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


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 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.