Tuesday, December 29, 2015

a matter of principle

Today the Church celebrates probably the most renounced martyr in the English speaking world. Thomas Becket who on this day in 1170 was murdered at Cantebury. Many books and movies recount the events leading up to his murder, but little attention is paid to his beginnings.

We Catholics can forget that seminaries as we know them arose out of the reforms of the Council of Trent in the 16th century. Until that time education leading to ordination was varied and would have often resembled apprenticeship.

Thomas's father was a propertied man who fell on hard times and so Thomas ended up a clerk. It was from the position of clerk in the household of the Archbishop of Cantebury that he rose to position of Archbishop himself. What makes Thomas a great model is that while many rise from obscurity to power by doing whatever it takes to ingratiate themselves with the powerful, Thomas never abandoned his principles. And ultimately, those principles costed him his life.

Today we hear many an intransigent voice claiming that they are holding to their principles. One question: are they the principles of the gospel? Let us never forget that Thomas Becket died not defending his own principles. Thomas Becket died defending the principles of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If I call myself Christian, then the principles I call mine, should in reality not be something of my creation, desire or volition, but should be those principles handed down generation after generation by the Church, received from her founder whose incarnation we celebrate in this Chirstmas Season.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Innocence and Innocents

In the second chapter of St. Matthew's gospel we hear how

When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi,
he became furious.
He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity
two years old and under,
in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi.

Today we commemorate those children whom we believe are part of the company of saints in heaven.
Were they baptized with water? No.
Are they considered Christians. Yes.
Not only are they considered Christians but martyrs.
Doesn't a person have to choose to be a martyr, you may ask.
Here is where some of my protestant brothers and sisters confuse me. On the one hand they will claim that "sola gratis" grace alone saves one without works. On the other hand they will argue that infants should not be baptized because the person must profess Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.  Which is it? For us it is God's grace and as the Catechism says, "The sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation is particularly manifest in infant Baptism."( CCC 1250) The infant can do absolutely nothing and yet God's grace can work in them.

Here we must also make sure we do not confuse the stain of original sin and personal sin.  Before the age of reason (presumably 7 years old) we consider a person to be an infant, incapable of personal sin and in particular moral sin. Do they have the  "inclination towards evil and death" which we call original sin? Yes. And even in toddlers we see this tendency toward selfishness, but it is not that personal sin, by which we separate ourselves from God.

In that sense all children from the moment they are conceived until they reach the use of reason are considered innocents.  And should they die even without baptism, we trust that through God's grace and mercy they will be received into the company of the saints.  One need only look at our funeral rites to see our theology.

At the funeral of an unbaptized child the priest says:
All things are of your making, all creation awaits they day of salvation. We now must entrust the soul of this child  to the abundant mercy of God that our beloved child may find a home in his kingdom. 

Notice that we call him or her "our child." The child belongs only to the parents but to the Church.

Today is not only the day we remember the Holy Innocents from two millennia ago, but today we remember all the families who mourn. We pause and remember all of the innocents who have died in this year through abortion, miscarriage, or the myriad other ways that parents suffer the loss of a child.  As painful as that lose is, we live in the hope that we will one day be reunited with each and every one of  these holy innocents in the company of the saints, in the fulness of the Kingdom of God.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Returning to our roots

Sadly, if you google protomartyr you get a punk band and not the saint we celebrate today, was is in fact the Protomartyr of Christianity, the first after Jesus to give his life in witness to his faith, St. Stephen.

The Christmas Season this year runs from December 25-January 10. But the first few days the Church turns our attention away from the frivolous to the seriousness that marked early Christian life. Dec 26- St. Stephen, 27-St. John, 28-Holy Innocents, 29-Thomas Becket.

Reading the story of St. Stephen one is also struck by how the conflicts of the early church continue to this very day.  St. Stephen was one of the original deacons, a ministry established because of ethnic tensions in the church, the Greek Jews vs. the Hebrew Jews. Remember all the early Christians were Jews.

The Hebrews saw themselves as the originals. The Greeks, while just as much jews, were perceived as come-heres, new arrivals, not really members of the community.  The Greeks believed that they were not being treated fairly and so deacons were chosen from the Greek part of the community to make sure that their widows and orphans were being equally cared for.

Two thousand years later all over the US we are watching this same ethnic tension tear at the very fabric of our parishes. As the Hispanic populations grows, and the founding ethnic groups of various parishes shrink, we are watching the Hebrew vs Greek battle be played out in American churches, as English vs Spanish. Human nature has changed little over 2000 years. You will hear people in both groups try to dress it up but it is nothing more that a struggle for power, a sign of the stain of original sin that remains.

The first martyr was Greek-speaking Jew, not a Hebrew like the Apostles, and the Church went on to become Greek, witness the language of the New Testament. Greek then gave way to Latin in the west, and the cultural center of the Church shifted to Rome. Change is part of the life of the church. 

The question for us is how we chose to respond to these shifts.  As I look at our current conflict I cannot but remember the words of Abraham Lincoln "We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

The better angel of our nature is the Holy Spirit of God that is the same in each of us.  As we remember the first great Greek Jewish Christian, the protomartyr of our faith. Let us focus not on those things that divide us but on the Gospel for which he died. 

Friday, December 25, 2015

Love of God

We all know the two great commandments: love God and love your neighbor. But how do we actually love God? What does God want from us? 

Almost one year ago I was blessed to be at the hospital when a dear friend of mine gave birth to her first child.  For all of the foster children who came through our home that I have changed and fed, rocked and cared for, nothing could compare with the moment I first laid eyes on that little girl, the tiny face and hands, the rest swaddled tightly in a blanket. All of us standing around her were simultaneously filled with awe and in love. 

God could have come into the world in any form he chose. After all, God is GOD. He could have simply appeared as a full grown adult. Much theology as been written on the incarnation and why God became man. But for me there is something very simple in God's choice. In choosing to come into the world as a baby, God showed us the relationship he wants with us. Not one of fear, respect, or admiration like we might have had for our favorite school teacher, but love.  

Perhaps this Christmas season is a time for each of us to stop and reflect on the nature of our relationship with God. What do we feel about God? We know that God loves us. How do we love him in return?

Thursday, December 24, 2015


There is actually a mass for December 24th in the morning.  Few people attend it but is it the last mass of the Advent Season.  The gospel is predictably the Canticle of Zachariah, the father of John, the precursor to Jesus.  The second reading is less predictable, at least for most of us. It is taken from 2 Samuel chapter 7.

The storm has calmed around David and his kingdom is finally at peace. It is then decided that God needs a proper dwelling place.  It God who then intervenes and sends a prophesy that he will be the builder of a house, a house for/of David.  David is told that

Your house and your Kingdom shall endure forever before me;your throne shall stand firm forever.

For us Christians this house is the Church, not the building, but the mystical body of Christ. It is our firm faith  that the Church is the fulfillment of this promise made so long ago to David. It is house not build by human hands.

If we look close we see a characteristic that we don't often think about, indestructibility.  God promises that this house shall endure forever, and God's promises are true.  Do we truly believe that the house in indestructible?  Do we trust that promise.  At 20 years of age I embraced the Catholic faith because I came to believe.  Jesus established his house, him Kingdom from the house of David and it will have no end. Even if the people inside the house are determined to tear it apart, to tear it down.  It cannot be done.

In just a few hours Christians around the world will begin to gather to celebrate their vigils of the Incarnation, the Birth of God as man. The cornerstone of the indestructible house.

What role will we play in the year to come? Will we each be good stewards who work to not only maintain but to build up the house? Or will we be saboteurs tearing down our own house from the inside?  It happens.

On this last day of Advent, it is time for us to take one more look around the inside of the house that is our heart, time for one last cleaning, so that it will be a presentable house into which we can bring, the newborn King.

Monday, December 14, 2015

The end of week one

Today is the end of the first week of the year of mercy.

When we think about the Scriptures at Mass we think of course of the gospel, then we think of the first and/or second reading.  We often forget about the psalms.  Each day a psalm is assigned. In the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Psalms is the first book of the section simply called "the writings." Our name psalms comes from psalmoi in Greek meaning instrumental music. We know that the psalms were intended to be sung, accompanied by instruments. Nothing will ingrain a text in us like singing.

Our Morning and Evening Prayer centers around singing of the psalms and each time mass is celebrated one psalm is provided with a verse or part of a verse serving as a refrain. Todays psalm is #25 and the refrain is taken from verse 4.

Teach me your ways, O Lord.
The opening verse today was:

Your ways, O LORD, make known to me;
teach me your paths,
Guide me in your truth and teach me

But how much do we really want to learn? How open are we to being guided? Speaking for myself, I have my to-do list for the day ready to go.  And with Christmas bearing down on us, slightly more than a week away, we can all feel a bit overwhelmed. With so much to do, how open are we to being taught right now?  Are we really open to letting God choose the path for the day?  Suppose the path God has set for us today does not coincide with our to-do list, or our preparation for Christmas.   How will we respond?

Perhaps it's time to pause. Step back from what are really cultural expectations of Christmas,  and truly look for the path God wants each of us to walk this Christmas.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A Challenge

On this the second day of the Year of Mercy, the gospel places before us an enormous challenge particularly given the world in which we live.  Terrorism appears to be achieving its goal. What separate murder or even mass murder from terrorism is the goal. The goal of terrorism is not simply to kill to be terrorize, to instill fear.  As Christians we are told constantly in the New Testament to not be afraid. But today's gospel may be even more difficult to live.

Jesus tells us to:
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart

We are supposed to to learn to follow his example and yet how many of us really want to be either meek or humble? We like the words in theory, but if you were to ask Gallup to conduct a poll, and ask people to list the top 10 characteristics of a great leader, where would meek and humble fall? I doubt that those two words would even make the top 20.

More importantly, how many of us strive to been either meek/gentle or humble of heart?  And perhaps that is the challenge on this second day of the Year of Mercy.  Be gentle. Be humble.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

New Beginnings

Some may wonder why the Pope would choose the day on which we celebrate the Immaculate Conception of Mary as the day to begin the Jubilee Year. To me it makes perfect sense.  After all if someone asked you where does the gospel story begin where would you pick?

Some might say that the gospel story begins with the birth of Jesus.  Others might go back a bit further and say the annunciation when the angel appeared to Mary and Jesus was conceived. Others might go back six months further to the conception of John, the precursor of Jesus.

To me it makes sense to go back to the moment we celebrate today, the moment Mary was conceived.    With that first miraculous step God showed his plan for the restoration and elevation of the human race. I say elevation because the plan was to raise us from mere image and likeness to true sons and daughters. He would undo the damage done by original sin.  And so his first act in the forging of this new and eternal covenant would be to conceive a child without original sin, the prototype of what was to come.

And so for me it makes perfect sense that today as we celebrate that new beginning we make a new beginning of our own, the Jubilee Year of Mercy. Today as Pope Francis opens the Holy Door of St. Peter's Basilica let each of us throw open the doors of our hearts.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Offering masses and Indulgences

One of the Catholic practices least understood by others is that of offering masses for the repose of the soul of someone who is deceased.  Why pray for them if they are already dead?

1. The journey is not complete for any of us until it is complete for all of us at the end of time when Jesus returns and raises our moral bodies and makes them like his own. (1 Cor 15:36-49).
2. Some souls have already entered into heaven. Others are still being purified.

If is for those we offer our prayers, including the mass and indulgences.  No, indulgences are not something sold.  The are actions that we put with words to atone for sin that we have committed or on behalf of others. And here is where we come to today's gospel.

In the gospel, the man is paralyzed. He cannot act on his own behalf. He represents so many people are are in one way or another paralyzed. His friends decide that they must help him. They dismantle a section of roof and lower him to Jesus.

The gospel tells us,
When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “As for you, your sins are forgiven.” 

The faith of the friends, brings forgiveness to the paralyzed man.  Their faith expressed in actions (works) brought forgiveness and salvation to the paralyzed man. 

Those who argue that the only way for one to be saved is for them personally to accept Jesus Christ as their savior (and be baptized with water) have forgotten that God cannot be limited. 

Sometimes spiritual paralysis can be worse than physical paralysis. 

One this last day of preparation for the year of mercy that begins tomorrow morning,
Countdown and other info
it would be good for us to pause and call to mind perhaps some loved one who have fallen into spiritual paralysis.  They are so wound, or angry, ignorant of God's love, or obstinate that they cannot or will not embrace the faith. Let today's gospel be source of hope. Do not give up, because God never gives us on any human being.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Three days and counting

Today's gospel ends by reminding us of something that not just Catholics but all Christians tend to forget.

Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give.

We do not buy our salvation. We do not earn our salvation. It comes through grace. The Catechism defines grace by saying:

Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.

Free and undeserved help. Imagine for a moment if we were to begin truly imitating God whose children we are and in whose image we are made. Imagine if for the year of mercy we were to start handing out free and undeserved help.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Four days and counting

In four day at 9:30 am Eastern Time Pope Francis will open the Holy Door of St. Peter's Basilica and mark the official beginning of the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy that will run from December 8, 2015 until November 20, 2016 the Solemnity of Jesus Christ King of the Universe.

The concept of the Jubilee goes back to the Book of Leviticus 25.  Seven being the perfect number, every seventh year was a sabbatical year, but the 7th seventh year, that is every 49 years there was to be a yovel or Jubilee Year, the 50th year.  It was a time of forgiveness, liberty, and restitution.  Anyone indentured was freed. Land held as collateral was returned. Debts were forgiven.

In these last few days of preparation, perhaps now is the time for each of us to taken an internal inventory.  Are there sins for which I need forgiveness? Are there people I need to forgive? Are there things I am holding onto that I need to let go of? Are there relationships that need to be restored?

Let us take these days to prepare ourselves to open wide the doors of our hearts, to receive and give the gift of mercy.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015


Today we have in the gospel the well-known passage,

I give you praise, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike.

In Greek there are a number of words for a child depending on the age.  In Luke's gospel the word we translate as child like  is nepios. It literally means "without words". It refers to an infant so young it cannot yet speak.  In other places in the gospels the word paidon (a child of up to about 10) is used but here the word that is used refers to a child at its earliest stage of life.  

As I reflect on this I am taken back to all the newborns that came to our house as foster children before being adopted.  I can't even count the number.  In their earliest weeks their eyes can't even really focus, and so touch and hearing become their primary senses.  And maybe that is the key.  

Once our eyes can focus we become very visual, perhaps even too visual.  We are so captivated by the visual, by appearance, that we loose our ability to listen.  The old saying "a picture is worth a thousand words" has never been more true than today.  Ask anyone in the field of communications. 

The problem for us as Christians is that we are not people of the picture we are people of the word. 
In the beginning was the word... (Jn 1:1)
Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God (Mt. 4:4)
Stop judging by mere appearances... (Jn 7:24)

We are great at looking at pictures, and we are great at talking.  We are not so good at listening. 
Perhaps this gospel is reminding us that if we want to be truly with wise we have to spend more time speechless, and spend more time just listening.