Monday, August 29, 2016

By His Holy Cross He Redeems and Saves the World

The other day I attended the ordination of two new auxiliary bishops for the Archdiocese of Boston. The ordination was joyful, reverent, and uplifting.  After the ordination, another priest and I got an Uber and were happily doing the liturgical equivalent of the postgame review. It really was a great ordination, a beautiful day, and we were both in a great mood.  And then something caught our attention and our mood quickly changed.

We were passing by a crowded section of the city, busy with traffic. We glanced out the window as we passed by a bustling sidewalk filled with pedestrians, some rushing by and others just standing waiting for the next bus.  The building we were passing had scaffolding on it which meant the people on the sidewalk were behind the bars of the scaffolding. As we passed by, in the midst of all of those people was a young man. My guess is that he was in his early to mid twenties. He was holding an unlit cigarette which he slowly and repeatedly lifted towards his lips without ever making it all the way there. He was holding the cigarette backwards. His eyes were closed and his body kept leaning forward as though he were about to fall. Were it not for the scaffolding, he would likely have fallen out in front of a moving vehicle. He was clearly under the influence of drugs. He was completely unaware of his surroundings. The priest next to me said, "That is so sad. That kid is going to die soon."  The whole event took place in the matter of seconds, although those few seconds felt as though we had gone into slow motion.

I don't know if there's anything I could have done for that young man, but the parable of the Good Samaritan and the priest and the Levite passing by has come to mind repeatedly during the past week! What has most come to mind, however, is that that kid is someone's son. When his mother brought him home from the hospital, I am sure she never imagined that he would grow up to be drugged up out of his mind, standing in the middle of a city, unaware of his surroundings.  I have no doubt that the priest with whom I was riding is right. That young man is going to die soon.

The cathedral in Boston is dedicated to the Holy Cross. It is the place where ordinations take place, where the bishop consecrates the Holy Oils to be used at baptisms, confirmations, ordinations, and in the anointing of the sick. In a sense, it is the place from where all ministry in the Archdiocese of Boston flows. Seeing that young man was a good reminder to me of why the mission of the Church is so vital and necessary. So many people's lives and families are being destroyed by poverty, by violence, by a culture of death, by drugs, by pornography, by hatred, by abortion, by cynicism, by despair, by suicide, by emptiness, by adultery, and the list goes on. The Holy Cross teaches us that sin, death, destruction, and evil are not the final word on our existence. The Holy Cross reminds us that God loves us and sent His only-begotten Son to save us. What saves the world is the Holy Cross.  Some are too weak, too obstinate, too confused, or too afraid to go to the Holy Cross. And so, the Holy Cross comes to them. Jesus sends out His disciples, his priests, his people from the Holy Cross so that they can bring to others the good news of the Gospel. From the Holy Cross Jesus pours out his mercy and love. From the Holy Cross Jesus pours out his saving truth. What flows from Jesus on the Cross comes to us most especially in the sacraments. We who receive the sacraments are to be living witnesses of the love of Christ.

The two experiences--the joy of the ordination and the sorrow of seeing that young man--were not contradictory. They were a good reminder of why the Church exists: The world needs Jesus Christ.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Evangelization: Being Moved by What Christ Does

Pre-Seminary Lunch
Whether I care for the particular politician or not, I really dislike the hyped up, overly enthusiastic cheers and applause that mark most political speeches. Most speeches given by almost every political figure these days are boring or pedantic. Unfortunately, what they lack in eloquence they do not make up for by conviction, depth, or substance. The cheers and the applause that erupt at their every banal utterance doesn't make one forget that the speaker is saying absolutely nothing. In fact, it draws greater attention to the void.

Lest it seem that politicians are being treated unfairly in this, I feel this is even more the case when it comes to Catholic things. Nothing is more cringe worthy than artificial enthusiasm at church. I think we make a mistake as Catholics when we try to fake enthusiasm. It seems to me that fake enthusiasm is often directed at promoting what we are doing. It tries to make us look good. It's tempting--especially for priests--to feel the need to be the enthusiastic cheerleaders for our parish events; trying to convince people that this year's parish picnic will be the greatest extravaganza since the last World Fair.  Far more convincing, in my opinion, is the joy that comes from being moved by what God is doing.

The other day, I had lunch with a couple of men from the BU Catholic Center, one of whom is starting seminary this week. I have to admit, it brings me a ton of joy that both in my parish ministry and in my Campus Ministry, a lot of men have entered the seminary. What provides me the most joy about it, however, is that I have had the privilege of witnessing it. It's a blessing, but it's not the result of some program that I invented. We pray for vocations. We talk about vocations. We don't make vocations. I'd like to think that my contribution to these vocations (besides praying for them) is simply my joy at seeing God's hand at work in the life of another. I am genuinely enthused when I witness Christ calling to someone, "Come and follow me."

At the end of the summer, there is a two week period at BU when summer classes have ended and everything is quiet. Since very few students are on campus, we do not have the regularly scheduled Sunday Mass for those two weeks. Last night, I got a text from one recent graduate asking me if I was planning on offering Mass in the small Catholic Center Chapel today. I don't know why, but that text itself made me joyful. We agreed on a time and then I posted on social media that I'd be around for a Noon Mass. At Noon, about twenty of us had Mass together. Getting a text from a young person about Mass, posting Mass on social media, and twenty kids showing up all brings me joy. In fact, as I looked around during Mass, I caught myself smiling a few times. God is doing something in the lives of these young people. It makes me joyful.

When it comes to evangelization, I think we are most effective when we ourselves are moved by what God is doing in the lives of ourselves, our people, our parishes, and our communities. We can't move other people unless we are convincingly moved ourselves. Fake enthusiasm actually smothers true evangelization. It makes it seem like we are trying to get people excited about something that is really boring. It makes it look like we are trying too hard and are being manipulative. Being authentically moved and awed by what God is doing in the midst of his people, however, attracts others. Being moved by the way a community loves one another, serves others, forms its members, and worships together becomes a catalyst for drawing others into the life of that community. Being authentically moved is a key for true evangelization. Evangelization is not advertising. Evangelization is encountering the power of God and bearing witness to the joy that comes from that encounter.

Today at Mass, as I looked at the people gathered there, I had that overwhelming sense that "God is doing something among these people." It's not because we are all geniuses, experts, or strategists. It is because we recognize that Jesus has come into our lives, drawn us into his friendship, and is doing something among us. When we live out of this experience--out of the experience of being unworthily drawn into the joy of Christ's companionship--it is then that we become true evangelizers and not merely advertisers. We move others only when we ourselves have been moved.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Are You Spiritually Flabby? Strive to Win

I'd like to be an Olympic Gold Medalist. The only problem is that I only want to have one. I don't want to earn one. I don't want to get up every morning, train, fail, train, fail, train, fail, work hard, be patient, sacrifice, grow slowly, and work for it.  I just want to be an Olympic Gold Medalist, not do the work that is required to become one.  Alas, my Olympic dreams will probably come to naught.

Today in the Gospel, a question is put to Jesus.  "Lord, will only a few people be saved?"  Jesus does not answer with a "yes or no," but he does say that we should "strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough."  Every so often, a poll comes out asking people if they think that they are going to heaven.  Basically, everybody thinks that they are going to heaven.  Even people who don't believe in God think that they are going to heaven!  I think we all want to have eternal life. We all want to be given the prize of eternal beatitude.  But, are we striving for it? 

Imagine someone walking into the Olympic Arena and saying, "Hey, practically every week, I drag myself to the gym and spend almost an hour there. I'm here to pick up my Gold Medal." That's not how you win a Gold Medal. Similarly, the spiritual life requires that we strive. The spiritual life is a training for the ultimate prize. It demands hard work, sacrifice, effort, and resilience. When we are knocked down, when we get lazy, when we flat out fail, it demands that we not quit. This training is a full time job. It requires that we see our whole life--in all of its aspects--as our training. There is no, "I have my spiritual life over here and my professional life over here."  There is no, "Personally, I'm a Christian, but when I get elected to office, I shut off my Christian beliefs." There is no, "I'm a Christian except on Saturday nights." Every aspect of our life is our spiritual gymnasium. 

Honestly, we live at a moment in time where we've probably all become a bit spiritually flabby. I mean when we think going to Mass on a Holy Day of Obligation is an enormous requirement, we're flabby. Haven't been to confession in the past month or so? Flabby. Not praying every morning and evening? Flabby. Are we striving to be chaste, humble, charitable? If not . . . yup, flabby.  Do we really try to forgive our enemies? No? Flabby. Are we serious about being generous to the works of the Church or do we think that we can just throw in a token donation now and again?  If we are not being truly generous to the works of the Church . . . flabby.

Do you stop by a Church occasionally just to spend a few moments with the Lord? Do you intersperse your day with small prayers? Do you read the Scriptures, have devotion to some saints, visit the sick, attempt to curb your gossip, and talk about your Faith with others?  If not, flabby.

We are not alone in our striving. We train together. One of the best ways to train for eternal life is to have teammates who are striving for the same prize. They encourage us, challenge us, pick us up when we have fallen, and help us to keep our eyes fixed on the prize. They help us to STRIVE.

Today, Jesus tells us to strive. He gives us everything we need to complete the course and win the victory. After all, the victory is ultimately his! So often, when we fail in the spiritual life, we allow ourselves to spiral out of control and give up. Nobody wins the prize by giving up. We win by allowing Christ to pick us back up and getting back into training. 

Have you grown spiritually flabby? Few of us, I think, would claim otherwise. Then let today be Training Day Number One. The days of flabbiness are over. Let's accept the Grace of Jesus Christ and strive!

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Power of Witnessing--A 102 Year Old Friend and Olympian

"Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith."

Occasionally I am asked what "things" do I most like about being a priest.  There are many answers to that question, but one among them is being "surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses." Firstly, commemorating each day the various saints of the Church's life, reading about their lives, and seeking their intercession is a beautiful gift. The saints in heaven are familiar friends to me because the Church, in her wisdom, continuously places me in their company. She places me in their company in the Liturgy, but also in my room. As I look around my study as I type this, the images of the saints and books--written by them and about them--surround me: Therese, Teresa of Avila, John Paul II, John Chrysostom, Augustine, Gregory the Great, John Henry Newman, the Blessed Virgin Mary, Aquinas, John Vianney,  and so many more.  What a gift! Their example of sacrifice, purity, fortitude, wisdom, faith, hope, and charity--their example of holiness--shows that holiness is indeed possible and that holiness is attractive.

That cloud of witnesses does not just consist of the saints in heaven. As a priest, I daily am surrounded by witnesses.  In fact, I just got off of the phone with one of them.  I met Sophie when she was a sprightly 86 year old.  She walked to daily Mass in those days, cooked Sunday dinner for ten to twenty people weekly, and was always good for cooking up a few hundred meatballs for parish events.  In her early 90's she thought it prudent not to attend Mass when it was icy and snowy outside.  These days, she's no longer able to attend Mass, but she is still such a great witness.  I called her today to wish her a happy 102nd birthday. During the past couple of weeks, we've all been amazed by the dedication, discipline, and athleticism of those participating in the Olympics.  For 102 years, Sophie has been competing for the reward of eternal life. Her body has been slowed by age. Her soul is in better shape than ever. She has trained long and hard and the goal is closer than ever.  Her example is such an awesome encouragement. 

I think we underestimate the power of our faithful witness.  The parents who get their kids to Mass on Sunday despite a million other things that have to get done, the elderly person who struggles to get to Mass, the mother who is willing to endure the occasional glare from grumpy parishioners when her baby cries a bit during Mass, the father whose teenage son has the face of resentment on him for being dragged to Mass . . . and the list goes on.  Oftentimes people think about Mass in terms of what they get out of it.  But, we don't often think about how are being there gives something to others.  People need witnesses.  People need encouragement.  I need encouragement.  When we worship God on Sundays, we encourage the people around us.  We build them up and keep them strong.  When we miss Mass on Sundays, we are not only hurting ourselves, we are hurting others who depend upon us. 

One of the things I love about being a priest is being surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses.  Their example encourages me and spurs me on in my Catholic life. People like Sophie, my 102 year old friend, are like signposts pointing me to heaven, and they are an important reminder to me that I should strive towards holiness so that I can be a signpost for others.  Let's love God and worship Him and thus encourage one another to finish the race.

Friday, July 29, 2016

The Voting Booth And the Confessional

It is something that I suppose I will never understand. Nobody has ever given me an explanation that even comes close to satisfying me.

Passionate disagreement about the role of government, the best way forward in terms of the economy, the poor, education, gun laws, social security, immigration, taxes, the environment, foreign policy . . . I get it.  Nobody--though many act as though they do--has a claim to infallibility on the vast majority of decisions facing a nation. Higher taxes, lower taxes . . . sure, reasonable people can disagree. (For the record, I'd like my taxes to be lower. Raise everyone else's, fine. But just lower mine).  

But, there are certain issues that I just can't understand any Catholic, or any decent human being for that matter, simply overlooking or, worse, supporting. At the outset, let me say that I recognize that this current election season is the strangest that any of us has ever seen. I'm not suggesting in this post that someone has to vote for one or the other candidate.  What I am asking is this: How can Catholics and people of good will be "proud" to belong to a party that has the most pro-abortion platform in American history?  How does that make one feel proud? Isn't that something for which a person with a well-formed conscience would be ashamed? I'm not asking what kind of moral reasoning you might employ in order to unwillingly and grudgingly decide to vote for that party. What I'm asking is how could someone whose conscience is well-formed be happy about voting for it?

Let's suppose that one candidate's platform called for the use of chemical weapons on some peaceful country.  At the same time, the opposing candidate's platform called for the elimination of people who were sick and unable to contribute to the economic good of society.  In these circumstances, I could understand people struggling to vote for one or the other candidate, and making some unhappy decision based on a variety of factors.  "Sure, he wants to use chemical weapons on civilians in a peaceful country, but he won't kill our senior citizens and he's going to cut taxes." "Yeah, she's going to euthanize the sick, but she won't use chemical weapons and she promises health care costs will get lower." In the face of equally bad candidates, I can understand how someone begrudgingly casts a vote for someone who is terrible, but not as terrible. I get that.

What I can never figure out, however, is how any person with a conscience can be gleeful about supporting someone who wants to expand abortion, remove any limitations on it, and who wants taxpayers to fund it. If a particular party's platform was perfect in every way, but suggested that the homeless should be euthanized, one would hope that somebody wouldn't be gleeful about supporting that party. It would, I hope, sound rather odd at your dinner party to hear someone say, "Why yes, I'm not really in favor of euthanizing the homeless, but I'm so proud of the party for its stand on the environment." I hope that would leave most people of any kind of conscience, at least, mildly distressed and not feeling particularly proud.

And yet, Catholics gleefully support and vote for persons who are "really great . . . yeah, except for that whole crushing a baby's skull and killing it.  Other than that, he's a great speaker and has done a lot for public schools." It's difficult to have any respect for people who cheer for abortion the way normal people would cheer at the birth of a baby. No matter how many balloons fall from the ceiling, how many flags are on the stage, or how many people applaud, there is something dark and grotesque about people gleefully cheering for abortion. There is something sinister and grotesque about any candidate or platform that demeans human beings--whether those human beings are in the womb, the nursing home, the homeless shelter, the prison cell, or on the border. Being gleeful about dehumanizing anyone is not Catholic. 

One might feel compelled to vote for a candidate who supports the greatest evil of our day because of some equally grave concern about the other candidate or candidates. That, of course, is a very high threshold. But, this should not leave any person with a well formed conscience gleeful or proud. It should leave them filled with sorrow for a very fallen world. It ought to leave them filled with tremendous regret that in a country as great as America, the only candidates whom they felt they could support were the ones whom Planned Parenthood supports. It should leave them, not with giddiness, but with horror.

Catholics are familiar with the confessional box. You enter, pull the curtain, and whisper as quietly as possible your sins. We don't boast of our sins and, once it is over, we are happy to be done with it, never to speak of those sins again.  Those who feel compelled by their well-examined and well-formed conscience (a high standard) to vote for a candidate who "champions" abortion, ought to treat the voting booth like a confessional. Whisper it. Don't boast, be proud, or be gleeful about it. Have true sorrow in your heart that your well-formed conscience compelled you to make such an awful choice, and never speak of it again! You just voted for someone whose policies will mean the death of innocent life. It hardly seems something for which to be proud or gleeful.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Fr. Jacques Hamel--His Blood Is Speaking

Several years ago while vacationing in Italy, I visited a church (whose name I have since forgotten) in the area of Bergamo.  What was most striking to me about the church was its sacristy. Very large in size, the walls of the sacristy were lined with beautiful wooden vesting cases.  At the top of the vesting cases, carved into them, were beautiful, albeit graphic, depictions of various martyrs of the Church.  There were carvings of people being burned, flayed, mutilated, drowned . . . , you name it, it was depicted.  And of course, like all good sacristies, there was a crucifix.

I remember thinking that whoever designed that sacristy had a profound sense of the priesthood and the Mass. It is in the sacristy that the priest prepares for Mass. The sacristy is not simply a place to store things and to get vested. It is a place to become recollected before offering the Holy Sacrifice.  Whoever designed the sacristy for that church wanted the priest to remember exactly what he was doing when he offered the Mass. The Mass is the Sacrifice of Christ on the altar of the Cross. The martyrs who surrounded the priest in that sacristy before Mass each day would remind him that he--like all of us--are called to take up our cross and to lay down our life for the Lord. The priest is called in a particular way to imitate the Mysteries that he handles. He who daily offers the Sacrifice of the Mass is called to become increasingly conformed to that same Sacrifice.  That sacristy was the liturgical equivalent of a billboard.  It practically yelled to the priest who was about to offer the Mass, "Hey, this is serious and important stuff! People have given up their lives for the Faith! The Mass you are about to offer is the most important thing that will ever happen!"

I do not know if Fr. Jacques Hamel ever visited that sacristy in Bergamo, Italy, but he now joins those whose images are carved therein.  Fr. Jacques Hamel, an 84 year old priest from France, was attacked this morning while he offered the Holy Mass. ISIS terrorists slit the elderly priest's throat as he offered the Sacred Mysteries.  Fr. Jacques, in a way that he probably never anticipated, became more perfectly conformed to the Sacrifice which he had offered for the past 56 years.  Like the images carved into the wood of that sacristy, Fr. Jacques' death and his blood now serve as a reminder to all of us--especially priests--of the seriousness of the Holy Mass and the need to become ever more united to that Sacrifice. Fr. Jacques' blood calls out to us and reminds us of the seriousness with which we ought to take our Catholic Faith and the Holy Mass. This is what the martyrs do. They witness to us and they testify to what is truly important.

So often, sacristies--like our very lives--can become places of distraction. Instead of being places where we focus on the great Mystery of the Cross and of the Holy Mass, sacristies can become filled with chitchat and distraction. So too, our lives can become filled with too much foolishness, buffoonery, and banality.  Like that sacristy in Bergamo, designed to reawaken the priest to the seriousness of his vocation and life, Fr. Jacques' martyrdom this morning ought to awaken all of us to the seriousness of our Catholic life. Fr. Jacques' blood calls all of us to be renewed and strengthened in our Catholic Faith, to reject sin, to follow Christ, to love the Holy Mass, and to take our eternal salvation seriously. Fr. Jacques' blood speaks eloquently. Listen.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Sometimes We Must Preach To the Choir

There is an old expression that says, "You're preaching to the choir." This usually means that what you are saying really doesn't need to be said because the people you are telling already agree with you.  There's no point in wasting your time preaching to the choir. And yet, as the United States finds itself immersed in the presidential election season, proof has been given that sometimes we most definitely need to preach to the choir. I am not delving into politics in this post. I am not preaching to the electorate. I am preaching to the proverbial choir. 

With great fanfare this week Senator Tim Kaine was selected by Hillary Clinton as her running mate. Like every candidate for office, he will have those who vigorously oppose him and those who wholeheartedly support him. Fair enough. I am not commenting on Tim Kaine, the vice-presidential candidate. I am commenting upon Tim Kaine, the public Catholic. In numerous interviews, Tim Kaine has suggested that while he is personally pro-life, there is nothing in his Catholic Faith which would require him to vote in a manner that reflects those personally held pro-life views.  At the same time all of this was going on, I read that Senator Kaine attends Mass each week and that this past weekend, while visiting a church, he sang in the choir. Those statements and that image made me feel compelled to preach to the choir.

My purpose here is not to judge Mr. Kaine's catholicity, or Mrs. Pelosi's, or the plethora of other Catholic politicians throughout the United States who may sing in harmony in the choir loft, but who are most definitely quite discordant when it comes to their public statements concerning the Catholic Faith. I have no doubt that these politicians (and many Catholic voters) arrived at these false notes because of the seriously deficient and, sometimes, outright vicious formation that they received from those who are entrusted with teaching and preaching the Catholic Faith. Some who teach this "personally pro-life but publicly pro-choice" nonsense are perhaps misled themselves. Some, however, are wolves in sheep's clothing. When they lure others away from the clear and unambiguous teaching of the Church on these matters, they are putting their souls and the souls of others at serious risk.

My reason for writing about this is not to make a determination about Mr. Kaine's fitness for office. I simply feel compelled to correct the story line that says Catholics can be pro-abortion as long as they first say, "But personally I am pro-life." It is particularly egregious when a public person makes these false claims because their power, influence and status can lure others along with them. They exercise the power of example. In this case, however, their example is dangerous, vicious, and seductive. It risks leading others far away from Christ and His Gospel, and into the realm of darkness and evil. Abortion is a great evil. Voting for abortion is voting for a great evil. 

I do not know Mr. Kaine. I have no ill will towards him. I hope for his happiness and for the salvation of his soul (as I hope for yours and mine)! I pray for Mr. Kaine. He is my brother in Christ and he and I should help one another live our Catholic life because all of us need help living the Catholic life. 

Mr. Kaine, however, is a public person who has made claims about how his Catholic Faith and his pro-abortion votes are harmonious. Mr. Kaine is seriously wrong about this and he is not alone. There is a whole section of the Catholic Choir that is singing out of tune with the Catholic Faith. No matter how loudly they sing their notes, no matter how many members they lure in to join their section, and no matter how long they are able to sustain it, they will never prevail. They are singing against the eternal truth, the truth that human life is given by God and no human being has the right to kill an innocent person. 

The fact is, Catholic politicians who support abortion are in serious jeopardy. I don't say that with any sort of glee. In fact, it is just the opposite. Wolves in sheep's clothing--and sometimes even in the clothing of shepherds--have done a grave disservice to Catholic people by providing them moral guidance that is contorted and disfigured. The Catholic who professes to be "personally pro-life" but who in every other way advances the agenda of the abortion industry in the destruction of innocent human life is in serious spiritual danger.  Far worse, however, are those who led them there. "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea" (MK 9:42).  

This post is not about supporting one candidate over another. It's about correcting a serious disservice to the Truth. Do not let anyone deceive you or lure you away from the harmony of Truth. Anyone who says that you can be personally pro-life and vote pro-abortion is not singing in tune with the Gospel of Life and they are leading others away from that Gospel. That is very serious stuff. All we can do is to continue to sing the beautiful music of the Gospel and hope to draw those who have been lured away back into harmony with the Truth. We might all be in the choir, but that's not enough. We have to be singing in harmony with the Gospel.