Saturday, March 31, 2012

Leaving the Crowd and Entering the Heart of Christ

I can remember quite vividly being a young boy on Palm Sunday.  Firstly, I remember it because my older brothers would take me with them to the lower church in the days leading up to Palm Sunday and we would "split the palms."  They came in burlap bags.  We would strike them against the columns in the lower church to loosen them up and then would peal them apart--not too flimsy, but also not so big that there wouldn't be enough for everybody.  I recall that I got bored with the process fairly quickly and wound up spending most of my time playing with the "hard of hearing" telephone that was in the confessional while my brothers did the work.

What I most remember about Palm Sunday--and Good Friday--(other than shifting from foot to foot trying to endure the length of the Gospel), was the intensity with which my mother took up her part in the reading of the Passion.  No, she was not a lector.  She was part of "the crowd."  And from what I could tell, if there were Liturgical Oscars, she merited one.  She got into it.  "Not this one.  We want Barabbas!"  "We have no king but Caesar!"  "Crucify him!  Crucify him!  Take him away!"

Another vivid memory I have is of Holy Thursday.  Since I became an altar boy around 8 or 9 years of age, I presume these memories are from when I was 5-7 years old.  From what I know now, one of the things that most struck me as a little boy is apparently not part of the liturgical norms.  But, it still had a significant effect upon me.  The parish I grew up in usually had four or five priests living there.  Holy Thursday was always "the pastor's Mass, and the pastor was Fr. Cornelius J. Heery.  He's been dead for over fifteen years, but when I think of Sacred Heart, North Quincy, I still think of Fr. Heery as the pastor.  That will likely be true in another fifteen years as well.

In any event, at the end of the Holy Thursday Mass, after the priests and altar boys processed to the chapel of reposition, they would return.  (Yes, I know that the rubrics of the Mass don't allow for this!)  Fr. Heery would go back to his chair and the altar boys and other priests would begin stripping the altars.  Then, two by two, they would bow to the altar and depart into the sacristy.  Then, almost all of the lights would be extinguished.  Fr. Heery would remain in his chair for a few moments and then would get up, bow to the altar (for the tabernacle was now empty) and would leave.  As a boy, I was mesmerized.

The stripping of the altars was an external act that I comprehended internally.  Something life-changing was being signified in that sanctuary.  And while many persons were moving about, extinguishing candles, carrying away missals, altar cloths, and candle sticks, what most dominated the sanctuary was the lone figure of Fr. Heery watching over all of this.  As a boy (although I would not articulate it in this way then), I saw the liturgical representation of Christ.  All was being taken from him.  Having given everything in the Last Supper, he was now handing himself over to others.  The lone figure of Fr. Heery communicated to me something of what must have been the interior experience of Jesus Christ on the night before he died.

Sometimes we think about our Lord's Death and Resurrection simply as members of the crowd.  We observe what is happening and experience it as something extrinsic to us.  We see him and us.  We think and pray about what our reaction is to these events.  We think about how we've denied him like Peter, betrayed him like Judas, or opposed him through our going along with the crowd of the day--being driven more by the political and cultural trends of the day rather than by our commitment to Christ.  All of these are certainly worthwhile points of meditation.  But, being Christian is so much more!

What is truly amazing is that the Christian is made able to enter into these saving mysteries not as a mere member of the crowd or even simply as a companion of Christ.  We are made able to enter into these mysteries in union with Christ.  I think this is why the Reproaches of Good Friday have recently been so moving to me.  They speak about the Passion not from the perspective of an outside observer, but from the perspective of God himself.  He has loved so wholly, so infinitely, so generously, so gratuitously and yet he has been so utterly spurned and rejected. 

"My people, what have I done to you?  Or how have I grieved you?  Answer me!" . . . "What more should I have done for you and have not done?"

The Christian--especially through the Sacred Liturgy--enters into the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of the Lord not as a mere observer or as a member of the crowd.  He enters in with Jesus.  To remain at a safe distance with the crowd is certainly a temptation.  From the crowd, we can be moved with pity and with compassion, with sorrow and with remorse.  And then, we can return back to our everyday lives, perhaps somewhat better for having observed these things and having somewhat been affected by them.  To remain in the crowd provides us safety from the risk of losing our life.

"He who would save his life, will lose it and he who lays down his life will save it."  Entering the Passion with Christ will most certainly crush us.  To join him in his interior offering to the Father--to be united in such eternal love--is to be nailed with him to the Cross.  Holy Week is about entering into the very love of God Himself.  No man can enter this Divine Fire of Love and not die.  Entering into the Divine Love is to risk everything.  It is to trespass--albeit by Divine invitation--into a realm far beyond man's natural capacities.  It is to step out from the crowd who observes religious things and to enter into the Divine Mysteries.  This "stepping out from the crowd" is not firstly about morality.  It is firstly an act of Faith, Hope, and Love.  It is to enter beyond the veil, knowing that the cost of admission is death.  It is the death that occurs from encountering the weight of Eternal Love.

The Patristic Church Fathers saw a profound connection between the Annunciation and the Cross.  In fact, there is a tradition that says that Good Friday happened on the same day as the Annunciation.  This is chiefly due to the offering of Christ's body.  In the Annunciation, the Second Person of the Trinity took on a body so that this body could be offered.  And, on Good Friday, this body is offered in totality.  But, there is also a Marian dimension to this connection.  At the Annunciation, Mary offered herself as the instrument through which our salvation would come.  On Good Friday, standing by the Cross, Mary offers herself in total union with Christ.  She is no mere observer.  United with her Son, she enters beyond the veil into the Eternal Love of God.  This is why we are invited to live these days in imitation of the Blessed Virgin.  She shows us how it is possible to enter the saving Mysteries in complete union with Christ.

From the crowd, we can observe things, learn moral lessons, and perhaps try to be better persons.  But that is not why Jesus came.  The Cross is a doorway that we are invited to enter.  It is the entrance to the unimaginable, overwhelming, and indescribable love of God.  To enter this Love surely means death. And this death surely means resurrection and life everlasting.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Listen and Weep Over Your Ingratitude

On Good Friday, the Roman Missal recommends the chanting of the "Reproaches" during the Adoration of the Holy Cross.  I provide here a youtube version of the Latin chant.  It is really magnificent and worth the listen.  You can hear the deep sorrow and agony of Our Lord as he recounts all the good that he has done for us and how we have turned away from him with such enormous ingratitude.  It helps, I think, to make us see more clearly how our sins are really an insult to the One who has given us everything. 

On Easter, we should rejoice that Christ is Risen.  Before then, we ought to pause and ask for the grace to weep over our sins and our ingratitude.

The Reproaches:

My people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!
I led you out of Egypt, from slavery to freedom, but you led your Savior to the cross.
My people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!
Holy is God! 2: Holy and strong! 1: Holy immortal One, have mercy on us!

For forty years I led you safely through the desert. I fed you with manna from heaven and brought you to a land of plenty; but you led your Savior to the cross.
Repeat "Holy is God..."

What more could I have done for you? I planted you as my fairest vine, but you yielded only bitterness: when I was thirsty you gave me vinegar to drink, and you pierced your Savior with a lance.
Repeat "Holy is God..."

For your sake I scourged your captors and their firstborn sons, but you brought your scourges down on me.
My people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!

I led you from slavery to freedom and drowned your captors in the sea, but you handed me over to your high priests. "My people...."

I opened the sea before you, but you opened my side with a spear.
"My people...."

I led you on your way in a pillar of cloud, but you led me to Pilate's court. "My people...." 

I bore you up with manna in the desert, but you struck me down and scourged me. "My people...."

I gave you saving water from the rock, but you gave me gall and vinegar to drink. "My people...."

For you I struck down the kings of Canaan. but you struck my head with a reed. "My people...."

I gave you a royal scepter, but you gave me a crown of thorns. "My people...."

I raised you to the height of majesty, but you have raised me high on a cross.  "My people...."

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Catholic Schools Let Children Come to Jesus

When I wake up early in the morning while it is still dark, I enjoy looking out my window at the church's stained glass windows.  The lights in the church illuminate the windows so that from my room, I have a host of Christian mysteries upon which to meditate.  One of the windows that faces my room is that of Jesus teaching the little children.  It is a good reminder to me that one of the serious obligations of a pastor is to bring children closer to Jesus.

The other day, I was passing through the school yard of my parish school as I was making my way back to the rectory.  One of the teachers stopped to tell me how he had brought one of his classes over to the adoration chapel at the church earlier in the week for some time before the Blessed Sacrament.  He said that another teacher had done the same thing that week and that he would be bringing another class over later in the week.  Without knowing it, he made my day.

Sometimes when we advertise our school, we remind people that we have great technology, high scores in national testing, and good moral formation.  But you know, that's not why I want to be in the school business.  I'm sure that there are many public and private schools who have great technology, high scores in testing, and who provide good character formation.  What is different about a Catholic school?

It has to be Jesus Christ.  The children going to my school are talking about Christ, praying to Christ, and learning to follow Christ.  They are taking a break in the middle of their day to go and spend time adoring the Eucharist.  They will all be coming over to church in the next few days to receive the Sacrament of Penance.  Do all of their families come to Mass on Sundays?  No, not yet.  But, most do.  I see them here on Sundays.  They are an important part of the parish life.

Frankly, I think a school would be far too burdensome on a parish's life unless we were convinced that it were really an effective tool for evangelization and that we were drawing these children closer to Christ.  A Catholic school should firstly be about the community helping parents raise their children in the Catholic Faith.  Plenty of schools can help students test well.  Plenty of schools can help students learn how to be kind to others.  And these are important tasks.  But, a Catholic school has the unique opportunity to form young people in the Christian life.  A Catholic school has the opportunity to bring children in the middle of the day to pray before the Eucharist, receive the Sacrament of Penance, or to attend Mass.

A Catholic school isn't just about the parents and the students.  Catholic schools ought to be part of the mission of the parish.  As such, all Catholic parents ought to be encouraged to send their children to Catholic school and the Catholic community ought to help make that possible.  To the best of our ability, Catholic schools ought not be a place only for the wealthy but for anyone who wants help in raising their children in the Faith.  There are certain things that members of the whole community could do to help Catholic schools advance the mission of the Church:

Bishops and priests could strengthen the Catholic identity of schools and encourage Catholics to send their children to Catholic schools.  Additionally, major fundraising efforts for Catholic schools ought to prioritize helping Catholic families send their children to Catholic schools.

Catholic parents--especially those for whom the faith is important--ought to send their children to Catholic schools.  The way for Catholic schools to be strengthened in their Catholic identity is for strong Catholic families to send their children to those schools.

Catholic school administrators and teachers ought continually to deepen their knowledge and practice of the Faith.

Parishioners ought to see Catholic education as not simply a "choice" that some parents make for their children, but rather as an opportunity to help children draw closer to Christ through a solid Catholic education.

The difference has to be Christ.  Yes, we should excel in Math, Science, History, and Languages.  But, the difference has to be Christ.  I once served with a priest who would remark, "My main goal in having a Catholic school is not to get the children into Harvard.  The goal is to get them into heaven."  In many ways, as Faith has declined, Catholic schools have not met that decline with a more robust proclamation of the Faith.  Instead, many Catholic schools have been inclined to hide their Catholic identity in order to blend in with other schools.  Pope Benedict XVI has declared next year to be the "Year of Faith."  It provides to all Catholic institutions, parishes, and dioceses the opportunity to remember who we are and what makes us different: FAITH.

If you entered our school--St. Mary School in Beverly--you'd see smartboards, a science lab, a computer lab, a library etc.  My guess is that you'd find that in most other schools as well.  You would hear teachers telling children that you should respect others and be kind.  I suspect that you would find that in most other schools as well.  If that is all that Catholic schools have to offer, then we should get out of the business.  But the fact is we have something much greater to offer.  We have Jesus Christ!  We have the capacity to teach these children that they are made in the image and likeness of God, that they are loved so much that Christ died for them, and that they are called to eternal life. 

Last week, three grades of school children spent time with Jesus in the Eucharist.  This coming week, all of the grades will receive the Sacrament of Penance, meeting Jesus in his mercy.  That's why Catholic schools were founded.  That's why they are important.  Jesus said, "Let the children come to me."  A Catholic School should make that happen.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Do You Realize What I Have Done for You? A Holy Thursday Homily

In getting ready for Holy Week, I came upon a homily that I wrote for Holy Thursday a few years ago.  I share it here.
"Do You Realize What I have Done for You?"

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The Solemn Mass of the Lord’s Supper in which we now participate, places a question before our hearts; a question that will live in us for all eternity; a question that causes us here below to tremble and that causes the saints in heaven to cast down their crowns and worship before the Altar of the Lamb.  It is the question that forms the vocation of every Christian.  It is the question that Jesus himself put to his apostles in tonight’s gospel.  “Do you realize what I have done for you?”

The great cathedrals, the masterpieces of Christian art and architecture, the exquisite motets and chants of the Christian world; all these are human responses to this profound question.  Even more, the lives of the saints and blood of the martyrs were all offered in humble gratitude from hearts that were formed by this question.  “Do you realize what I have done for you?”

To live the Christian life is to live this question.  To return again and again to a pondering of what Christ has done for us.  The grandeur and nobility of the Holy Mass tonight directs our gaze to Christ on the night before his Passion and Death.  This night causes us to look into the Upper Room and to gaze upon three gifts that our Lord has given to us.

Do you realize what I have done for you? 

Firstly, on this holy night Christ instituted the supreme gift of the Blessed Eucharist.  On the night before he was handed over to evil men, he handed over to his Church, his very self.  Although he was rejected by those whom he came to save, he chose not to reject them in return. Instead, he hands himself over completely to them in an irrevocable gift.  In the Eucharist Christ remains forever with his Church.  When we receive the Eucharist, we receive Christ Himself, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity.  Christ did not leave us a token by which we could remember him.  Instead, in the Eucharist he has given us his very self.  “Do you realize what I have done for you?  I have found a way to remain with you forever.  I have given you the antidote for death, the seed of future glory, the Bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats this Bread will live forever and on the last day I will raise him up.”

Do you realize what I have done for you?

Secondly, on this night, Christ instituted the Sacred Priesthood.  Like the Eucharist itself, the Priesthood is a gift that flows from the Sacred Heart of Christ.  Through the priesthood, Christ continues his saving work on earth.  Through the priest, Christ continues to teach and to preach, to heal and to reconcile, to sanctify and to govern.  Be it the priest who gives first communion to a second grader in her parish church or the priest who gives last rites to a dying soldier on the battlefield. Be it the priest who baptizes a little infant in Boston or the priest who absolves a dying man in Uganda; be it upon an altar in one of Europe’s grand cathedrals or on a makeshift altar in a clearing in the Amazon Jungle, wherever the priest speaks the words, “This is my Body, This is my Blood,” bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ.  The priest exists so that Christ—the Good Shepherd—can be made visible in the midst of his flock in every age and place.

The vocation of every priest was born on this night in the upper room.  When we see the priest—any priest, no matter his personal failures and faults—we see the love of Christ made manifest in the world. 

Do you realize what I have done for you?

Thirdly, in the upper room, Christ gave another gift.  It is a command.  “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”  Normally, we do not consider a command a gift.  We consider commands to be burdensome and bothersome.  But Christ tonight gives us a command that elevates our life.  He commands us—he permits us—to enter and to participate in his divine love.  Christ is not asking us simply to imitate him.  Like the priesthood and the Eucharist which make Christ’s presence visible in the world, the command to love one another is also part of the logic of the Incarnation. 

Christ continues to make his love visible in the world through our love for one another.  When we love one another, it is not merely an effort to observe some moral code.  In our love for one another, we make visible the memory and the presence of Christ.  In our love for one another, we prolong the Incarnation.

Do you realize what I have done for you?

Tonight, I will offer this Mass in the ancient custom of facing in the same direction as all of you—using the high altar.  The Eucharistic Prayer tonight—speaking of Christ—says, “And looking up to heaven to you his almighty Father.”  The prayer invites us also to direct our gaze to heaven.  Together, priest and people, we will turn toward the Lord and fix our gaze upon him.  This turning east together reminds us that our love is not closed in on itself and it is not something of our own making.  It is a love that is born in the Mystery of the Infinite God, a love that came down from heaven and has made his dwelling among us, and a love that is leading us and lifting us up to an eternal union with God.  Christian love is born beyond ourselves and it is leading us beyond ourselves.

We will never find an exhaustive answer to Christ’s question: Do you realize what I have done for you?  But, by our participation in this Holy Mass tonight—by fixing our gaze intently upon the command to love one another, upon the priesthood, and most especially upon the Eucharist, we can begin our response by echoing the words of St. John: “He always loved those who were his own in the world and he loves them to the end.”

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Whisper of Victory

The weight of evil and suffering can sometimes feel as though it crushes everything out of life.  Those who gathered around the tomb of Lazarus four days after his death must have felt the crushing weight of evil upon them.  It's the same today.  What are some of the bad things that we see and hear?

A priest does something that causes scandal.  A family is separated.  A story of children who suffer from hunger.  The death of a young person.  The priest with whom I live mentions that in his village in Haiti people have to walk for two hours in order to get water.  These things--and countless other accounts of suffering--can leave us like the mourners at the tomb of Lazarus.  All there is to do is weep.

But over and over again, I am convinced that a mere ounce of grace is greater than all of the evil in the entire world.

Last night, I chatted with a group of seminarians.  They were young, filled with joy, and chomping at the bit to be servants of Christ's Gospel.  Today, our parish will honor a newly ordained priest who served here while in the seminary.  In this priest and in these seminarians, one discovers that the presence of Christ at any tomb, introduces the new creation.

Today the 10:30 Mass was packed,  As folks were piling out of Mass at the end, I saw the father of a 23 year old man whom I buried this week.  The death of that young man is crushing.  The presence of his father at Mass today was for me a taste of the presence of Christ--the Resurrection and the Life.

There is indeed hunger and poverty throughout the world, but the piles of food stacked in the back of church this morning introduced love into that suffering.  And, as I was shaking hands with people as they left Mass, one mother told me that her little daughter had something to tell me.  So, I bent down to hear what (3 year old?) Amelia had to say.  She whispered in my ear, "When I grow up I am going to be a doctor, but I am going to give all of my money away to the poor."

In front of every tomb--be it sin, alienation, poverty, illness, even death--Christ introduces something totally new.  His presence shatters the seemingly unbreakable weight of suffering, evil, and death and drains from these burdens all of their illusory power.  Many came to believe in Jesus because they saw Lazarus raised from the dead.  Christians are called to make Christ present at all of the tombs of today.  And this presence is enough to defeat the most impossible of situations.

For many Catholics, once they've experienced Eucharistic Adoration, they experience firsthand how the quiet presence of Christ in the Eucharist rescues them from the clamor of evil and suffering.  In His presence, they find rest from their labors.  In the Eucharist, Christ allows us to taste firsthand the fruits of the Ressurrected life.  But, Christ also makes himself present in the world through the presence of his disciples.

Christ comes to the tombs of today in the joy of a seminarian, the presence of a mourning father at Mass, and in the whisper of a little child.  Christians carry within themselves and make present the victory of Christ.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Shortstop for the Red Sox, Rock Hard Abs, Eternal Life: Only One Is Possible for Most of Us

Probably twice a week for the last fifteen years, I've stood huddled with grieving families around the grave of a loved one, and have committed a body to the earth.  "Because God has chosen to call our brother/sister from this life to himself, we commit his/her body to the earth, for we are dust and unto dust we shall all return."  Nothing in life ever appears so definitive as the act of placing a body into the ground.  Every ounce of natural hope expires in that moment.  Natural hope dims as we grow older.  Eight year olds hope to become shortstop for the Red Sox; forty year olds do not.  In fact, when we see the middle-aged man attempting to re-produce the natural hope that properly belongs to someone younger, we pity him.  I recall a funny commercial starring Peyton Manning giving a pep talk.  He says, "Wondering how to get rock hard abs?  I'll be honest with you.  Unless you are under the age of 23 or are a professional football player, it probably ain't going to happen.  I'd say you should probably just buy bigger shirts."  Yes, natural hope fades.

The cemetery is the most sobering confirmation of the passing nature of things.  We know that when we place that body into the ground, it is not simply a cessation of growth; it is the beginning of decomposition.  In other words, it is not just a lack of moving forward that we see in death, but an actual deterioration.

Natural hope is a good thing.  It moves us forward and makes us achieve greatness.  It is also why the death of a young person is particularly painful.  We recognize that natural hope belongs by right to the young.  We look at the young person and see all of the possibility.  When that life is cut short we grieve more because death didn't just claim what rightfully belonged to it, but stole that to which it had no claim.

Whether one dies of old age or tragically young, natural hope dies too.  Nobody who goes down into the grave is going to be shortstop for the Red Sox (sorry, Field of Dreams), go off to medical school, or travel cross country.  Standing at the grave reinforces within us the finality of death.  Despite all of the efforts of modern funeral arrangements to sanitize death, in the end, the last word is going to be a shovel of dirt.

Is that it?  From the perspective of natural hope, yes.  That is indeed it.  But, there is a better hope.  It is supernatural hope.  The reason we Christians stand at the graveside is not just to reinforce within ourselves a sense of hopelessness.  When we Christians stand at the graveside and commit a body to the earth, we are doing so with supernatural hope.  We are claiming something quite extraordinary.  We are saying that this body will come to share in the glory of the resurrection.  Despite every appearance of all hope being lost, we are saying that Christ will raise this body and make it like his own in glory. 

For the Christian, although natural hope fades with length of years, supernatural hope grows.  The Christian is saved from the melancholy that would naturally arise in the heart of one whose hope continually grows dim.  The Christian who more and more is drawn into the Christian mysteries moves towards the grave with the confidence that he has more tomorrows than he does yesterdays.  The person who only possesses natural hope (and again, natural hope is good) eventually realizes that each passing day moves him one step closer to the end of everything.  For the Christian, each passing day lived in grace propels him towards his proper end; eternal life. 

It is supernatural hope that allows the Christian to freely and obediently fall to the ground and die like the grain of wheat.  Filled with Christian Hope--supernatural hope--the Christian is made able to die to self.  Obedience always brings about in us some form of dying.  By obeying God's will, we put to death within ourselves all rebelliousness.  We say, "no" to ourselves and, "yes" to Christ.  Unlike the grain of wheat that has no choice but to fall to the ground, the Christian obediently falls to the ground with Christ.  We freely bury ourselves with him, confident that we shall share in his resurrection.

Lent provides all of us an opportunity freely to fall to the ground and die in Christ.  In acts of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, we die to ourselves and experience already here and now the firstfruits of the hundredfold promised by Christ.  The more we are united to Christ in his death, the more supernatural hope within us grows.  In this process, we continually deepen our friendship with Christ, trusting him more and more.  Thus, the Christian ultimately enters the grave not as do men who have no hope.  The Christian enters the grave filled with joyful hope that he who is buried with Christ in a death like his, will also share in a like resurrection.

Natural hope is a wonderful thing.  But, it can't last.  The best we can do is simulate it by buying bigger shirts.  Lazarus, on the other hand, was dead for four days and Jesus raised him.  Bigger shirts can't cover over death.  Jesus doesn't try to cover over death.  He invites us to enter into death--every day--trusting that he will bring us out the other side.  Catholic life provides what every human being is desperately desiring: Hope.


Thursday, March 22, 2012

Catholic Social Doctrine . . . It's More than Being Nice.

Christ Separating the Sheep and the Goats

The other day, a Catholic Senator from my state was quoted in the paper as saying, "I believe that life begins at conception."  Then, he said he wouldn't impose his views on women and that is why he supports abortion.  I happen to believe that people have a right to do what they want with their own property.  But, if a man were burning down his house and mentioned that his family were tied up inside, I'd like to think I'd rush in and try to save them.  Know why?  Because his right to dispose of his property doesn't give him the right to dispose of another human life.  Once the Senator admits that life begins at conception, he has a moral obligation to protect that life.  That's what a reasonable person does. 

Recently we had a talk at my parish by Professor J. Brian Benestad and afterwards I was given a copy of his book, "Church, State, and Society: An Introduction to Catholic Social Doctrine."  I've only just begun the book, but I am enjoying it immensely.  His book might prove a beneficial text for parishes to use in attempting to educate and form Catholics in Catholic Social Doctrine.  The more I read of his book and the more current events expose the weakness of Catholics in bearing witness to the Faith, the more I see the need for the wholesale re-evangelization (first evangelization?) of Catholics in our parishes. 

With ever greater frequency, the Church hierarchy calls upon Catholics to rally behind some particular public policy issue.  Same-Sex Marriage, Physician Prescribed Suicide, Religious Liberty, the Death Penalty, Support for Immigrants etc.  It is not simply a matter of motivating people to become politically active (which is often challenging enough).  It also becomes necessary--usually with great urgency and suddenness--to provide Catholics with a crash course in some particular aspect of the moral life.  The problem isn't just getting people to act according to their beliefs.  The first challenge is getting people to hurry up and believe.

We've done a bad job educating Catholics in Catholic Social Doctrine.  For instance, if you went to a Catholic High School and said, "poor people should just help themselves and not be a drain on the rest of us," I would suspect that some person in that high school would explain that poor people are our "neighbor" and the Christian is called to love his neighbor.  Certainly, there can be legitimate arguments about the best way to help the poor, but there is no place in Catholic life to hate the poor or to ignore them.  But, when it comes to the matters of abortion, same-sex marriage, assisted suicide etc all of a sudden young people in that very same school are simply left to their opinion on these matters.  This is a great betrayal of the Christian Faith and the Gospel. 

Why should we care about the unborn child, the unwed mother, the addicted, the prisoner, the immigrant, the abused, the infirm, the poor, the uneducated, or the institution of marriage?  For many Catholics, they care about these persons only insofar as they choose to care about them.  In other words, it is a personal choice or a personal cause for them.  They can be against abortion, but disparage immigrants.  They can work at a soup kitchen every week but think that the infirm ought to be "put out of their suffering" by killing them.  It is all a matter of personal choice. 

What this approach reveals is that Catholics are adrift in a sea of opinion.  They lack the prerequisite faith to have a consistently Catholic vision of what society ought to be about.  Catholics, like all people, will always debate what is the best way to do something.  Is it better to have jails or rehabilitation programs, amnesty for immigrants or not, private insurance or government health insurance?  These all are legitimate points of debate.  But, every Catholic ought to approach these questions formed by the life of Faith and the life of grace.  Disagreeing on the best immigration policy, for instance, is not problematic.  Hating immigrants, treating them unjustly or cruelly, and failing to love them is a problem. 

I'm often impressed by the extraordinary generosity Catholic parishioners show towards the poor.  Whenever I've asked for something to support the poor, people are amazingly generous in their response.  But, we want to make certain that people just don't see that as "doing something nice."  Because, some people think giving lethal drugs to their sick mother is "doing something nice."  We have to see that what we do as Catholics arises from what we believe and also from what we can come to know through natural reason.  And what we believe isn't simply some vague notion that it is nice to be nice.  What we believe is revealed to us from God.  We care for the poor, visit the sick, and protect the vulnerable because we are called to love our neighbor.  This commandment of loving our neighbor is revealed to us by God.  When we love our neighbor--the poor, the infirm, the unborn, the immigrant, the prisoner etc--we are participating in the new creation of grace.  We love them because we ourselves have been transformed by our encounter with Christ.  We don't do these things because we agree with the "immigration issue," the "abortion issue," or the "feed the poor issue."  We do all of these things because the Gospel commands us to do so.  We do them because we are believers.

I think the Bishops could help Catholics come to a better sense of Catholic Social Doctrine by not articulating positions on every matter that comes up for public policy debate.  When the bishops speak on particular matters, they speak with the voice of binding authority. So, for instance, no Catholic can claim to have a legitimate difference with the bishops when it comes to abortion, same-sex marriage, or physician prescribed suicide.  When the bishops teach on these matters, they are teaching authoritatively on matters of Catholic doctrine.  Similarly, no one can legitmately disagree with the bishops when they speak on matters of first principles such as the sanctity of human life, the option for the poor, or the love that is due our neighbor.  But, when it comes to matters of public policy that are open to legitimate debate, the bishops--I think--ought to limit themselves to articulating the principles involved in arriving at a good and just resolution.  By continuously issuing statements on all sorts of matters that pertain to the level of legitimate discussion, the bishops weaken their own voice.  How so?

Most people who read a headline that says, "US Bishops Support Legislation Mandating Use of Seat Belts," (I'm making this up) think that this carries the same weight then as "Bishops Oppose Abortion."  While wearing a seat belt might be a good and noble thing, we can all think of instances where a seat belt might legitimately not be worn.  We might even know some bishops who don't wear their seat belts.  In large part, people do not make the necessary distinctions when it comes to the level of authority that is given to various pronouncements by the bishops.  They presume that they are all of equal weight.  Thus, if I can disagree with the bishops on whether to wear a seat belt, I can disagree on abortion too.

In any event, life as a pastor is continually coming up with ides for which I either don't have time or money to accomplish.  But, as I think about my responsibility as a pastor, I realize that I have a lot of work to do in this area of parish life.  I need to do a far better job teaching Catholic Social Doctrine and explaining how what we do is because of what we believe.  This is a desperately needed project.  We cannot participate in the transformation of the culture around us if we ourselves are not continually transformed and renewed by the Faith of the Church.  We need to do this because society urgently needs our witness, but firstly we need to do this because our eternal salvation depends upon it.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

One Priest's Appreciation for Two Forms of the Mass

A few years ago, Pope Benedict XVI not only made it possible for priests to offer the Extraordinary Form Mass, he encouraged us to do so.  Thanks to a well done DVD tutorial put out by EWTN and the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, I was able to learn how to offer that form of the Mass.  I haven't offered it often--maybe a few times a year--and each time I do, I have to do a lot of preparation work.  I need to read through all of the prayers carefully ahead of time so that I am confident about knowing exactly what I am praying.  And, if there is going to be a congregation of folks who are unfamiliar with that form of the Mass, I write up a very detailed and easy to follow program.  (I remember the first time that I went to an Extraordinary Form Mass, I thought the priest must have forgotten his microphone because everything was so quiet).  I want to make certain that if somebody attends that Mass, they have some sense of what is going on at particular moments so that they are not totally frustrated.

The other night, on the Solemnity of St. Joseph, I offered the Extraordinary Form Mass and it was strikingly beautiful. The schola chanted everything and the congregation numbered around a hundred or so.  I was impressed by the number of young people who attended and by their reaction afterwards.  Despite my efforts to produce an easy-to-follow guide, they did get somewhat lost.  But, they expressed to me how deeply moved they were by the whole experience. 

I think one of the benefits of Pope Benedict's allowing the broad use of the Extraordinary Form is that it will eventually cause all of the ideological nonsense that surrounds the Mass to dissipate.  In the past (and for the present), there have been those who shudder in horror to think about people participating in the Extraordinary Form Mass.  There are priests and lay people who visibly grow angry or dismissive towards that form of the Mass.  All of the usual lowbrow criticisms get made, "Latin, back to the people etc." 
Similarly, there are those who have maintained that the Ordinary Form of the Mass is "less" of a Mass, that it is representative of a Catholic decline, and that it is somehow sinister.

I think that the broader use of the Extraordinary Form is simply going to cause these characterizations to be seen as the uneducated and fringe ideologies that they truly are.

I am not a liturgist nor a partisan when it comes to the Ordinary and Extraordinary Form of the Mass.  I write here some simple observations concerning my experience and my attempts to come to a deeper understanding of the Mass through both forms. 

I remember the first time that I offered the Extraordinary Form Mass, a thought occurred to me: "How did we get from one thing to the other?"  It felt to me as though there was no way that the Extraordinary Form (as it is now called) organically transformed into the Ordinary Form.  Again, I am not writing here as a liturgist, so I defer to their expertise. 

There are certain aspects of the Extraordinary Form that I wish were maintained more explicitly in the Ordinary Form.

In the Extraordinary Form, I get a sense that "Boy, I've got to work hard to get to the consecration."  The offertory prayers alone are fairly extensive and the whole Mass feels like it is building to a crescendo at the Consecration.

I think the Prayers of the Foot of the Altar were a great loss.  They are so beautiful and they help me to approach the Sacrifice with greater recollection and with a great sense that I am approaching the Mysterium Tremendum.  Along with this, the Extraordinary Form's extensive use of scripture throughout the Mass in its prayers helps me to have a sense that I am linked to all of salvation history.  It continually draws upon the psalms, the names of Old Testament figures, and the saints.

The rubrics of the Extraordinary Form Mass, while exacting, do not seem burdensome to me.  In fact, in some way, they draw me deeper into the Mass by making me feel more like an instrument.  Now, I have heard it said by folks that "priests thought that they committed mortal sin if they failed to hold their hands exactly right."  I grew up in another time, so I cannot speak to that question.  Something in me suspects, however, that such a characterization might be slightly exaggerated.  Either way, I'm not stressing out too much about the rubrics.  I follow them as best I can, but I'm not stressing over them.

Ad orientem worship . . . there's no doubt about it for me.  It directs everyone's attention toward the same place and especially focuses my attention towards God.  From my perspective, offering the Mass in this way makes me feel closer to the people, not more distant. 

Silence.  I like the silence of the Extraordinary Form, especially during the Canon.  Those who know me would be shocked to hear me say that I grow tired of the sound of my voice!  But, in the Mass, this is true.  It seems to me that during Mass, the voice of the priest has become non-stop.  The Canon of the Mass is basically the same every time it is said.  The people know what the priest is saying already.  Praying it in quiet, I think, provides an opportunity for the people to become more recollected and less focused upon the particular priest's inflections etc.  We could regain a lot, I think, by returning to ad orientem worship and by increased silence, especially for the Canon of the Mass.

The Readings:  My experience is that the Ordinary Form of the Mass does a better job drawing people into the Liturgy of the Word.  The use of lectors (again, not making the priest's voice the only voice) and the facing towards the people for the proclamation of the Word make a lot more sense to me.  In offering the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, I've come to a greater appreciation for the Liturgy of the Word as it is celebrated in the Ordinary Form.  I also prefer how in the Ordinary Form the homily seems to be more integral to the Mass.  In the Extraordinary Form it feels more extrinsic. 

Latin: I'm sure there are ways to meld things in terms of Latin.  It is good, I think, to maintain some use of Latin in the Mass.  Perhaps, the Canon, the prayers at the foot of the altar etc.  Or, just having some fluidity in things.  Maybe at the discretion of the priest and based upon the circumstances in each congregation, various options are employed.  I think the new translation of the Liturgy has gone a long way toward making the two forms of the Mass more alike.  The dignity of the language now employed in the Ordinary Form in English has, in my view, re-oriented the Mass toward the worship of God and has become less directed towards ourselves.

Those who seem to understand Liturgy suggest that perhaps some day we would move towards a third form of the Mass that would basically meld the two forms we have now.  I think that could be done in some ways quite easily.  What would I do?  I'd return the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar and the Offertory Prayers.  I'd have all of the prayers of the Mass directed ad orientem.  I'd have the Liturgy of the Word celebrated towards the people and in the vernacular.  I'd have the Canon in silence (or mostly silent) and have the Eucharist received while kneeling and on the tongue.

At the end of Mass, I'd provide some opportunity before the final blessing, for some brief announcements to be made.

There, I put the whole thing together.  We're done.

Of course, there are people who know a lot more about these things than I do who could tear my ideas to shreds.  And, they're probably right, so I defer to them.  I'm just offering some thoughts from my experience as a parish priest who has come to appreciate both forms of the Roman Rite.  I'm grateful for the experience of offering both forms because, each in their own way, helps me to deepen my love for the Sacred Liturgy.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Extraordinary Form Mass

No Time to Blog today, but wanted to add a picture of our Extraordinary Form Mass that took place on the Solemnity of St. Joseph.  Beautiful Mass.  Beautiful music.  Well attended by all age groups. 

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Priesthood: The Best View in Town

Today is Sunday and, as I do almost every Sunday, I stood on the stairs of my church welcoming the people who are coming to Mass.  Built in the downtown area of our city, the only parking the church has is what one can find on the street and some public parking lots behind the buildings across from the church.  So, the vast majority of people who come to Mass need to cross the street.  It is among my favorite moments of the week, watching these faithful people arrive.  I know them and they know me.

Two things struck me today as I watched the people arrive for Mass.  They both have to do with burdens.  Firstly, as I watched people coming to Mass, I was--as I often am--aware of the great burdens that so many people carry.  I saw the young married couple whose 23 year old nephew I buried earlier this week.  I saw the woman whose parents are both ill and for whom she has primary responsibility.  I saw those simply carrying the burden of years, slowing down and growing feeble.  There was the man whose young son died tragically a couple of years ago and the woman whose husband abandoned her and her children.  There are those who are burdened by their own illnesses and those who are burdened with caring for loved ones who are ill.  There are those burdened by unemployment and addiction and those burdened by the hardships in which their children find themselves.  There are those burdened by situations that are so traumatic that they are still in shock.  So many people cross that street with heavy burdens.

In the midst of all of this, these people arrive every Sunday with such joy and fidelity.  And this Lent, they have freely taken upon themselves another burden.  I was struck this weekend by how hundreds of persons crossed the street carrying large bundles.  During Lent this year, we are almsgiving as a community.  Each week we announce in the bulletin some particular item that a local food bank needs.  We've had "Peanut Butter Sunday," "Tuna Fish Sunday," etc.  This weekend is "Cereal Sunday."  So, as hundreds of parishioners crossed the street today--young and old--most carried bags filled with cereal boxes.  Additionally, the Youth Ministry is doing a project involving the homeless and at the request of the Youth Ministry, people also were donating cases of water and Gatorade.  The back of the church is overflowing with these gifts for the poor. 

These people who carry so many hidden burdens and crosses, arrived at Mass this Sunday joyfully seeking to alleviate the sufferings of others.  They carried into church this morning not only their burdens, but also the burdens of others.  They are an impressive lot.   

In part, I stand outside of church and greet the people because I think that it is a good way of telling the people that I love them.  But, I also stand out there because this procession from parking lot to church each week is a profession and proclamation of faith, hope, and charity that I need to witness.  Standing on the stairs of church watching these witnesses--young and old, families, widows, and single men and women--humbly carrying their own crosses and charitably carrying the crosses of others is profoundly moving.  Standing on my perch looking towards this sea of faithful Catholics coming towards God's House carrying their crosses (and peanut butter and cereal) is pure privilege.  It's a weekly reminder to me of how blessed I am to be a priest.  I have the best view in town.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Priesthood: Witnessing the Harvest

Jesus says in the Gospel of St. John, "I sent you to reap what you have not worked for; others have done the work, and you are sharing the fruits of their work."  In so many ways, this is my experience of the priesthood.  Occasionally, some person or another has told me that the reason they've come to Confession is because of some word that I spoke in a homily.  Admittedly, I am always grateful to hear that.  But, even in that experience, I know that I am reaping the fruits of another person's labor.  Namely, I am reaping the fruits of the work of Christ.  Even if the seed was some word that I spoke, I cannot account for nor be credited with how that seed grows ten, twenty, or a hundredfold.  I reap that which I did not truly sow.

If that's true concerning those instances where I played some small part, how much more true is it in those instances where I just simply happen to be the priest who is around when the grace of Christ in a person's life comes to fruition?  So often in my life as a priest, I am privileged to witness the hundredfold grace of Christ working in the life of individuals.  There are no trophies in the lives of priests because the trophy is the Cross of Christ.  It is from the Cross that all grace comes and, as St. Paul says, "May I never boast except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Gal. 6:14).  All of this comes to mind as I think about some of the persons that I've encountered this week in the life of our parish. I witnessed Christ doing some amazing things in the lives of people this week.  I happily reaped what I did not sow

On Friday, I spent time with an Anglican priest who is preparing to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church.  We've come to know each other over the past year or so and whenever I am with him,  I feel so privileged to witness the grace of Christ present and at work in his life.  He is a grandfather (and thus, considerably older than me) and I am struck by how his relationship with Christ is not settled and static.  In his conversations, it is always evident that the Lord and he are in a dynamic friendship wherein Jesus is constantly drawing him closer.  In witnessing this, I reap what I most definitely did not sow.  And reaping what I don't sow makes me more grateful and aware of the gratuitousness of Christ's love.

On Monday morning, I met with a young couple preparing for marriage.  He is a baptized non-Catholic from Liberia and she is a Catholic from Germany.  I met them last year as they began preparation for marriage and he began RCIA.  When he started out in RCIA, he expressed uncertainty as to whether he'd become Catholic.  I see them every Sunday at Mass and am delighted to watch as they both grow in Faith and in their love for the Church.  In the midst of a culture that is becoming more opposed to the Catholic way of life, how is it that these two young persons are being drawn into the Faith?    Jesus planted some seed within their souls.  As their priest, I am privileged to reap what I did not sow.

On Monday evening I had dinner with a young man from our parish who is applying to the seminary.  In the past five years or so, we've had one man ordained from the parish, two enter religious orders, and two enter the archdiocesan seminary.  So, the possibility that another man will be entering the archdiocesan seminary in September makes me VERY HAPPY indeed.  As I ate dinner with him, I was so pleased to witness the grace of Christ so powerfully at work in him.  He is caught up in the tremendous love of God and it is beautiful to witness Christ taking hold of this man and drawing him closer to himself.  How do we possibly explain and adequately account for what Christ is doing in the life of this young man and in the lives of the other men from the parish who are in the seminary?  No matter what we might do as a parish to promote priestly vocations, in the end, we can only stand in awe at what Christ is doing.  He sows and allows us the privilege of reaping.

When I first heard the Lord calling me to be a priest, I felt as though He had put into my heart a love that could not possibly be contained within such a limited vessel.  And this experience only intensifies.  The vocation of a priest is not born by his own will but from a grace given by Christ.  At the beginning of this vocation, we perhaps feel much like Peter did on the day he was called.  So overwhelmed are we at the love that God pours into our hearts, that we want to cry out with Peter, "Leave me Lord for I am a sinful man."  This disproportion between our natural capacities and the supernatural grace that Christ abundantly showers upon us only grows greater with the passage of time, not less.  The more we place ourselves at his disposal, the more we become reapers of what we could not possible sow.  Of course, this is especially true of the sacraments.  At the altar and in the confessional, the priest experiences this disproportion most intensely because apart from Christ, the confection of the Eucharist and the absolution of sins would be entirely impossible for us.  But, this disproportion is also experienced in the day to day encounters with the people whom we meet and serve. 

Every priest is sent out to sow the seeds of the Gospel, but we reap far more than we ever sow.  Psalm 126 says that "those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy."  We sow in tears because the sowing is often difficult and there may be little evidence to suggest that the seeds will take root and grow.  We sing when we reap because Christ grants us the privilege to reap a hundredfold.  It is not the song of those who reap the just rewards of their labors, but rather the song of those who joyously and unworthily reap the fruits of what was sown on the Wood of the Cross.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Hanging Out in the Temple Courtyard

About a month or so ago, I had dinner with a young man whom I think disagrees with me on . . . a lot. If that were not enough, he was raised Catholic and was the type of kid (I knew him when he was in high school) that I would have expected to perhaps someday become a priest.  Instead, he now seems drawn towards a secularist outlook on the world and attempts to understand the human person and the world from a rigorous scientific model that excludes any room for Faith.  "We can know only what is observable through scientific methods" type of approach.  To be fair, that is my attempt to describe his position accurately.  He might phrase it differently, but I think I'm somewhere in the ballpark on that assessment.

Since that dinner, we've continued the conversations--as best as that is possible--through the medium of email, facebook, and texting.  Of course, both of us are busy so the dialogue is spotty.  In our conversations, we represent two vastly different world views.  At the same time, there is an openness that exists on the part of each of us.  In my worldview, one can have Faith and still be rigorously scientific.  In his worldview, he doesn't see how that is possible, but he's not completely closed to it being possible.  (Again, I don't want to characterize his positions).  He articulates his worldview much better than I have portrayed it here and in our discussions, he is more articulate in his positions than I am in mine!

Admittedly, there's nothing I want more than for this young man to return to his Faith.  But, I cannot impose Faith upon him.  And, while it is safe to say that I will not be embracing his worldview, his questions, objections, arguments, and evidence all assist me.  They help me to understand his position (and thus the position of others).  They help me better to appreciate the good to be found in his positions and approach.  And, they help me to grow in my own Faith and force me to fine tune my argumentation.

All of this comes to mind as I think about the Gospel for this Sunday.  In commenting upon this Gospel, Benedict XVI points out that the cleansing of the temple took place in what was called, "The Courtyard of the Gentiles."  Non-Jews were not permitted into the temple, but there was a courtyard where Gentiles could come, pray, and ask religious questions.  Pope Benedict XVI says that today in the life of the Church there is again a need for a "Courtyard of the Gentiles," a place where non-believers can come and ask important questions and perhaps someday be brought to worship the One true God.

This Courtyard of the Gentiles is not the place for Catholics who want to believe half of what the Church teaches.  It is not the place to say, "I'm Catholic but . . . ."  The Courtyard of the Gentiles is the place where man can come and draw near to God, by asking the religious questions that arise within in his heart, but to do so as one who has not yet come to Faith.  To approach the Church with questions and objections--not as one who seeks to battle with the Church--but as one who sincerely is seeking the truth.

Inside the Temple--inside the Church--the pulpit is not the place for dialogue.  It is not the place to sow doubt or ambiguity.  Inside the Church is the place of Faith, not the place of doubt. The pulpit is the place to proclaim to believers the Divinely revealed Word of God.  It is the place where we once again rejoice that the Word became Flesh and where we worship.  But, every Catholic and every church ought to have a Courtyard of the Gentiles--a place that has room for those who have questions and objections, those who disagree with us but who sincerely and genuinely seek the truth.

More often than not, those who are going to make the effort to come to this Courtyard of the Gentiles will be articulate and thoughtful in their questions and objections.  These are not the people who simply hate the Church and want the Church to be silent on moral issues.  These are the persons who live and struggle with the big questions of life.  Catholics who greet them in the Courtyard of the Gentiles must be men and women of strong faith, capable of articulating the true Christian position.  These Catholics must also be persons who are not simply looking to argue and win. 

Two thousand years ago, Jesus cleaned out the obstacles in the temple in order to make room for the Gentiles.  Similarly today, Catholics must allow their Courtyard also to be cleaned out.  We should let nothing--not our arrogance, pride, anger, laziness in deepening our Faith, etc--obstruct the Gentiles from drawing near to the Church.  Catholics who hang out in the Courtyard must be Catholics who first love the Temple and worship in truth and in spirit.  And, they must also be persons who truly love and respect the Gentiles and who are able to engage in true dialogue based upon our common humanity.

I am very grateful for the privilege of being in the temple and living the life of Faith.  At the same time, this priest is genuinely honored to be in the Courtyard.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The New Evangelization: The Beachhead Seems Secured

One of the most intense film scenes I've ever watched occurs at the beginning of "Saving Private Ryan," as the landing craft hatch is lowered and total mayhem follows.  The chaos and carnage are horrific both in their intensity and in their duration.  This was no quick gun fight.  It was an exhausting and grueling battle.  It's been quite a while since I've seen the movie, but I remember later in the movie, you are taken back to the beachhead.  It has been transformed into an orderly camp.  The beachhead had been taken and secured.  Later waves of troops would arrive on that beach with a much quieter welcome.  They too would fight battles, but much farther up the road.  They would be an advancing force upon a retreating enemy.

I sometimes joke with recently ordained priests that when I was in seminary and when I was recently ordained, I was in the first wave.  Pope John Paul II had called for the New Evangelization: a new and fuller proclamation of the Gospel, a more intensified devotion to the Eucharist, a greater seriousness about the Sacraments and the offering of the Mass, a more robust defense of the Church's teachings on moral issues, and a fearless confidence that this New Evangelization would bring about a new springtime in the life of the Church.  Then, the landing craft door opened!

The beachfront was most definitely heavily defended and time had been on the side of those positioned against any such New Evangelization.  Each step forward brought with it costly sacrifices.  Certain things would draw particularly heavy fire: Promoting Confession, Adoration, Benediction, a Liturgy without gimmicks, vocations to the priesthood, the Church's teachings on marriage, contraception, and abortion.  Reading and promoting documents of the Magisterium was a sure and certain way to draw enemy fire.  As hard as it is to believe now, there were many who were either squeamish or outright opposed to such staples of the Catholic life.  Good intentioned but incorrect, were those who thought that the best way to attract people to the Church was to act, speak, and look less like the Church.

We heard the Pope yell "Charge!" and enthusiastically stormed the beach.  Admittedly, we were young, fresh out of boot camp, and not seasoned by previous battle when we leaped into the fray.  Perhaps, we could have used our ammunition more prudently, avoided certain skirmishes, and still accomplished the same results.  But, the beach was nonetheless secured.  And, although there are always more battles to fight, it is so clear that a base has been established, the boots are on the ground, and the New Evangelization is advancing.

I see this as I look back over my shoulder and see seminarians arriving who grew up with the experience of daily adoration, frequent confession, and authentic Catholic teaching.  As I look down on the beach, I see solid Catholic Colleges that have sprung up and are forming young Catholics who want to serve the Church in religious education and youth ministry.  I see it in new priests who arrive at parishes and simply want to offer the Mass as it has been handed down to them.  I see it in the lives of so many Catholic families whose faith has been reawakened by hearing the full Gospel.  I see it as faithful lay people who have been formed according to the mind of the Church are assuming positions of authority in parishes and in dioceses.  I see it in seminaries where loyalty to the Pope and to the Magisterium are considered positive qualities. 

Such was not always the case!  But, Blessed John Paul II did not mislead us.  He led those who would follow into a joyful and determined battle.  It was not fought with denunciations, political maneuvering, or viciousness.  No, it was fought by offering opportunities to adore the Eucharist, confess sins, learn what the Church teaches and why, preaching and teaching the full Gospel, and offering the Mass with seriousness.  These weapons were a sure defense.  If battles were fought based upon personalities, opinions, ideologies, or prideful careerism, there would be no success.  Instead, the Pope led the Church to depend solely upon those things that she has been given by Christ. 

Those who have subsequently landed on the beach are in an admirable position.  They are not only entrusted with the New Evanagelization, but they have been formed by it.  They have studied it, assimilated it, and have learned the effective tools for implementing it.  In many ways, those of us who were privates jumping into the fray had more enthusiasm than we did strategy! 

There is no doubt that there are still great battles that loom ahead.  Radical Secularism seems to be the next enemy on the map.  The good news is that we are not fighting these battles while attempting to land on the beach.  A foothold has been established in parishes, chanceries, and seminaries.  There are certainly some who are trying to weaken that foothold and undermine the rest of us, but I think the foothold will stand firm.  I'd be happier if our infrastructure and supply lines were a bit more secure and weathered, but at least we're more ready for the battle than we were 20 years ago.  And, those of us who are still young enough to fight the good fight can encourage those who are just joining in the battle.  We can testify that the New Evangelization--even if sometimes heavily opposed--is effective.  The joyful and faithful preaching of the Gospel, the building up of the communion of the Church, and the joyful, generous, and obedient providing of the Sacraments is an unstoppable combination.  What do we do next?  St. Paul tells us:

"Finally, draw your strength from the Lord and from his mighty power.  Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil. For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens.  Therefore, put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day and, having done everything to hold your ground.  So stand fast with your loins girded in truth, clothed with righteousness as a breastplate, and your feet shod in readiness for the gospel of peace.  In all circumstances, hold faith as a shield, to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.  And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God" (Ephesians 6:10-17).

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Heroes in The Pews

I had such a great priestly afternoon today!  I had the privilege of bringing the Sacraments to the homes of a few parishioners.  The first home I visited was that of Henry and Phyllis.  They attend morning Mass together every day and it seems as though their love for each other grows by an infinity each time I see them.  Recently, Phyllis has had some medical issues and has been placed on the Daily Mass Disabled List for a couple of months.  Henry faithfully brings her Holy Communion each day.  After she received Holy Communion today, we sat in silence for a few moments and then Phyllis said, "May the Body of Christ preserve me body and soul for eternal life and may the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace."  Then she said with her beautiful smile, "I'm sorry Father if I stole your line."  In the midst of our conversation afterwards, Phyllis mentioned that their daughter is 65.  Henry said, "Don't be telling him we're old enough to have a daughter who is 65!"  You cannot help but smile when you are with these two beautiful souls.  Those who are preparing for marriage ought to spend a day with Henry and Phyllis.  They'd learn what marriage is meant to be.

My last visit was to another Daily Mass communicant who is in her last hours of life.  She is surrounded by her family and the prayers of the Church.  Virginia is a special lady.  She always has a smile for everybody and you can tell she spent her whole life doing for others.  Up until a few months ago, she came with a small cadre of other ladies to clean the sanctuary and sacristy of our parish church.  Virginia was always booking Mass intentions for deceased loved ones.  She never cared whether it was too late to get the name in the bulletin.  She just cared that the Mass was offered for any number of persons on the occasion of their birth date, marriage date, or anniversary of death.  I trust that Virginia will be greeted in heaven by a lot of grateful recipients of those Masses she had offered. 

The middle visit today was particularly striking to me.  I visited Dominic who is 91 years old and whom I've come to admire a lot in my time here as a priest.  Henry and Phyllis are his neighbors and often take him to lunch with them.  A few years ago I buried Dominic's son and that is when I became more aware of Dominic's presence in our parish.  Nick--as he is called--is always dressed like a perfect gentleman at Mass; always in a tie and jacket.  When he shakes your hand, you know that there's definitely somebody standing on the other side of that handshake.  And, he always has an encouraging word for me.  Although I'd love Nick just because my brief encounters with him after Mass each week always leave me smiling, there's more to the story.

Nick is a World War II veteran and served in the European Theatre of Operation.  He was the Ball Turret Gunner on a B17 and flew 35 missions.  If you don't know what the Ball Turret Gunner is, google it.  He was the man who flew in a glass bubble on the belly of the bomber and was in constant danger.  He told me today that on his first mission, he saw another bomber get hit right near him and the Ball Turret from that other plane zoomed right past him and nearly crashed into him. 

Nick was bothered today because his health has prevented him from attending Mass for the past several weeks and it is the first time since World War II that he's missed Mass.  World War II ended approximately 67 years ago. 

As I looked with Nick at photos of his plane and of him and his fellow crewmen, I felt a great sense of privilege to be with this faithful man.  But when I left, something struck me.  Whenever I'm with Nick, he's always saying things to me like, "Father, I don't know how you do all that you do."  Or, "Father, you're doing such a great job."  Here's a guy who spent World War II in one of the most dangerous positions there was and whenever I'm with him, he spends the whole time complimenting me.  There is a beautiful lesson in humility to be learned from that.  I got to spend my afternoon bringing the Eucharist to a man who was a Ball Turret Gunner in World War II and who hasn't missed Mass since the end of the war.  How privileged am I?

Today, I spent the afternoon with four individuals who have loved God for a very long time.  In each encounter, I could walk away and say with greater certitude, "Everything the Catholic Church teaches is absolutely true."  If Heaven is filled with people like these, then I definitely want to go to Heaven.  Jesus really blessed me today by allowing me to witness up close the new life that is given to those who are caught up in the love of God. 

The Dangers of Practicing Spiritual Medicine Without a License

Pope Gregory the Great, Author of the Pastoral Rule

One of the many aspects of being a pastor that I enjoy is that I am the shepherd of many different kinds of persons.  I am the pastor of some persons who go to daily Mass, some who go to Sunday Mass, some who go monthly, some who go twice a year, and some who go never.  I am the pastor of persons who have strong faith and person who have weak faith; persons who have had great conversions and persons who are in need of great conversions; persons who love the Church with all of their hearts and persons who are somewhat ambiguous on why they keep coming to church; persons who think I'm a great pastor and persons who think they got the short end of the straw when I became pastor; persons who wish that the traditional Latin Mass was the only way Mass was offered and persons who think that the traditional Latin Mass ought to be outlawed; persons who think the bishops are way too liberal and persons who think the bishops are way too conservative; persons who agree with the Church's teachings on sexual morality and persons who vehemently disagree; and the list of differences goes on and on.

Being pastor of such a variety of persons is a very beautiful experience.  It requires an ability to shepherd each sheep according to his or her own unique situation.  As a preacher, I try to preach robustly the full truth of the Gospel.  It is there that--to the best of my ability--I attempt to lay out the fullness of the Catholic life.  But, I am well aware that those hearing it are not always living the Catholic life in its fullness.  For that matter, neither is the guy who is preaching it.  But, the pulpit is where the whole Word is preached.  I try to preach in a way that I hope the Word might penetrate some hearts and draw them closer to the Lord.  Even when the Word is difficult, it is Good News.  Pastors preach the Word because they love the people to whom they are preaching. 

Sometimes people talk to me about "good Catholics" and "bad Catholics."  I suppose I know what they are getting at, but that's not how I or most priests think about their people.  There are "good" Catholics who go to Mass every Sunday and are filled with anger, lust, envy, and pride and there are "bad" Catholics who hardly ever attend Mass who show extraordinary generosity to the poor and who are faithful spouses and devoted parents. The goal--for all of us--is to overcome sin in our life and to follow Christ with ever increasing fidelity.  The goal is not for us to drive out all of the "bad" Catholics.

As a pastor, I have come to appreciate the image of the priest as a physician of souls.  It is an art to come to consider each patient's condition and each patient's infirmity.  Knowing how much medicine each person can handle at a given time is vitally important to the care of their soul.  Too much medicine all at once could do more damage than their present infirmity is doing. Too little medicine might make them succumb further to the disease.  And before anything else, the physician must be able to diagnose properly the disease that is afflicting the person.  This care of souls is entrusted to priests because the priest has been given the graces necessary (the spiritual medical degree) to diagnose and treat the spiritually infirm with the full supply of the Christian pharmacy. 

Of course, the priest can do everything right and still the patient might grow worse or even die because, in every instance, the patient's freedom is engaged.  And there are also times when we priests and bishops have made bad diagnoses or provided an inadequate plan of treatment.  And yet, it is to us that Christ has given the care of souls.  It is a labor of love and it requires a great discernment and a great amount of patience.  Not every conversion happens instantaneously.  Some illnesses take years to overcome.  The key though seems to be in the pastor's relationship with the person.  Even if the person disagrees with the diagnosis or with the treatment plan, if he or she trusts that the priest loves him or her and only wants what is in his or her best interest, then there's hope. 

Sometimes in parish life, there are those who--perhaps with good intentions--feel it is their responsibility to correct everybody whom they perceive as being a "bad" Catholic.  Fraternal correction is a part of the Christian life, but the first part of that term is "fraternal."  Correcting others by dropping bombs on them is not at all helpful and often produces a worse illness than the original disease.  Oftentimes, these individuals see evidence of imperfection and--without knowing the full story--rush in and draw a line in the sand.  These persons might be well-intentioned and might have some understanding of Catholic teaching, but they should not be practicing spiritual medicine without a license. 

In preaching and teaching, it is necessary to give the universal principles.  For instance, most health books say that people should vigorously exercise for at least 30 minutes per day.  That's the general principle.  But, there are patients who, if they got their heart rate up for 30 minutes, might keel over and die.   
It is up to the physician to help that person discern what is the proper amount of exercise. 

Certainly in the spiritual life nobody will suffer harm by living the full truth.  And, the truth must be preached and taught in all of its fullness.  But, when you have a patient in front of you, perhaps you know that this particular patient is just not going to respond positively to the 30 minutes a day proposal.  They need to be led towards living the full truth.  You begin a process of treating that person that--you hope--will eventually get them there.  In that moment, we don't need somebody telling the patient, "Either you do 30 minutes a day or nothing."  Because very often, the person will choose . . . nothing.
Fraternal Correction is certainly part of the Christian life, but the first part of that term is--at the very least--as important as the second part.  It is FRATERNAL Correction.  If one's heart is filled with love for the other person and it is clear that you are trying to love them back to full health, then that's one thing.  But, if somebody is just really angry that this person is not living a "good" Catholic life and you drop the bomb on them, that is not "Fraternal Correction."

As a pastor and as a physician of souls, I'm sure that I've not always done it perfectly.  Perhaps too much laxity when what was needed was more strictness and sometimes too much strictness when more patience was needed.  But, one of the most complicating factors in the life of caring for souls is when--after much work and patience--some "good" Catholic decides that it is their job to "fix" this person all at once.  More often than not, the damage that they do undoes much of the healing that had thus far been accomplished.

The Care of Souls is delicate and is an art.  Pope Gregory the Great wrote extensively on the spiritual illnesses that afflict various individuals and how to treat each type of patient.  The art of caring for souls is so important that Christ--who established only Seven Sacraments--dedicated one for this purpose.  We should trust the pastors of souls to tend to each soul as he sees fit.  A good reason that we should trust this method is that Jesus himself has established it.

The bottom line is that we priests ought to take seriously our duty to care for souls, doing our best to provide the most beneficial treatment.  For love of the patient, we should be willing to apply more aggressive treatement when necessary and we should be willing to exercise great restraint and patience when that is the best way to bring healing.  Every Christian has a responsibility to help their brothers and sisters on the way to salvation, but simply pointing out their faults and sins and condemning them is not usually the best method of helping them.  Fraternal Correction should not be about making ourselves feel better that we got something off of our chest.  It should be about drawing a brother or sister closer to Jesus Christ.  That often takes a lot of patience.