Monday, April 30, 2012

Redefining the Church

We can forget that during Jesus's lifetime disciples remained within the framework of the Jews faith. Jesus and his disciples would have thought of themselves as faithful observant Jews. He came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it.

In today's first reading we reach one of the great turning points in our history. While we think of Paul as "the Apostle to the Gentiles" today we hear the story of the vision that led Peter to a new understanding of his faith.
It is difficult for us to grasp the radical nature of this change. Peter would have spent his entire life believing that there was clean and unclean food would have no more eaten unclean food than you or I would eat rats. He would have had it engrained in his being that it was not only unclean but immoral.

It was only his absolute faith in Jesus that opened his heart to see the world in a new way, and be willing to abandon his lifelong preconceived notions.
Do we have that same faith, that same love. That willingness to let go, and surrender our lives to God's will no matter where it leads?

Friday, April 27, 2012


We all know well the story of Saul on the Road to Damascus. We all probably have some image that come immediately to mind. Often it is the unbiblical one with the horse.(The bible makes no mention of a horse)

A person whose name we should know better than we do, however, is Ananias. Ananias had heard he stories he knew that revealing himself as a follower of Jesus to Saul would literally put his life at risk, and yet he went. He went in search of Saul, he calls him brother, and is willing to trust that the change is real. He allows for the possibility of real conversion in Saul's life.

I remember growing up hearing sayings like, "A leopard can't change his spots." It never dawned on me as a child the number of ways that metaphor fails. First, a leopard is not a human. Secondly, spots are a physical characteristic, not a part of the character. Thirdly, and most important for us as Christians, the expression, when applied to people, denies the power of God's grace.

Ananias had the kind of real faith that gave him courage. He could easily have been walking into a trap that would cost him his life, but he went. He trusted in the power of God's grace. He believed that real change was possible. And he had enough real love in his heart to summon up the courage to give Saul a chance.

Perhaps St. Ananias is worth a closer look.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

A New model

St. Philip should be the patron saint for all those involves in RCIA teams.

Since Vatican II parishes around the country have set up teams of people to run what is most often referred to as RCIA (the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults). Intended as a process solely for those who were unbaptized, for years anyone seeking entry into the church was thrown into it regardless of their religious background. In most places a life-long Anglican and a person who never went to church were marched through the same process. With the best intentions, we lost sight of the fact that each person's journey of faith is unique. It is an individual journey in the context of a community.

This reading from Acts provides with the best model.
The Ethiopian is not some poor ignorant slave. He is the queen's treasurer. He can read.
Philip doesn't presume to tell him what he needs to learn; he begins the conversation with a question, ""Do you understand what you are reading?" it is a question that seeks to understand the person, and seeks to open a dialogue.

After some instruction, the Ethiopian asks the even more important question, "What is to prevent my being baptized?" in other words, is there a genuine impediment?

Sometimes there can be. Sometimes people are simply not ready to embrace the gospel and the challenges it poses. Sometime people are not ready to change their lives. But Philip reminds us that we should not make it more difficult than necessary for one to receive the grace of baptism.

We have just celebrated the sacraments at the Easter Vigil and are beginning the cycle anew, perhaps we need to start with St. Philip, pray for us.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Baby Steps

They threw him out of the city, and began to stone him. The witnesses laid down their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul.

Today we have the story of the stoning of St. Stephen and Saul, later St. Paul,the instigator. In some ways he is worse than your average member of the crowd. He is a pious man, a learned man, and is was the one who, having railed up the crowd, doesn't want to get his own hands dirty. It is no wonder that when he shows up later claiming to be a follower of Jesus the Church is reticent to believe him. He is complicit in the murder of our first recorded martyr.

How does some reach this level of sin?

No one is born evil. My mother kept more than 100 foster children over her lifetime. We all help in caring for the mostly newborns until they were adopted, While each early on shows signs of unique personality, babies are all fundamentally the same in their wants and needs. When I see people as adults capable of true evil, I always remind myself that they were once someone's toddler, and wonder what happened to warp them so.

There is a detail in today's reading that caught my attention only because of conversations with my dentist. The reading says they ground their teeth. According to my dentist, I'm a grinder. Lots of us are; we have night guards to keep us from grinding in our sleep. The curious fact my dentist pointed out is that if we grind in our sleep we also do it when we are awake, often without being aware of it. Little by little left unchecked we can destroy our teeth.

As Christians we believe that sin is a human act; it requires knowledge and will. You can unknowingly do a bad thing, but it isn't sin unless you know it and freely choose it.mBut Saul did not simple wake up one day and say today I will participate in murder.

Most serious sin in our lives is like tooth grinding. It starts off with very small, sometimes imperceptible, evil. It can be something as simple as an idea or attitude that we pick up from our friends and family. By itself it can appear harmless, but left unchecked it slowly degrades our morality until we can choose to commit sin and hardly be disturbed by it.

We may never murder but murder is not the only serious sin.

How did Saul get to the point he could stand by unflinchingly and watch a man be stoned to death? One small step at a time over a lifetime.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Importance of Work

Do not work for food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life

If we look at 21st century American culture is there any aspect of life more central than work? With our advances in technology it is possible for many of us to work from any location including home. The downside of this is that the boundaries that used to separate and define work as distinct from the rest of our life have all but vanished. Phone calls, email, and texts, follow us everywhere.

While some workplaces cling to the antiquated discouraging of workplace relationships, the folks at Gallup will tell you that most modern relationships on any level are work based and the response to the statement, "I have a best friend at work" is a key measure of productivity and successful management.

Even if we wanted to, we could not return to the romanticized 1950's with work neatly contained and separated from family and friends, and our social and spiritual life. We must live in the world we have, in the best way possible.

First we should recall the real purpose of work. In Laborem Exercens, the Holy Father wrote, " As a person he[the human person] works, he performs various actions belonging to the work process; independently of their objective content, these actions must all serve to realize his humanity, to fulfil the calling to be a person that is his by reason of his very humanity."

It is not simple black and white. Work in itself is a good. Work is more than just a way to earn money, in work we realize, make real and visible, our humanity. Work cannot be an end in itself it must be linked to three dimensions of human life: the dignity of the worker, the building up of the family, and of society.

We must, however, search for balance in our lives. Each day there must be those times when we make the choice to unplug, to disconnect from our work. We need to truly spend time with God, to truly spend time with our friends and family, to eat, to exercise, to sleep. The Book of Genesis speaks of us having dominion over the earth, perhaps we must focus more narrowly on reclaiming dominion over our own lives.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Absolute confidence

Today we read of one of the greatest teachers in the Jewish tradition, Gamaliel.
The truth he proclaims isn't specific to Christianity or Judaism but is a fundamental truth above any particular faith.

For if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself.
But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them;

Despite persecution from without, and sandal and division from within the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church has survived.

Proof that this endeavor comes from God.

There are few things in life I am absolute sure if but this is one.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Above it all

Today's gospel opens with, "the one who comes from above is above all."

John more than any other gospel emphasizes Jesus's existence, not just from his birth, or conception, but from before the creation of the world. Jesus is the one who comes down from above.

Being a people who love the idea of democracy we naturally buck at the notion of anyone being above anyone else. We take a simple preposition that denotes location (above), and attach all sorts of positive and negative connotations to it. We see higher as better and yet in the name of equality we try and tear down anyone who appears to be higher.

If you want to see this in action, simply raise the topic of the Church being built by Christ as an hierarchical institution. We like the image of the church "built of living stone" but if you say it is built UP, that there is verticality to it, some people go wild. They don't want a building; they want a patio so all the stone are level. They confuse equality and sameness.

Height is a good thing; it gives perspective. When we live at ground level we can get lost in the weeds. We can only see what immediately surrounds us and act as if the part of the world I can see is all there is.

Any planning model recognizes that in any organization leaders must be raised up so there can be vision and perspective: the 50,000 ft view, 40,000 ft view, etc. Leaders need to be raised up and sustained, to build a future. We cannot continue to tear down our leaders to ground level and then complain about the lack of vision. Jesus knew what he was doing when he designed his Church, when he built it up, with himself at the the top.

Jesus is above all, we are told in today's gospel. Not that he is distant from us but he see our world, our history, our individual lives from a perspective that we can hardly imagine. Like the star that guided the wise men, we too must have the humility to look up and be willing to follow. We must be willing to admit that from where we stand we never really see the whole picture. Only God sees that.

Perhaps recognizing the limitation of our own view is the first step toward real wisdom.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Preferring darkness to light

Today's gospel says the people preferred darkness to light. It's an interesting use of the light and dark because normally humans fear the dark and are biologically wired to need and want light. The reading explains this reversal by saying that they did this "because their works were evil."

This takes to a much deeper point. How do we understand basic human nature? Human nature from the Catholic perspective was created, as Genesis said, "very good." We are created to be, as it were, children of the light.

For us original sin did not destroy that goodness. In the words of the Catechism:

...human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin - an inclination to evil that is called concupiscence."

In John's gospel we hear today not that they were evil, but that their works were evil, a significant distinction.

Original sin may have wounded us, but Christ's death and resurrection heals that wound. Original sin may have created in us an inclination to sin, but Christ has set us free. Christ restores the true natural order of things. Humans as God intended us to be.

Why is this so critical? Because I believe we live up to, or down to, the expectation. If we are told we are bad, if we believe deep down we are bad, we will do bad.

We baptize our children as soon as possible after they are born. It is then our responsibility to raise them to understand who they are because of that grace. But before we can teach it to the young people we have to believe it about ourselves.

We are the children of light. In the deepest part of your heart do you belief that?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Christian Economics

The community of believers was of one heart and mind,
and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own,
but they had everything in common.

So opens todays first reading which goes on to explain how they sold their possessions and the apostles distributed them according to need.

Is this an idealized presentation? Most likely, but the principle remains true. There is a moral obligation on those who have to care for those who have not.

You may respond, "What about my right to private property, my right to buy and own things?

That right like all rights is limited.

In the words of the Catechism:

2403 The right to private property, acquired or received in a just way, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise.

2404 "In his use of things man should regard the external goods he legitimately owns not merely as exclusive to himself but common to others also, in the sense that they can benefit others as well as himself."188 The ownership of any property makes its holder a steward of Providence, with the task of making it fruitful and communicating its benefits to others...

We hear little talk about the common good anymore. All we seem to hear is discussion of individual rights.

At the very center of our understanding of the human person is that we were created to live in community, one with our God and one with our brothers and sister. Balancing the right to private property with the common good is not always easy. Perhaps our annual reading of the Acts of the Apostles will help each of us to remember not only our individual rights, but our common responsibilities.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Born Again Catholics

At first the term sounds odd but shouldn't. Jesus and in fact all of the authors of the new testament use a variety of images taken from ordinary life to try and express the mysteries that are the Christian faith.

Throughout the history of Christianity different groups have chosen to focus on specific one without denying the power of the others. The Second Vatican Council, whose 50th anniversary we are about to celebrate, chose the People of God and the Body of Christ as focal points to describe the Church.

We tend in the 21st century to think Evangelical Christians when we hear the term "born-again." In fact, the term is equally applicable to other Christians including Catholics.

As we see in today's gospel it comes from the third chapter of John and his conversation with Nicodemus. It is a classic example from John's gospel where practically everything has at least two meanings.

The word translated "again" in the phrase "born again", can also be translated "from above." The phrase has a double meaning one must be "born again" or "born from above." This double meaning is what sets up the confusion of Nicodemus
"How can a man once grown old be born again? Surely he cannot reenter his mother's womb and be born again, can he?"

And the opportunity for Jesus to explain that what he is referring to is birth by "water and Spirit" , the Holy Spirit which comes from above.

The rebirth to which Jesus refers is the rebirth we have all experienced in Baptism. Every baptized Christian is a born-again Christian. And we are called to live not out old life, but the new life we received from above.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Doubt is not the problem.

We tend to refer to him as doubting Thomas but if in fact all he did was doubt that could have been a virtue. Doubt can be the impetus for life-long learning.
The question that constantly seeks an answer.
Fides quaerens intellectum.
Faith seeking understanding, the motto of St. Anselm.

To understand the real problem with Thomas we need to stop and think about how we distinguish what we know from what we believe, statements of fact and statements of faith.

The word fact comes from the word to do or to make in Latin. Thomas wants facts. He wants to see with his own eyes, touch with his own hands.

Statements of faith on the other hand are things we accept as true because we trust the source from which we received them: a teacher, a book, a website. In reality most of what we think we know, we actually believe.

I believe the planet mercury exists and is closest to the sun.
I have not seen it with my own eyes.
I believe Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence.
I was not there and did not see it happen.

Imagine how ignorant we would be if we refused to accept as true any piece of information we had not personally verified.

Thomas' vice was not doubt but distrust, distrust which reflects a deeper egocentrism.

If I declare myself to be the only one fit to judge what is true, how arrogant am I? If I trust no one but myself, how egocentric have I become?

The word disciple means student, and education at its heart is a trust exercise. We trust the book. We trust the teachers. Or we make ourselves the sole judge of truth, and remain in our ignorance.

Thankfully Jesus forgave Thomas, and today we call him St. Thomas.
But remember we are told more importantly. Blessed are they who have not seen, but believe.

Blessed are we when we are willing to trust that there are others who know more, and learn from them.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Why a pope?

Today we hear the appearance story where Jesus gives Peter not only an instruction about fishing, but in John's gospel a sentence that defines in the most simple terms the the role of the pope.

So Simon Peter went over and dragged the net ashore full of one hundred fifty-three large fish. Even though there were so many, the net was not torn.

It was the common understanding at that time that 153 was the number that represent the number of species of fish. In other words, the net included everyone.

Most importantly the net was not torn. Jesus knew that after his ascension the greatest challenge was going to be to hold the community together. It would be simple it all he wanted was a nominal kind of unity where everyone preached and believed whatever.

The role of the apostles and Peter in particular was to not only hold the church together as it grew but to hold fast to the message of Jesus, even the unpopular parts. From generation to generation what is popular has and will continue to change like fashion.

Today we pray for the successors to the apostles, the bishops, who struggle with that same mission, to re-articulate the gospel in the language of the day, allowing those non-essentials to change, while holding fast the unchangeable truth of the Good News. It is never simple, that is why we trust that the Holy Spirit is there to help restore the net that has been torn.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

It doesn't mean what you think it means

Today's gospel ends with "You are witnesses of these things."

What is most interesting is to see how the meaning of the word witness has changed over time.

Every language borrows words from other languages. The English word witness refers to one having "wit" that is "knowledge" of an event. We have however, also kept the biblical Greek word for witness, but with a somewhat different meaning. The Greek word is martyr.

When we hear the word martyr we think of death. The word took on it's special meaning over time because a willingness to die for one's faith was seen as the ultimate testimony to one's faith. Again it bears repeating that for Christians martyrdom never meant killing someone else.

What all of this reminds us of is the fact that being a witness to our faith is not simply a matter of words. To be a true witness in the Christian sense requires both action and sacrifice. We give the clearest testimony by the example we live. If you were to look back, say, at yesterday, how would you evaluate the testimony you gave of the presence of Christ in your life?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

How old is Mass?

When I walked into my first Catholic Church at age 16, I was taken by the visual aspects: the windows, the candles, the vestments, the architecture of the building itself. One of the things our church has understood is that human beings use their senses to take in information and so our liturgy developed in ways that use all five of our senses: taste, touch, sight, sound and smell.

But when we strip the mass down to its most basic structure we see that we can trace it back all the way to the Emaus story in the gospel of Luke. First Jesus explains the scriptures to them. The first half of Mass we call the Liturgy of the Word. Then he took the bread, blessed it, broke it, gave it to his disciples. What does that sound like? It is the classic formula for the consecration of the Eucharist, the second half of Mass.

In a single gospel story we see the heart of what we Christians gather day after day, week after week to celebrate. In short, we call it mass.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Mary, Mary on the contrary

This week we hear a great deal about Mary of Magadala, probably the most unjustly maligned woman in the New Testament. All because of one unfortunate mistake in one homily. In a homily from the year 561 Pope Gregory the Great conflates three women in the Bible as if they were one: Mary of Bethany, Mary magdalene, and the sinful woman in Luke.

This error has been past down from generation to generation. Perhaps Wnston Churchhill was correct when he said, "A lie can make it half way around the world before the truth can put its pants on."

While this was an error not a lie it does seem to reveal that there is something in us that likes to hear the worst about others. Much of our "news" and other programs seem to thrive on gossip.

The more I reflect on it the more i wonder if it isn't an unconscious way of making us feel better about ourselves. When others are torn down, we are de facto in a higher position.

Thankfully for Mary of Magdala's reputation Pope Paul VI, without attacking his predecessor, gently corrected the error. Perhaps as we begin the Easter season it is time for us to take a new look at some people we may have misjudged in our lives.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The perfect balance

Today's gospel from Saint Matthew continues to prepare us for the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus. At the same time it addresses one of the great struggles of the Christian faith, the interaction between God knowing the future, there being a divine plan, and free will.

Throughout history we have seen people erroneously set it up as an either/or situation. The gospel today reminds us that we hold all three propositions to be true. God knows the future. There is a divine plan. And human beings have and exercise free will, often making choices that go contrary to God's will. We call it sin.

God knowing what choices I am going to make does not make them any less free. What it does allow is that he has already created the plan in such a way that it can take into account all of the choices that all of us will make.

In the words of today's gospel,

The Son of Man indeed goes, as it is written of him,
but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed.

The first line reminds us of the plan. The second reminds us that the choice of Judas to betray Jesus was not the will of God, but sin for which Judas will be held accountable.

It is ridiculous to say when someone is murdered, "It must have been God's will" God never wills sin. God can; however, transform the sin. Just as he transformed the betrayal and murder of his only-begotten son into a source of eternal life.

What we call the past, the present, and the future is part of a single known reality to God, and his plan for humanity has already accounted for every variable. It only makes sense therefore that each day we wake up with one simple petition. Thy will be done.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

It all works out

Sometimes we can loose site of the fact that the gospels like all writing, while divinely inspired, shows the perspective of the human author. Each author paints a different portrait if Jesus. Were they meant to be mere dry historical accounts, why would God have inspired more than one?
This past Sunday we read Mark where Jesus is mostly the silent lamb. Today we continue to read John. For John Jesus is always on top of the situation. Even with his betrayal he gets the last word,

What you are going to do, do quickly

It is a command.

Taken out of context one could look at John's gospel and deny the existence of free will. The devil made him do it. But this is why we read the New Testament as a whole and do not simply cherry pick verses to suit us at the moment.

The point John is making is that on a higher level it all works out. While today each of us will make truly free choices, God already knows the choices we will make. And in the end even the bad choices can have good consequences. Judas set himself on the road to betrayal long before the night of the Lord's Supper. It was not simply a single choice It was the culmination of a series of choices.

The good news it that God could weave even that most evil of choices into the larger tapestry in such a way as make it part of the Good News. If he could do that with the evil of Judas, imagine what he can do in our world today,

Monday, April 2, 2012


On this Monday of Holy Week, the gospel takes us back to the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. It was only in my seminary days that a professor first pointed out that, contrary to the movies, not all of Jesus followers we poor. The fact that they have this container of oil worth 300 days wages tells us something about their economic status. The fact is that even in its earliest days Jesus' message was directed to and attractive to people of every economic level. a careful reading of the gospel will show that a number of his followers were well off.

The center of today's gospel is; however, the character of Judas. We learn today that he is the treasurer of the group and was stealing from the common purse. He then makes a disingenuous complaint about the oil that it could have been sold and the money given to the poor. While the theft is a bit of an aside, in John's gospel, the focus is the vice of dishonesty, the lack of authenticity in his professed concern for the poor. In truth he is only concerned for himself, and how he can accumulate more wealth for himself. We know ultimately where this will lead, but today we see the early steps.

At the heart of all sins is in some way the vice of self-centeredness. And for those who call themselves religious with sin there is always that lack of authenticity, where our words and actions do not correspond to the faith we hold in our minds and hearts.

On this Monday of Holy Week we are invited to look at our own hearts to see even the small ways we remain self-centered, to acknowledge those places where we struggle for true authenticity, so that our every word and action reflects our faith in Jesus Christ.