Monday, December 31, 2018

Hope for 2019

In less than 24 hours we will begin 2019. For me personally, it will make an important milestone, because I will celebrate 30 years of priesthood. Nineteen of those years will have been spent also as a tribunal judge. 

It was in 1998 that I went off to Rome to study canon law at the Pontifical Gregorian University, founded by St. Ignatius Loyola. We can easily forget that the legal system of the Catholic Church has inspired and influenced legal systems around the world. In American history classes, we tend to jump from the Roman Empire, to the Magna Carta, to the Declaration of Independence. If the Catholic Church is mentioned, it is only as a caricature of something evil.

My time in Rome only deepened my faith and trust in the Church. We have laws rooted in the gospels. We have a judiciary. We have clearly articulated obligations, rights, and procedures. We believe in the concept of justice.  

Sadly, it was not long after my return in the summer of 2000 that I began to see the flaw in the system. Contrary to some conspiracy theorists, the problem is not this Pope or some secret cabal in the Vatican. The problem is more mundane and closer to home. 

While the Code of Canon Law is law for priests, deacons, reiglious and laity; in the mind of too many bishops it is merely a “Compendium of Suggestions.” Bishops are acutely aware that their only superior is the Pope and he will only intervene in the most egregious cases.   Locally, every member of the judiciary in a diocese serves at the pleasure of the bishop. When a bishop or one of “his people” violates the law, there is no practical system to address the violation. The one who complains is likely to be the one who gets punished.  In theory, bishops are bound by the law. In practice, they (and their inner circles) are free to violate any law they don’t like with no consequence expect perhaps a stern letter from a Vatican bureaucrat. 

After 2002, in the US we got  the charter and review boards. But even now, each bishop chooses the review board and is free to ignore or simply rewrite the regulations that govern the review board. 

In February Pope Francis has called for a special meeting with the heads of bishops conferences from around the world. This may we’ll be our last chance to regain our credibility. But all the new law in the world will not mater, if there is no functioning systems for holding bishops accountable, when they choose to violate or simply ignore the law. 

There can be no doubt that 2019 will be a turning point in the history of the Catholic Church. If we get this right, the faith of the people and our credibility can be restored. If we fail again, generations may be lost to the Church. 

Despite all that I have seen in my almost 30 years as a priest and part of the chancery, I still believe that the Holy Spirit guides our Church, and Jesus is the Head. I do believe that we can be the Church that we are called to be. Tomorrow we begin the new year by celebrating Mary, Mother of God. As the mother of Jesus, she is also the mother of the Church. Through her intercession, may our Church truly be reborn in the new year. 

Thursday, December 27, 2018

White, Red, White, Red

When we celebrate Christmas we often think of the colors red and white, but we rarely think of the fact that those are the liturgical colors that get alternated on the first four days.  Christmas Day was white. Yesterday, Sr. Stephen the Protomartyr was Red, then today we jump back to white for St. John the Evagelist. 

It is St. John whose gospel we read on Christmas Day. It is St. John in the introduction to his gospel is able to span all of time. He takes us back and reminds us that Jesus is the Word through whommthe universe is made. Then it brings it all the way forward to our time in verse 12 when he says,

But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God;

St. Iraneus, Athanasius, and Aquinas are all quotes as the catechism explains what it means for us.

The Word became flesh to make us "partakers of the divine nature":78 "For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God."79 "For the Son of God became man so that we might become God."80 "The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods."81

To some this can sound like heresy. 

Perhaps the reason we are so reticent to embrace this truth is because it is easier for us to think of ourselves as frail sinners. If we were to embrace the notion that we are in any way sharers in His divine nature, then what excuse would we have. It we were to embrace the transforming power of grace, then we would be forced to embrace the fact that sin is always a free choice. We choose to be uncharitable. We choose to act contrary to the gospel. If an act wasn’t a free choice, then it cannot be called a sin. Yes, there are accidents, but by definition they are not sins.  Yes, there are those who suffer from mental illness and cannot control their actions, but neither are those sins. 

St. John reminds us not only what we should be, but what we can be, what we are. How do we do it? — one choice at a time. To us has been given the power, if we would only believe. 

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

The First of Twenty

We wake up this morning to celebrate the first of, not twelve, but twenty days of Christmas. The actual number varies from year to year. The Christmas season begins on December 25 and ends on whatever day the Baptism of the Lord falls. This year it is January 13. 

There are four masses traditionally celebrated for Christmas, each with its own readings:
— the vigil mass with the gospel which includes the genealogy. 
— the Mass during the night (missa in nocte)  known in English as Midnight Mass with the gospel that includes Bethlehem, Shepherd, angels, etc.
— the mass at Dawn which few parishes celebrate.  Its focus is Jesus as the light come into the world.
— lastly, the mass on Christmas Day. 

This is no mass for romantics. There are no shepherds, no angels, no mangers, or animals. The mass on Christmas Day is the mass for the adults. 

The gospel for Christmas Day is the prologue to the Gospel of John, Perhaps the most power statement ever written about the identity of Jesus.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 
He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. 
What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; 
the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 

The Book of Genesis opens by telling us that god spoke and the universe came into being.
John tells us that the Word through whom all things came into being was Jesus.
Genesis tells us the first thing created was light.
John reveals that The Light which no darkness could ever overcome is Jesus. 
Life itself came and comes through Jesus. 

The universe was created by the Father but through the Son. Jesus became incarnate and was born of the Virgin Mary at a specific time and place. But he existed outside of time and space with the Father and the Holy Spirit, before creation ever began. 

Some Christians act as if we worship the Bible as the word of God. St. John reminds us that the definitive Word is not a book.The ultimate Word is a person, Jesus whose birth into our world we celebrate today. 

The God of Christianity is not the greatest power in the universe. He is more than that. He exits beyond the universe, beyond creation, above creation. In comparison to the grandeur of God, the universe is a snow globe. 

And today we celebrate our Christian belief that all of that was emptied into time and space, into a human life called Jesus. And why would God do that? He did it so that we might be able to share in his divinity. He did it so that we might become more than simple creatures.  He did it to make us truly sons and daughters. 

This year we have 20 days of Christmas and perhaps we need all 20. Perhaps with 20 days of Christmas, we might just begin to grasp what this birth meant and who we are called to be. Together as the one holy catholic and apostolic Church, perhaps we in 2019 we can show the world that we are that light which the darkness cannot overcome.  He is the head, we are the body. The two are inseparable. 

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Women from the periphery

Today, on the last of the Sunndays of Advent, the Church turns our attention to the role of women in salvation history. Two women, Elizabeth and Mary, are the bookends.  Elizabeth is thought to be too old and barren. Mary is at the other end of the spectrum, on the cusp from child to woman. Both women are in some ways outcasts. 

In those days, when a couple did not get pregnant, all of the blame was placed on the woman. She was barren. She was the one who must have displeased God. She was someone to be avoided.  

Mary was the perfect age to be married off. The problem in her case is that the pregnancy precedes the wedding. And who will believe that God is the father. 

What unites these women is faith. 

The story tells us that

Mary set out and traveled to the hill country

She and Elizabeth are away from the gossiping crowds. One can imagine that hours these two women must have spent in prayer together. What must those three months together have been like, the bond they would have formed. From this encounter Mary is strengthen to return home and complete her mission. 

From this encounter two great prayers are born, the Hail Mary and the Magnificat. 

For those who want to claim that Christianity is patriarchal, where are then men in this story? Only Jesus and John are alluded to.  There had to have been other men around. None are named. Today is about the women. 

Saturday, December 22, 2018

The coming of the Light

As I awoke this morning I couldn’t help but think about the changing of the seasons— not the coming of the cold of winter, but the passing of the winter solstice. From now each day will get progressively lighter. The slowly ever-increasing hours of daylight remind us that no matter how cold the winter comes, there will be spring; there will be new life. 

While we tell ourselves that for the next few days we are supposed to be filled with joy, in reality, for many people the holidays only increase their pain. Especially for those who have lost loved ones this year, the first Christmas can be truly heart-wrenching.  The holidays can be something to be endured. 

For us as a Church, 2018 has been another difficult year, not unlike 2002.  What, in someways, has this one worse, has been the lengths to which many of our leaders would go to cover up the problems. 

In today’s readings Hannah and Mary proclaim their absolute faith in the power of God. Mary proclaims not only God’s power but also God’s justice.  
God is the one who will cast down the mighty, lift up the lowly, fill the hungry, and send the rich away with nothing. 

For us, the great challenge is that God will do it all on His schedule. For us who measure response times in nanoseconds, God and His Church seem to move far too slowly. We want it NOW!

No matter how bad your 2018 may have been, even the movement of the planet reminds us of the Good News. Tomorrow will absolutely be brighter than today. The change at times may be imperceptible, but that’s what faith is for. Jesus is the light that the darkness cannot overcome. And if we stand in that light and refuse to move, we too will overcome. 

Thursday, December 13, 2018

How small are we?

Today’s first reading provides an image that is truly countercultural.

I am the LORD, your God, who grasp your right hand; It is I who say to you, “Fear not, I will help you.” Fear not, O worm Jacob, O maggot Israel; I will help you, says the LORD; your redeemer is the Holy One of Israel.

While we love the “fear not” and being grasped by the right hand, I doubt that any of us are really excited about being a worm or maggot. 

As history looks back on us, it will not just be the millennial “snowflakes” that are judged harshly.  Largely, from the boomers onward, we have, in the name of self-esteem, raised successively more egocentric generations. We will rail against the self-agrandizing behavior of the president, without realizing that he is in many ways merely a reflection of a society in which humility is no longer a value. Even if we are the greatest country in the world, should we be the ones to say it? There was a time when Americans were content to have others say it about us. 

The prophet Isaiah reminds us today that in the grand scheme of things we are but a speck. As individuals, as a nation, and as a Church, the words of the prophet remind us that if we want our redeemer to take us by the right and lead us, if we want him to tell us “fear not”, then must humbly embrace how small we truly are and how much we need His help..