Tuesday, August 29, 2017

What real power looks like

Today we celebrate the beheading of John the Baptist. It sounds strange to use the word celebrate, but it is the right word because we know that he was the truly victorious one in the story. 

If we look closely we will see the irony of this gospel. The king is the powerless one. He could have been powerful. He had the potential as king but he allowed himself to be manipulated by fear. His fear of looking weak was precisely what made him weak. The gospel tells us,

The king was deeply distressed, but because of his oaths and the guests he did not wish to break his word to her.

His step-daughter, his brother's wife, the guests, all in different ways held power over the king. And because of his weakness John the Baptist died. Herod looked powerful because he could order an execution but it was merely a kind of faux power. 

When I was a seminarian, a retired navy captain gave me several pieces of advice about leadership. One was, "The day you have to tell people you're in charge, you're no longer in charge. You've already lost control of the situation."

Real power doesn't have to look powerful; it just is. 

We can sometimes forget that we have the example of absolute power to follow.  Jesus Christ was the most powerful person in the history of the world. After all, he is God. His power, his strength, his authority are unmatched. And yet, how did he demonstrate those qualities to the world.

As Christians, on this feast of the Beheading of John the. Baptist, perhaps it is time for each of us to step back and ask if we are truly ready to put our faith into action. Are we ready to challenge all of our leaders, all those who exercise authority over others, to do so according to the model of Christ? One does not have to be Christian to learn from his example.  

Monday, August 28, 2017

Universal Call to Holiness

Today the Church celebrates St. Augustine, undoubtedly one of the great theologians of Christianity. 

Turn on your television and you will see program after program that deals with the supernatural. Go to church, and in far too many places the supernatural aspect of Christiany is gone. Jesus is reduced to a moral philosopher. Let me be clear. By supernatural I am not talking about ghosts and haunting. By supernatural, I am referring to things like the real power of grace. 

When we speak and sing of the grace of God we are not simply speaking about  God's forgiveness. Grace is something real. Grace is powerful. And we receive it in the sacraments. 

In our profession of faith we proclaim our belief that the Church is holy, and it is precisely the grace of God that transforms and makes the Church holy. It why St. Paul is able to refer to the memebers of the Church as "saints," holy ones. 

Some talk as if we are still slaves to sin, and the best we can do is hope that when we die God will be merciful. That is not our faith. As the Catechism says, "By canonizing some of the faithful, i.e., by solemnly proclaiming that they practiced heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God’s grace the Church recognizes the power of the Spirit of holiness within her and sustains the hope of believers by proposing the saints to them as models and intercessors."

The Second Vatican Council reminded us of the universal call to holiness.  The saints we venerate in the Church, the statues and icons of them, are constant reminders to us that heroic virtue is possible, living in fidelity to God's covenant is possible. No matter how strong the pull of sin is in our lives, we believe that the power of grace is stronger. We never give up the struggle. 

We venerate Saints like Augustine to remind us of the words of the Letter to the Hebrews 

We are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. 

It is not old-fashioned, outdated, or superstitious for us to reach out to the great cloud of witnesses for help. On this feast of St. Augustine let each of us renew our belief that we are called to be holy, and let us renew our belief in the power of grace in our lives. 

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Empty Chair

In today's first reading we hear about the role of the judges in Israel. In our American culture the symbol of the judge is the bench.

For us in the Catholic Church, the parallel symbol for a bishop is his chair. We often use the Greek word Cathedra, or the Latin word Sedes. We call the building that houses the chair a Cathedral. And, somewhat confusingly, Sedes makes its way into English as See. So we have terms like the Holy See, to refer to the Chair of Peter occupied at present by Pope Francis.

The chair for us is not primarily a symbol of judging but of teaching. If you watch the Pope, you will notice that he sits to preach/teach.

When a bishop dies, we call it a Vacant See, meaning the chair sits empty.  Indeed,  in some Ancient Eastern Christian Churches the chair is interred with the Bishop.  In the Catholic Church, the chair in the Cathedral will officially sit empty until the 13th Bishop of Richmond is installed. During the installation mass, the Archbishop of the Province (in our case the Archbishop of Baltimore) and the Nuncio (as representative of the Pope) will escort the new Bishop to the chair. At that time the See will no longer be vacant.

Our Catholic language and symbols can seem strange even to those who have grown up Catholic. The strange language reminds us that we are talking about the spiritual not the worldly. And as physical beings we need symbols, tangible points of reference.

Between now and the installation of our new bishop, perhaps it would be good for those who can to make a visit to the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. As we look upon the empty chair, we pray for the last occupant of the chair, the Most Rev. Francis X. DiLorenzo, that he may be welcomed into the company of the saints; and we pray for the next occupant of the chair, to  be chosen with the help of the Holy Spirit to lead the faithful of the Diocese of Richmond. 

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Faith as gift

I have to apologize to those who were regular readers for having simply dropped out of sight for over a month. God and I have been wrestling a bit. 

On June 5th at 9 pm I lost my hearing in my right ear, totally. On the morning of the 6th I woke up with wicked vertigo. Long story short- I have learned a whole new vocabulary with phrases like: Sudden Sensory-Neuro Hearing Loss, Single-Sided Deafness, Vestibular Rehab, and Cros Hearing Aids. While I am told the balance will come back, the hearing will not. 

Today's gospel seemed the perfect place to start back. 

We tend to think of the apostles as men of incredible faith, and yet that is not what the gospel tells us. In chapter 17 we find them with minuscule faith. 

Why could we not drive it out?” He said to them, “Because of your little faith. Amen, I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

When Jesus says, "If you have faith the size of a mustard seed...," the implication is that they don't. They are living with God incarnate and yet their faith is not even as big as a mustard seed.  But Jesus does not go looking for better apostles. 

Jesus knows what the apostles had to, and we have to, learn. Faith is not something we do. Faith is itself a gift from God. We can search all day long for rational explanations to bolster our faith, but ultimate, we must surrender, and ask, perhaps even beg, for the gift of faith to be poured into our hearts, our minds, our very souls. And we trust that if we ask God will do it. 

If the very men that Jesus lived with day in and day out were at the start men of little faith, we should not be disheartened when our faith falters. God always stands ready to give us every bit of the faith we need. All we have to do is ask.