Monday, January 16, 2017

Blessed Otto Neururer: Martyred For Marriage

Today I learned about a priest whose example of holiness is inspiring.  Born into a peasant family in Austria during the early 1880's, Otto Neururer was eventually ordained as a diocesan priest. In 1938, while the Nazis occupied Austria, Fr. Neururer advised a young woman not to marry a divorced man who was living a notoriously dissolute life.  Angered by her rejection, the man in question complained to a high ranking Nazi official who was his close friend. As a result, Fr. Neururer was arrested, sent to Dachau and later to Buchenwald.

Despite being tortured mercilessly, he shared the little food he had with others. While in the camp, he was approached by another prisoner who asked to be baptized. Although Fr. Neururer suspected it was a trap, he could not refuse the request. After baptizing the prisoner, Fr. Neururer was sent to the "bunker" where he was hanged upside down until he died on May 30, 1940. He was the first priest murdered in one of the Nazi concentration camps. He was beatified by St. John Paul II in 1996.

Blessed Otto Neururer suffered torture and death because he was faithful to the truth about the sacraments. To the young woman who came to him for advice, Fr. Neururer clearly handed on to her the truth revealed by Christ himself. This brought about his arrest, torture, and internment. To the man who sought baptism (perhaps as a way of entrapping him), Fr. Neururer obliged. For that, he was tortured and executed.

The Blesseds and Saints are like lights shining in a dark world. By illuminating the right path, they keep us safe from obstacles, point us to the truth, and remind us that we are not alone.

Blessed Otto Neururer, pray for us.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Three Pastors Who Went Deep and Transformed the Church in America

This week, Fr. Michael Scanlan, T.O.R. died.  I never met the man, but I, like the entire Catholic Church in the United States, have benefited from his vision, his fidelity, and his commitment to the evangelical mission of the Church.  Fr. Scanlan, until his retirement, served as the President of Franciscan University of Steubenville.  Dedicated to strengthening its Catholic identity, Fr. Scanlan transformed Steubenville into the heart of Catholicism in the United States.  From this heart new life has been pumped into parishes, evangelical organizations, and youth ministry thought the US. Fr. Scanlan's Steubenville taught students to know, love, and serve Jesus Christ.

The other day, I was speaking to a friend and I said that, in large part, anything great that has happened in the Church in the United States during the past twenty-five years can be traced back to one of three places: Steubenville, Denver, or John Paul II.  While perhaps a slight exaggeration, it is fairly accurate. Steubenville shows that a Catholic college can actually . . . well, be Catholic. Steubenville formed a generation of young people who returned to their dioceses on fire for Christ. In turn, the fidelity to the faith and the devotion to the sacraments of these young men and women transformed parishes and ecclesial institutions.

Under the leadership of Archbishop Chaput, Denver became a hub that welcomed Catholic men and women who heeded John Paul II's call to go out into the deep and risk everything on Christ. While many in positions of leadership in the Church were displeased with the zeal of a new generation of Catholics, Chaput sought to support them and to encourage them. It seems to me that Denver became the first outpost on the American shores for the John Paul II New Evangelization.

And that brings me to the great St. John Paul II. In his preaching and in his writing, John Paul II called young men and women to greatness.  This call to greatness touched the hearts of the young, but they needed somewhere to go in order to live this greatness.  Thanks to pastors like Scanlan and Chaput, young people were given places, organizations, and communities where their zeal could be formed, trained, and exercised. In turn, these young men and women were responsible for drawing others to Christ and for witnessing to the joy of orthodoxy. 

These three pastors--John Paul II, Archbishop Chaput, and Fr. Scanlan--understood that young people want to be called to greatness. They understood that young men and women can become disciples who risk everything for Christ. They understood that, as Bishop Barron has called it, "beige Catholicism" does not work. The reason Steubenville, Denver, and John Paul II were so effective in lighting a fire in the Church in the United States is because they were not afraid to propose the Catholic Faith in its totality. There was nothing watered down AND it was joyful.

Where have priestly and religious vocations come from in the past three decades? From beige Catholicism or from orthodoxy? Where have well-formed Catholic marriages and families come from? Where have effective youth ministry programs come from? Where has Eucharistic devotion and devotion to the Sacrament of Penance come from? For the most part, wherever you find joyful and abundant Catholic life in the United States, you can trace it to Steubenville, Denver, or John Paul II. And, even in successful places where there is not a direct connection to one of those causes, the same characteristics of true life in the Church are still present, namely a joyful orthodoxy.

While many others were hesitant to go out into the deep, John Paul II, Scanlan, and Chaput risked everything on Jesus Christ and went out into the deep to cast their nets. Their pastoral example ought to encourage us to do the same.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Foyle's War and the Feast of the Epiphany

 I can go for months without watching a  Netflix show, but when I finally do select a show, I usually binge--one episode after another, season after season. My most recent binge was 
"Foyle's War," a British program whose main character, "Detective Chief Superintendent Foyle," investigates crimes in England during the Second World War and in the immediate years following. Both as a detective, and later as a member of the secretive government Security Forces, Foyle rankles many of those with whom he comes in contact. His honesty, integrity, and prudence often make him a source of annoyance not only to criminals, but also to various government agents who attempt to interfere with his investigations. Despite the best efforts of many, Foyle .....foils......their schemes. He does this not by being rude or belligerent, but by being doggedly faithful to his mission and by placing the truth above personal interest. Foyle is a source of exasperation because he often forces others to come clean and to speak clearly when they would rather obfuscate matters.

Today, the Church celebrates the magnificent Solemnity of the Epiphany. It definitely is one of my favorite feasts of the liturgical year. There is something mysterious about these three Magi who follow a star in order to bring gifts to a newborn king. Indeed, like every episode of Foyle's War, these Magi are part of a great mystery, where not everything is clear. Throughout, however, they act with honesty, integrity, and prudence. No  matter the external pressures placed upon them, they remain faithful to their original mission. They show up at Herod's palace attempting to find the Truth. They follow every lead. They follow the star. They follow the instructions of the scholars. They are dogged in their determination to arrive at the Truth. They are honest. They are clear and open about what they are seeking. Herod, however, is deceptive and manipulative. Herod thinks he sees "the bigger picture." But Herod's view of reality is actually petty. His view is about preserving his status, his plans, and his power. He becomes so blinded by his rage that it leads him, not only to deceit and to trickery, but eventually to mass murder.  

In the end, as we all know, despite Herod's deceptions, the Magi do indeed discover the Child of Bethlehem.  St. Matthew tells us that "they opened their treasures before him." Again, the Magi are open and honest. They live their lives with integrity and clarity. There is something so refreshing about these men. In the midst of so much intrigue, deception, and violence, these men are unaffected. They know their mission and are faithful to it. 

Lastly, they are willing to accept the limits of their mission. When warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they simply "go home a different way." Their mission was not to fight with Herod. Their mission was to worship the Truth. In this, the Magi can teach us how to be prudent. Not every battle is ours. Sometimes, prudence demands that we simply go home a different way. Avoiding being entangled in every battle is not contrary to honesty and integrity. Herod did not "win" by the fact that the Magi went home a different way. In fact, by withdrawing from Herod's schemes completely, the Magi frustrated Herod's attempts to harm the Christ Child. 

Clear-talking, honesty, integrity, fidelity to the mission, and prudence are tremendous virtues that we can all afford to cultivate in our lives. Epiphany reminds us that we are part of the great Mystery of the Incarnation. Our mission is to allow others to enter into this Mystery and to be transformed by it. The manner in which we communicate can either be of service to this mission or it can hinder it. We honor the Magi today because they were faithful to the mission and they arrived at the heart of the Mystery. More importantly, by their clarity in speech, their integrity, honesty, fidelity to the mission, and by their prudence, the Magi opened this Mystery up to the whole world. Their manner of life--like the brightness of the star--led others to Christ. 

Detective Chief Superintendent Foyle is a great character because the viewer always senses that Foyle's very first commitment is to make the truth known. As I celebrate the great Feast of the Epiphany today, I ask God to give me the graces necessary to live my life in such a manner that, like the Magi, I might not hide the face of Christ from others, but rather, I might make Him known. Perhaps we might all pray for such graces.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Slow, Silent Killer of Souls

There are certain sins that kind of shake us in our boots.  The second we commit them, we feel these sins in our very being.  Betray a trust, commit adultery, steal, unjustly destroy the reputation of another . . . sins such as these (and others too) are the spiritual equivalent of some traumatic medical event. When a person has a heart attack or is wounded by a bullet, they know that it is time to "Call 911."  Similarly, when a Catholic commits a grave sin, Catholic conscience kicks in and says, "This is an emergency. Repent immediately and get to confession."

Not all sin, however, presents itself in such a traumatic and forceful way.  Like certain medical conditions, there are spiritual maladies that do not present major feelings of distress. When we commit them, perhaps we do not feel all that different. We've all met people who, for instance, knew that there was something not right in their bodies, but who simply decided to ignore the symptoms.  Since the symptoms weren't killing them outright or causing enormous distress, they learned how to live with them.  Maybe deep down they knew that these symptoms were serious, but it was possible to continue on as though things were fine. 

Similarly, in the spiritual life, there is a silent killer. It is known as acedia or sloth. Unlike the sins that tend to shock us when we've committed them, acedia tends to lull us. When we commit sins of acedia, we might only be surprised by the fact that the result doesn't seem all that bad. A good example of this is failing to worship God on a Sunday. Perhaps a person has been attending Mass his or her whole life, but then decides to "skip" Mass on a particular Sunday.  Perhaps they feel a little bit of guilt over this, but they realize that no lightning bolt has been sent down from heaven. In fact, they remind themselves that, "I go to Mass more than most people and I am basically a good person."

Now, missing Mass on a Sunday without serious reason is already an objectively grave sin which destroys the life of grace in a soul.  The Church clearly teaches that failing to worship God on a Sunday is a grave matter. So, the person who commits this sin already is in a spiritually serious condition. But, acedia acts like a cancer.  It spreads. It begins to weaken a person's entire spiritual life, leading them to abandon his or her spiritual duties.  Prayer, Mass, Confession, all begin to be left aside.  In their place, the person throws himself or herself into one of two possible positions.

The first is to become sluggish and lazy. Sundays, for instance, are spent laying around watching television or surfing the Internet. Hour after hour of doing nothing. While the Sacrifice of the Mass is being offered in parishes, the soul suffering the sickness of acedia is morbidly doing nothing at all.  They know what they should be doing, but each time they ignore that truth, the more difficult it becomes for them to break free from the heavy chain of acedia; a chain whose other end attaches them to re-runs of "Law and Order" rather than to the Eucharist.

The second possible reaction is to become an activist.  It seems counter-intuitive to suggest that a symptom of acedia or spiritual laziness is to become an activist, but it is the reality. Increasingly distant from a relationship with God, the person throws himself or herself into a thousand other things. Aware that they are not keeping their primary obligation in life (to worship God), they come up with other important activities; signing their children up, for instance, for a thousand sports activities or filling their own time up with political advocacy, exercise, or even volunteer work.  None of these things are bad. In fact, they are all good things. But, no matter how good they are, they are not the best thing, nor are they any person's primary obligation.  For the person suffering from acedia, these activities merely mask a serious spiritual malady.

The more one yields to acedia, the more difficult it becomes to overcome it. They might feel some spiritual sadness, but they lose a sense of just how great their peril is. Other sins can shock a person and make them realize that they are in deep trouble. Acedia just draws the person into a spiritual hole from which the person feels incapable of escaping. Maybe they know that their soul is in serious spiritual jeopardy or perhaps they are not aware of it. After all, even though they don't go to Mass or pray, no lightning bolt has struck them down. They begin to think, "One of these days, I will straighten all of this out. There is plenty of time."

If you are a Catholic who is not going to Mass on Sundays (presuming you are capable of doing so), then your spiritual sickness is serious. Don't treat it lightly. The only way to overcome acedia is to act forcefully against it.  Shut the television off and pray. Set the alarm clock on Sunday and go to Mass. Get to confession. The only way acedia wins is by allowing it to win. The only way it is conquered is by fulfilling our duties, no matter how we feel at a particular moment.

As we approach the Solemnity of Christmas, let us not sit in darkness any longer.  Instead, let us go out to meet Him. Let us leave the lethargy of acedia behind and make our way to Bethlehem.  A Savior who is Christ and Lord awaits us.  

Three simple things to be freed from acedia:

1. Go to confession this week. No excuses. Just go.
2. Go to Mass on Christmas Day and be resolved never to miss Sunday Mass again.
3. Spend five minutes each day praying in front of a manger scene. Go to Bethlehem.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Fr. Ragheed Ganni and Nicolas

Dear Friends:

In 2007, Fr. Ragheed Ganni, a Chaldean Catholic priest was martyred in Mosul, Iraq. His heroic witness to the Catholic Faith and his extraordinary example of priestly fidelity remains a source of inspiration to me. Although I never met this priest, I often ask for his heavenly intercession and feel a bond with him. If you would like to learn more about Fr. Ragheed, there is a good summary Here

This morning, somebody sent me a message asking if I would pray for a little boy named Nicolas who is suffering tremendous pain as cancer spreads through his body. Seemingly, drug trials and other treatments have not been successful in stopping the spread of the disease.

Could I ask you to take a moment and pray for Nicolas? Ask that if it be God's holy Will, that the intercession of Fr. Ragheed Ganni might bring about the complete healing of Nicolas and that this miracle be for God's glory and be a confirmation of the heroic holiness of Fr. Ragheed. 

There is no official prayer for this, but this is the prayer I am going to pray:

Lord Jesus Christ, following your example, Fr. Ragheed Ganni laid down his life for the sheep entrusted to his care and in witness to the Catholic Faith. I humbly ask you, that through the intercession of Fr. Ragheed, Nicolas might be delivered from the ravages of this disease and be completely healed. May this miracle bring you Glory and be a sign of Fr. Ragheed's heroic holiness and powerful intercession before your throne. In all things, Lord Jesus, I trust completely in your Divine Will and Providence and have faith that however you answer this petition, you will bring about the greatest possible good. Amen.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Is He the One or Should I Look for Another?

On the Third Sunday of Advent, we hear that John the Baptist, who was imprisoned by Herod, sent his disciples to Jesus to ask, "Are you the One or should we look for another?"  The early Church Fathers say that John did this not for his own benefit, but for the benefit of his disciples.  

John must have intuited that things would not end well for him. Perhaps he was concerned about what would happen to his disciples as they watched him maltreated, humiliated, and eventually executed. They could easily become fearful or discouraged. John sends them to Jesus.  When they pose their question to Jesus, "Are you he One or should we look for another?" Jesus reminds them of all that they have seen and heard. In front of their very eyes, miracles have occurred. They have seen and heard miraculous things!

But it was not enough for Jesus to remind them of what they had seen and heard.  Being mindful of the works of God made manifest in our lives is an important part of the Christian life.  But it is not enough to sustain it.  Equally important is proclaiming those things to others.  "Go and tell John," Jesus commands these disciples.  "Go tell John what you've seen and heard. Go tell John what you've witnessed. Go tell John."  It was really not for John's benefit that the disciples went and reported all that they had seen and heard.  It was for their benefit.  Sharing the Good News is as much a part of being a disciple as is encountering the Good News. Believing is an important part of Christian life, but so too is confessing that Faith before others.

In the heart of every Christian is always a pause, a hesitation: "Is He the One or should I look for another?" In my life, Christ always answers that question by surrounding me with signs of his grace and power. In the lives of the parishioners, families, college students, seminarians, brother priests, and religious who surround me on a daily basis, Jesus says, "Go and tell what you have seen and what you have heard." In the lives and witnesses of these men and women, I am reminded that I do not need to look for another. He is indeed the One. And, these reminders compel me to bear witness to what I've seen and heard. In fact, for the most part, this blog has mostly been dedicated to just that: Sharing with others the great and miraculous things Christ is doing in the lives of those with whom I've had the privilege of living the Christian life.

Even when my heart does not pose the question, "Are you the One or should I look for another?" Jesus answers. For twenty years (almost) he has surrounded me with signs of his miraculous power. He surrounds me with His people, the people in whom His grace is at work in extraordinary ways. But, like the disciples of John, it is not enough for me just to see these things. I need to go tell someone about them.  This blog is one way of doing that.

Today, I spent the whole day in the presence of young men and women in whom Christ is doing great things. So, in case you were wondering, let me assure you: He is the One. You need not look for another.

Advent Patience: Is God Calling Me to Be a Priest?

Patience is definitely an Advent virtue.  Hold out a little while longer; the light is coming into the world! Where there is darkness, light will dawn. Where there is confusion, clarity will come. Where there is sorrow, joy. Advent beckons us--in the face of despair and discouragement--not to lose hope, but to remain firm. What is longed for, will arrive.  Patience.  Wait for the Lord. He is coming.

Fair enough. Advent encourages us to be patient.  But patience, especially when it comes to one's vocation in life, isn't sitting around, paralyzed by fear.  Advent also encourages us to hurry.  We are to set out for Bethlehem. We are to prepare our hearts so that when Jesus knocks, he finds us in joyful anticipation. Our patience is not just sitting around until something better or clearer arrives.  Our patience is not meant to be passive. It is active. Our patience is lived by hurrying to meet the Lord despite the darkness, uncertainties, and fears that envelop us. 

Sometimes when a man thinks that Jesus may be calling him to a priestly vocation, he goes into a position of, "Well, I will just sit here and if God really wants me to be a priest, then He will do something."  This is not Advent patience.  Advent patience moves towards God even as God moves towards us. Advent patience acts on graces that are given even though the end result of those graces is hidden from our eyes. Advent patience is lived by moving forward despite not having absolute clarity. 

During the Christmas Season, we will celebrate the great Feast of the Epiphany.  Yes, the Magi were given a sign; a star.  But, that sign on its own did nothing. These men would have gained nothing if all they had done was looked up and saw the star. They did not look up and say, "Huh, maybe that means something. Let's sit around and see what happens."  No, they followed. Despite all of the adversity that they encountered, they moved forward. They persevered. Signs are given to us so that we can follow.

If a young man has the inclination that Jesus may be calling him to the priesthood, that may well be a sign. If the Church encourages that man to enter seminary, then that is another sign. Signs are meant to be followed.  There is an overwhelming temptation at times to doubt the signs, to demand more signs, and to spend enormous amounts of time trying to discern whether this sign is good enough or not.  Advent patience, on the other hand, does not place someone in perpetual discernment paralysis.  Advent patience teaches us to move forward despite the lack of perfect clarity. 

If you have been given a sign that you potentially have a priestly vocation, I can confidently say that God did not give you this sign so that you can endlessly stare at the sign and wonder whether it is a sign or whether you should just sit around and wait for another sign.  He gave you that sign so that you can pack up your camel and follow. Things will become clearer when you actually move. The sign given to the Magi moved.  They followed it.  Light is meant to be followed. If the light is moving, sitting around is only going to leave you in darkness.

Between the beginning of a priestly call and an ordination, there is a long road to be travelled. The only way to know with certitude what the sign is leading one to is to begin following it. If in your heart, a light has arisen that makes you wonder whether God is calling you to a priestly vocation, yes, be patient.  Be patient, but hurry up and follow. The sign that God has given to leads someplace beautiful. It leads to Christ.