not. Even those animals which are considered unclean are placed in the ark.

Throughout our history Christians have looked to the story of the flood as the precursor to the sacrament of baptism. In the waters of baptism we do die, but that is not the end. In the waters of baptism we die so that we can be reborn to a new and everlasting life. While we Catholics are less likely than some other Christians to talk about being born again, it is our theology of baptism.

This dying and rising is not a once in a lifetime event. As we begin to glimpse the coming of spring, we also begin to prepare for the coming of Lent. Three weeks from tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the time when we are called each year to die to self. If we are truly Christian, we must never be afraid of dying. On the contrary, we must constantly open ourselves to the power of God's grace to wash away in us everything that is not good, knowing that God as he did with the flood is always ready to give us a second chance.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Sts. Cyril and Methodius

While our culture celebrates Valentine's Day with candy and flowers, we celebrate something much more profound. Today we celebrate two brothers from the ninth century who shaped not only the faith but also the language and culture of a significant portion of what we know as Eastern Europe.

Cyril and Methodius became known the apostles to the Slavs. Needing to find a way to translate the bible and other texts in the local languages of the people they created an alphabet. In its older form known as the Gaigolitic alphabet, it is known in its modern form as the Cyrillic alphabet and is used today is over 25 languages, and Church Slovonic still used by many Eastern Churches.

In the west we tend to thing of mass in the language of the people as something modern. The saints we celebrate today reminds us that the church has a long history of translating the gospel as needed to carry out its mission to "go forth and teach all nations." As we celebrate the saints of the past, we must ask ourselves how we can remain faithful to the tradition and simultaneously translate the gospel into a language that can be understood.

In the first reading today we get the famous story of Cain and Abel. If we look closely at this theological text we see how error can grow into sin. The story recounts how it began when Cain, being a farmer, offered some of his produce to God, and Abel offered one of his best firstlings. God was pleased with Abel and not Cain but it is worth noting that so far there was no sin on Cain's part.

The seed of the sin is the resentment Cain feels. Instead of saying, "I messed up, and God is not happy with me." Cain resents Abel's success.
God's words to Cain are profound, "If you do well, you can hold up your head; but if not, sin is a demon lurking at the door: his urge is toward you, yet you can be his master.”

At this point Cain could have simply accepted his mistake, learned, from it, and made a better choice for his next offering; but he did not. He allowed his anger and resentment fester, and we know the rest of the story.

God tells us that when it comes to sin, we can be its master. We will always have moments of temptation; they are a part of human life. Sin comes from how we choose to react to that temptation. The sooner we recognize the temptation and respond appropriately the better. Let that flash of anger be that, just a flash and nothing more. The same should be true with resentment, jealousy, greed for things we don't need, and all those other feelings that lead us away from the shalom God wants for all of us.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Male and female he created them

Critics of religion will at times used terms like male dominated and patriarchal to describe the bible. In fact the world as set forth in genesis was far from that reality. The creation story tells us that they were created "ish" and "ishah,"equal counterparts of a single humanity.

It is not until after the fall, according to genesis, that this balance is distorted.

Yet your urge shall be for your husband,and he shall be your master.

The subjection of women to men, like death, is seen as one of the many results of the entry of sin into the world, not the world as God would have it to be.

In these days we pray for the people of Egypt, a country that is 90% Muslim and 10% Christian. We saw the two groups work together to give birth to a peaceful revolution, but now the real work begins, the shaping of a new country.

Two of pressing questions will be the place of women and the place of religion, let us pray that both will be truly free in the new Egypt.

Monday, February 7, 2011

On Vacation

I'm on vacation until Friday with bad wifi. Entries will resume on Saturday.

-Fr. Wayne Ball

Friday, February 4, 2011


When we think of hospitality we often think of the invited guest. The biblical notion goes far beyond that. The perfect model is traced back to Abram and Sarah. According to the ancient law , the host would go out to meet the stranger on his way, and would ask no questions as to his name and condition until his first needs had been satisfied (Gen. xxiv. 33). While the guest was in the home, they were to be protected and treated as a member of the family.

Let brotherly love continue.Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels.

As economic stresses cause all of us to draw in and become more focused on self, can we hold this ideal in our hearts as we debate the great issues of poverty, homelessness, and immigration, just to name a few.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

St. Blaise

Today we celebrate an Armenian Bishop and Martyr. Born in the 3rd century , he is known by most Catholics for the blessing of throats that is given today through his intercession. Why St. Blaise for throats and why do we use candles?

When we examine the earliest records of the life of St. Blaise, the most famous of the stories is the story of St. Blaise healing of a person with a bone stuck in their throat. This was by no means the only healing associated with his ministry, but was the story that gained the most long-lasting fame.

What do the candles have to do with this? In reality, nothing. The candles traditionally used in the blessing of throats are not linked to St. Blaise, but to yesterday's feast of the Presentation. Also known as Candlemas Day, February 2 has traditionally been the day for the blessing of candles, the symbol of Jesus Christ as the light of the world. It was based on this blessing of candles that the tradition grew up of using the newly blessed candles on February 3 to bless throats.

Once more we see how our church's liturgical cycle corresponds to the natural cycle of our world in the northern hemisphere. While February is the shortest month of the year, emotionally it can seem like the longest: gray cold,and dark. By the first of February most of us are yearning for the end of winter, and the coming of the light of spring. Cold, sore throats and flus make it an even more difficult time.

These celebrations on February 2 and 3 are signs of hope, reminders to us that Christ is the life, and the light that the darkness cannot overcome. The blessing of throats also reminds us that one of the powerful gifts that God has given to us is the gift of speech. As we pray for the intercession of St. Blaise to heal illness of the throat we also pray that we will choose to use that gift to speak words of faith, words of hope, words of love, and words of light.