Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Jailers or Angels

In chapter 5 of Acts we hear how they

"laid hands upon the Apostles and put them in the public jail.But during the night, the angel of the Lord opened the doors of the prison."

On the surface this seems disconnected from our life.  No one is going to come and lock us up for being Christian. But there is another level on which it is very much a part of our culture.

From the beginning of history human beings have sought to categorized not just things but people. We have an uncanny ability to recognize and distinguish "us" from "them." We love to label: race, language, nationality, and in our modern age psychology - from the most benign Personality Type categories to the ever popular ADD, ADHD, OCD, and the current flavor of the month: Autism Spectrum/ Aspergers.

This is not to say that all of the above and more are not valid and useful for helping people understand their particular challenges. The danger is that this becomes the modern jail. We label human beings and then in-prison them in the label, and it is a life sentence.

We forget that at the heart of our Christian understanding of the human person is our belief in the transforming power of God's grace. We forget that one of the things that separate the human being from the rest of creation is our free will, our ability to choose. Living the Christian life means always striving each day to be more, to be more fully conformed to Christ.

As Christians we are called to be angels not jailers.We should always be seeking to set people free, not lock them up in our limited understanding of who they are. As Jesus proclaimed to the crowd "Untie him and let him go!"

We must be the people who never lose hope. No matter how long or difficult the struggle, no matter how many times we fall along the road.









Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Mark the Evangelist

When we Latin Rite Catholics think of St. Mark, we may of the great Basilica and Square in Venice. But there is a much older place we should call to mind, Alexandria in Egypt.

In the history of Christianity there are five great centers: Jerusalem, Rome, Antioch, Constantinople (Istanbul), and Alexandria. We think of Egypt and we think Moslems. But long before the Islamic religion came into existence St. Mark who wrote the gospel, went to Egypt somewhere around 42 AD and established Christianity. He was the first Bishop of Alexandria. The Christians who trace their religious heritage to St. Mark are known by the language they still use in their liturgy, Coptic.

Unfortunately many Christians who knew nothing of the history heard the word Coptic for the first time on Palm Sunday when two of their churches were attacked. One of the churches that was attacked was St. Mark's Cathedral in Alexandria.

Today as the Church celebrates the Feast of St. Mark let each of us pray for our Coptic brothers and sisters not only in Egypt but scattered around the world. Every time we read the gospel of St. Mark we should remember them, members of one of the oldest Christians churches in the world.





Monday, April 24, 2017

To. Boldly Go

Twice in the first reading from Acts chapter 4 St. Luke refers to the apostles speaking boldly.

We should be careful not to confuse bold and brash. St. Luke is very careful in his choice of words. He borrows a word that would have been known from Greek philosophy.

The boldness of which St. Luke writes has three characteristics:

1) it is dedicated to speaking the truth. The truth for Christians is grounded always in Jesus who is The Truth.

2) it is spoken for the common good, not for the benefit of the speaker.

3) it is spoken at some risk. The speaker places himself in danger to speak the truth for the benefit of others.

To be truly bold in this sense requires that we Christians examine carefully our motives. Many Christian preachers, Catholic and other, have claimed to be speaking boldly when all they were really doing was playing to their base, as it is called in politics. Their so-called boldness was never directed against their major donors.

As Christians our starting point is always one of love. We never speak for the shock value, to wound or offend. On the other hand we must be willing to risk losing position, power, privilege, or even our closest relationships if necessary to be true to the gospel. (The chance that as 21st century Americans we will risk our lives is slim.)

Our starting point, and perhaps the most difficult challenge, is letting the gospel speak boldly to us. What are those possessions and pleasure that each of us needs to sacrifice to live a more authentically Christian life.



Sunday, April 23, 2017

Doubt vs. Suspicion

Today we complete the octave of Easter, the eighth day, the first day of the new creation. It is the day the neophytes, those baptized at the Easter Vigil would traditionally lay aside their white garments. When you go to mass today, notice how the prayers focus on baptism. It is also the day when we read about Doubting Thomas.

This may seem a strange coupling, the newly baptized and doubt. But that is only because we misunderstand the place of doubt on our lives. Doubt is not the opposite of faith.

On Sunday each section of the creed begins with "I believe." The opposite would not be doubt but denial.

I believe in God. (a believer)
I deny the existence of God. ( an atheist)

These are the two extremes, Doubt fall in the middle, but is closer to belief. Doubt questions but is willing to be convinced. Doubt is still listening.

The problem we face today is not Doubt, but its opposite, Suspicion. We live in a world where we are encouraged to be suspicious of any authority or institution. What we fail to see is how suspicion isolates us. If I am suspicious of all authority, then where do I go for answers?

Suspicion questions but is not really open to hearing the answer, because it will not trust the teacher, the source from which it could learn. Suspicion cannot accept the truth even when it hears it.

As Christians we are called be disciples: a word that means students. The true disciple is never content but always seeks to know more, to understand more fully. Doubt can be a powerful motivator, the voice that constantly questions, and listens for the answer. As the voice from the cloud told the apostles:

This is my chosen Son; listen to him

Today's gospel opens by telling us,

They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles (didache ton apostolon) and the communal life.

Notice that it does not say, "They sat at home alone and read their Bibles."

When we say we believe in "one, holy, catholic and apostolic church." We do not simply mean that it was founded on the apostles. We believe that the teaching role of the apostles continues in the Church even now. We believe that the Holy Spirit is alive and continues to lead the Church into an ever deepening understanding of our faith.

The apostles went out and established local communities. St Thomas went as far east as what we call Kerala, India. As they moved from place to place, the apostles passed on their teaching authority to local bishops (episkopoi), which as been handed down from generation to generation. Even now our bishops serve as the successors to the Apostles, to carry on the teaching.

We all have questions. There are always going to be pieces of the "teaching of the apostles" with which we wrestle. But do we question with the doubt of Thomas, or have we have we fallen into suspicion and mistrust?

As the father of the boy in Mark 9 exclaimed,

I do believe, help my unbelief.

Today's gospel says they devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and the communal life. Our doubts cannot be resolved in isolation. We bring our doubts, our unbelief, to the Church, we question and listen. We read the Bible and we also read the Catechism to help us understand. We join in the communal prayer of the Church, the liturgy. Even when we are not sure, we trust, because we remain grounded in love, not only love of God, but love of his people, love of the Church.


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Believing in forgiveness

In today's gospel we witness the prediction of the most famous denial in history. Peter is not just a disciple of Jesus but one of the great apostles.

Peter said to him, “Master, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”

His enthusiasm and good intentions are unmatched. And yet,

Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Amen, amen, I say to you, the cock will not crow before you deny me three times.”

And of course we know the rest of that story. But what is interesting to notice is how that story played out in the long run.

Jesus, after the resurrection, gives Peter the chance to undo his triple denial, with the triple affirmation of love in John's gospel. And Peter goes on to be not just an apostle, the the Rock on which the Church is built, establishing the office we now refer to as Pope.

Imagine how that might have played out today. Would there have been this total, true forgiveness of his sin. More likely, the story of the denial would have gone viral on the internet. There would have certainly been calls for him to be removed as an apostle. And to avoid scandal he would have probably been tucked away from public view. After all, we couldn't have someone who denied Jesus in a leadership position in the Church.

All too often in this age we say we forgive, while in reality there is always a "but." No matter how many years pass, and even when the public figure is not found guilty. There is always the cloud, the stain. And the internet guarantees that nothing is forgotten.

Sadly we Christians are no more forgiving than the culture at large. If anything, we can often be worse, less tolerant of imperfection.

Yes, Peter did just as Jesus predicted; when put to the test, he failed. But in the true Church, that did not stop him from going on to faithfully carry the highest possible office. And ultimately he did as he said and gave his life for Jesus. Peter the denier and Paul the murderer were the two great leaders of the faith.

As this season of Penance comes to a close may we not only receive the gift of forgiveness but may we rediscover what it means to truly forgive.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Celebrating Our Unity

On this second day of Holy Week we in the Diocese of Richmond will gather this evening at 6 PM for the one mass each year when a diocese celebrates the unity that Jesus called for in Jn 17,

Consecrate them in the truth. Your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I sent them into the world... so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.

While this mass is normally celebrated during the day on Holy Thursday, because of the geographical size of the diocese, our Bishop moves this mass to Monday so that the largest possible number of the clergy and lay faithful can participate.

It is called the Chrism Mass because it is here that the Bishop consecrates Chrism, and blesses the Oil of the Sick and Oil of Catechumens to be used in churches around the diocese. Chrism is not just blessed but consecrated because it is the oil used in the sacraments that impart the Holy Spirit in a permanent way: Baptism, Confirmation and Ordination. Through the one Holy Spirit we are made one Church.

This is also the mass at which the unique role of priests as the closest collaborators of the bishop is celebrated. In the words of the Second Vatican Council:

Bishops should always embrace priests with a special love since the latter to the best of their ability assume the bishops' anxieties and carry them on day by day so zealously. They should regard the priests as sons and friends and be ready to listen to them. Through their trusting familiarity with their priests they should strive to promote the whole pastoral work of the entire diocese. (CD 16)

Here in Richmond this year's Chrism Mass marks the beginning of a transition. On Saturday Bishop DiLorenzo will celebrate his 75th birthday and send to the Holy Father his letter of resignation. In all likelihood this will be his last Chrism Mass as Bishop of Richmond.  For the priests in the diocese we are reminded that our promise of respect and obedience is to the office and not the individual bishop. When we are ordained we promise respect and obedience not just to the bishop who ordains us but to his successors, no matter who they are. For the unity of the Church,  each time a new bishop is installed we must lay aside the natural affinity that we have for the bishop who ordained us, the bishop that we know; and give our full respect and obedience to the one Bishop of Richmond from the moment of his installation.

When the Chrism Mass is complete the priests take the oils out across the diocese and for the next year maintain the unity of the Church in the proclamation of the gospel, and the celebration of sacraments. From the grandeur of the Cathedral to the smallest parish church in the most remote corner of the diocese, we remain the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church founded by Christ 2000 years ago.


Sunday, April 9, 2017

Embracing the Passion

It has been almost 50 years (1970) since the new name for today's celebration was set, Dominica in palmis de Passione Domini, a combination of Passion Sunday and Palm Sunday. It is the only Sunday with two gospels: the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the Passion. And yet, most Catholics still just call it Palm Sunday. Why is that?

While a part of the reason is a combination of tradition and lack of catechesis, I wonder if a part of it isn't also our desire to evade the passion. Even the word has been watered down. At its heart it means "suffering," and yet, in modern English it simply refers to any strong emotion— "She has a passion for cooking."

We Catholics run from suffering. While the crucifix used to be the symbol that identified Catholic churches, homes, classrooms, and hospitals, even there, many have opted for the more palatable "resurrected Jesus" or empty cross.

Today we do not run. The bulk of today's liturgy is the reading of The Passion according to St. Matthew. And perhaps the most striking feature of St. Matthew's Passion is silence.

On Good Friday we will hear the Passion according to St. John. In his version Jesus has a response to every comment or question. He is in charge of the proceedings. By contrast, St. Matthew portrays Jesus as the suffering servant, the Lamb of sacrifice. Jesus embraces his suffering in silence — not the silence of resignation, but the silence of true acceptance and absolute trust in the Father.

Perhaps today is a good time for each of us to spend some time in silence, to honestly call to mind the sufferings large and small in our own lives, to one by one unite our sufferings to the sufferings of Christ, and with the peace that comes only from God walk with Jesus through His Suffering and Death, the only true path to Resurrection.

May this be a truly Holy Week!


Saturday, April 8, 2017

Ephemera

With Evening Prayer today we enter into Holy Week, those days when we are called to step out of earthly time (in Greek chronos) and immerse ourselves in God's time (kairos). There we will accompany Jesus as he completes the mission for which he was sent, the salvation of the Father's most beloved creature, humanity.

On our own, despite our power and creativity we could not save ourselves. We could and can create marvelous technology, art and music. Original Sin could not destroy all the good God gave us when we were made. And yet, the ultimate good, union with our maker was beyond our grasp. We reach but fall away.

In the first reading today we hear the promise made through the Prophet Isaiah.

No longer shall they defile themselves with their idols, their abominations, and all their transgressions. I will deliver them from all their sins of apostasy, and cleanse them so that they may be my people and I may be their God...my sanctuary shall be set up among them forever.

This week we recall that moment when God stepped into our world, our time, to fulfill that promise and open for us the way to eternal life.

We live in a world filled with shiny objects clamoring for our attention. We forget how ephemeral it all is, how it will all pass away. In the gospel today we are reminded not once but twice that Chaiaphas was high priest that year. His position, his power lasted only a moment.

In this Holy Week let us stop fretting over things that will pass, and let us walk with our Lord as he enters Jerusalem, to suffer, die and rise so that we might have a new and everlasting life.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Grace as necessary gift

We who are alive in the 21st century should have an even deeper appreciation of today's gospel than the original heater. After all, we understand at a much deeper level the biological importance of water and its importance not only to human life but to all life. Without water there is no life. I still find it hard to grasp that my body is more than 60% water. Without food we can survive around 3 weeks. Without water we would be lucky to survive one.

So it is with God's grace. Our souls need grace the way our bodies need water — even more so perhaps. After all, the soul cannot die. The condition it can end up in is worse than death. We call it hell.

What Jesus is offering the woman at the well is nothing less than a share in his divine life. We call that grace. Jesus is offering her the grace that leads to eternal life. This grace comes to us above all in the sacraments.

Here we American Catholics need to be very careful. With an over abundance of zeal we can turn the sacraments into the equivalent of merit badges, something to be earned, something to be given to only the pure of heart.

The catechism says that,"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." It is not that we hear the call, respond to it, and then are worthy to receive grace. The grace is what enables us to respond in the first place. The preface for today's mass reminds us,

For when he asked the Samaritan woman for water to drink,
he had already created the gift of faith within her
and so ardently did he thirst for her faith,
that he kindled in her the fire of divine love.


It wa God's grace at work in her that enabled her to respond. It is true that we must be "rightly disposed" to receive sacraments, but that proper disposition cannot be reduced to a checklist. It is something to be discerned by those entrusted with the care of souls. After all, there is no more precious gift that one can receive than the grace of God. That is why the church is so careful about how sacraments are celebrated and how we prepare to receive them. But in our zeal we must never forget that the free and unmerited quality of grace. "Lord I am not worthy...."

Grace — water for the soul. In this Lenten season let us drink fully and often, especially through the sacraments of reconciliation and Eucharist. And if there are obstacles in our lives, choices that we have made that are irreconcilable with the gospel. There is no better time to al least begin to move those obstacles so that we can get to the well. Jesus can prepare us in the same way he prepared the woman at the well. When Jesus named her grave sin, she did argue. Tradition tells us that she went back and changed her life and became a saint in the early Church. Now is the time for us to change, to turn away from sin, to turn toward the well and receive the water of eternal life.

Monday, March 13, 2017

A Day without Judgement

As we begin a new week, we are told,

Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.

We have heard this reading so often that the gravity of it may not register as it should. Perhaps if we write the other side we can hear it better.

Judge and you will be judged. Condemn and you will be condemned. Do not forgive, and you will not be forgiven.

We have all grown up so much on the image of the last judgement that we simply assume that judgement is inevitable. And yet, unless Jesus is lying, we can be spared that judgement. All we have to do is stop judging. Easier said than done. But it can be done. Like everything it requires practice.

The easiest first step may be external. When that judging thought about someone else enters our mind, stop it before we speak it or write it. Don't let it into the external world. If we stop nourishing our judgements thoughts over time they will die. We can turn not judging into a habit.

Does this mean that the temptation to judge and condemn will go away? No. In this life we are always going to face temptation, but we can make huge progress. And there is no better time than Lent to do.

Start with one day. Today. Try your best to live this one day without speaking or writing one judging or condemning comment about another person. It is not impossible, if we believe.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Keep it simple

In today's gospel we hear what is possibly the best known and simplest summary of the Christian rule for all human interactions.

Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the law and the prophets

And yet, this one sentence, as simple as it is, seems to be very difficult for us to live, either individually or collectively.

In the 20th century we dreamed of how technology would help us to span great distance and close the gaps between distant peoples.

In the 21st century what we experience is ever increasing isolation, and decreasing amounts of face to face communication. With the growing amount of self-service and online activity the requirement that we actually speak face to face with another person has all but vanished. Those tiny interactions( the gas station, the bank, the store ) in which we practiced the skills of civility or manners have slowly faded away. Email, voicemail, and texting allow us to fire off comments from a distance that we perhaps would not say face to face, and online posts and "comments" provide a safe haven for our most base and often cowardly acts. Technology that should help bring us together has enabled each of us to retreat into our own customized world, and deep down people feel more alone than ever.

As we hear the golden rule it is not only a reminder to us about how we are to interact but also a reminder about our basic human need to interact.

It is not good for the man to be alone.

Even the most introverted need not virtual but actual human interaction. As we strive to life during Lent, perhaps before we fire off another email or text it is time to pick up a phone, or even walk down the hall or into the other room and look someone in the eye, smile and speak to them face to face showing the respect that every person deserves. And if you are more comfortable texting, perhaps you should give up that comfort for Lent.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Lost Virtue

In addition to Friday, Wedensday was historically a day for fasting in the Church. And so, it is not surprising that today's first reading is Jonah's entrance into Nineveh  and the call for repentance and fasting.  It is easy for us to overlook the important details at the center of this story.

When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes.

Sometimes we fail to understand the significance of these details because we think of the "world of the Bible" as if it were a different world than the one we inhabit. It was not. Human nature has not changed greatly over the centuries, and the quest to have and keep power was as real as ever. If anything it was even more necessary then for a king to never show weakness. And yet the king of Nineveh did.

Firstly, he demonstrated a willingness to listen.  He could have easily dismissed Jonah. He could have denounced his message. After all, Jonah was telling the people of Nineveh that they were on the wrong path. He could have  had him executed for stirring up the people. Instead he was willing to listen to the criticism.  The king not only listened but accepted personal responsibly.  He did not try and blame others (as Adam attempted to blame Eve).

Secondly, he committed to changing directions.  His actions of rising from his throne and laying aside his cloak demonstrated his acknowledgment that being a king did not make him incapable or error or sin. His covering himself in sackcloth and ashes was a very public manifestation of contrition and desire for conversion.

As a king he had to have understood how some might see this as a sign of weakness and an opportunity to attack, to seize power. A king sitting in sackcloth and ashes was an unimaginable sight.   How would it look to the people? Some had to think it was undignified. And yet this king did it. He was able to do it because he possessed the virtue of humility.

This story puts before us some very basic questions. Do we really believe in being humble –outside of Church? And do we want leaders who publicly manifest humility?







Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Believing in the invisible

Today we hear the Lord tell us through the prophet Isaiah,

So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; It shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.

This concept of the power of God's Word is seen throughout the scriptures all the way back to the very beginning of Genesis where God creates the universe by speaking.

It is important to note that it is the spoken word that contains this power, the word that "goes forth from my mouth." So often when we use the phrase the word of God we immediately think of the Bible. We want to limit ourselves to the written Word. It would be a grave mistake to think that God did to speak before or after the revelation contained in scripture. But our tendency to limit God's speaking to the Bible is really part of a larger problem, our modern tendency to limit reality to what we can perceive.

From a scientific point of view we know that the human visible spectrum of light is only a small portion of a much larger whole. There are animals that can see what is invisible to us. The same is true of sound. The range of frequencies that we can hear is actually quite small. And yet, if we cannot see it or hear it with our eyes, ears or technology; we tend to doubt its presence. It's not really real. Invisible reality is relegated to the realm of science fiction and fantasy. And God is in heaven.

When we walk into a church and we see the tabernacle, what do we see? Can we see with the eyes of faith? Many Christians have become so trapped at the level of the material visible world that they have given up all together on the concept of Christ being truly present in the Sacrament. Even many Catholics find it hard to believe what their eyes cannot see. They see the tabernacle as only a shiny box. The idea of church as sanctuary, place of the Holy, has all but vanished.

One of the things we all need to give up for Lent is skepticism. We must give up our narrow-minded view of the world. We must remember just how much of reality exists beyond the limits of our senses. If we cannot perceive the Holy in a church or chapel, how can we ever hope to perceive it in the world.

The paradox of our faith is that the most real things in the universe, the eternal, are also the invisible.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Hearing the call

In these first four days before the first Sunday of Lent the Church eases us into the season. In today's Gospel we are reminded by Jesus of something which we all know and will say, but i'm not sure how fully we believe it. Jesus tells the Pharisees:

I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners.

We will very easily say that we are all sinners, but deep down inside, if we are honest, there is a self-righteous streak in everyone of us. We tend to minimize our own sins and aggrandize the sins of others.

We act as though online sin is less sinful than live sin in the world. We will say things online we would never say to a person's face.

We depersonalize sin, and bemoan the decaying culture or the media, as if they are something apart from us. We, the people, are the culture; and the media gives us what we want to see and hear.

We forget that sin is always personal. It is the choice of an individual to act contrary to God's law. Sin is always in the first person. I know right from wrong and I willfully choose to do wrong.

For the next 5 1/2 weeks every time we get the urge to criticize another person, we should spin that critical light around and point it at our self. Lent is about naming our sins, all of our sins not just the ones we are comfortable naming, feeling true sorrow for them, and confessing them.

When we are willing to plumb the depths of our sins, then we will understand today's gospel and we will indeed hear the merciful voice of Jesus calling.


Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Self-Resraint

As we spend this first day of Lent fasting, perhaps it is good for us to slow down and listen carefully to the words of today's collect.

Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting
this campaign of Christian service,
so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils,
we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.


Campaign of Christian service, battle against spiritual evil, weapons of self-restraint. These are all images that many 21st century Christians can be uncomfortable with. We like to think of peaceful Jesus. Images of war are difficult for us to embrace. But if we look closely we notice that, as Jesus so often does, he turns the image on its head.

The battle is not against some human foe. It is the internal battle against spiritual evil, the battle we fight each day to avoid sin. The weapons are not guns, but the weapon of self-restraint. The campaign is not to retake some piece of land, but is a campaign of Christian service, a turning away from caring for self, and a focus on caring for others.

Today we do indeed begin a war, but our greatest enemy in this war may we'll be our self: our habitual ways of thinking and behaving, our tendency to focus on our own needs, wants and desires.

Our culture tells us to do what makes us happy. Self-restraint is truly counter-cultural and may we'll be the word we need to remind ourselves of every day of Lent.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Ready to fast

In many places around the world the tradition of Carnival (Latin for putting aside meat) or Mardi Gras (French for Tuesday of Fat/Grease) have become incredibly popular but disconnected from their roots. As Christians, we need to stay connected. Whether you choose the name carnival which underscores the older tradition still practiced by many Christians of not eating any meat through all of Lent, or the name Mardi Gras which underscored even the giving up of lard and other meat products; each of these names draws to the importance of tomorrow's fast. Eat it today because tomorrow you go hungry.

On Ash Wednesday we not only abstain from meat, but are also supposed to actually fast. The minimalist will always ask how much they can eat and still call it fasting. The idea is very simple you should end up going to bed hungry.

It is easy for us Americans to forget how many people in our own country go to bed hungry every night. They have no choice. On Ash Wednesday we go hungry by choice, as penance, a demonstration of our contrition and our hunger for God, our hunger for God's mercy.

Today many of us will eat in excess. It should remind us of all of the excesses in our lives. Today we look at how we have lived the last year, in particular the sin. We gather it all, and tomorrow we hand it all over to God. And we allow our bodies to feel hunger, that we might hunger more deeply for God.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Two days and counting

Today's fist reading from the Book of Sirach is the perfect prelude to Lent.

To the penitent God provides a way back, he encourages those who are losing hope and has chosen for them the lot of truth. Return to him and give up sin, pray to the LORD and make your offenses few.

In these last two days it is time for us to do a serious examination of conscience. We must look deep and acknowledge, not just the superficial sins, but the deeper more pervasive sins in our lives: prejudice, envy, an unwillingness to truly forgive, our judging of others. Often there are sins that are so deeply ingrained in us that we deny their existence or tell ourselves that these feelings are not sinful.

Sirach is realistic and knows that in this life none of us are going to live sin free, but we can all strive to "make [our] offenses few." Step one, however, is a willingness to call sin, sin. We must turn the light of truth on our own actions and our minds and most importantly our hearts.

With God there is always a way back, but in order to find our way back we must know where we are. We must acknowledge how far we have strayed. When we arrive in Church on Ash Wednesday, we should arrive with a true spirit of contrition. We should enter Lent with a concrete sense of our sins. Perhaps the four categories in the confiteor are helpful: thoughts, words, what I have done, what I have failed to do. God already knows our sins, but do we?

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Three days until Lent

With only three days until the beginning of Lent, today's gospel already invites us to shift our focus.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear.

This is not a call for us ignore our earthy life or body, but a reminder that they cannot be ends unto themselves. The end, the goal should always the heavenly. What we do with our earthly life our earthly body will determine in large degree our eternal life, in heaven or hell.

So it makes sense that we begin Lent on Ash Wednesday with a day of fasting (required for those age 18-59) and abstaining from meat required for all over 14 years old. Recommended for others.

But before we get to Wednesday now is the time for us to decide how will be live the three penitential practices of Lent: giving alms, prayer, and fasting. What can we do throughout Lent as an acknowledgment of our sin and desire for true conversion of life.

Programs like Operation Rice Bowl are fine but there should also be a very personal component. Where do I waste money? Stop the behavior, save that money, and give it to the poor. A suggestion.

For prayer, perhaps for the days of Lent I will not pray for myself. All of my prayer will be for others, and not just my friends and family. A suggestion.

And as for fasting or giving up something. What can you not imagine doing without? That might be the perfect place to start.

Lent is about being uncomfortable, it is about moving beyond talk and doing penance. Don't choose something impossible but choose prayer, fasting, and almsgiving that will challenge you.







Saturday, February 25, 2017

Forever Young

Every day we see commercials for thousands of products that promise to keep us looking young and supplements that will keep our brains young. But what about our minds and hearts.

In today's gospel we read:

whoever does not accept the Kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.


Notice that it doesn't say "like an adolescent." The gospel is referring to a young child. And the wonderful thing about young children is that they are incessantly inquisitive but also open to learning. They are living sponges. They may drive you crazy with questions but it is merely an insatiable thirst for knowledge.

Somewhere around adolescence we change. The ego takes over and we decide that we know better. We question but it is no longer in order to learn but in order to assert control. It become about power. And I'm sure developmental psychology would tells us why this is a good thing — unless we get stuck here.

The thing I am loving about being in my 50's is realizing that the older I get the dumber I am. In my 20's and 30's I was smart. I knew everything. There was nothing I couldn't figure out and usually on my own. And I was more that willing to show you how much I knew.

In my 50's I realize how complicated the world is and how incredibly small my knowledge is. There are no simple answers. If there were, philosophy and theology would cease to exist.

As Christians, we must never forget that the word disciple means student. God created us to be perpetual students: forever seeking knowledge, forever seeking truth. To be disciples means that we must rid ourselves of any adolescent hubris that remains, and live always as inquisitive open hearted little children. Then we will enter the kingdom of God.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Our greatest challenge

Both today's first reading and the gospel focus on relationship. In the first reading from Sirach we hear about what makes a true and faithful friend, in the gospel we hear about the permanence of marriage. But if we are not careful we can overlook what may be for most of us the greatest challenge, when we hear in Sirach

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

When we think of sin, all to often, we focus on the sensual one like lust or gluttony. In the process we can overlook what can be our greatest source of sin, our mouths. There is good reason when we pray the confiteor (I confess....) we as for forgive four categories of sin:

thoughts, words, what we have done, and what we have failed to do.

Sirach today presents it from the positive angle: a kind mouth and gracious lips. The scriptures remind us of what we are called to be, what we can be.

We may all have uncharitable thoughts, but we can choose not to give voice to them. Speaking your mind is no virtue if the mind is not one with the mind of Christ, if the mind is filled with uncharitable thoughts. And while legally speaking the truth may be a defense against slander, it is not a defense before God. If the truth you speak is gossip. If the truth you speak is intended to tear another person down. Speaking the truth can still be a sin.

Language is one of the greatest gifts God as given to humanity. Today's first reading reminds us to us it wisely. As we prepare to enter the season of Lent on Wednesday, perhaps it is time to ask the questions: do I have a kind mouth; do I have gracious lips? Those phrases only sound awkward because the ideas are so far removed from our culture.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Receiving one child

In St. Mark today we hear the famous words of Jesus,


Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me.

These words have always held a very special meaning for me. Many of you know that I am adopted. What many do not know it that I was 4 years and three months old before I was adopted. When I was adopted on November 3 1964 (my gotcha date), no one really understood the significance of having spent my first four years as a foster child.  It was not until my adoptive parents died 10 months part in 1998 and 1999, and I was thrown into the most painful experience of my life, that I came to understand the long term negative effects of being a foster child. I had read about the dark night of the soul, but as the 21st century began I was living it. And it would take several years, a good spiritual director and a good psychologist for me to truly understand and find that peace of God which is beyond all understanding.

Now I can wake up ever day of my life  with a smile because I know in the deepest recesses of my heart that I am never without family, I am never alone.  I can now see that, while I may never know who my biological mother and father are, God has blessed me with other mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters,to paraphrase the scriptures, and my adorable baby sister. But I am one of the lucky few.

At any given moment there are over 400.000 children in the US in foster care, children who feel adrift in the world, without secure attachments, anchors. And for the children who simply "age out" of the system the statistics are horrendous. Many end up in on the street, in jail, or worse. In 2015 20,000 children simply aged out of the system.

In summer of 2013 I was asked to be a part of the statewide leadership team for Virginia Adopts. Our goal was to move 1000 children from foster families to forever families.  It was during these events that I realized that we former foster kids, whether we were adopted at 4 or 14, share a commonalities that it is difficult to express to others, and we who found our forever families must speak out for those who have not.

Virginia Adopts was an incredible success. Now Janet and Ryan Kelly with others have taken this mission to a whole new level with America's Kids Belong. And they will be the first to tell you that adopting a child who is not an infant is not easy. Yes, we come with baggage.  But nothing that cannot be healed with love and the grace of God, and the support services now available. Go to their website and check out what there are doing. Get involved on a local level.

Jesus tells us that whoever a receives a child such as this, receives him. My parents not only adopted me and two other children but served as foster parents for dozens of others. They were good foster parents. But there is something about the bond of adoption that changes a child's life forever. I know the security that came when I went from Wayne Patterson (the name given me by the Department of Social Services) to Wayne Lee Ball the son of John and Marcia Ball.  Today I pray for every one of my more that 400,000 brothers and sisters in foster care. And I pray for those who are contemplating adoption and those who should be contemplating adoption. These children are waiting. They are waiting to be received by you or someone you know.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Finding Healing

Divine Providence: When I was a seminarian, I did several talks around the country about Ministry with People with Disabilities. An all too generous person who heard me speak at one of these conferences paid for me to go on pilgrimage to the Shrine in France. What neither of us could know was that my first pariah assignment would also be to Our Lady of Lourdes in Richmond Virginia. Since then, this memorial has continued to hold a very special place in my life.

In the intervening 28 years I have learned an important lesson, something that I did not know when I travelled there. Perhaps the healing you need is not the one you think. We tend to focus on the physical, the visible. Often the deepest wounds are the invisible ones, the ones only God can see, the ones that we struggles to hide from others and even hide from ourselves.

There is probably no greater stigma in our society that the one associated with mental illness. It seems to be the only thing we won't talk about in public. And every day in this country that stigma has tragic consequences. Lives are cut short, and parents suffer their worst nightmare. Thankfully there are some organizations like The Cameron Gallagher K. Foundation, but not nearly enough and mental health services remain woefully inadequate.

Today let us turn to Our Lady and pray from healing: not just the healing of bodies, minds, and souls, but also a healing of society, of attitudes. Let us pray for every individual and every family suffering in silence. May the silence and the suffering be healed.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Redemptive Pain

It has been almost a year since the constant hip then lower back pain began. At first I thought it was simply the usual random issues that those of us with Cerebral Palsy deal with.  For months I did the usual things but none of them helped. I finally went to the doctor and in short it has turned out to be arthritis in my lower spine. Not much you can do about that.

Over the course of these months I have also been doing a bit of wrestling with God:the common, all to human: "Why me?" "Haven't I had enough to deal with in my life?"

I share this because what has come to me in prayer is a very simple truth:


Chronic pain forces us out of ourselves.  


If we direct our focus inward, the way much Pop spirituality would have us do, then all the  brain is going to find is the pain. And if we do that for very long we can get lost in the suffering and emptiness.   But if we turn our focus outward, away from ourselves then we simply cannot think about the pain.  The human mind cannot focus on two things simultaneously. We can switch our focus back and forth between objects but we cannot focus on two things at once.

Jesus taught us by word and example to always be focused on others.  Even at the moment of his crucifixion, he was focused on the thieves crucified with him, he was focused on his mother and the beloved disciple.

We live in a culture that sets the "self" as the highest good. But if we are Christians we are always looking outward and upward. We kneel in our Catholic Church's and we look to the tabernacle and Christ present in the Eucharist. We kneel at the foot of the cross. We know "it is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, aways and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord"

I have always loved Philippians 4:11 "For I have learned to be content in whatever circumstance." But God continues to show me new levels to what this simple phrase means.

All of us have selfishness and all us of experience pain in life. If we allow it, the latter can become the cure for the former, when touched by God's grace.



Monday, February 6, 2017

Faith, Patience, and Re-creation

Beginning today and running through next week, the first reading takes us back to the opening chapters of Genesis, to the creation of the known universe. As we read the first creation story today, we keep in mind that the Bible is not intended to be a physics, chemistry, or biology textbook. It is the ultimate Book of theology and anthropology. It tells us who God is, who we are, and what our relationships to one another and to God should be.

It begins with the most fundamental truth. The universe was created. It was not coincidence or accident, but intentionally brought into existence by a preexisting God.

The world Genesis tells us started out as "a formless wasteland"as our current translation has it. But the Hebrew is much more poetic in its description. The earth is "tohu-vbohu."

The first chapter of Genesis then uses "days" as a way of telling us that the earth was not an instantaneous creation, but one that took place in an orderly fashion, over time.

On the one hand, it is comforting to think that there is order to the universe and that God is guiding the process. On the other hand, it is precisely the creation over time that we don't much care for. If God had wanted to he could have brought the entire universe and everything on earth into being in an instant, but He didn't. He chose to do it step by step, is a painstaking careful and orderly process. And we know how long each "day" actually took.

If this is how it all began, why then do we expect that when chaos overtakes our personal lives, God will step in and fix it in an instant? The introductory verses of Genesis remind us that faith must go hand in hand with patience. When we turn to God in prayer we need to be patient and understanding that it is only "day" one.


Thursday, January 26, 2017

Why we need bishops

Yesterday's celebration of St. Paul reminded us of the call to teach all nations,and in some ways the 20th century was the greatest century ever for evangelization. Advances in technology made it possible to truly reach out to the whole world and close the distance that separates us from one another.

Today the Church celebrates two bishops: Timothy and Titus. No one can truly study the Bible and deny that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church is biblical. From the establishment of Peter as the Rock to the establishment of bishops, presbyters,and deacons. It's all there. And perhaps in the 21st century we see why we so desperately need our bishops in particular.

If the 20th was the century in which we shrunk the globe, the 21st seems to be our century of pulling it apart. Around the globe we are seeing a rise in nationalism. Patriotism, love of country, is a fine thing; but nationalism is different.

Jesus not only called us to evangelize the whole world, but he called us to simultaneously remain one. St. Paul reiterated that call to unity in his First Letter to the Corinthians in which we are told that there is to be no division at all.

Unity among Christians must be more than simple toleration: you do your thing, we'll do ours. Jesus says that we are to be one as He and the Father are one. The unity must be real, it must be visible and active. As he told the Corinthians we must be of one mind and one purpose.

Bishops are that connective tissue. They not only hold together the parishes of their individual diocese, they link us to the universal Church. We call it the College of Bishops, whose head is the Pontiff (the bridge) that holds the entire thing together.

It would be contrary to the most basic teaching of the New Testament for any group of people to act in isolation and yet claim to be Christians. Globalization is a term that scares many people, but Christians are never guided by fear. As our world threatens to pull apart, today we not only celebrate the memorial of Timothy and Titus, but we pray for all bishops, that the bonds that hold them together as one may also help us all to be the one Church, Jesus calls us to be.


Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The importance of the 25th

Most Christians when we think of the 25th, we think of December 25, Christmas, the birth of the baby Jesus. And yet, for most of us, any of s of. Non-Jewish heritage January 25 may in some way be more important. Today, January 25th, the Church celebrates the conversion of St. Paul.

It is true that Jesus told his disciples to "Go out and teach all nations..." But it was not until St. Paul entered the picture that this command became fully understood and realized. Before St. Paul, what we call Christianity was mere a sect of the Jewish religion. It is for that reason that St. Paul is called the Apostle to the Gentiles.

Saul as he was called was, in our modern language, the ultimate political insider. He was ultra-orthodox in his practice, and fierce in his persecution of Christians, whom he saw as a danger to the purity of the faith. That is why it is most fascinating that of all people, God chose him to break open the walls and let in the foreigners, the pagans, the unclean.

We must be careful, however, that we don't rob his message of its transforming power. Yes, it would be true to say that it is a "come as you are" invitation. But it is not an invitation that says come as you are, and stay who you are. Once we arrive we are all expected to change. Just as Saul became Paul we must allow ourselves to be transformed by God's grace. We are all required to open our minds and hearts to experience true conversion. And this is not a one time thing. For true Christians, it is a daily thing.

Today as we celebrate the Conversion of St. Paul, let us pray that Jesus will continue the work of conversion in each of us.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Ignorance

What is it about this word that bothers us so much? We get offended if someone calls us ignorant. And yet, unless we know everything, we are all ignorant about something. We are all ignorant about many things.

In today's gospels we hear that:

When his relatives heard of this they set out to seize him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”

Actually, the translations vary. Some say "family", or "friends." The core of the Greek word means close/near. The point in Mark's gospel is that it was those closest to Jesus who thought he was insane. The recent film Now You See Me captures the problem in a single line, when one of the magicians tells a crowd, "The closer you are, the less you see."

There are times when close is good, but there also times when we need distance to see fully. Sometimes we need spatial distance to see the big picture, and sometimes the distance we need is across time. We need time to pass for us to understand the larger meaning of an event. We need historical perspective.

Theology is precisely the Church's fuller understanding of God's revelation as it develops over time. As Catholics we believe that the Holy Spirit continues to guide the Church in this process.

God does not change. The Truth does not change. But our understanding does.

This is why humility is an essential virtue for any Christian. Humility allows to embrace our ignorance, to say the words, "I don't know." For it is only when I embrace my ignorance that I am truly able to learn.

Jesus relatives thought that mere proximity gave them knowledge, like Christians who attend church Sunday after Sunday. But proximity without openness can teach us nothing. Let us all step back from our certainty, acknowledge how little we know, only then we can truly be lifelong disciples, students of the one Teacher.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Dehumanizing

As I sit watching the sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean, I am reminded of the boundless awesomeness of God and how petty we can choose to be, and have chosen to be this year. At noon, Donald J. Trump will assume the office of president of the United States. How will we respond?

Today's first reading opens:

Jesus is always able to save those who approach God through him, since he lives forever to make intercession for them.

It is a reminder that God's salvation is a available to every human being, all those who approach God through him. Not those just who think like me.

The name Obama, or Clinton, or Trump: Over the last months I have sadly witnessed people I think of as Christians respond with, at best, a disdainful grunt to each of these names depending on their political point of view. How can we call ourselves Christians if we hold any human being in disdain? Even about those who crucified him Jesus said," Father forgive them."

The only way we can be disdainful and dismissive of a person is to dehumanize, the way troops are trained to dehumanize the enemy in war. In order to kill them they cannot think of them as people like themselves.

We who call ourselves Christians must think of every human being as a person like ourselves. We must not only think of them but love them, as God loves them. We are not allowed to say of a person "I can't stand that man/woman).

Would I have ever thought that Donald Trump would be president? No. But today he will be. And Hillary Clinton is a grandmother who dotes on her grandchildren like any other grandmother. They are both our brother and sister. Can we all just stop, take a deep breath, and behave like people of faith.



Monday, January 9, 2017

Son and Servant

With Christmas falling on Sunday, some adjustments had to be made to the liturgical calendar. Yesterday we celebrated Epiphany with the story of the Magi, today we jump approximately three decades to the Baptism of the Lord. For Jesus this marked the beginning of his ministry, for us it marks the transition to Ordinary Time.

This year we read Mathew's version of the baptism story, and in his version the voice does not speak to Jesus (You are...), the voice speaks to the crowd about him,

This is my beloved son, in whom I am well-pleased.

In a single sentence St. Matthew announces Jesus as the Son of God, beloved and also the Servant who pleases his master. In this one sentence he sets the stage for everything that will happen in the brief ministry of Jesus.

It is however St. John who reminds us why this is so important to us.

See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are

The word St. Matthew uses for beloved is from the word "agape" the love with which Jesus loves us and calls us to love one another.

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.

From the Father to the Son to us to others so this love flows.

More difficult for us is being the servant in whom the father is well-pleased. This call to servanthood is a daily call. Every day in our every word and action we are to seek to please God, first of all.

Today as we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, we should take time to reflect on our own baptism, not only on what we receive but also the demands that are placed on us because we are the baptized children of God. How will I show the world that I am both servant and son?

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

From Seed to Fruit

In this first week of January St. John continues to raise the bar.

No one who is begotten by God commits sin

 Firstly, the word sin is not as broadly as some would use it today. Some seem so obsessed with sin that even acts of bad manners are classified as sin. I remember a Rabbi when I was growing up who someone chastised for saying a bad word  at a football game. He proceeded to school this person in the entire list of words not forbidden by the Torah. Cussin' as we say in the south may be bad manners but unless you are taking the Lord's name in vain, there is nothing in the Bible that forbids it. This is not to say that it is recommended.  I use that example to point our that when St. John says that no one who is begotten of God commits sin, he is using the word in the strict sense. The catechism of the Catholic Church defines a sin as "an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law."(CCC 1849)

More than the definition of sin is how St. John describes our ability to live without sinning.  He says that No one who is begotten of God commits sin, because God's seed remains in him. For us as Christians St. John reminds us that we believe that three sacraments imprint an "indelible character." When one is baptized, confirmed or ordained; "the Father has set his seal" on us in away that cannot be undone. Even when we sin, this indelible character cannot be erased. In that sense, we really have no excuse for our behavior. This seed remains lodged in us and speaks to us through our conscience enabling us to know, when we will listen.  

In short, if we are begotten by God, sin takes effort. We must willfully choose to either ignore our conscience all together or hear it but act contrary to it. For those reborn by baptism, sin is not inevitable. As we walk through this day, may we let the seed that is planted in us bear good fruit.


Tuesday, January 3, 2017

A Clear Choice

We Christians seem to divide rather neatly into two extreme camps when it comes to sin. On one side you have those who seem to feel that as long as they haven't murdered anyone they're okay. Then there is the other group who are convinced that we are all sinners all the time. Today's first reading would be a problem for both. Today St. John tells us,

You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who remains in him sins; no one who sins has seen him or known him.

In our creed we can make the audacious claim that the Church is not only one but holy, precisely because the Church is the Body of Christ "and in him there is no sin." St. John raises the bar even higher when he write, "no one who sins has seen him or known him." In other words you cannot simultaneously say, "I know Christ" and "I am a sinner." We have to choose one life or the other. And we have to make that choice on a day to day, sometimes minute to minute basis. The Good News is that when we have steeped outside of Him and sinned we have the Sacrament of Penance as the door to come back inside.

On the positive side St. John tells us, "No one who remains in him sins." . We cannot both remain in him and sin. So when we who say we are Christians sin, we have to first step out of him, step out of the Body of Christ and then we can sin. It is a two step process.

Some Christians act as if sin is inevitable but St. John reminds us that sin is always a choice, two choices really. The first choice is to not "remain in him." The second choice is the actual sin. It seems to me that if we think about the first choice we would sin less often. After all, which of us would directly choose to abandon Christ.

When we face any temptation to any sin we should recall this passage from the First Letter of St. John and ask ourselves whether we want to remain in him or go outside and sin. When we put it that way the choice will be much clearer.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Integral Human Development

Today the Church celebrates its 50th annual World Day of Peace. In his message for today the Holy Father calls us to a deeper understanding of "active nonviolence" as the best way to solve the many conflicts in our world. Some will dismiss his message as naive. But if these initial years of the 21st century have taught us anything, it is that violence simply begets more violence.

As we start this new year Pope Francis invites us to look at the roots of global violence in our hearts and homes. He worries that our constant exposure to violence in the news and other media has desensitized us to it rather than deepening our concern for and solidarity with the suffering.

Not content with simply a message this Pope has taken action. Today January 1, 2017 a new dicastery comes into being in the Vatican. At a time when some Church bureaucracies are expanding with more offices, more people with longer titles, Pope Francis is combining four existing offices into one. The name for the new office "promoting integral human development" describes what we Christians have always known, that we are one.

On the level of the individual, it reminds us that we can't dissect a person and say as a Church that it is our mission to deal with spiritual needs as if those can be separated from the physical, psychological and emotional needs. On the global level, it reminds us that we are part of the single human race that God created us to be. Integral human development means that we must teach our children not how to be only Virginians, or Americans, or Catholics; but responsible members of a global society.

On this 50th World Day of Peace let us recommit ourselves to riding our world of division and violence, starting with our individual hearts.