Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Infrastructure For the Mission, Not Against the Mission

The other day, I visited the home of a 90 year old woman who watches Catholic Television all day.  She was baptized in a protestant denomination but was never raised to go to church.  Now, at the end of her life, thanks to a good Catholic friend and thanks to Catholic Television, she asked to be received into the Catholic Church.  Because of her age and condition, I received her into the Church, Confirmed her, and administered Holy Communion to her at her home.  It was a great moment.

After that, I went to the hospital to visit a couple of persons.  One of the persons I visited was one of our daily communicants.  She is a beautiful soul and has come to the end of her earthly life.  As I was leaving her room, she said, "Father, I will pray for you."  I am always happy when somebody who is dying says that to me because I trust that they will be fulfilling that promise in heaven.

While I was at the hospital, I received a call from someone who wanted to hang out and talk.  The whole time I talked to this person, I thought to myself, "I'm really blessed to spend my life with such great people."

I believe it was during the Council of Trent that a law was promulgated that stated that bishops of dioceses had actually to reside in their diocese.  Apparently, there were a lot of absentee bishops in those days.  Similarly, priests need to be a resident among their people.  Not just in terms of living in the parish, but being present among the people.  It's not possible to be everywhere and attend everything.  But, priests are meant to live and serve in the midst of the flock.  We are meant to be close to the people.

As we look at pastoral planning for the future, our priority must be to make the priest more present among the people.  Priests do not need more buildings, more phone systems, more furnaces, more budgets, more lawns, more roofs, more pipes, more toilets, more meetings, duplicate programs, more things that need painting, scraping, fixing, replacing, restoring, shovelling, plowing, cleaning etc.  All of those things are fine--if they do not remove the priest further and further from his people.

So much of the important stuff that a priest does happens through one on one encounters or encounters with couples and families.  Priests belong where the people are.  Obviously we need an infrastructure, but that infrastructure should serve the mission and not the other way around. 

Our method always has to be Christ's method.  Christ started with two.  Then, twelve.  Then, seventy-two.  Then, the whole world.  It is a proven method.  Christ risked this method.  It worked with John and Andrew.  It worked the other day when a 90 year old woman became Catholic because of the friendship between her and a faithful witness.

Trusting in such a method is indeed a bit risky.  But, the Church best witnesses to Christ when she risks everything on him. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Things Like This Make Me Love Being A Priest

Sometimes, the greatness of the Catholic Faith and the greatness of the priesthood are revealed to me not in the grand public events of life, but in the very small and quiet privileges that God gives to the priest.  Today I had such a privilege.

On Sunday after Mass, a college student home for Spring Break came out of church and said, "hello" to me.  He's a good kid; quiet, normal, dryly funny, and mature.  I told him he should give me a call if he had time and we could have lunch one day while he was home.  To my surprise, the text arrived shortly after Noon today.  "I'm around if you want to get lunch."  So, we met up and went to a lunch place nearby and got the unusual sounding special, "Italian Hamburger Subs."

During lunch he said, "Oh, I had a question for you.  On Ash Wednesday, a kid in my dorm saw me around Ten o'clock and noticed that I had the ashes on my forehead and he was bummed out because he forgot to get them.  So, I took some of the ashes off my forehead, put them on his forehead and told him, 'Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel'.  Do those ashes count?"

I thought that story was awesome.  And, because I'm a priest, I was able to hang out today with that young man, eat an "Italian Hamburger Sub," and hear of a beautiful Catholic witness to the faith.  I love being a priest.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Priests: We Just Love Our People

Priests often know an awful lot about a lot of people.  Besides the obvious matter of being told people's sins in confession, we are trusted with a host of other things as well.  We know about a person's illness, marital problems, embarrassing family situations, addictions, and conflicts.  It is a great privilege to have the confidence of so many people and to be one who carries their secrets. 

This privilege has some interesting side-effects.  Firstly, I think it makes priests much more inclined to mind their own business.  We know that there is a lot of pain, embarrassment, sorrow, and weakness in the lives of everybody.  We have no interest in knowing more than we have to know.  While we love the fact that people entrust us with their secrets, we are not so interested when people want to tell us the secrets of other people.  Confide in us about your own life, we are all ears.  But--and I imagine I speak for most priests--we are not particularly interested in the latest gossip about the Smith Family.  We love holding the secrets of others only so that we can help them in their life.  But, we don't love knowing these things simply for the sake of knowing them.  The last thing in the world I'd ever want to watch are these reality TV programs where people reveal all sorts of sordid things in order to entertain spectators.  What a sad reality that is.

Secondly, I think knowing these things makes priests far more understanding of the human condition.  Now some would think that "understanding the human condition" ought to mean that the priest lightens up on Catholic teaching.  But the opposite is the case.  If you've seen what unchastity does to families or what abortion does to a woman, you know more than ever that the Church is completely right.  You want to preach the truth on these matters in the hope that someone will be saved from such situations.  Preaching the full truth about worshipping God, loving our neighbor, the virtues, the destructive nature of sin, the life that grace offers etc, all of these things are ways of loving our people.  People are far more inclined to trust a priest if they know that he is not seeking to cultivate favor with them by misleading them.  I've often found that the most hardened of souls are the ones who are most appreciative of knowing that the priest they are talking to is going to give them the straight story.

At the same time, it also makes us more apt to cut people a lot more slack than others might grant them.  In my preaching, for instance, I am going to say that we are bound to attend Mass every Sunday.  That's the truth.  Not to preach that would be to do an injustice to those whome we are called to serve.  At the same time, I'm eating dinner, having a beer, and sharing a laugh with the person who comes only monthly or never to Mass.  Knowing the depths of the burdens that people carry (even if it is the burden of their own sins), makes me love them more, not less.  (I should happily add that these people are also abundantly patient with all of my flaws too!)  Or, sometimes people in a parish might be really annoyed at that mother whose kid has acted up all through Mass.  But, the priest might know that the child has a serious condition and the mother was abandoned by her husband.  So, the priest is inclined to cut her some slack.  He's even inclined to cut the next one the same slack--just in case she's in the same boat.

Why write about all of this today?  It's Sunday.  I spent the whole day encountering people who come from real families with real problems, real pain, real sin, and real sorrow.  I know them.  I know a lot about them.  And, knowing them is to love them.  Priests know their people and priests love their people.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Church's Liturgy Knows Me All Too Well--Thank God

Simon of Cyrene Helps Jesus to Carry the Cross

In the very first moments of consciousness this morning, I lay in bed and thought, "Did I give up too much for Lent?"  I began coming up with loopholes and compromises to extricate myself from these Lenten disciplines.  "After all, it is really only the first day of Lent, so I could still back out before it is too late.  I don't have to be a hero."  (As if my disciplines were even in the neighborhood of heroic.)  How in the world on day one am I already weakening in my resolve?  A few weeks, maybe.  But day one?

Not surprisingly, the Liturgy today was prepared for me and my weakness.  The Liturgy not only reveals to us something about God, but because the Liturgy is the action of Christ, it reveals to us something also about man.  In today's instance, it was as though the Liturgy were anticipating that less than 24 hours into the penitential season, we would already be thinking about taking a different path.

Mid-Afternoon Prayer today provided this gem from the Letter to the Hebrews: "Do not surrender your confidence; it will have great reward.  You need patience to do God's will and receive what he has promised" (Hebrews 10:35-36).  The Church's Liturgy was reminding us that what we are doing will have a great reward.  And, I like rewards.  So, all of this fasting etc is not just about fasting.  There's a reward involved.  That helps me.  Yeah, sometimes I need a bit of a bribe.  Fasting . . . reward.  Fasting . . . reward.  Okay, I can hold out a little longer.

The Mid-Afternoon reading from Hebrews only alluded to the promised reward.  But, the Gospel of the Day gave the full picture:

"If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself
and take up his cross daily and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.
What profit is there for one to gain the whole world
yet lose or forfeit himself?"

What's the reward for struggling to keep the Lenten disciplines?  Well, Jesus says that it's bigger than gaining the whole world!  That's my kind of reward.  We keep these disciplines and take up the daily cross so that we "come after" Jesus.  Without the Cross, we lose everything.  We lose ourselves.  But, if we accept willingly a sharing in his Cross, then we are saved.  Whenever we take up the Cross, we receive the ultimate reward--God. 

Jesus is always found on the path of the Cross.  So, when we take that path, we always "come after" him.  We always find him.  Thus, our fasting, prayers, and almsgiving are always rewarded with nothing less than Christ himself.  This is totally awesome!  We give up a little food, a little time, a little money.  And in return, we discover Christ.  And, the Collect for the day reminded us that we were not doing this solely on the strength of our own will.  We begged God: "Prompt our actions with your inspiration, we pray, O Lord, and further them with your constant help, that all we do may always begin from you and by you be brought to completion.  Through our Lord Jesus Christ."  In other words, it's not only at the end that we get the reward.  We are prompted, inspired, helped, and brought to completion by God.

Tonight, as I preached about these things to those who were gathered at evening Mass, the smiles on their faces confirmed that the Church's Liturgy was not only directed towards this one man--but to every man and woman in the church.  At first glance, the whole "take up your cross and follow me" thing sounds like an invitation to drudgery.  Instead, it was a word of consolation to those who heard it.  The Church reminded all of us that we are in this Lenten season for the reward!

Along with the new translation of the Liturgy came a special treat.  The new missal restored the traditional "Prayer over the People" during Lent.  As I said that prayer tonight over my people, it brought a smile to my face because it confirmed exactly what I had just preached about:

"Almighty God, who have made known to your people the ways of eternal life, lead them by that path, we pray, to you, the unfading light.  Through Christ our Lord."

So, if you're already getting weak in the Lenten discipline department or if you haven't even attempted to start, let today's Liturgy encourage you: There's a reward involved.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Battle Is On Baby

Every four months or so, I have to get my blood drawn.  Neither the needle nor the blood bother me.  But, the preparation kills me.  Fasting for twelve whole hours?  Are they kidding me?  Does coffee count?  What's the earliest appointment I can have?  Okay, if I make it at 8am, I can eat right up until 8pm.  Maybe I could go to bed early or something so that the pain of fasting won't be so obvious.  Those hours from 8pm until 10pm will be pure torture.  Of course, there are many nights that I eat nothing during those hours.  But tell me that I can't eat for those hours and I become concerned that I could starve to death.  And I know that when I arrive at the doctor, the woman with the needle is going to ask me, "Did you follow the fast?"  So, there's no cheating.  I try to remind myself how there are truly infirm persons who have to do this constantly.  I even pray for them.  Though, after twelve hours of fasting (7 of them while sleeping), I am in such a weakened condition that I can only pray as best I can. 

Okay, I exaggerate . . . slightly.  I just want to convey that I can be a bit of a BIG BABY when it comes to fasting.  Don't get me wrong.  I definitely like the idea of fasting. It is just the whole putting the idea into practice thing that I find . . . distasteful.  But, here we are at the beginning of Lent.  We are in it now.  At the end of the forty days, there will no technicians waving a syringe at us asking us whether we fasted or not.  But, if there is even the slightest remnant of some serious level of Catholicism left in a person, his conscience will pierce far more uncomfortably than any syringe. The Church often refers to Lent as "a season of Grace."  Imagine that.  Fasting is not a torture.  It is a gift.   "Is that," it might be asked, "just spiritual anesthetic talk just to take the pain away?"  Actually--and we all know it deep down--fasting is good for us.

Fasting provides us many gifts.  In no particular order:
  • It provides us with a clearer self-understanding.  When we fast, we sees how we lack self-mastery and our faults become far more visible to us.
  • But then, we come to grow in self-mastery. 
  • We become more capable of resisting temptations of all sorts.
  • We think of God more often and pray to him more fervently.
  • We become more humble .
  • We hunger more for God.
  • We are more united to Christ.
  • We are more sensitive to the poor and the weak and grow in charity.
  • We are more engaged in the spiritual life and more agile in fighting spiritual battles.  Our spiritual sense becomes more acute.  Like a great general might be able to anticipate and respond to various situations on the battlefield, we become better able to read the spiritual battlefield.
  • We are far better able to see our sinfulness, acknowledge our sinfulness, and repent.
  • We grow in our love for the Eucharist and the Word.
  • We have a far more personal relationship with Christ.
Some of the above are a bit redundant.  I'm just trying to convey some varying shades of difference.  The bottom line, however, is that fasting is awesome.  It's definitely hard.  Especially if you're like me . . . a big baby.  But, the fruits of fasting are totally awesome and worth every minute.

So, we should all take it seriously.  We might fail.  We might fail many times.  We shouldn't give up.  If we fail, then we at least know something about ourselves: WE ARE BIG BABIES.  So, it has already been a gift.  But then, we must pick up and begin again.

Lent is kind of like a spiritual boot camp.  If we try and fail, there aren't going to be any casualties.  In so many ways, the one we are fighting during Lent is ourselves--our fallen selves.  We are purposefully engaged in this battle so that when our most hateful Enemy comes after us, we are prepared to fight him.  We will have the resources, the virtue, and the skill to outwit him.  The Lenten battle with ourselves prepares us for when the Devil attacks.  When he does so, our Lenten boot camp training will kick in.  We will know immediately how to turn to our Lord and his army of saints and angels.  We will be prepared to stand fast and fight the good fight.

So, if you're kind of a big baby, no worries.  This is Lent.  It is spiritual boot camp.  We are all in it together.  (Even the seemingly tough guys are big babies).  A little physical hunger and a lot of spiritual reward await us.  And we can all encourage one another and pray for one another.  To be sure, our enemy the Devil is indeed prowling about seeking an opportunity to destroy Christians and the Church.  So that we might not perish at his hands, let's start doing a little training.  Let's put our old self to death and put on the new man, Jesus Christ.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Loving God in Our Bodies

Michelangelo's Pieta

They've dressed me, fed me, tied my shoelaces, blessed me, thrown a Frisbee, broken a fall, climbed a tree, embraced friends, scratched my back, flagged down assistance, and a thousand other helpful things.  Over the years, I've discovered that I've become rather fond of my hands.  They've opened  lot of doors for me and are really quite . . .well, handy.

They are my hands.  I've had them since the beginning.  One owner.  And, quite frankly, I'd be pretty annoyed if somebody started interfering with my control over these hands of mine.  Does anybody have any right to tell me what to do with my hands?  Does the Church?  Does God?

Well, before we get to the Church or to God, let's get to my parents.  Especially my Mother.  How many times in my life did she interfere with me and my hands?  "Keep your hands to yourself!"  "Don't play with matches."  It seems that my authority over my hands does have some limitations.  Apparently, my mother exercised the right also to tell her children that fingers don't belong up one's nose.  My hands.  My nose.  It didn't matter.  "Take your finger out of your nose."  Apparently, disgusting those around you is not a permissible use of your hands.  Want to keep your hands dirty and eat with filthy hands?  Nope.  Yes, they're your hands.  But, there are proper ways of taking care of ones hands.  You want to eat in this house, you have to wash your hands.

God seemed to have recognized early on the trouble that men could get into with their hands.  No offering sacrifices to other gods, no stealing, no taking bribes, no taking an other's spouse, no maiming of oneself, and no killing.  For two thousand years or so, the Church has been teaching these same things.  We can also add things that we are bound to do with our hands: feed the poor, clothe the naked, care for the sick, give drink to the thirsty, and to welcome the orphan, the widow, and the stranger.

It seems that God gave me these hands, but did so expecting that I would use them according to his will.  And, it seems that his will has been articulated through his revealed word and his Church.  When the Church teaches me about the right use of my hands, I've never once thought, "Who is the Church to interfere with me and the right use of my hands?  They are my hands and nobody should tell me how to use them."  I, along with most Catholics, have concluded that the Church has some authority here.  My body is given to me by God, but he has certain expectations of how I use this body.

If a new diet phase came down the road in which it was determined the best way to lose weight was to chop off your hands so that you couldn't feed yourself quite so easily, the Church would have something to say about that.  Would she give you this advice because she wants to interfere with your control over your hands?  No.  She would speak because this is the reason the Church is given a teaching mission by Christ.  She advises against such an act out of love.  Yes, we have hands.  But, our hands are given to us as a gift from God and they are to be used in accordance with his Divine Plan.  Losing weight might be a noble goal.  Cutting off your hands to do it . . . nope.

The idea that one's body is somehow exempt from the life of grace is really an absurdity.  To be human is to have flesh.  Christ took on flesh to save humanity.  The only way in which we are saved is in our flesh.  We love God not in the abstract, but in the flesh. 

Whenever the Church speaks on areas concerning human sexuality, there is inevitably a protest from some that the Church should not interfere with someone's rights over his or her body.  And usually, this protest comes with anger and invective.  But, as long as Christians have bodies, the Church is going to talk to us about loving God in our bodies.  She will tell us to watch over our lips, lest we curse God or speak uncharitably about our neighbor.  She will tell us to watch over our eyes, lest we lust after another man's wife, greedily turn money into our god, or look uncharitably upon others.  She will tell us to watch over our ears so that we might listen to the Word of God.  And, she will remind us that there are proper ways for us to use our reproductive organs. 

What I do find fascinating is the reaction that the Church receives when she teaches on matters of human sexuality.  Nobody ever angrily cries out against the Church when, for instance, she tells us that it is wrong to look with hatred on another human being or when she says that we should not use our lips to destroy the good name of our neighbor.  Or, there are no angry editorials when the Church says that the human person ought not use his digestive system to drink excessive amounts of alcohol.  Yet, these are indeed teachings on the proper use of body parts.  Seemingly, it is only when she speaks about matters pertaining to sex that she receives such strong reaction.  And not only reaction, but the claim that the Church is interfering with one's rights over one's body. 

Jesus came to save me and I have a body.  As best I can tell, I have never sinned outside of my body.  It is always in my body that I have sinned--in my thoughts, in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do.  When I love, it is always in my body.  So, part of the Church's mission is to teach us how to love God and our neighbor.  That is always going to happen in our bodies.  It is why marriages are consummated.  Our bodies matter.  All of my parishioners . . . they have bodies.  The pews in my church are a little bit uncomfortable (at least, I think so).  The reason we know that they're uncomfortable is because the people who sit in them all have bodies.  Bodies matter.  Matter matters.

I baptized three babies today.  I poured water over their heads.  It was not enough for their parents to think about having the babies baptized.  We needed them to bring the baby to church.  We needed bodies there.  Sacraments require bodies. 

If we are spiritually lazy, we are not going to like when the Church says that our bodies have to be at Mass on Sunday.  The unchaste are not going to like when the Church says that sexual activity is virtuous only in the context of marriage and when it is open to the possibility of new life.  The gluttonous are not going to like it when the Church says that drunkenness is immoral.  But, as long as we Christians have bodies, the Church is going to preach to us about how to follow Christ in those bodies.

The Church proclaims that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son who became flesh; took on a body.  In him, we too can love God in our flesh.  We can love him in our hands, our eyes, our ears, our lips, and in our entire bodies.  No aspect of our humanity is left out of this equation.  I'm grateful for the Church because she teaches me and helps me learn to love God with all of my humanity.  By her faithful teaching, the Church says something that so many in the world want to deny: that our bodies are way more than just our personal property.  Our bodies are not ends in themselves.  Our bodies--every last cell of them--are made in order to love God perfectly.  That is awesome.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Barbers, Priests, Haircuts, and Confessions

Today is my day off, so among other things, I went for my haircut.  Because I like to keep my hair cut short, about eight years ago, I bought a hair trimmer, thinking that I would be skilled at providing myself a good haircut.  Imagine all the money I would save and I would never have to play barbershop roulette again.  You know what barbershop roulette is, right?  That's when you arrive and see how many people are ahead of you, how many barbers are working, and who in the chairs already is likely to be finished up first, second, third, and fourth.  Then you start going through the line-up to see which barber is going to be the one to call you.  Because then, you are left with that fateful decision.  You will either have to go and get a haircut from the barber who never cuts your hair quite right or you have to announce in front of the whole shop, "Nah, I'll wait for Joe."  This is very stressful--the next three to four weeks of my grooming depend upon it.

So, I bought the trimmer and started giving myself haircuts.  The experiment was short-lived.  With each self-haircut, the back of my head was becoming more and more a spectacle.  It was no use.  I had to go back to the barbers and, quite honestly, except for that little bit of anxiety when I have to tell some barber that I'm going to pass him up for another barber, I enjoy the whole thing.  I enjoy taking my seat among the varied characters who show up at the same time.  Some of them know me.  Most don't.  I enjoy the monthly banter with the barber and I definitely like the finishing touch of a straightedge razor cleaning up my neck.  I definitely wouldn't have tried that on my own.  Nope, I need a barber.  (Though there is evidence that some day down the road, I might not have need of one.)

Before going for my haircut today, I made another stop.  I went to a nearby chapel, got into the pew, examined my conscience, and waited for the priest to arrive for confession.  I was the first one there and was about 30 minutes early.  Gradually, more and more folks arrived and filled the two pews of penitents.  Unlike the barbershop, there would only be one confessor so there would be no picking or choosing.  Since I am on my day off and was running errands, I sat there in a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt.  I was definitely the youngest penitent among the twenty or so folks who waited.  But other times that I've been to this chapel, there have been younger persons than I waiting.

I kept glancing at my iphone and had the sense that the person next to me was getting annoyed at that.  But, I wasn't checking email.  (Though not out of any virtue but because the reception was bad).  I was checking the time.  Confessions are 30 minutes before Mass and the priest was already five minutes late.  So (this happened before and the priest told me to definitely feel free to help out if it ever happened again), I stood up and told the folks who were waiting that--despite the jeans and the sweatshirt--I was a priest and that anybody who wanted to come to confession could do so.  With that, I entered the box, put on the stole, and started hearing confessions. 

Five or six folks into it, I heard a tap on the door.  So, I finished with the person confessing and then opened the door to find the scheduled priest waiting.  He smiled and thanked me.  I came out of the confessor's side of the box, turned left, and went into the penitent's side of the box.  After making my confession, I came out of the box in time to hear one old timer who was still waiting turn to a new arrival and say, "That guy's a priest.  He came out from hearing confessions and went right back in to go to Confession.  Isn't that something?"  And they had a good chuckle about that.  I have a feeling he'll be telling that story over and over again.

We all need haircuts (at least I do for now).  And, I've learned from experience that attempting to be my own barber isn't such a nifty idea.  Besides, even if I could cut my own hair, my neck never looks right unless that straightedge razor has been put to it.  And I'm never going to try to do that to myself.  And, there's something human about showing up at the barbershop and getting in line for a haircut.  It says that we are part of the human family.

Similarly, we all need confession.  Those who say that they don't, probably do about as good a job on their souls as I would do shaving the back of my neck with a straightedge razor.  They'd make a total mess of themselves.  As much as I like my barber, I bet he wouldn't put a straightedge razor to the back of his own neck.  He's smart enough to entrust himself to the care of another barber.  Like all of the other sinners in the world, priests have to get into the line of penitents and humbly confess their sins as well. 

Lent is the perfect opportunity to get cleaned up.  Outside if you need it, but definitely on the inside.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Encouraged By Great Priests

This evening one of my friends--who at fifty is considerably older than I am--had a birthday party at his rectory and invited twenty or so priests.  The priests, from dioceses around the country serve in varying types of assignments.  There were priests from seminary faculties, vocation directors, chancery offices, bishops' secretaries, and a few of us plain o'l parish priests.

As I drove home from dinner, I was filled with a great sense of gratitude for having been with these men.  They are priests and they are good priests.  They are serving the Church in varying capacities and are doing so with zeal and with love.  They are joyful and intelligent.  They are about serving Christ and his people. 

I don't remember many specific things that I learned in high school classes, but I remember Mr. Hegarty said in American History class, "Good presidents are the ones who aren't afraid to surround themselves with people who are smarter than they are."  I've always remembered that.

I think that is also the case in other things in life.  Tonight, I was surrounded by priests who are brighter and holier than I am.  And I left that dinner a better man and a better priest because of it.

I mention all of this only because I was encouraged by their example.  People ought to be really encouraged by the great priests that the Church has.  I know there are great priests out there.  I had dinner with them tonight.

Faith: Gathered Around the Apostles and Their Successors

Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago
On the Sunday talk shows, Obama Administration officials, when asked about the Catholic Church, continually referenced groups of Catholics who have supported the Administration.  They refused to address questions about the position of the United States Bishops.  In doing so, the officials were attempting to drive a wedge between Catholics.  These officials were suggesting that the Bishops are just one voice among many and that the Catholic Health Association was an equal authority when it comes to the Church.  The following is excerpted from a statement by Cardinal George.  He was discussing the ad limina visit that he and his brother bishops were making to Rome and how that experience was one of great unity.  It is beautiful in its theological explication.

"Even in the midst of this strengthened unity, news of attempts to weaken the unity between the bishops and the faithful have been reported.  This is the first time in the history of the United States that a presidential administration has purposely tried to interfere in the internal working of the Catholic Church, playing one group off against another for political gain.  What isn’t always understood is that the Bishops of the Church make no attempt to speak for all Catholics; they never have.  The Bishops speak for the Catholic and apostolic faith, and those who hold that faith gather around them.  Others disperse. "

Monday, February 13, 2012

Accommodation Soup: Looks Great and Will Kill You

It should come as no surprise that--to use the President's own words--the "wedge issue" his administration chose to use as a first attack on religious liberties and conscience protections involved contraception.  This is obviously only the tip of the spear.  If the government is able to force Catholic employers--be they private or religiously based--to succumb to this demand, then the floodgates open.  In an interview the other evening, the head of the Episcopal Divinity School in Massachusetts could barely conceal her glee at the thought that the government, at long last, was going to impose a mandate on every employer (no matter what their conscience says) to provide contraception.  When asked if she wished abortion was also added to this mandate, she was cagey enough to keep avoiding the question.  The answer was obviously, "yes."  Much to the chagrin of the secularist agenda, the Catholic Church hasn't budged on the issue of contraception or abortion.  So, its enemies are now waging a war of government mandates upon her.

It would only be a matter of time before the Church is forced to include abortion in those mandates.  And, what about when some government decides that assisted suicide should be part of "preventive services."  After all, what would be a better preventative for suffering than to just kill you outright?  Will Catholics be forced to provide that as part of a new wave of government mandates?  Then, of course, we get into matters of education.  Will it be long before the long arm of government begins telling Catholic Schools that they will be required "as a health related issue" to provide contraception and instruction on homosexual lifestyles?

What should be remembered in all of this is that it was not the Church that started this conflict.  This was a deliberate and premeditated political decision made by the Administration.  Had the Administration kept the status quo, there would have been no "wedge issue."  The Administration has declared a new right, "the right to have your employer pay for your contraception," as having more importance than the right of people to exercise their religious beliefs. 

During the Potato Famine in Ireland, Catholics were often subjected to a humiliating choice.  In exchange for renouncing the Faith (today, maybe the Administration wouldn't use the strong term, "renounce."  Perhaps they would call it "accommodate"), a Catholic who was starving to death would be provided soup.  Thus, one who took the soup, would live to see another day, but would be required to renounce his faith in the process.  Today, individual employers and religious organizations who have moral objections to providing sterilization, abortifacients, and contraceptives will be put in a similar box by the Administration.  Violate your conscience or be put out of business.

As I said above, the wedge issue here is one where the Church is admittedly vulnerable.  Why are we vulnerable?  Because, for fifty years or so, we have been making our own accommodation with sin.  It is fascinating--but hardly accidental--that the very issue that has been ignored in teaching and preaching for so long, is now the wedge that a secularist administration is using to intrude upon freedom of religion.  If there is a lesson to be learned in this, it is that accommodating sin (as appealing at it might sometimes appear) always blows up in our faces.  The administration wouldn't have picked, for instance, abortion as the first issue because there are still way too many Catholics who stand with the Church on this issue. 

We are definitely vulnerable on this issue.  As every commentator and news report during the past three weeks has mentioned, the vast majority of Catholics uses contraception.  I have three responses to that.

1. Not to be glib, but the vast majority of Catholics have lied, stolen, been impure, gossiped, spoken uncharitably, and failed to give God the proper worship that his due Him.  These are all sins.  We should all repent.  If 98% of Catholics report that they have at some time or another failed to love the poor, that doesn't mean that the Church has no credibility to tell the world that we should love the poor.  It means that 98% of Catholics need to repent of the sin of failing to love the poor.

2. Pastors should love their people enough to preach the truth about contraception.  I've been a priest for fifteen years.  I would hope that my parishioners would say my love for them is obvious.  And, I would hope that they would say that when they've heard me talk about contraception in a homily, they knew that I was loving them by those words. 

If the reported statistics about contraceptive use among Catholics is accurate, then chances are many of my parishioners are represented in those statistics.  Many of them are likely my friends.  Some of them who are using contraception probably know deep down that what the Church teaches is the truth.  Others probably disagree with the Church's teaching.  But, it would be a grave disservice to them if their priest never preached the full truth about marriage.

My personal experience is that preaching on these topics deepens the friendship between priest and people.  I think we often underestimate the openness that people have to hearing the teaching of the Church.  We presume that they will turn away and become resentful.  My experience is just the opposite.  Many times, they've never heard the Church's teaching, but they are open to it one they've heard it.  For some, it introduces a struggle into their life that wasn't there before, but this struggle is not a bad thing.  For some, it brings a full acceptance of the Church's teaching and opens a new and deeper love for their spouse. 

I love my parishioners.  They are intelligent people and they are people who want to become more and more holy.  I trust that if they are presented the Church's teaching with love, it will bring no harm to them.

3. Accommodating disobedience is disastrous for the Church.  The wink and smile approach to disobedience on the part of ecclesial personnel is what undermines us the most.  You cannot serve both God and mammon.  It is one thing to appreciate the struggles that each individual has with sin.  It is entirely another thing to have persons in positions of authority who accommodate sin.  In Catholic healthcare, education, chanceries, parishes, and seminaries, there cannot be any accommodation for people in leadership positions who oppose the Church on the level of doctrine.  They've weakened us the most.  When we allow those who do not hold to what the Church teaches and believes to be responsible for enacting what the Church teaches and believes in our institutions, we are setting ourselves up for trouble.  If those who oppose the Church's teachings want to set up their soup kitchens and convince people to come and take it, that's their business.  But, how dumb are we when we let them bring the soup into our very institutions and peddle it there?

When it comes to people in the pews, I think we exhaust ourselves in patiently and lovingly preaching the Gospel and helping them towards the full truth.  Patience, patience, patience.

When it comes to those whom the Catholic Church pays to transmit the Gospel and to lead and guide our public institutions, I think we can safely conclude that we've been patient enough.  These persons should be loved and respected.  But, we shouldn't be paying them to work against us.  The New Evangelization requires putting the right leaders in the right positions.  The right leaders--at bare minimum--have to be people who are holding fast to the Faith.  We shouldn't be afraid before putting persons into leadership positions to ask where they stand on particular issues of the Faith.  If they disagree with certain aspects of the Faith, we wish them well and send them along.  If they agree with everything the Church teaches, then we let them go on to the next stage of the interview process.  If they give the o'l wink, smile, and cagey answer--then we tell them that they must have missed the memo: those days are gone.  The soup days are over. The New Evanagelization has begun.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Gandalf and St. Paul Are Right

Hamburg 1936

When I preach, I prefer to talk about the Gospel, the virtues, the sacraments, prayer, and things of this nature.  When an important societal issue requires words from the pulpit, I usually feel as though time is being taken away from the Gospel. More so,  I just feel as though these topics are obvious and don't need a homily. Catholics should know easily enough that--for instance--government violating religious freedom, abortion, assisted suicide etc, are all immoral and deserving of condemnation.  But alas, such is not the case.  Valuable pulpit time, therefore, has to be given over to explaining to the Faithful why these issues are of such critical importance and why they need to engage the culture on these issues.  Although I often feel like they are an interruption to the flow of things, these topics are very much part of the Gospel.  They are where the Gospel meets the culture of today. 

Inevitably, whenever the gospel and a particular political issue coincide, somebody will declare "there is a separation between Church and state."  What is meant by this is that the Church should say nothing about political issues.  The Church, however, is completely free to speak on political issues.  The Church is called to speak the truth about how God made the world to be.  When the Church says, "love the poor," that is a political issue.  When the Church says, "Love your enemies," that is a political issue.  When the Church opposes racial hatreds that is a political issue. 

Sometimes, the Church only needs to preach the principles and then persons have to make prudential judgements on how to apply those principles.  For instance, the Church preaches that we have a duty to "love the poor."  Now, reasonable persons can disagree on how to love the poor.  How is the best way to assist them?  What programs are the most effective etc?  These can be left to prudent judgments.  But, if somebody proposed that the best way to love the poor was to kill them, then the Church would have to condemn this proposal.  For the Church knows that we don't love persons by killing them.

At other times, the Church has to preach not only the principles, but also the practical implications.  One such example would be abortion.  The principle is that it is never morally licit to directly kill an innocent human being.  The Church has to draw the conclusion that the unborn child is an innocent human being and therefore can never be directly killed.  There is no room for prudent disagreement on this.  Preaching against abortion is just a manifestation of preaching about the value of human life, the command of loving our neighbor, and the command of Jesus to love the poor.  Who is poorer than a defenseless unborn child?  Who is more a neighbor to a man and a woman than the child that they have conceived together? 

There is a sense among many Catholics that the Church should not talk about how people should vote.  They suggest that if a particular candidate espouses--for instance--abortion and you remind people from the pulpit that they have a moral obligation to support and promote the protection of human life, then you are telling them who to vote for.  I regret that the candidate that they like supports the taking of innocent human life, but it's not my fault that he does.  Every Catholic, when he or she goes into a voting booth, goes in as a Catholic.  They have to vote in accord with the Gospel.  In the same way that every Catholic who works in the business world must do so in accord with the Gospel.  Does that mean that sometimes a Catholic businessman might have to not lie, cheat, or steal like other persons in that particular company?  Yes, that's what it means.

The other day, I saw a photo (posted at the top of this post) of a massive crowd attending the launching of a ship in Hamburg in 1936.  The photo depicts the crowds all giving the Hitler salute.  In the crowd, one man--August Landmesser--is seen not giving the salute.  His daughter, years later, saw the photo and recognized her father. It must have taken extraordinary courage for one man not to succumb to the pressures surrounding him that day.  As Catholics, we too have a duty to bring our Faith to the culture.  Whether we are surrounded by the powers of hell or whether we are standing alone in the voting booth, we are called to live the Gospel everywhere and to transform society by our Christian Faith.  (To be clear, I use the photo above purely as an example of how when somebody acts with integrity in the public square even when it is difficult to do so, we admire them,  When I saw that photo recently online, I was touched by the courage and example of that man.  Use of the photo is solely about admiring the man's courage and no other implications are intended.  I hope that is clear enough.)

Last week, in St. Paul's letter to the Corinthians he wrote, "Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel."  That's quite a statement and one that those entrusted with preaching the Gospel must take seriously.  At times, I wish that the culture and the Gospel were not at such odds.  At times, I wish that I were preaching the Gospel in old Christendom rather than in the midst of a secularist revolution.  I bet many priests feel that way.

This wishing reminds me of an exchange from the Lord of the Rings.  Frodo, recognizing all of the hardship that comes with the responsibility of carrying the ring says to Gandalf, "I wish the ring had never come to me.  I wish that none of this had every happened."  And Gandalf replies, "So do all who live in such times.  But that is not for them to decide.  All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us."

Preachers of the Gospel probably all wish that we were not living in a culture that is undermining marriage and families, promoting the killing of innocent children, coercing religious persons to violate their consciences, and a thousand other attacks on the truth.  When we were preparing to go forth and preach the Gospel, we weren't thinking about writing homilies on why killing the sick is wrong or why marriage can only be between a man and a woman.  Those weren't the homilies that we were writing.  We wish that none of this had happened.  But, that is not for us to decide.  All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.  Woe to us, if we don't use that time to preach the Gospel.

Lenten Friendship: Let Us Be Concerned for Each Other

The lists have definitely begun.  They are written on the back of envelopes, on sheets of notebook paper, and on my computer.  Some lists are divided up by days of the week.  Other lists are divided up by particular virtues that need growth in me.  Other lists are done by the traditional categories of "Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving."  All of the lists have the same title, "Lent."  It's coming.  And I need to get ready.

Experience has taught me that I need an exact plan.  If I want to take other things on as well, that's fine.  But, I need to have the "minimum" list as well.  These are the things that I'm going to do no matter what.  And, I need to balance it out.  It has to involve a challenge.  But, it can't be so unrealistic that I spend the whole of Lent failing.  I even do a few practice runs before Lent just to make sure that certain things are going to work out.

This coming week, I wrote a little blurb about wanting my parishioners to live Lent together this year; to be in it together.  No sooner had the bulletin gone to print than Pope Benedict XVI released his Message for Lent with the theme, "Let us be concerned for each other, to stir a response in love and good works."  I always like when the Holy Father agrees with me!  His whole letter may be found here

Lent is a beautiful opportunity for us to deepen our Christian friendship with one another by giving each other the space and encouragement necessary to grow in holiness and virtue.  Christ gives us our friendship with one another in order to aid us in our path toward perfection.  But, sometimes we hinder one another. We become afraid to change for the better in front of those whom we love for a variety of reasons.  What are some examples?

Firstly, we could be afraid of failure.  Let's use the person who decides to go to daily Mass as an example.  Perhaps, that person is afraid to try going to daily Mass during Lent because if she fails on an occasion to live up to her commitment, she will receive the, "Aha, I knew you wouldn't last" look from her husband.  Or, there is the person who wants to abstain from alcohol during Lent but is afraid that if he fails just once, there will be much gloating among his friends that he blew it.  Or the person who gives up television or limits his computer use.  The fear of appearing a failure to others may well keep him from every trying.

Secondly, we are afraid of changing the image others have of us.  Sometimes, we become slaves to the image that others have of us.  If we are a drunkard, a gossip, a person given over to silliness, or laziness etc, we feel that everyone expects us to be like this.  Everyone has become comfortable with our lack of perfection.  We feel kind of safe keeping things the same.

Thirdly, we are afraid of resentment.  Strange as it sounds, sometimes people get resentful of the person who tries to grow in holiness.  If you decide to pray a little more, gossip a little less, drink a little less, eat a little less, or give a little more to the less fortunate, you could be immediately charged with, "What, do you think you're better than me now?"  People get resentful sometimes when somebody grows in holiness.  In the face of the person who spends more time in prayer, somebody might say, "Well, I wish that I had that kind of time to pray."  In other words, "I wish that I had no other real responsibilities so I could be lazy."  Or, have you ever noticed how insistent people become when somebody turns down dessert or a drink?  "No, just have one drink.  Enjoy yourself."  It's like if he doesn't drink on this particular occasion, he is treated as though he were condemning everyone else who is having a drink.

Lent should be a safety zone where we can grow in holiness and perfection with the help of our loved ones.  We should encourage one another and give one another space.  If our friend fails in his efforts, we want to give him the encouragement to start over again.  If he is successful, we want to support him.  The disciplines of Lent are a shared reality.  Each one of us needs to grow in holiness and in different ways.  But, we can live the pilgrimage of Lent together, helping one another along the path.  Cultivating virtue, combating vice, deepening our friendship with Christ, and mastering ourselves are all part of the Lenten seasons.  None of us should feel alone in this endeavor.  We are in it together.  We are on the precipice of a new beginning.  Following the lead of Pope Benedict XVI, "Let us be concerned for each other, to stir a response in love and good works."

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Re-defining and Eliminating the Conscience

When I was growing up and heard the word "conscience," it usually meant that somebody was telling me that I knew what the right thing to do was and that--difficult though it may be--I had to do what my conscience was telling me.  Or, conscience was discussed in terms of whether your "conscience was bothering you."  This means that you had lied or done some other immoral thing and now, deep inside, the conscience was nagging.  That blasted conscience!  It didn't seem to let you get away with anything.  And of course, "conscience" could also be used in the context of a rebuke.  "Don't you even have a conscience?"

We weren't theologians at eight years old, but we knew we had a conscience.  And that conscience didn't make the rules.  It was that annoying voice that made you keep the rules.  It was that nagging pit in your stomach feeling that wouldn't go away until you set things right again.  Conscience when I was eight years old was about doing what was right. 

Somewhere between eight and forty, there seems to have been a seismic shift in the way that people use the word "conscience."  At eight, "conscience" was what kept one from doing evil.  But, gradually it seems that "conscience" has been turned on its head and is used as a "Get out of jail free" card.  Have a difficult moral decision to make?  Just say your conscience told you to do the opposite of what the truth demands and you're all set.  You know adultery is wrong, but tell yourself that in this particular instance "my conscience says it's okay" and you are entirely excused from those marital vows.  Do you find some moral teaching of the Catholic Church difficult to follow at times?  No worries.  Just say that your conscience says, "it's okay for me not to follow the teachings of the Church."  See, wasn't that easy?  And it isn't just about sexual morality where this comes in handy.  The Sunday Mass obligation?  Hey, what obligation?  My conscience says it is fine to miss Mass on Sunday.

Conscience has morphed into the justification for doing evil and avoiding good.  "My conscience says it is fine to use contraception.  My conscience says it is fine to miss Mass, not go to confession, to receive the Eucharist unprepared, and to support abortion.  And, as long as one announces that it is about his conscience, there is an expectation that the Church should just keep quiet on those issues.  In fact, there have been any number of theological advisors to politicians who have given them just this type of advice.  "Yes, you're Catholic and the Church opposes these issues, but as long as you follow your conscience, you're okay."  These advisors will have much for which they shall have to give an account.
But, something new has happened in the way of conscience.  For all of these years, many Catholic politicians have held themselves excused from obedience to the Church because they were "following their consciences."  So, the very institution that Christ gives to us to help us form our consciences was treated as irrelevant to "my conscience."  But now, these very politicians are part of a secularist agenda that opposes much of what the Catholic Church embraces.  And when the Church herself seeks to receive the protection of her conscience, the hellish cries of these very same Catholic politicians are deafening. 

For decades, scores of Catholic politicians have held themselves excused from the moral law by playing the "conscience card."  Now, these very same politicians are in lock step behind President Obama's mandate that Catholic institutions be compelled by force of law to violate their consciences.  See, when it comes to holding yourself excused from the Ten Commandments, the Gospel, and the doctrinal teaching of the Church founded by Jesus Christ (of which these folks say that they are members), the word "conscience" comes in very handy.

But, when people say that the mandates of the secularist agenda of the Obama Administration are a violation of their consciences, these very same Catholic politicians are horrified that anyone would have the audacity to claim that their consciences matter.  Obama has spoken.  Sebelius has spoken.  There is no room for conscience in this matter.  It is fascinating really.  Sebelius--a self-proclaimed Catholic--has no hesitation in acting in total opposition to the Catholic Church and feels quite justified in doing so.  But, when Catholics who oppose her pro-abortion, pro-secularist, anti-Catholic mandates appeal to their consciences, she simply outlaws conscience protection. 

And here is where it seems the whole thing has finally been turned on its head.  The Church in the United States has allowed Catholic politicians to abuse the term "conscience" for decades.  These folks have cynically hidden under a false understanding of "conscience" for a long time and did so with almost no challenge.  Their deficient understanding of conscience received little in the way of public correction.  And now, they have usurped unto themselves what was given by Christ to his Church.  They spent decades ignoring the Magisterium by appealing to their make believe understanding of conscience.  And, in large part, the Church failed to correct them.  Now, they have anointed themselves to be the new magisterium.  Unlike the old Magisterium that looked to Natural Law and to the Divinely revealed in order to teach on matters of Faith and Morals, the new magisterium looks only to itself.  And, they have made clear that there will be no room for people's consciences to disagree.
Funny isn't it?  These folks were allowed to run wild with their fanciful definitions of conscience for decades and few did much in the way of correcting them.  Now, these very same folks are disciplining the Church for appealing to its conscience.  Maybe if these folks had been continually challenged over the years on their re-definition of conscience (they seem to like to re-define things), they wouldn't be stomping on the consciences of others now.

Maybe, the Church in the United States ought to look at the past forty years or so and examine how effective our approach has been.  Has the predominant "hands off " approach been effective?  If not, what would have been more effective?  Have these politicians become more Catholic over time or have they become more defiant?  Has the present model convinced other Catholics of our seriousness on these matters or has it left them thinking that most everything is up for grabs?  Have we been successful in shaping the consciences of our people or have we failed?  Is our chosen method a great success story or is it in need of some tweaking?

Perhaps, we could form a commission to study what we've done right and what we've done wrong.  I even have a title for the final paper: An Examination of Conscience.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Priestly Fatherhood

Tonight I heard the confessions of about 15 tenth grade students.  I felt particularly on my game.  Even though it was at the end of the day, I wasn't tired or distracted.  I was happy to be there and besides providing a valid absolution, I hope that I provided a good fatherly and priestly presence.  In my heart, I was pondering not only about how much I love those kids, but how much God loves them.

But, it doesn't always happen like that.  Now, I've heard stories of people saying that they've been yelled at by a confessor.  I have no reason to doubt their veracity, but I've never had that happen.  I've had a cranky priest once.  And sometimes I've felt like I interrupted the priest's book by going to confession.  But, I've never been yelled at.  Not even close.  And, I have a hard time imagining any of the priests I know yelling at somebody in confession. 

But, not every night is like tonight either.  There have been times when I'm tired or hungry.  There have been times when I'm hearing confessions and at the same time I'm thinking about how it is snowing outside and the snow shovellers haven't arrived yet and Mass is about to begin in thirty minutes.  Or, everybody decides to show up for confession in the last five minutes and I have to go get ready for Mass.  I want to hear everyone's confession, but the clock is ticking.  Do I come across as distracted or impatient?  Probably. 

And, it's not the confessional alone where things go wrong.  I've run into a nursing home to anoint somebody but needed to be back to church in fifteen minutes for Mass.  I wonder if when I leave, the family resents that I've spent such a small amount of time with them.  Or, when I run into the sacristy after that with five minutes to get ready for Mass, are the people in the sacristy annoyed because I'm not greeting them graciously because I'm trying to find the chalice which somebody put away in the wrong place?

And then, there's the phone number that I wrote down on a small piece of paper so that I could call the person from my car.  But, when I get to my car somebody else calls me and I forget to call the person back.  That person is probably annoyed too.

And then there are those times when I've tried to help somebody and helping them seems to blow up in my face.  Or, they misinterpret what I've told them.  It's mind boggling sometimes as a priest.  You're standing outside after Mass having preached a homily on forgiveness and mercy.  Then, somebody comes out and thanks you for the great homily and they tell you, "Father, thank you.  You're right.  I'm going to go home and throw my son out on the street."  What? ! Wait a minute!  That's not what I meant!!!  Sometimes, things go sideways just because of circumstances, but the priest is somehow standing right smack in the middle of those circumstances.

This all came to mind today because somebody from my first assignment read this blog and in a comment thanked me for bringing communion to her dying mother some twelve or so years ago.  I guess that day I wasnt' rushing, cranky, distracted, or tired.  But, it is always nice when somebody remembers something like that.

It seems like this post should conclude with some sort of moralism, like, "Good priests should never be cranky, distracted, or tired."  Yeah, good luck with that one.  The lesson I draw from it is simply that the priesthood is a beautiful and awesome gift.  God knowingly chooses men whom he knows will occasionally be rushing around, cranky, distracted, or tired.  He chooses men who might say something the wrong way.  He chooses men who run the constant risk of deciding something incorrectly.  But, he chooses them anyways.  He chooses them to be his priests.

And, the closer people are to the Church, the more they see their priests as loving fathers.  Loving fathers who care deeply for them.  Loving fathers who get cranky sometimes.  Loving fathers who get tired.  Loving fathers who have a lot on their mind.  Loving fathers who are worried about some person who is in trouble.  Loving fathers who are thinking about how they have to get the collection up.  But always they see the "loving fathers" before they see a quirk or the flaw.  This is obviously not an excuse for priests to be crumbs. Priests ought to live their pastoral life with tremendous joy.  This is simply an acknowledgement that in the parish, the priest is firstly a father to his people.  He's not firstly the CEO of the parish. 

The specific virtue of the priest is called, "pastoral charity."  The priest loves the people as their shepherd..  This is why he is sent to the parish.  Over time, the relationship between priest and people is built up.  He knows them and they know him.  But, more importantly than knowing one another is the fact that they love one another.  As the psalm says, "He has poured into my heart a marvelous love for the faithful ones."

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Thank God For the Laity of the New Evangelization

Nuttiness breeds nuttiness--especially in the theological world.  And, the longer you let nuttiness continue, the nuttier things become.  Every so often, some video that depicts a loony-tunes prayer service or liturgical event goes viral.  Perhaps it is a prayer service with people tying themselves up in yarn or a Mass with the priest dressed up as a clown.  The video arrives on the scene with cries of, "This cannot be allowed to continue."  But, we should remember that this is not where the decline began.  The decline likely began in some classroom where some well-intentioned student was taught bad theology.  Examples are . . . legion.

When I was a seminarian, I was given a variety of pastoral assignments.  In one such assignment, the director of a particular program asked me to put together a penance service for a retreat.  I looked through the ritual for penance services and selected various options.  While most of what I assembled was permitted, there was a big disagreement on the "Examination of Conscience."  Included among the items for examination was the question, "Did I attend Mass every Sunday and every Holy Day?"  This question, I was told, came from a poor understanding of theology.  (This would have come as a surprise to those who wrote the Ritual for the Sacrament of Penance.)  I was told that while, "objectively missing Mass on a Sunday might be a sin, subjectively we just can't say."  So, that one had to be removed.  I made the point that while "objectively not loving your neighbor might be a sin, subjectively, we just can't say either."  I thought by making that point, I had won the argument.  Instead, it was decided that there would be no Examination of Conscience because "we just can't really know what is and isn't a sin."

In another assignment, the person in charge of youth constantly would ask (as though he were being intellectually provocative), "Well, none of us can really know whether Jesus was God or not or whether the Hindu's have it right and we have it wrong."  The head of a Catholic High School once told me that the Church might change its teaching on gay marriage some day because, "The Mass used to be in Latin and it isn't any more."  With pseudo-theology like this, the liturgical clown costumes can't be far behind.
There's a temptation when we see these things just to roll our eyes and say, "Well, that's so and so."  But, the long-term effects are staggering.  Eventually, when Catholic retreats are based on, "What figure in the Muppets do you most identify with?" the whole thing starts to collapse.  When the basic approach to Catholic teaching and Liturgy is, "How close can we get to the line without crossing it," the whole thing starts to collapse.  If you leave people out in the theological wilderness long enough, they'll soon be dancing around a golden calf, clown costumes and all.

Probably one of the good things about the Internet and these nutty videos that go viral is that we can see how sad things can become.  But, if these videos are solely an opportunity to rail against bishops and inundate chanceries with phone calls, they are of little use.  More important than stopping liturgical, moral, and theological abuses that spring up everywhere is the need to substitute good teaching in place of bad teaching, good Liturgy in place of deficient liturgy, articulate presentation of the Faith in place of faux-theology.

We see that happening in many places now.  In Boston, for instance, there is a new program entitled the "Theological Institute for the New Evangelization."  It is a program designed for lay people who desire to deepen their theological knowledge.  I have had numerous parishioners take courses in this program and they all come back with greater knowledge of the Faith and with greater love for the Church.  The course work is not dumbed down and it respects the intelligence of these students.  It is awesome to see lay people being given the benefit of solid and faithful doctrine. 

I see it in some amazing Catholic colleges that have sprung up across the country.  One example is the University of Steubenville.  I see many young graduates from there who are on fire with the Faith and with love for the Church.  They have experienced what it means to be part of a Catholic community and they want to share that with others.  They love Jesus and they love the Church that Jesus built on the Rock of Peter.  They pray in diverse ways, but always in union with the Church.

I see it in speakers who have come to my parish from the Archdiocese of Denver.  They travel around the country speaking to teenagers about the Theology of the Body.  They show that normal men and women can be holy and can adhere with love to the Church's teachings.  They propose an entirely different option to young people.  Many times, we seem to present two options to young people.  We either have people in clown costumes telling them that the Church's teaching should be changed.  Or, we have angry looking people constantly saying, "No."  But, the New Evangelization has to be about presenting the Church's teaching in ways that are attractive and comprehensible. 

In a particular way, I am very grateful for the awesome lay people who are showing up on the scene these days and who are are introducing something new into the life of the Church in the United States.  What they have done is to propose an alternative; the alternative of the Truth.  And this alternative is making a beautiful difference in the lives of many.  These men and women are doing something new.  They are the first line of missionaries in the New Evangelization.  They are a generation of Catholics who are starving for Christ and his Gospel and they are joyful in sharing Christ with others.  They are not fighting ideological battles.  They are following Christ and inviting others to do the same.  They love the Church.  They love the Sacraments and Eucharistic Adoration. They love what the Church teaches.  They saw for themselves what happens to generations who are abandoned to silliness and they want something more than that. 

I am increasingly surrounded by people like this.  They are re-proposing Christianity to a new generation and are doing so in the midst of a culture that is increasingly less hospitable to the Gospel.  But, they've encountered Christ, they've been fed solid doctrine, been nourished by the Sacraments, and have participated in true worship.  They are intellectually and spiritually strong and they are part of something new.  They are making their way into diocesan offices, religious education programs, Catholic schools, and Campus Ministries.  They meet considerable resistance from the old guard, but they just joyfully proclaim Jesus and win by the shear force of their joyful love for Jesus.  They remind me somewhat of the Magi.  Instead of going back to fight with Herod head-on, they've discovered that they can go home a different way.  They are strong in their faith and in their convictions and the secret weapon that they bring to the battle is their joy in Christ.

They remind me of a small seed that despite the very worst of adverse conditions, somehow manages to defeat the odds and emerge as a magnificent tree.  These men and women were, in many ways, surrounded by nuttiness.  But, God's grace reached them anyways and they are well-prepared to engage the culture with the Christian Gospel. 

The New Evangelization is here.  No more clowning around.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Commercial For Priestly Vocations

St. John Seminary in Brighton, MA

I'm a bit impatient when it comes to vocations.  So, I'm going to keep talking about it.  Jesus has done some great things at St. Mary Star of the Sea in Beverly in terms of priestly vocations during the past few years.  The parish is crawling with seminarians and with newly ordained priests.  The rectory is always home to one, two, or three seminarians and to priests who age 40 and younger.  (Admittedly, I now consider 40 to be young).

I want more vocations to the priesthood from our parish.  I don't want to lose momentum.  What Christ is doing in our midst in terms of priestly vocations is awesome.  But, I want more!  So, if you are from the parishes of Beverly, open your eyes and look around.  Are there men in our midst whom God might be calling to a priestly vocation?  If so, tell me!  Don't waste time.  Encourage those men!  Pray for those men!

If you belong to another parish and think a man there has a priestly vocation, tell him to leave his parish, sign up as a parishioner here, and then call me.  Okay . . . not really.  Encourage him to talk to his parish priest or to the vocation director for the Archdiocese of Boson, Fr. Daniel Hennessey.  If you know of a young man whom you think has a priestly vocation, send him the link to this post.  Maybe that is all it will take.

If you are a young man who thinks it is possible that God is calling you, don't wait forever.  Now is the time!

What things should you do if you think God might be calling you?  Go to daily Mass, spend time in Eucharistic Adoration, go to confession, pray the Rosary, talk to your  parish priest, and call the vocation director. 

Tonight, I am praying especially for those whom God is calling to the priesthood.  I pray that you say, "Yes" to Him.

Just One Little Violation of Conscience Is All We Want. It's No Big Deal.

St. Thomas More: Beheaded by Henry VIII

Let's suppose that George W. Bush mandated that every employer had to provide to its employees a newspaper every day and that every newspaper that participated in this plan had to include a section dedicated to advancing the policies of the Bush Administration.  The justification for this is that people are entitled to the truth and no person should be excluded from receiving information. 

Perhaps, the New York Times might argue that it is unfair that they should be forced to print something that violates their beliefs.  They might argue that "Freedom of the Press" is being violated.  They might argue that it is outrageous that they should be compelled to publish what fundamentally violates their principles.  .

But, the Bush Administration might argue that it knows better than these people on policy matters.  And besides, just because the New York Times embraces an extremely liberal agenda, they sell indiscriminately to conservatives and to liberals.  On their payroll are democrats and republicans.  They might even have on their payrolls persons who voted for George Bush.  Those employees, says the Bush Administration, have a fundamental right to hear the truth as it is defined by the Bush Administration.

The above scenario is admittedly an absurd one.  It is not any more absurd, however, than the Obama administration forcing Catholic institutions to purchase and provide contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients.  One big difference between the two scenarios is that one is just imaginary and the other is really happening.  The Catholic Church is not seeking to impose its will upon the rest of the country.  The Obama Administration is seeking to impose its will upon the Catholic Church. 

I wish that I could say that this might serve as a wake-up call to Catholics in the United States, but I think it is too early to put my hopes in that basket.  The Church and civil officials ought to work together in a spirit of collaboration and for the common good.  But, for a long time, the Church has allowed herself to play the dupe.  It might be worthwhile for the architects of the Catholic Church's current model of engagement with political officials in the United States to do a self-evaluation.  Has their way of engaging worked?  If they answer, "no," then they should come up with a new plan.  If they answer, "Yes," then they should be sent off to find a new job because their plan is to lead us into disaster.