Monday, August 19, 2013

Do Not Envy the Wicked. Be Pure in Heart

A friend of mine doesn't believe in God.  While discussing the matter, he often refers to scientific evidences to support his claim of disbelief.  But, if he were to go to the historical beginning of his path towards disbelief, it would not begin in the science lab, but in the heart.  At a particular moment in his Christian life, he encountered an overwhelming experience of suffering and this moment caused him to evaluate not only his Christian beliefs, but also his very belief in the existence of God.  (In writing about this, I am in no way revealing anything personal or that he himself would not repeat).

I was thinking of my friend this morning as I prayed the appointed psalms for the Office of Readings today. The Psalmist writes "How good God is to Israel, to those who are pure of heart."  But then, as he continues, his eyes move away from focusing on the goodness of God and instead focus on evil.  He wonders aloud how it is that the proud and the wicked prosper.  He grows angry that the wicked inflict malice at every turn and do so with no fear of retribution.  It appears as though they are actually rewarded for their sinister ways. And God does nothing!  The Psalmist then wonders if he is a fool.  Is it useless to be innocent?  Is it useless to be pure of heart?  Why be faithful if God treats the wicked well while the innocent suffer?

My friend's experience is not all that different from that of the Psalmist.  The experience of evil and of suffering can shake our confidence in what is true, good, and beautiful.  I know this experience in my own life.  Several months ago, I found myself confronted with the same questions that are raised by the Psalmist. Why bother being faithful if, in the end, the wicked prosper?  This encounter with evil deeply affected me. And the more I focused upon it, the more the Psalmist's observations became my own.  Focusing upon evil runs the risk of undermining one's confidence in what is true, good, and beautiful.  A friend of mine once reminded me that "there is no logic in sin."  His point was that you shouldn't bother trying to "make sense" of evil because evil is inherently unreasonable.  The Psalmist also came to see this.  He says, "I strove to understand this problem, too hard for my mind to understand."  Making sense of evil is a fool's errand. Focusing on evil and wickedness necessarily means we take our eyes off of the Lord, and taking our eyes off of the Lord can never be good for us.

As is often the case in my life as a priest, it is in the unexpected ways that God instructs my heart. Yesterday afternoon, I met with a young man and woman who are preparing for marriage.  I've never met them before and was meeting them in order to fill out the boring paperwork that always marks the first meeting with an engaged couple.  There they were, two young people, preparing to begin their married life together.  In a world where there is so much suffering, sin, wickedness, war, famine, ideology, and hostility, these two young people are going to give themselves to each other in marriage.  Even though it happens every day, it still surprises me. What they are doing makes sense because love is supremely reasonable.  Somehow, wickedness and sin always seem to outweigh goodness and truth.  And yet, an ounce of truth and goodness and beauty contains so much greater power than all of the weight of evil combined.  This is a true miracle.

When our eyes rest upon that which is good, and true, and beautiful, we are reawakened as if out of a bad dream. The Psalmist said that the problem of wickedness and sin was too difficult for him to comprehend. But then, he "pierced the mysteries of God and understood what becomes of the wicked." Sin and wickedness and the apparent success that accompany them are, in fact, phantoms.  What is true and good and beautiful is where we should rest our eyes.

In the Letter to the Hebrews, we are instructed to "rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.  For the sake of the joy that lay before him, he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God."  Jesus endured the shame of the cross because he knew what lay before him.  His disciples are called to keep their eyes fixed upon him; upon him "who endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart."

The experience of evil can come in many forms.  A spouse can be unfaithful, a friend can abandon us, a person in authority can abuse his authority, a child suffers from disease, somebody dies from starvation, or an unjust sentence is passed.  If we focus upon these things alone, they will never make sense to us.  They will cause us to grow weary and to lose heart.  They undermine our capacity to trust in goodness.  Instead, we are called to keep our eyes fixed upon what is true and good and beautiful.  This week, in looking at this young couple in front of me, I was reawakened to all that is true and good and beautiful. I was reminded that this alone makes sense.  Only love is reasonable. The Cross is only comprehensible because of love and because of the supremacy of love.

The wicked will one day see their own destruction.  This is because they set their hearts upon wicked things.  The more one sets his eyes upon wickedness, the more distorted his view of reality becomes. The pure of heart will see God.  They will see God because they set their eyes not upon wicked things but rather upon what is good, and true, and beautiful.  They set their eyes upon those things which reveal the way in which God made the world to be.  This is what it means to be pure in look upon what is good and true and beautiful.  It means to look upon a young couple preparing for marriage.  And if we look at these things, we shall see God.  I want to be pure in heart.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Priesthood on the Outside of the Bulletproof Glass

In one of his typically funny quotes, Pope Francis when asked about riding around in the open air car rather than behind the bulletproof glass said that he knows it is a little crazy not being protected, but that he thought a bishop behind bulletproof glass is even crazier.  Now, I don't think anyone will ever fault him if he is convinced on occasion that he actually does need to be better protected, but I think Pope Francis is trying to teach bishops and priests something by his example.  Repeatedly, he has said that bishops and priests need to be close to their people.  The Pope wants us to be close to the people.

In the last ten years especially, many bishops and priests have placed themselves behind the figurative bulletproof glass.  Fearful of being falsely accused or sued, many have succumbed to living life distantly from the people.  False accusations, however, are not the only risk that comes from being close to the people. Living among the people brings the risk of making mistakes, having our weaknesses on display, saying the wrong thing, being misunderstood, being accused of favoritism, and in our Lord's instance, being called a drunkard and a glutton!  In some ways, living behind the bulletproof glass keeps bishops and priests safe, but is this what Jesus wants from us?

When we live behind the bulletproof glass, we are kept safe from the assassin's bullet, but we inflict a far slower and more painful death on the faithful.  The people are left without a shepherd.  They have a remote overseer who may be able to fix the fence after the wolf has killed a sheep, but who is not going to be present to fight off the wolf when he appears.  The people are longing for a father, a shepherd, a friend. They want to know the man who preaches to them, who absolves them, and who feeds them with the Eucharist. They want to know the nearness of the shepherd.  Also, when the shepherd lives close to the sheep, they see that he too is a man who encounters the hardships of life and understands what it is like to be on this path. They come to know the shepherd as a man who is like them and who is with them. 

This closeness, however, is not only about how it benefits the sheep.  Being close to the people, the priest sees what their life is like.  He knows their hungers, their desires, their struggles, their fears, their burdens, and their temptations.  Being close to them makes him a better preacher and a better confessor.  Being close to them makes him a better man and a better disciple.  This closeness helps the priest mature in his own humanity.  In fact, the only way for a priest to grow is to be in the midst of the flock.  

Without this closeness, priests run the risk of becoming functionaries, theorists, or bureaucrats.  Without this closeness, our very humanity is put at risk. The very reason the priest exists is so that Christ, the Good Shepherd can be in the midst of the flock.  When the priest or bishop flees from the midst of the flock, he betrays his very reason for being.  It harms not only the flock, but also himself.

The other night, I had dinner with a group of lay people and as I looked around the table during a lively discussion, I thought, "I am the least at this table."  And that thought filled me with a great joy.  Who am I that God should allow me be in the midst of these people?  Their lives and their example educate me in the Christian life.  They teach me not only how to be a shepherd, but they teach me how to be a good sheep. They teach me how to be a man. Without this closeness, my humanity would be suffocated.

I'm guessing that Pope Francis is a man who will sometimes say or do something that he will later regret. That's what happens when you step outside of the bulletproof glass.  Living in the midst of the flock will mean that the shepherd sometimes winds up smelling bad!  Pope Francis would probably say that unless we wind up smelling bad now and again, we really aren't being good shepherds!  People probably aren't looking for perfect shepherds.  They are looking for shepherds who love them and want to be close to them; shepherds who really know them and shepherds who are really known by them.  And, this closeness gives such a beautiful freedom to preach the Gospel in all of its integrity because the people know that you would only preach it to them because you love them.

When I look at Pope Francis, I think that his pastoral concern for the people is just one reason why he walks in the midst of them.  I think the other reason is because he needs to be in their midst for his own sake.  This is more and more my experience of priesthood.  I can only understand my life when I am in the midst of the people; in the midst of the Church.  Behind the bulletproof glass, we are kept safe from all of the complications that come from contact with the people.  Behind the bulletproof glass of fear, of careerism, and of moralism, the priest's humanity atrophies and the flock suffers as a result.  

Looking good and being safe from the complications of life is never going to save me.  Being in the midst of the flock, loving the people and being loved by them is the riskiest place to be.  And this risk brings a joy and a newness to a priest's life that is beyond compare.  One only needs to look at Pope Francis to know this.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Bishops and Priests Need to Be Men of the Encounter

"It is not creativity, however pastoral it may be, or meetings or planning that ensure our fruitfulness, even if these are greatly helpful.  But what assures our fruitfulness is our being faithful to Jesus, who says insistently: 'Abide in me and I in you.'"  With these words, Pope Francis addressed the bishops, priests, religious, novices, and seminarians at World Youth Day.  These words are yet another expression of Pope Francis' call to return to the "Encounter with Christ."  Detached from this daily encounter, pastoral planning becomes reorganization.  Detached from this daily encounter, evangelization becomes ideology.  Detached from this daily encounter, those of us in the clergy can become absorbed in a worldly and perverse pursuit of power and comfort.

While there is a noble movement taking place where bishops, priests, religious and laity are talking about evangelizing, Pope Francis seems to be making a course correction against an overly worldly approach to evangelization.  In a particular way, he seems to be setting his sites on the clergy.  Any true reform of the Church has always involved a reform of the clergy.  Setting out on a path of a "New Evangelization" without first--or at least simultaneously--focusing on a renewal of the episcopate and the clergy seems to be a path to nowhere.  Repeatedly, Pope Francis is calling for a renewal of those who exercise pastoral authority.

His recipe for renewal of the clergy (and thus, the whole Church) begins with a theology of encounter.  This is why he is reminding priests to return with greater attention to their own encounter with Christ.  "I believe that it is important to rekindle constantly an awareness of our divine vocation, which we often take for granted in the midst of our many responsibilities . . .This means returning to the source of our calling."  Throughout the Gospels, people met Christ, were touched by him, healed by him, fed by him, shown mercy by him, and loved by him.  To be effective evangelizers, the episcopate and the priests of the Church need to return to their own encounter with Christ, live out of this encounter, and bear witness to this encounter.  "I was blind but now I see."  "It is no longer I who live, but Christ."  When the priest or the bishop is close to his encounter with Christ, then he is an effective instrument of the New Evangelization.

If closeness to this encounter with Christ is the starting point of the New Evangelization, so also is a closeness to the people.  Bishops and priests can become so absorbed in our committees, documents, and plans that we no longer live near the people.  At World Youth Day, Pope Francis spoke repeatedly of the need for bishops and priests to be near the people.  It is in the communion of the Church that this encounter with Christ is lived and renewed.  In speaking about young people, the Pope said, "I ask this of you with all my heart!  In the confessional, in spiritual direction, in accompanying.  Let us find ways to spend time with them!" In a culture that is marked by what the pope calls "exclusion," he begs that we "be servants of communion and of the culture of encounter."  He even says, "I would like you to be almost obsessed by this."

This closeness is to be lived especially with those whom the Pope refers to as being on the outskirts.  This includes the poor, the elderly, the drug addict, those in need of mercy, and the people who already seem godless.  He asks that we accompany these people.  These words are definitely a challenge for me!  How often do I spend time with drug addicts or with those who have ceased practicing the Faith altogether?  How often do I seek out those who do not believe in God?  Am I looking for them?  Do I seek to find them and accompany them in their journey?  This closeness is not an attempt to impose our Faith on them, but rather to be close them and accompany them in the hope, of course, that this closeness will lead them to Christ.  In my experience as a priest, some of the most important work I've ever done has been with those who are unbelievers or those who do not practice the Faith.  I hope that some day they will.  But, until then, the best thing I can do is dialogue with them and accompany them as a companion on the road.  Despite knowing this from my personal experience, it is nonetheless tempting to remain hidden behind the walls of ecclesial structures.  The only way for priests and bishops to lead the Church in the New Evangelization is for us to know the world that we seek to evangelize.  The only way for us to evangelize is to come into contact with the world.

I already see this happening to me in my new assignment.  As I look over the calendar for the coming year, I realize that the Boston University Newman Center is a busy place and there seem to be events taking place most nights of the week.  I'm happy about that.  But, most of the students who will come here already know Christ and want to be here.  It would be easy to spend all of my time inside this building.  But, I want to meet those who do not come here.  I need to speak to them, listen to them, walk with them.  This is a challenge for me.  But, it is also a challenge for every priest and bishop.  If you want to know how busy a bishop or a priest is, just ask him!  He will tell you about all of the things he is doing (me included).  But, are we being close to people?  This is a key question, I think.

In the past decade, the Church in the United States has adopted many valuable tools from the world of business, public relations, and law, but we have grown very weak in the world of spiritual and human formation. In many of his talks--both at World Youth Day and in other places--Pope Francis speaks about what bishops and priests need to be like: simple, poor, merciful, not ambitious, close to the people, men who instill hope, and men who guard their people from dangers.  Before we can evangelize others, we have to be men who are moved to follow Christ, men who know how to repent, men who know the experience of mercy and who have felt the tenderness of Christ.

The New Evangelization depends upon a culture of encounter.  In order for this culture to be formed,
bishops and priests have to be men who live out of this encounter.  We have to be men who can joyfully share their own personal experience of the encounter with Christ; men who joyfully bear their share of the hardship of the Gospel.  At the heart of the New Evangelization--and thus, at the heart of our pastoral life--must be the encounter with Christ.  It is this encounter that keeps us new, hopeful, and zealous.  It is only this encounter that introduces something new into the world.  Unless we have something new to introduce into the world, we sound utterly boring and archaic to the world around us.  What atheist wants to spend time with me if I have nothing new to introduce into the

Pope Francis is reminding those of us who are priests and bishops that it is all about Jesus Christ.  Before we convince others of that, we ourselves need to be convinced--every day.