Friday, December 18, 2015

Without the Friendship of the Church, I Forget What Matters Most

One of the things that I do pretty well is remembering texts, especially hymns. I can remember verse after verse of most Catholic hymns (the good ones, anyways).  Today, at the beginning of our daily Mass, I began singing one of the easiest hymns there is: "O Come O Come Emmanuel." I mean, everyone knows that one. It's like the national anthem of Advent.  

I began the song and the fifteen or so students who were with me joined in. But, around the third line, it all just suddenly stopped. It was like all of us forgot the words at the same moment. So, I just started it again. And sure enough, we got to the same line and everyone faded out!  But finally, one student softly sang the words we were forgetting and we all immediately remembered and went back to singing.

This small, comical event reminded me of something. It reminded me of why I need the Church and why the world needs the Church. Alone, we sometimes forget what is most important. Sometimes, caught up by our own anxieties and distractions, sins and failures, sorrows and pains, and responsibilities and efforts, we forget the greatest song ever written; the song of God's nearness. Emmanuel--God is with us.  What could be more important, consoling, or life changing than this central truth of the Christian Faith--God is with us in the person of Christ Jesus? But alone, we can forget God's nearness.

This is why we need the Church, why we need each other. So that the song never dies out. Even if everyone else around us forgets that God is with us, there will always be someone in the communion of the Church to remind us. The friendship that we live in the life of the Church is like a fellowship that guards a valuable treasure--the treasure of God's nearness. Through our communion with one another, we constantly remind each other that something amazing has happened, God has come to dwell among us.

The world also needs the Church. Our mission is to announce to a world that has forgotten God, "God is with us." The world has forgotten the words of the song that has the power to save it from its sorrow, sin, and death. Wherever Christians live the communion of the Church together, we become like a small voice that reintroduces the beautiful notes of the Incarnation into a dreary, cold, and empty existence. When we build a world that excludes God, we build a world that destroys man. It is the Church's mission to remind the world that God is with us.

As another semester comes to a close, I am grateful for the friendship that we share together in Christ. Together, in our friendship, we ensure that the song of the new creation continues: God Is With Us.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Christmas Bells Ring For Those Who Feel Excluded From Christmas Joy

This week, the students at the Boston University Catholic Center have been in lockdown mode as they study for and take the Final Exams of the semester. Amidst the studying, however, they have still remained faithful to the Daily Mass and to loving one another. In fact, during this time of stress and anxiety, you might think that nerves would have grown short, but instead they've outdone one another these past couple of weeks in loving each other.

The other day, a senior who is graduating at the end of this semester stopped by to see me. She hasn't been overly involved in our community, but she's been part of our extended family. She stopped by to tell me how much she wished she had been more involved. She said, "Father, I just wanted to say thank you. It's so beautiful to see how the people here are all friends with you and with one another and that you love each other so much. I just felt like I had to say that." She didn't know it when she told me that, but she made my week. 

When we live the friendship of the Church in a deep and profound way, it touches others and awakens in them a recognition that the Catholic life is truly beautiful. Every year around Christmas, I remember those who feel as though they are on the outside. The shepherds were on the outside. They were the people who dwelled in darkness and lived on the outside--both figuratively and literally. At Christmas time, there are many who feel on the outside. The experience of suffering or the effects of sin leave them feeling as though they are peering in the window watching others seated by the warmth and glow of the fire, enjoying the Christmas Feast while they remain in the darkness and cold outside. 

So many people feel this way. Some partially and others feel it almost completely. There are those who have lost loved ones, those who suffer loneliness, despair, hunger, war, betrayal, grief, illness, economic hardship, anxiety, broken relationships, the memories of past hurts, the regretting of the past, the weight of sin, and the list goes on. These experiences can make one feel as though Christmas  does not belong to them, that they are excluded from the graces that Christmas brings; that peace and joy cannot be theirs.

What a beautiful truth it is that it is precisely to these persons that Christmas truly belongs. It was to them that the good news of Christ's birth was first proclaimed. Christmas does not belong to those on the outside as by some exception. Christmas belongs to them firstly and by design. 

One way that we can announce to others the good news of Christmas is to live our Christian friendship with fidelity, joy, and love. When others see us living it together, they are drawn to it and feel included. We who live the Christmas Mystery do so not because we were always insiders. Those who live Christmas best are those who know that they are the people who dwelled in darkness and in the land of gloom, and to whom a light has appeared. When we live our friendship together, we become a sign to the world that no darkness, pain, sin, or suffering can defeat the grace that has appeared in Christ. When we live our Christian friendship together, it is a relentless, beautiful, and indefatigable song that announces that love is stronger than death.

In 1863, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow felt the weight of heavy sorrow. His wife had recently died from injuries received in a traumatic fire. Shortly afterwards, he received word that his son, Charles, an officer serving in the Union Army, had been seriously wounded in a Civil War battle. In the midst of so much pain and suffering, Longfellow penned a poem entitled, "Christmas Bells." later made into a hymn entitled, "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." In the poem, Longellow struggles with how it is possible to live Christmas in the midst of so much pain and suffering. 

In our midst, there are many persons who feel as though they are on the outside. When we live our friendships together, we become like the bells of Longfellow's poem. Our love for one another becomes the indefatigable messenger of peace on earth and good-will to men.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Jesus and Catholicism Are Way Better Than Afternoon Television

Today I had to take a family member to the doctor's and found myself confined in a small waiting room for several hours. I didn't know it was going to take that long, so I didn't bring a book and my phone battery died. So, in this tiny waiting room with about twelve other people, I was forced to endure something horrific. For approximately three hours, the waiting room was filled with the sound of afternoon television. I had no idea that civilization had collapsed to the degree that it has!

It was awful. Most of the shows had four or five individuals sitting around a table, drinking coffee and discussing drivel. The humor was almost entirely sexual innuendo that sounded like something out of the Seventh Grade. At one point, they even discussed prayer and religion. They were solemn in their declaration that God is everywhere and you don't need to go to church to pray. One of them boasted that she is a lapsed Catholic. Then, after this fleeting moment of coming to some approximation of a serious discussion, it quickly returned to juvenile banality. Did I mention that it was awful?

Now, it was interesting because as all of these discussions were progressing, I was sitting in the waiting room dressed in clerical attire. I had the sense that some of the people in the room who were so absorbed in the television shows were also a bit uneasy because there was a priest sitting across from them. They, however, probably thought that I was uncomfortable because the only guys on the show kept referring to their "husbands." Or, they thought I was uncomfortable because of the constant sexual references. But, what was really bothering me was how foolish it all was. It was boring and empty.

It really bothers me to think that this is what passes as life for people. It was pathetic. What's worse is that in some of their discussions, they acted as though they were uttering profound things. Look, I don't mind someone making an argument on television that I completely disagree with. A good intellectual debate is great. But this stuff was just all nonsense. I felt like I was getting dumber by the second.

As I watched this garbage, I wondered how the Church is supposed to respond to this reality. How do we evangelize the people who spend their life watching this stuff? One response is to imitate this method in its totality. Sometimes, well-meaning people think that in order to attract folks to the Church, we basically have to baptize the trite. Efforts are made to imitate the culture and make Catholicism look and sound just like the world. The problem is that Catholicism is not trite. So, if you try to outdo the culture by making Catholicism into a super cool form of triteness, it doesn't work. Either you wind up being really bad at being trite or you wind up providing really bad Catholicism.  

Catholicism calls us to greatness. Catholicism calls us to a love that isn't shallow, but deep. It calls us to a Truth that isn't a soundbite, but rather a banquet. Catholicism engages the mind and the heart in a serious way. It takes life seriously. It takes humanity seriously. These programs that I endured today all seemed to give the impression that nothing really matters, that life is just a series of disconnected moments. 

I suppose the one thing that these shows realize is that people have a desire to feel connected. They want to feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves. This is a good reminder to those of us who are Catholic. People want to feel loved and connected. Evangelization ought to help people feel loved and connected.

At the same time, the Church should evangelize though living out its greatness. We shouldn't fear greatness. We should strive for and call each other to greatness.  Our worship ought to reflect the majesty of the One whom we worship. Our music ought to be of the noblest kind. Our preaching ought to be eloquent and serious. Our love ought to be big and convincing. 

There's a lot of triteness in the world. And, people seem okay with that triteness. But, the Church is not trite. The Church is about God and God is not trite. If we want to draw people to Christ and to a life of discipleship, we have to call them (through our words and example) to greatness. If we try to compete with afternoon television shows, we will always lose. We will lose either because we stink at being trite or because we stink at being Catholic. Instead, we need to show people that life is something much greater than juvenile silliness and cultural emptiness. 

People like fast food, but fast food doesn't make them healthy or nourish them. Similarly, we can all be drawn towards triteness. It's easy, requires no effort, and fills up empty time. But, such things never respect our humanity. They always leave us empty. They do not respect our intellectual capacity nor our capacity to love in a profound way. Christianity has the ability to nourish the mind, the heart, and the soul with a goodness, beauty, and truth that is substantial and profound. 

Sometimes, we can make the mistake of thinking that effective evangelization means becoming gimmicky and trite in order to win people over. But, I think that the culture is always going to win in the battle of triteness. Instead, our evangelization ought to reveal a humanity that is bigger, greater, and deeper. Our humor ought to be truly funny and not juvenile. Our intellectual conversations ought to be deeper and not shallow. Our love ought to be greater and broader. Our worship ought to engage the human person on the deepest levels and not just on the surface. Our parties, our art, our music ought to be of the highest quality. 

Where should we begin? I have two thoughts: the Liturgy and Friendship. If we celebrate the Liturgy well, we put before people the Mystery. Even if they do not fully comprehend it, the heart is drawn towards it. And, if we live our friendships well, people encounter a love that is real and true. People are starving for true friendship. True Catholicism provides a life that is filled with joy, meaning, and greatness. The people watching those shows on television want more in their life. We shouldn't give them more of the same. 

When Jesus wanted the disciples to make a great catch of fish, he told them to "Go out into the deep." He did not say, "Go shallow." Apparently, afternoon television is catching a lot of people by staying shallow. Although that is their method, it cannot be ours. Our method has to follow the command of Christ, "Go out into the deep." 

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Fallen World And The Antidote of Mercy

Today we celebrated the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary and it was also the beginning of the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy. I was out of bed early this morning, ready to begin the Holy Year well! Yesterday I went to lunch with our FOCUS Missionaries, but made a quick stop with them first at a local shrine so that I could go to confession and be ready for the Holy Year.

This morning when I woke up, I was determined to obtain the Holy Year Indulgence. I arrived to work early and immediately went out to find someone who was hungry. I bought some food and combed Kenmore Square, looking for someone to feed. I went through the bus stop, the train station, and the streets searching for just one person. It should have been easy, but everyone I saw was well-dressed and hustling to work or to school. I came back to my office defeated.

The rest of my day was spent doing the usual priestly works of saying Masses (extra for the Holy Day), praying a Holy Hour with our staff, and hearing confessions. At Masses, I preached about how in the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the new creation was begun. When we look around us and when we look at ourselves, we have a sense that this is not how God intended the world to be. So much sin, death, and sorrow cannot possibly be what God intended for us. But in Mary, we see the new creation. We see what God really intended for us. She is without stain of original sin. We all have a desire for the world to be the way it was meant to be. When we look at Mary, we see the beginning of the great restoration. 

While Mary was preserved from sin, all of us too can be saved from sin. She was saved in a unique way, by being preserved. But, what God began in the Blessed Virgin, He offers also to us, albeit in a different way. What God gave to Mary in a unique way, He offers to us through the Sacraments. While Mary was preserved, we can be restored. Through the Sacraments, God is restoring the Divine Image in us and bringing it to perfection within us. 

Although this is what I preached today, my entire day was punctuated with reminders that the old creation with its imperfections and sorrows is very much still at work. In the morning time, I spoke to a young couple whom I married whose young son suddenly died this week. In their anguish, I felt the heaviness of the fallen creation. A couple of hours later, I communicated with a friend who informed me that he has been diagnosed with a serious illness. Later in the day, a medical emergency in my own family once again reminded me of the heaviness of the fallen creation. And, just as I was leaving tonight after a long day, a student asked me to pray with him about a member of his own family who today was given only a short time to live.  This entire day put in front of me the suffering of the world.

In so many ways, the world feels very ill and heavy these days. Violence, political nastiness on all sides, divisions within the Church, disease, death, and so much sorrow . . . it all just seems like the world is screaming out, "It is all broken!" And yet, we Catholics went to Church today and honored the Blessed Virgin Mary and her being conceived without sin. In her, we see that the New Creation has begun and that all is not lost. All WAS lost, but all is being made new again by her Son, Jesus Christ.

I went out this morning searching high and low for someone who needed to encounter the Mercy of God. I failed. Instead, I was shown that it is the people whom I encounter every day who are in need of knowing that they are embraced by God's Mercy.  There are a lot of people who live right in front of us who at this very moment are feeling the weight of the old creation's fallen state. On this day, we turn our gaze to the beginning of the New Creation. We turn to the Mother of Mercy and through the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, we are able to offer a glimmer of hope to those who dwell in the darkness of sin and death.  In a world that seems crushed by the weight of so much darkness, the Immaculate Conception reminds us that the antidote has already been administered. Mercy not only rolls back the advances of sin and death, it also defeats them. In the face of so much suffering, sin, and darkness, we are called to live the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Mercy is the antidote that God administers to a fallen world.

My takeaway from Day One of the Year of Mercy? The fallen world desperately needs Mercy.