Saturday, September 29, 2018

Do I believe?

Today as the Church celebrates the archangels Raphael,Gabriel, and Michael; it is a time for all of us to stop and ask how much we believe in the presence and power of angels. 

There have for centuries been certain currents within Christianity that seek to reduce the universe to humans and the Trinity. Even in the Catholic Church, since the second half of the 20th century there has been a tendency to dismiss all other spiritual realities as old-fashioned, or superstition. Some have even tried to explain aways the angels in the Bible as people, human messengers. 

The fact is that Christianity and all three of the monotheistic religions have always believed in the existence of angels. Angels are spiritual (non-corporeal) beings with intelligence and free will. As St. Augustine explains, “angel” is their office not their nature. They are messengers and servants of God. They can constantly behold the face of God. 

Why does it matter to us? As the Catechism puts it,”From its beginning until death, human life is surrounded by their watchful care and intercession.” In a world that is increasingly individualistic, and even religion gets reduced to “me and God”, it is important for us to remember that there a large part of the universe that we cannot see, and we are not the only intelligent creatures in that universe. We do not need to look to other planets for non-human intelligent life.  They are all around us. They are called angels. They serve as intermediaries between God and us. They accompany us on the journey of life. As we are told in psalm 91,

For he will give his angels charge of youto guard you in all your ways. 

On this Feast of Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel perhaps we all need to pause to be greateful for the action of angels in the world, and listen more carefully for their voices. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

It seems too easy

For those of us who still hope for eternal life, what must we do?

Some seem to think that just being a nice person is enough and because God loves everyone, we are all going to heaven.
Some Christians will tell you that faith alone will do it. 
But in a variety of places, as in today’s gospel, we find another formula:

My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it.

Two simple verbs:to hear and to act. 

Professing faith is a great start, but that’s all it is, the beginning. If we wish to be counted among the brothers and sisters of Jesus, we must both hear His Word and do it. 

Where does the system break down? It doesn’t appear to be the hearing. Many Christians have heard the Word until we can recite it from memory. Some can quote chapter and verse. The problem does not seem to be primarily in the hear. 

The center of the problem seems to be in the process where we convert what we have heard into action. What is the blockage?

Temptation and our own enternal passions play a role for certain and we cannot ignore the role of Satan in the world.

But as problematic is the fact that we humans are social by nature. This is, in general, a good thing. It’s what makes society possible. But it also has a downside. 

We want to fit in. We want to succeed.  We want the approval of our superiors. We fear disappointing our loved ones, or the negative consequences of crossing the boss. And so we conform,;we go along. We forget the adage that “silence gives consent.”

Today’s gospel reminds us that on our last day each of us will be judged on, not only how much of the Word we have heard, but on whether or not we have converted the Word into action. Jesus gave his life. How much are we willing to give. 

Monday, September 24, 2018

When all is seen

We are told in the gospel of St. Luke,

For there is nothing hidden that will not become visible, and nothing secret that will not be known and come to light. 

And our minds immediately run to people we don’t like, people we think have gotten away with or are getting away with something. We think finally they will get what’s coming to them. 

But rather than thinking of others, perhaps, we should think back over our own lives.. Imagine for a moment if absolutely everything you had ever thought, said, or done was suddenly publicly seen by all.  How would any of us feel if our lives were suddenly that exposed? How many relationships would go up in smoke if every person knew what you thought, or said about them behind their back? You can’t write it all off as “I was only kidding.”

In the Letter of St. James we are commanded to,

Confess your sins to one another 

In the early church this was taken quite literally and people were expected to stand up in front of the whole community and confess. Thankfully, over time, this practice evolved into our Sacrament of Penance, and we can make that confession to one priest or bishop as representative of the whole community. In this life we can maintain some privacy.  

Today’s gospel, however, reminds us that at the end there will be no secrets; there will be no privacy. It will all be known.  At the moment of our death, we will face what we call the “particular judgment”, the judgment of the individual. Our entire life will be brought to light and judged. And we will be humbled. 

The only way we can make it easier on ourselves is to get up every day and live as if it were all being broadcasted. We would do well to imagine that every moment of our life were being live-streamed on the internet, including our thoughts. 

In the gospel today we are told that there is nothing hidden that will not be visible. That would include all four categories we mention in the confiteor: thought, words, what I have done and what I have failed to do. 

It seems like an impossibility high bar that is being set. But it is really quite simple. We must think before we speak or act. And when we do fail, we should avail ourselves of the gift of the Sacrament of Penance, recognizing that there is no such thing as private sin, sin that it only between me and God. As members of the body of Christ, everything done by one effects all.  

May God give each of us the wisdom today, that we may choose the right words and actions, the ones we could be proud to have known by the world. 

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Which soil am I today ?

Every Christian knows the parable of the seed and the sower. Usually when we read the parable, we read it as referring to different groups of people represented by the path, the rocky ground, the thorns and the good soil. But suppose for a moment we turn it inward and use it as a way of examining our personal behavior, in particular, how we listen. 

It suddenly becomes clear that each one of is all four kinds of soil at different moments in life. 

Sometimes we are the impenetrable path. The birds might as well come and take the seeds away because we are not going to listen at all, our minds are made up, truth doesn’t matter. 

Sometimes we are the rocky soil. We listen, we hear the truth, but it has no lasting effect. 

Sometimes we are soil with the thorns. We listen with the best of intention. We want to be good Christians. But then, we let the thorns from the world around us come in and choke it out.

And occasionally, we are the good soil, we listen, we hear, we allow the Word to actually take root, we are transformed, and through us God is able to produce much fruit. 

If we are honest, we can admit that we vacillate between all four. And the more important question is why. Each of us must look into our hearts and ask what triggers each of the four states. Sometimes we are so petty that the name of the person speaking is enough to turn us into “the path.” We will hear nothing that person has to say. Other times we shift away from being good soil so subtly that we don’t even notice. That is, perhaps, the most dangerous to our spiritual well-being. 

This parable reminds each of us that we must constantly be asking which kind of soil we are at any given moment.  When I read the scriptures, when I pray, when I look something up in the Catechism, when I read the latest teaching from Pope Francis, or my own bishop, how do I listen? Am I looking for something to disagree with, something I think is wrong? Or do I truly open my mind and heart? Am I willing to let my ideas be the ones that die to make room for a deeper truth? 

Unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies...

Which of my opinions or ideas will die today?

Friday, September 21, 2018

Remaining Focused

When you opening the New Testament, the first book we see is The Gospel According to St. Matthew. Today we celebrate him as apostle and evenglist. 

In the last few years we have heard a great deal in the Catholic Church about the New Evangelization.  But while some of the methods are new, evangelization is as old as the Church herself. It is what those first 12 did. They went out and proclaimed the Good News, the Evangelion, to the people around them. 

As simple as that seems it depends on a prior action, an action, that is captured in the first title by which we celebrate St. Matthew, Apostle. In the Catholic Church we reserve the use of the word apostle to those who were called and walked with Jesus. St. Paul is entitled to be called apostle, because of his unique encounter and call.

We are all called to participate in the activity of evangelization by virtue of our baptism. But if we are to do that with any credibility we too must be apostolic. We must be people who walk with the Lord. 

The first reading for today’s mass begins with the admonition,

live in a manner worthy of the call you have received

Does this mean that only the perfect are allowed to evangelize? Certainly, there are some currents in our culture that take that attitude, forgetting of course that there are no people in the world today without sin,  Even the Pope needs and has a confessor. 

A part of the Gospel is the Good  News that is precisely the fallen that Jesus rasiees up to become his fiercest preachers. As we heard in yesterday’s gospel,

Which of them will love him more?” Simon said in reply, “The one, I suppose, whose larger debt was forgiven.”

To go out and proclaim the gospel does not require that we be perfect, but it does require that every single day of our lives, we get up and to the best of our abilities live lives worthy of the call we have received he. Christ’s love and mercy is not license to do as we please. Worthy or unworthy, which life will we live today? The choice is simple if we stay focused on walking humbly with our God. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Embrace the hyperbole

Being raised in the 60’s and 70’s, the word “radical” had a particular meaning. It calls to mind the shattering of all the norms of the 50’s, some of which needed to be shattered. Racism, as well as the blatant discrimination against any minority, including women and those of us with disabilities, all needed to go. Fifty years later it seems clear that we, as the old saying goes, threw out the baby with the bath. We indiscriminately grabbed anything with the word tradition attached to it, and tossed in the garbage.

Today St. Paul tells us he is going to show us 

a still more excellent path

The word he uses for more excellent is hyperbole. In English we use this word to refer to overstatements, things that we can’t possibly want people to take literally. And that is how we dismiss much of the gospel. We declare it hyperbole. Even some Christians who claim to follow the Bible literally, dismiss the more radical portions as hyperbole. 

If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me. (Mt. 19:21)

Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt. 5;48)

Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. (Lk. 6:30j

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (Eph. 4:29)

And we could go on and on listing those Bible verses that most of us simply choose to dismiss. We dismiss them because they are too demanding of us. 

Perhaps it is time for us to take a fresh look at our faith, and embrace the truly radical nature of Christianity. Maybe it’s time to embrace the hyperbole. 

Paul’s discourse today ends with a famous verse.

So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

But the love of which he speaks is not the love of TV and movies. It is not the love holding hands and singing songs. It is a self-sacrificing love, that demands everything. It is a love that finds its origin only in God. It comes from God and we cooperate with Him in it. 

For almost half a century we Christians have tried to fill our churches by adapting to the culture. We forgot what St. John taught us, that we are to be in the world not of it.  Instead of filling our churches, we have watched as an increasingg number of people list their religion as “none.”  If insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, perhaps it’s time to chance course and embrace the radical difference of Christianity. 

Monday, September 17, 2018

What awful bread

When children are preparing for first communion, often parishes let them taste unconsecrsted bread and wine.  Yuk! Is usually the response to the wine. And they bread they don’t find that much better. If you’re wondering why the bread we use for communion is nothing but flour and water, you answer is found in today’s first reading from chapter 11 of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. 

From the letter it appears that in the beginning the Christians did gather on Sunday for a real feast, lots of food and too much drink. Everyone one would bring the equivalent of a picnic and have a great time. And as we read in his letter Paul put a stop to it. Why?

Because as we read,

When you meet in one place, then, it is not to eat the Lord’s supper, for in eating, each one goes ahead with his own supper, and one goes hungry while another gets drunk.

He then instructs them to get back to the foundation of the celebration of the Eucharist.  

the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my Body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my Blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.

It is from these words and the words of the gospel descriptions that the Church over time constructed the very simple Litrugy of the Eucharist that we celebrate in the Catholic Church. The elements: bread made only from flour and water, and unadulterated grape wine. In mass the Liturgy of the Eucharist is preceded by the Liturgy of the Word. 

For those who wish Church looked more like a party or a rock concert, blame the Corinthians. 

Sunday, September 16, 2018

The turn from self

For those who believe that we are saved by faith alone, I would point you to the words of St. James in today’s second reading,

So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 

Our liturgy is practice for life.  From the very first sign of the cross at mass we are called to combine words with actions. And this week, the action the gospel calls us to focus on is self-denial. 

We live in a culture obsessed with increasing pleasure and avoiding pain. One need only look at the opioid epidemic to see where the inability to embrace pain can lead.

As Christians there are two kinds of suffering. 

The first is the unavoidable, those things that happen to us over which we have no control: a medical condition, the loss of a loved one, for example. For these we know that rather than deny, or try to escape, we hold on tight to Christ and His body, the Church. And in faith we know that we, together, will get through and the pain can be transformed into a channel of God’s grace. 

The second form of suffering is the one that St. Peter in the gospel cannot comprehend. It is the truest imitation of Christ. It is the suffering, the self-denial, that we freely choose. 

In the gospel Jesus does not say “put up with your cross.” His command is “take up your cross.” Jesus chose of his own free will, to take up the cross, suffer and die; not for any personal benefit but for the benefit of others— selfless, freely chosen, suffering. That is what Peter could not comprehend, and is perhaps even less compressible in our culture that is centered on the self and our comfort. 

It is not just during Lent that we are called upon to take up our crosses. In the gospel of St. Luke he adds the word “daily.” Every single day, each time our minds drift toward ourselves, we are called to turn away from self, to turn outward and upward. 

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Dealing with the Past

We follow the celebration of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross with the celebration of Our Lady of Sorrows. Any parent who has lost a child can tell you; there is no greater pain.  And so, we look to Mary as the model, the one human being who can truly understand when we are in pain.  

Last night here in Richmond we gathered at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, a mostly aptly named church. And we prayed for healing. Some may say, “What good does that do? You can’t change the past.” And they would be half right. 

We human beings live our lives in space and time. We live in a linear fashion. Our minds wander to the past and the future. Which one of us does not have something in the past that we would change if we could? But we are trapped in the now.  We cannot go back. We cannot even see what lies ahead. We are propelled forward by faith, hope, and curiosity regarding what is to come.

God, however, is not like us. God is not bound by either time or space. God is not only omnipotent (all-powerful); God is also omnipresent.  God is everywhere at every time. What we human beings think of as the past or the future is all present to God, and all within God’s command. 

Can the past be changed? We need only look to the words of Jesus in St. Matthew’s Gospel;

For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.

God who exists beyond the limits of space and time can reach back in time and redeem the wounds of the past. He can heal. He can restore all things to wholeness. The only limitation to God’s power is our own God-given free will. 

We must open our hearts fully before God. Like Our Lady of Sorrows we must stand at the foot of the cross and fearlessly pour out our pain, our fear, our anger. all the emotions that keep us from experiencing healing. And when we have poured it all out at the foot of the cross God can then fill that empty space with Grace. 

Yes, Mary, as any mother would, wept at the horrible death of her son. But she also rejoiced at his resurrection. Today we pray for all who are trapped in sorrow, especially those who feel as if the pain will ever end. We pray with absolute confidence in God’s power to touch, to heal, to restore. 

Friday, September 14, 2018

Why Atone?

Tonight at 7 PM in our Cathedral, the Bishop of Richmond, will celebrate a mass of atonement. In a gesture that is a liturgical aberration, the priests are asked to not concelebrate but to sit in the pews as if we were laity, and the bishop will celebrate mass without any of the insignia of his office. This will be accompanied by other penitential gestures. 

Some will call it show.Some will ask why should we participate, what do we have to atone for, we didn’t abuse children or cover it up. The anger is real and deep, and the question deserves an answer. 

To answer the question we need only look at the word atone.  It doesn’t come from Latin or Greek. It is a truly English word, a contraction for “at one.” Something that was once united has been broken. Something must be done to heal the break, to make it whole, to restore the unity. To atone is to do what is necessary to make it one again, to be “at one.”

At every level of the Church the unity has been broken. Many of the laity look at the clergy with suspicion and distrust. Priests look at their bishop and wonder if he covered something up or will he throw them under the bus to save himself. Bishops and Cardinals attack the Pope, even when it was his predecessors who promoted the bishops in question. The Church is fractured like a piece of glass. 

The original act of atonement was of course that of Jesus Christ. Did he suffer and die on the cross to make reparations for His sin? Of course not. He suffered an agonizing death for the sins of others, for the sins of all, for our sin. 

The Church, as St. Paul tells us is a single body with Christ as the head. What happens to one part effects the entire body. It is because of that unity that the death of one is able to save all. 

We know that we are called to imitate Christ. This means more than being nice. It means that, like Jesus, we must, of our own free will, embrace acts of penance, not just for our own sin but for the sins of others within the Church, other members of the body. 

Many of those who abused and those who covered it up are now dead. There is no penance they can do, no earthly punishment that can be inflicted on them. But we who are alive can walk in the footsteps of Christ. We can offer ourselves up.  We can take up the cross and follow him. 

Tonight in our Cathedral it will feel much like Good Friday. And that certainly seems to be where we are a Church, probably where we are called to live for some time to come. And we need to live there for a while because the only path to Easter is through Good Friday. There is no way around. 

Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself take up his cross and follow me. 

No one is naive enough to believe that a Mass of Atonement is going to fix the problem, but it is the right place to start. If we truly believe that the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life” then where better to start than with the Eucharist. If the bishop is the visible sign of unity then who better to celebrate the mass than him. 

In John’s gospel before Jesus goes to his death for us, he utters his great prayer for the unity of the Church. Now we must pray for that unity. In our prayer let us offer up our hurt, our anger, our frustration, our disappointment. Let us lay it all at the foot of the cross. And in the original sense of the word, let us do it as one, in the power of the one Holy Spirit, that the unity of our fractured Church be restored. 

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Right to Judge

For 18 years I have served as a judge in the tribunal of my diocese. More than once I have been asked “Who gives you the right to judge?” The answer is found squarely in the first reading for Monday’s mass. 

In a scene right out of modern daytime television a man is described as living with his father’a wife. Whether it is cohabitation or whether he is married to her, we do not know. What we are sure of is that St. Paul condemned it and pronounced sentence. 

I, for my part, although absent in body but present in spirit, have already, as if present, pronounced judgment on the one who has committed this deed

He does not say “God has pronounced judgement”. He uses the pronoun “I.”  He not only pronounced judgement but imposed the most severe penalty, excommunication. 

The one who did this deed should be expelled from your midst. 

Over time the Church developed a system for exercising this role of judging and appropriately punishing her members. Much of the world today can thank the Church for its judicial system of laws, tribunals, advocates, judges,assessors, and notaries. They continue to use the structures that the Church adapted from the Romans. 

Sadly, in the latter half of the previous century, following the council. we ceased exercising the judicial function in the Church and even today in many places our tribunals are relegated to dealing only with marriage. 

In Tuesday’s first reading St. Paul chastises Christians for taking each other to civil court, instead of handling their disputes within the Church. Sadly, we now find ourselves in a position where because the Church abdicated her judicial responsibility in the matter of abuse, the civil authorities are being called in to do what we should have done. 

Perhaps this will be the time when the Church will make the necessary reforms to our own system.  As Pope Francis has called to make the system more available to people for marriage cases, let us teach the people of God all of the matters that they can bring to a tribunal. And create some protection for judges and other tribunal personnel who currently serve at the whim of the local bishop.  

Our current Code of Canon Law was promulgated in 1983. Imagine if, even beginning that year. laity, religious, deacons  and priests in the Church could have brought their charges to a panel of judges to be heard, the accused been properly tried, and if convicted, punished. Imagine if the system had allowed a bishop to be accused and tried. Would people have sued diocese after diocese? 

Yes, the gospels tell us that as individuals we are not to judge. But as a Church unless we begin to judge more than marriage, we will be severely judged by the world.  

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Sin of omission

In today’s gospel, we encounter the story of the master who gave coins to each of three servants.. To one he gave five, to one two and to one he gave one. 
As we know, the last one did nothing with coin he was given.

Why? Because he was afraid. His fear kept him from doing anything.

As we deal with the current crisis there are those who love to cook up complex conspiracy theories. But the answer to why many people who knew things did nothing is very simple. They were afraid, afraid to displease their superiors, afraid to tell the “people at the top” anything they didn’t want to hear. 

This behavior is not unique to the Catholic Church. We can look around and find countless examples of organizations where the same is true. A scandal erupts and after some investigation it is discovered that a host of people up and down the chain knew something but said nothing for fear of the blowback. It’s human to behave this way. 

The gospel today reminds us, however, just how wrong it is. The servant who did nothing is severely punished. They are commanded:

throw this useless servant into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth

As we deal with the current crisis in the Church there is much that needs to be said out loud, and there have been and will be a host of meetings at various levels. But how many people will say the things that need to be said? And how many of us will be the useless servants who sit in silence out of fear?

Yes, we all need to find our courage. But there must also be a systematic, an environmental change. 

Our bishops must, in the words of Pope Francis, “smell like sheep”. They must be accessible. The current system in too many places where the pastor talks to the dean, who talks to the vicar, who talks to the bishop, has proven that it does not work.  In the days before modern communication it was necessary. Now there no excuse. 

But all of the access in the world will not help unless the people no longer have to be afraid. Unless people can feel that their leaders are willing to hear hard truth. 

This can happen one of two ways. Either bishops themselves can make it clear they will listen and not punish. 
Or, there will have to be some protections imposed from outside. 

The servant in today’s gospel was paralyzed by fear. In 1 John we are told that

Perfect love casts out fear

We must do everything in our power to make the Church a place where laity, deacons, priests, and bishops can speak without fear.