Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Paul or Pilate

We all remember, and not in good way, Pontius Pilate washing his hands of responsibility for the death of Jesus. It was his job to render the decision and no gesture of hand washing could change that truth.

On the other hand we have St. Paul, who shows us that there are times when it is appropriate to not take responsibility. In today's first reading St. Paul says to the people,

And so I solemnly declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you, for I did not shrink from proclaiming to you the entire plan of God.

St. Paul can rightly say he is not responsible because he has done what he can do. He has proclaimed the entire truth to them. What they do in response to that truth is personal responsibility of each individual.

All too often, particularly when dealing with family, we feel responsibility to help them, and by help them we mean fix them. We erroneously believe that being a good Christian means doing everything possible for our loved ones.

In fact, St. Paul reminds us today that we can advise others but ultimately each person has to be responsible for their own actions, for how they do or do not follow the way of the gospel. This also means that each person must accept the consequences of their choices.

We often want to keep others from all suffering. St. Paul proclaims the opposite. He knows that the very act of embracing the gospel is going to lead to suffering and, for some, death. Suffering is part of human life, and in a special way, the Christian life.

It is not always easy to discern when we are being Paul and when we are being Pontius Pilate. Prayer and often spiritual direction can assist us in the process, but ultimately we have to listen to the voice of our well-formed conscience.

Monday, May 29, 2017

The in between

What must those days have been like?— the days between the Ascension and Pentecost. It is hard to imagine the feeling of lose the Apostles and other disciples must have felt. We know that many drifted away. Disillusioned, they went back to their old life.

And yet, there were the few who had real faith; not faith as ascent to a list of beliefs, but faith in the sense of absolute trust in the words that Jesus spoke to them.

In today's gospel we hear the most outrageous claim in the gospel.

I have conquered the world

Jesus did not claim that he will conquer [future tense] it when he came back. Jesus claimed that he had [past tense] conquered it.

Some two thousand years later it is hard to see the signs of His having conquered the world. If we listen to the news and even some Christian preachers, you would think that this world is still firmly in the hands of Satan.

But here is where we must have faith. Faith reaches beyond the narrow spectrum of what the human eye can see and what the human ear can hear. Faith enables us to use our hearts to reach beyond sight and sound, and to trust that Jesus has, on the most real level of reality, already conquered the world.

If we look for them, we can in fact get glimpses of the victory. But we have to look for them.

With the Ascension Jesus did not simply go back to where He came from and leave them with nothing while they waited for the Spirit. He left them in a world that had been transformed,a world that He had already conquered.

As we start this week, let us believe the words of Jesus. Believe Him when he says, "I have conquered the world." And with the eyes of our hearts and souls we will see all around us the signs of the Victory that those without faith cannot see.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Preparing for Pentecost

June 4th the Church will celebrate the Feast of Pentecost. But the way our lectionary is structured we actually start two weeks out with readings that help us prepare for Pentecost.

In John's Gospel the Holy Spirit is called by another title. He is the parakletos. The most exact Latin translation would be Advocate, literally the one who is called to stand at your side. Today Jesus tells us:

When the Advocate comes whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, he will testify to me.

In our creed we say that He "proceeds from the Father and the Son." And in fact, Jesus says the same thing slightly differently. Jesus says that He will send the Spirit, and the Spirit is from the Father as well. The Spirit is from both Father and the Son.

It is the Spirit of Truth. It would be impossible to understate the importance of our belief that what the Spirit speaks is not a truth, but the Truth.

The Spirit testifies, the Greek word from which we get martyr. Its original meaning was to testify, to give witness.

The Holy Spirit is the wise counselor, but is also the witness.

But where do we fit into this picture?

Whether we use the Greek "Paraclete" or the Latin "Advocate," either implies there must be a call made, a call for help. Before there is a call for help, there must be a recognition of a need for help. And there's the rub.

The Son ascended to the Father, and the Holy Spirit (equally God) has been sent into this world to be the Advocate for every man, woman, and child; to give us wise counsel, to plead our cause, to lead us step by step on the path of salvation.

And yet, too many days we think and act as if we can do it on our own. We only want to call for help when we are in "real trouble." Otherwise, we want to run our own lives. We think that is freedom.

There may be no dumber person on earth than the one who thinks he is smarter than his lawyer.

You want to be smart? You want to be free? It's very simple. Walk through every day remembering that your Advocate is with you and don't say or do anything without clearing it first through Him.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Humble Service

Yesterday we welcomed three new deacons into the clergy of the Diocese of Richmond. For priests, it is a reminder that a part of our Catholic theology of priesthood is the belief that when we are ordained priests we remain deacons. Even when one is ordained a bishop, one remains a priest and a deacons. Each successive ordination builds on the previous one. It does not replace it.

More broadly the ordination of a deacon is a reminder to every Christian that diakonia is the very foundation of every ministry in the Church. In the rite of ordination the meaning of diakonia is captured in two words, humble service.

The original seven deacons in the Acts 6 were ordained to care for the widows (and other needy people) so that the Apostles could focus on prayer and preaching. They were waiters and hence the name deacon.

In those moments when we are most honest with ourselves we can see that every day we wrestle with both words, humble and service. God is the Master and we are the servants.

At various points in the mass we kneel before God, we bow before God, we genuflect in God's presence. We physically lower ourselves. It can feel strange, awkward or uncomfortable because it is the opposite of what our ego and our culture calls us to do.

As we start a new week let us look for those small opportunities that we have each day to lower ourselves, to raise others up, to put them ahead of us, to let them go first — the chance to peace humble service.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Measuring Love

All Christians can recite the two great commandments: love God and love your neighbor as yourself. But my guess is most of us don't spend a lot of time thinking about the very real possibility that we don't love God.

If I call myself Christian, if I go to church, then I guess I love God. At least I love God enough.

In a single verse at the beginning of today's gospel Jesus gives us a very simple way that each of us can find a definite answer to the question: do I love God.

Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me.

Notice he says "my commandments." He does not say "the 10 commandments given to Moses interpreted in the narrowest possible way." Jesus's commandments includes everything that he commanded us to do or not to do, not simply our narrow reading of the 10.

One of the great things about the Catechism of the Catholic Church is that you can go to Part Three/ Section 2 and you will see the combination of the 10 commandments and those things which Jesus taught which expanded and deepened our understanding of each of those commandments.

To the extent that I know and strive to keep these commandments, I can rightly say that I love Jesus, I love God. To the extent that I choose to remain ignorant, or chose to ignore certain commandments, I am forced to admit that I don't really love God. I chose love of self over love of God. I do my will and not His.

Perhaps it would be good over a period of day to take the commandments one by one in the Catechism. Read through each one. Meditate on each one. Ask the hard question. Am I really ready to embrace all that this commandment entails?

Only when we do our best each day to keep all of the commandments can we truly say that we love God.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Fatima 100 years later

Today the town of Fatima Portugal hosted Pope Francis for the canonization of two children, and the 100th anniversary of the beginning apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Having grown up Baptist, Marian devotion was probably the aspect of the Catholic faith I wrestled with the most. I understood the difference between devotion and worship. I understood that devotion to Mary, is supposed to deepen our relationship with Jesus. I had read the theory, but deep down inside I just didn't get it.

As far back as I can remember Jesus and I were always close. I could always talk with him. What else did I need?

It wasn't until the death of my own mother that I finally understood. It was when that relationship was ripped away that I realized its uniqueness. No, she had not been the one to give birth to me, but she was still my mother in every other sense of the word. And there is no substitute.

God made us male and female. Now more that ever we understand that this is more than an anatomical difference. And so, paternity and maternity are two distinct but complimentary realities. We need both in our lives.

It was shortly after my mother's death, that a friend in Rome pointed out to me that I had been ordained on the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima. I would mull that over for a couple a years before I finally made the pilgrimage.

There are some who will try and argue that Jesus teaching us to call God "Father" is mere cultural convention. The same people will argue that when God became incarnate it was as a man because he needed to fit in. It seems to me that there is more going than we can fully comprehend. When we call God "Father" there is a true paternity there.

Jesus understood God as his father and Mary as his mother. If all Christians can agree that we are to imitators of Christ, then how can we say that we are not supposed to imitate this.

At Fatima, I took a leap of faith. I stopped trying to find the fully rational explanation and embraced it. I had long ago embraced God as my father, and Jesus as my brother, there I embraced Mary as my mother.

We need the whole family. That I simple truth.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Rediscovering Truth

In today's gospel we hear one of the simplest and yet most profound statements in the Gospel, when Jesus describes himself with three words: way, truth, and life. That Jesus is the way to eternal life is the bold claim at the heart of the Christian message. But it is the middle word that we need to focus on, truth.

We live in a culture in which for the first time, the question of Pontius Pilate

What is truth? (Jn 18:38)

has become the central question of our time.

Gradually, over the last few decades at least, we have been sliding away from a belief in objective truth. More and more people conflate opinion and truth. Your opinion is "your truth." People are encouraged to find their own personal truth. This error is often dressed up as something profound. It is simply wrong and dangerous.

The corollary danger is that if there is no such thing as truth, then there is no such thing as a lie. That person isn't lying, they are only speaking their truth. And at that point lies become like wire grass in the lawn, enmeshed.

Some act horrified as day after day statements coming from the White House are shown to be factually incorrect. And yet we have no one to blame but ourselves. Some want to blame the culture but we are the culture. We, collectively, create the culture. We have created this culture of personal subjective truth, alternative facts.

Let us pray that the current crisis will force left and right to come together around some fundamentals.

There is such a thing as objective truth.

It is knowable.

And we should all want to hear it, even when it runs contrary to what we want to believe.

The truth is the truth. A lie is a lie.

Without searching for the Truth we will never find the Way that leads to the Life.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Knowing Our History

Some Christians act as though Christianity is merely a philosophy or spirituality. We read the Bible and we glean from Jesus instructions about how we should live. I once had a rabbi tell me that if it was absolutely proven that Moses never existed it would not chain his faith. His faith is rooted in a book of law, the Torah.

Christianity is different. Our faith in not rooted in a book but in a person, Jesus Christ. Our faith is rooted in historical events: his passion, death, and resurrection. We believe that through those event God opened the way to salvation for humanity. Take away those historical events there would be no Christian faith.

Because ours is an historical religion, we should not be ignorant of our history. Not just what is in the Bible but how the Holy Spirit has guided the Church since.

In our first reading today we hear the story of how the Spirit led to the rise of the Church in Antioch. How it became the cradle of Greek-speaking Christianity. It was at Antioch that Christianity as we now know it took shape under the guidance of St. Paul. It was in Antioch that the word Christian came into being.

Too many Christians think only of Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Jerusalem, the cities of Hebrew Christianity. But the vast majority of us are the children of Greek Christianity, Gentile Christianity. There is a reason our New Testament is not in Hebrew but Greek.

As we study the early history it is important to note that the Church did not spring up in a random fashion,with groups of people forming their own communities and choosing their leaders. The Spirit guided the formation of the Church, and like the story of creation itself there was order in the formation of the Church, so that the link to the Apostles was always maintained.

Sometimes we get the urge to take out our Bibles and jump straight from the Bible to the 21st Century, as if the Bible were only a book of moral principles. The Bible tells only the beginning of salvation history, the earthly life of Jesus and the beginnings of the Church. To be truly Christian is to hunger to see how the Holy Spirit has guided the ongoing formation of the Church, century by century.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Transforming the Church

For American Catholics today the Second Vatican Council was the most transformative event in their lifetime. There are those who think it went too far and those who think it did not go far enough; those who think it ruined the Church, and those who think it is their job to fix what got ruined.

What we forget in all this argument is that throughout the Church's history there have been many moments when the Holy Spirit called the Church to radical transformation. Today's first reading takes us back to the first of these internal earthquakes.

In the first reading today from the Acts of the Apostles we hear the proclamation:

God has then granted life-giving repentance to the Gentiles too.

From its inception the Church had been Jewish. After all, didn't Jesus say regarding the Gentiles,

It is not right to give the children's bread to the dogs.

We of course know that this statement was merely a test and not one of exclusion, but many in the early Church were afraid of the Church losing its Jewish identity. For them, to be a Christian meant first of all being a Jew. A Gentile was welcome only if they converted to Judaism first. In the book of Acts we see this early struggle played out and resolved at the first great Council in Jerusalem.

It reminds us of how the Holy Spirit works. Sometimes the Spirit gently guides the Church, little by little. At other moments the Spirit gives her a good shake. What the Spirit never does is let the Church wander too far off the road.

We should not be scandalized by in-fighting in the Church. The Bible tells us such in-fighting has been there from the beginning. As long as there are the imperfect humans in the Church, there will be struggles. And the Holy Spirit uses those struggles to move the Church forward on the road to her final destination.

As long as we hold on tight to the Church, we need not fear, remember the word in John 21 regarding the role of Peter

even though there were so many, the net was not torn.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Peace and conflict

Today's reading from chapter 9 of the Acts of the Apostles seems to open with a romanticized image of a Church that could never have existed.

The Church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria was at peace.

But this description is only romanticized if we misunderstand the word peace.

For far too many people, peace is the absence of conflict. This kind of peace can mask some of the most unhealthy situations in the world: in families, in organizations, especially churches. Especially churches because people who go into ministry are often conflict averse in the extreme. When the desire to avoid conflict is our guiding principle, no matter how "ministry" we do, we cannot carry out the mission of the Church, the conversion of the world.

Peace as the scriptures understand it is not the absence of conflict but right relationship. To be at peace is to be constantly striving to live in right relationship with God, his body (the Church), and all who are our neighbor.

This is particularly difficult in our time because it assumes that there is such a thing as an objectively right relationship. There is right relationship and there is wrong relationship.

We know this right and wrong in three ways.

We know it first of all by that fundamental law that God has hard wired into humanity. We call this natural law. There is no culture in the world where stealing or lying are considered good. Some may argue that it is allowable in dealing with people they think of as the enemy but they would never say it is good in itself.

As Christians, we also know right and wrong relationship through what we Catholics refer to as "divine positive law", the truth that God has revealed to us in his Word, the Bible.

Lastly, we know it through the Church when she exercises her teaching function, magisterium, from the Latin word for teacher, magister. We believe that the Holy Spirit is alive and continues to help the Church properly apply the teaching revealed in the Bible to the challenges we face today.

Jesus in St. Matthew tells us to be perfect. We can call it perfection, peace, or holiness. To be at peace, to be holy, to be perfect is to embrace the idea that there is an established order to human life. I am supposed to behave in a certain way toward God, toward my bishop, toward the people I serve, toward my family and friends, toward strangers. There is always a right and wrong relationship.

Step two is recognizing that we all fall short. And here is where conflict is not only inevitable but necessary. If we are all called to perfection, to holiness of life, and if we are all one; then we need our brothers and sisters to challenge us and support us as we strive to be better. To overcome our inertia, our tendency to stay the same. For object to person to move friction is required. On a frictionless surface nothing moves.

St. Paul was a man at peace who constantly was engaged in healthy conflict, acknowledging his own flaws and simultaneously challenging others to be better, more conformed to Christ.

How do I know healthy conflict which is part of peace from the unhealthy conflict that is incompatible with Christian life? Ask yourself one simple question, "Am I truly striving to help my brother or sister to find holiness or am I simply trying to impose my will, to get them to do things my way?" Your conscience will know the answer.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Embracing life

If you watch the coverage of the Catholic Church in the media you would walk away with the notion that when. Catholics are described as pro-life, all it means is that we are anti-abortion.

Today's gospel reminds us that at the very center of the Christian faith is Life. Today Jesus puts it very simply,

whoever believes has eternal life.

There are two details we should not over look.

Firstly, the life he is talking about is not the biological life we received when we were conceived. It was the life we received when we were reborn in baptism: the most common baptism with water, baptism of blood (those martyred before receiving the sacrament), or baptism of desire.

In baptism we receive a new and eternal life. This new life does not replace our biological life or make it meaningless, but it does place it in a new context.

Secondly, we should note that the gospel doesn't say "will have" in the future, he says "has" in the present. While we do not yet have this new life in its fullness, we do possess it now.

The daily challenge for us is to fully embrace the gift we have received. We constantly experience the temptation to be drawn downward, to live a purely material earthly life. Particularly in the Easter Season the readings constantly call us upward. They call us to be more than we are.

Today and every day during this Easter Season in particular it is important for us to pause from our regular activity and remember what we have inside us. Only when we truly believe that we have eternal life will be power of that life be able to transform us.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Catholic Labor Day

In many counties with an historically strong Catholic culture, today, the Feast of St. Jospeh the Worker, is Labor Day. It is time for us to remember that our Catholic anthropology, our understanding of the human person, includes a proper understanding of the place of work.

We understand that humans beings need to be productive, we have a need and therefore a right to gainful employment. We have an obligation give our employer our best, and the corresponding right to receive a just wage in exchange. One can watch the development of the Church's teaching from Rerum Novarum through the document written by St. John Paul II, Centesimus Annus marking the 100th anniversary of the same.

Unfortunately our language reveals our attitudes. Those who used to be PERSONnel are now referred to as human RESOURCES. A resource is by definition something to be used. In places like Virginia "Right to Work" is twisted to mean right to fire without cause. And sadly, in many places, instead of leading, Catholic organizations are trying to emulate the corporate model. On this Feast of St. Jospeh the Worker we Catholics need to lead with the Gospel, the truth of the dignity of every person. The Church should never become a business.

In our American culture, there is another insidious tendency, linking our identity to our work. Yes, God intended us to work, but work was always meant to be the means not the end. We tend too often to tie our worth to our salary or our title. You could be scrubbing toilets, but if in your heart you are able to offer that as service, as an expression of the command to love your neighbor, it can become an aid on the road to personal holiness which is the goal of every human life. The Second Vatican Council reminded us of the universal call to holiness. Our work can and should be, not only a way to earn a living, but a step on our path to holiness. If you work in an office you can see it either as meaningless paper work, or you can choose to see the human beings that each of those pieces of paper represent. And all work can and should be lifted up as an offering to God.

In short, today's feast reminds us that the worker must always be understood to be more important than the work. The work will all pass away, but the worker is intended to live forever with God.