Thursday, June 30, 2016

Living the Memory of Being Delivered

This week, the Church celebrated the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul.  In all of the readings for this solemnity, we heard something about deliverance.  In the Acts of the Apostles, we hear how Peter was delivered from imprisonment to freedom. In the Second Letter to Timothy, St. Paul speaks of how he was "rescued from the lion's mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every threat and will bring me safely to his heavenly Kingdom."  In the Gospel, Jesus tells Peter that the gates of the netherworld shall never prevail against the Church. And, in the psalm, we proclaimed, "The angel of the Lord will rescue those who fear him."

It seems as though the experience of being delivered, rescued, and protected is a necessary condition for living an apostolic life. It is when we know ourselves to have been delivered from certain death that we want to share the good news of our rescue. It is the common experience of being rescued by Christ that binds Christians together and unites us in our mission to share the Gospel. When we lose sight of this common and foundational experience, we turn the Church into a sociological or managerial exercise. The Church becomes a lot of talk about nothing.

In my experience, we don't live enough out of this experience of being rescued, delivered, and protected. Instead, we all come up with our own ideas, theories, plans, and commentaries on the life of the Church. But, we just spin our wheels. Whenever I engage in a conversation where we spin our wheels talking about nonsense, I always walk away feeling like lesser of a man. It's all words and no substance.

But, when I engage in conversations that are truly human and profoundly theological, they awaken in me a renewed sense of my need for Christ. These conversations move me towards a conversion of life. They move me to want to confess my sins, pray more, read the scriptures more, and to share the Gospel more. These conversations are life-giving because they are about Christ and not about nonsense.

Today, I engaged in numerous conversations. At the end of the day, as I reflect upon these various encounters, I realize how blessed I am that the Lord continuously places in my life men and women who live out of the experience of being delivered by the Lord. Even if they do not explicitly state it, you can tell that these people live out of an experience of being grasped by the hand and led by the Lord. And the more I encounter persons like this, the more I recognize that the Lord is always holding out his hand to me and offering to rescue me yet again. Their witness reminds me that I am in constant need of being rescued, delivered, and protected. They awaken in me a greater awareness of my sins and a greater confidence in the One who saves us from sin. Their witness assures me that the Lord stands ever ready to come to my assistance.

Thomas a Kempis once wrote, "As often as I have gone out among men, I have returned home a lesser man."  The quote, while rather dour, touches upon an experience that many of us have encountered in our life. After engaging in prolonged conversations that lack substance, humanity, and depth, we find ourselves less of a human being. We not only lose a sense of God, we lose our very selves.  On the other hand, when we engage in conversations that arise from a shared love of God and His revealed Word, we are once again set free. We are set free from the prisons of our own pettiness, ideologies, and plain old nonsense. 

Whether I am engaging in a conversation with a college student at the BU Catholic Center or chatting with the pastor of the rectory where I live, conversations that arise from hearts that share in the mutual amazement that Christ has and is rescuing us and is doing something in our midst here and now, awaken in me a desire to allow Christ to rescue me even more. They awaken in me a recognition of my constant need to be delivered from the lion, and they build up in me a confidence in Christ, the Savior. On the contrary, conversations that lack Christ at their outset always leave me feeling less of a human being. 

The Gospel spread all over the world because the apostles were faithful to their experience of being delivered, rescued, and protected by Christ. The world is filled with tons of talk, but much of that talk leaves people feeling emptier and less human. Sometimes it can seem as though every utterance robs just a little more humanity! But when disciples of the Lord gather together and live faithfully the experience of being rescued by Christ, delivered by Christ, and protected by Christ, their conversations build up their humanity and glorify God.

As I look back on my day today, I realize that the people who helped me to grow in my humanity were the people who knew themselves to be delivered by Christ and who lived out of that knowledge.  Without living fidelity to the memory of Christ's love for us--a love exemplified most fully in his death on the Cross--without living this memory as a present reality, we become worldly. We become the purveyors of endless talk and empty words that steal humanity from others. When, on the other hand, we live the memory of Christ's power in our life (even though it be unfinished and incomplete due to our weakness and sin), we elevate each other's humanity and become instruments of drawing each other closer to the Lord.  The Church grows not through the multiplication of words, but rather through our sharing the Word who became flesh, made his dwelling among us, and  who sets us free.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Satan, Getting Us All To Hate Each Other

Admittedly, I enjoy a good debate. I enjoy getting into the mix and being engaged in the exchange of ideas. In these days after the murder of 49 human beings in Orlando, the temptation to jump into the fray of public debate has been tremendous. There has been an endless supply of articles, editorials, memes, and videos that are like bait luring me to take a bite. But, unusually for me, something has held me back.

As much as I'd like to engage in debate, this time around the whole thing feels slimy and disgusting. Basically, this time around the debate has revealed a seething hatred that exists, not only among terrorists, but among politicians, editorial boards, pundits, activists, and social media users. Almost from the moment of the first news reports about this horrific act of violence, Americans turned on one another and began to devour each other. Even where there is no hatred, people are trying to create it. I'd love to call out some examples of that, refute some of their arguments, and share opposing articles.  I really would. But, something is different for me this time.

What's different this time is that truth no longer matters to anyone. What matters is antagonizing those who disagree with you. What matters is dividing people, punishing those who disagree with you, and demonizing them. After September 11th, the big mantra was that "we can't allow the terrorists to change our way of life." I don't know if it is the terrorists who have changed our way of life or maybe social media or maybe a thousand other things. But our way of life has changed. 49 people died this past week and instead of pulling together, we have torn apart. There seems to be no end game except to divide people and demonize people. Sorry to sound cynical, but it doesn't sound like people engaged in the conversation are really all that concerned about the people who have died and their families. Instead, people on all sides of the spectrum see the deaths of these human beings as a good way to attack those with whom they disagree. It's really disgusting.

I'd love to engage in the exchange of ideas right now, but it seems like doing so in the current climate would only be to play into the hands of those who seek to permanently change our way of life. I'd like to contribute something to the conversation, but I realize that whatever that contribution will be, it has to be something other than standing on one side and yelling at the other and demonizing the other. 

Christians are called to introduce something new into the world. Right now, everything I see, hear, and read is not new. It's old. The whole conversation--on all sides--has the whiff of the boiling, sulfuric hatred of Satan. I hope that at some point, I have something new to offer. But for the time being, I'd at least like to remain free from being a dupe to man's greatest enemy--the prince of darkness, the sower of lies, and the hater of God and man. There is something grotesque and sinister taking place in the world right now. Perhaps the first stage in defeating this evil is not allowing ourselves to fight on its territory. 

The great lie right now is that our true enemy is each other. And we all seem intent on devouring one another in order to win.  But, St. Paul reminds us in the Book of Ephesians that something far more serious is at stake:

"Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness.  As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.  With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God."

The whole world of media and politics is acting as though the war we are fighting is a ground war between flesh and blood. For those of us who are Christians, to enter into that war is a fool's errand. We are engaged in a battle against spiritual forces of evil. Well, we are either engaged in a battle against these forces or we are ridiculous fools fighting for these for forces. It's time for Christians to take off the armor of their political parties and put on the armor of God.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Terror, Violence, and Hatred Should Bring Us to the Feet of Jesus

Most of America woke up this morning to the news that 50 or so persons in Florida were murdered by a terrorist.  In the moments, hours, days, and weeks following such acts of evil, there will be a groundswell of words and gestures.  Somebody will find a Facebook meme that will make the rounds.  Others will make speeches, write articles, and blog. There will be calls for new legislation so that "something like this never happens again." Political activists will use the event to attack their opponents.  Is there anything that we as Catholics can do that would be more useful than joining in the chorus of endless words?  I would like to propose four things that each of us could do.

1. Go to Confession.  After I heard of the shooting this morning, I went to confession.  I went for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, the readings at Mass today are about two persons--David in the Old Testament, and the sinful woman in the Gospel--who sought God's mercy. God wants to show all of us mercy.  Why not receive it?  

Secondly, I went to confession because I am going to die.  I don't know when.  You are going to die.  I don't know when.  Maybe it will be after a long illness. Maybe it will be sudden like an allergic reaction or a heart attack.  Maybe it will be violent like those who were killed this morning in Florida.  All I know is that each of us is going to die. No scientific advancement, no law, no diet, and no medication is going to stop that from happening.  We should be ready to die.  We should be ready at this very moment. Are you ready? If you died right now, are you in the state of grace? Do you live as though Hell were a real possibility? 

Going to confession places us in the right relationship with the Lord. He loves the repentant sinner. He loves the repentant sinner over and over again. Confession allows us to experience the depth of God's love for us.  We cannot justify ourselves. But, when we turn to Him, he lifts us up.  In turn, confession helps us to live a new life, the life of grace. If the world needs anything, it needs people who are living the life of grace. The world needs Catholics who weep for their sins at the feet of Jesus.

2. Pray.  Not vaguely or in theory.  Really, pray. Did you go to Mass today? Why not? If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, would you have gone to Mass today? We are made to worship God. Heaven will be spent worshipping God. Do you want to go to heaven? If so, then start living the life of heaven now. Worship God. 

Pray for those who were murdered last night. Pray that they be given eternal life. Don't just write posts on Facebook and say things that sound nice but do nothing.  Pray for them. Pray for their families. Pray for those who survived. Really pray. 

Pray for yourself. Ask God to help you to remain in the state of grace now and until the very end of your life. Pray that you will have final perseverance.  Pray that you will love God and your neighbor.  The world needs people who pray at the feet of Jesus and who anoint His feet with their worship.

3. Spread the Gospel. Financially support some Catholic cause. Buy a homeless person a meal. Visit someone who is sick. Console someone who is mourning. The world needs Catholics who are repairing a broken world by being instruments of God's mercy. The world needs Catholics who tend to the feet of Jesus in the persons of the poor, the needy, the infirm, and the forgotten.

4. Forgive someone who has injured you. In the face of so much hatred, anger, bitterness, and violence, the world needs Catholics who are agents of reconciliation. You are going to die some day. You want to die like Jesus who forgave those who harmed him. We have seen what anger, hatred, and bitterness do.  The world needs to see something better. There is something better. It is called Christian Love. The world needs Catholics who kiss the feet of Jesus by loving their enemies.

Today, the woman in the Gospel, didn't speak any words. She knelt at the feet of Jesus and washed his feet in her tears, kissed his feet, dried them with her hair, and anointed them.  We need more Catholics like this woman. She was a repentant sinner. She worshipped Jesus. She shared intimacy with him. She expressed her love in action. She was forgiven. Lives are changed, souls are saved, sins are forgiven, and the world is renewed not so much by slogans, speeches, memes, and laws, but by placing ourselves at the feet of Jesus.  The world needs Catholics who live life at the feet of Jesus.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Evangelization--What St. Peter's Basilica Could Learn from a Hotel Clerk

During the past couple of weeks, a small group of us from the BU Catholic Center went to Italy for a vacation, but also for a pilgrimage for the Jubilee of Mercy. Our trip involved a mixture of encounters with various persons, some who made our life easier and some who made life more difficult.  I'd like to mention just two encounters that seem to me to be a little parable about evangelization.

The first happened at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.  As I said, one of the reasons for our trip was so that we could visit the Holy Doors of the Basilicas in Rome and obtain the Jubilee Indulgence.  When the day arrived for us to go through the Holy Door at St. Peter's, our small group made its way along the Via della Conciliazione--the road leading to the basilica. There was a check-in booth where we presented our paperwork that stated we were pilgrims on the way to the Holy Door. We checked in, were handed prayer books which provided various prayers to be said along the approximate half mile route, and made our way to the basilica, praying all along the way. 

After passing through the Holy Door, the book instructed us to go to the bones of St. Peter in order to say the final prayers. When we got there, we discovered that the whole area near the altar was blocked off, but there was an opening where pilgrim groups could pass.  When we arrived at the opening, the man in charge informed us that pilgrim groups have to have a wooden cross to get in.  We showed him our paperwork but he refused. He said that the people at the beginning should have provided us with a wooden cross. We said, "They didn't." He refused. We proposed that we could join in with another of the groups passing through.  That idea was completely unacceptable to him. What should have been the highlight of our pilgrimage turned into one of the worst moments of our two weeks.  That guy was obstinate.  Instead of trying to help us complete our pilgrimage, he became an obstacle . . . and seemingly took great delight in being an obstacle. Preventing us from completing our pilgrimage seemed to be a source of great satisfaction for this fellow. There was just no way that this subversive group of pilgrims was going to get past him without us walking back another half mile, getting in line again, and coming back with a wooden cross.  

The second encounter is not religious at all.  At the end of our two weeks in Italy, we needed to spend one night in Naples. When we got off the train at the stop closest to our hotel, we found ourselves in a very distressed looking area. The streets filled with garbage, graffiti everywhere, and clearly not a good neighborhood. When we arrived at our hotel, it was obviously in a bad part of town and the hotel was clearly not nearly the quality of the other places where we stayed. I think we were all thinking, "This is not where we want to be."

Working the desk of the hotel was a young man--perhaps in his early twenties.  He asked for our passports.  Once we presented them, his face lit up, and he said, "Americans?"  We said, "Yes."  He smiled ear to ear and said, "I love America!"  We asked if he'd ever been there. He said, "No, but I will someday. I've never left Naples. But I love America and I love speaking English."  We had a great chat with this guy.  

What struck me was that the accommodations were not great , the rooms were not ready, and the neighborhood was lousy, but this kid's smile changed everything.  His warmth, sincerity, and kindness changed everything. It wasn't an act. He was genuinely happy to see us and to talk with us.

The two experiences have stayed with me. One man had pilgrims who were seeking to pray, find mercy, and to give thanks to God. Instead of helping those pilgrims, he turned them away. The other man had strangers in front of him who were just customers. He treated them with warmth and with joy. So, our group had a better experience at a run down hotel in Naples than we did at Basilica of St. Peter's, all because of how we were treated by a single person. We found mercy and tenderness at a hotel counter and found obstruction and arrogance at the Holy Door. Something tells me that Pope Francis probably would want to put that hotel clerk in charge of his Holy Door! 

I mention all of this because it is a good reminder to me what a difference one person can make. For many, I may be the face of the Church. There are undoubtedly times when I am tired, annoyed, or disinterested. But, these could be the moments when I help someone draw closer to the Church or slam the door in their face. There are undoubtedly times when I have acted like the gatekeeper at St. Peter's who seemed determined to keep out as many people as possible. 

Strangely enough, I'm happy that I had these two experiences. They are a good reminder to me (and I hope, to others) of how important it is to treat those who cross the threshold of our churches with joy, warmth, and a spirit of generosity. Not everyone who comes into our churches knows how to do everything right and say everything right. Maybe they just didn't know they needed a wooden cross and maybe someone who should have known didn't tell them. 

Sometimes, Catholics can be hard on strangers. We are ready to pounce on them and correct them. But, maybe they are just in search of a little mercy and a little tenderness. As Catholics we ought to strive to open the doors of mercy and holiness to imperfect pilgrims rather than to be obstructionist bureaucrats who make it as difficult as possible for people to draw closer to the Lord. St. John Paul II began his pontificate saying, "Open wide the doors for Christ!" Let us also open wide the doors to those who seek entrance, even if imperfectly.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Good Priests Named Bishops

While I was on vacation last week, two Boston priests, Fr. Mark O'Connell and Fr. Robert Reed, were named auxiliary bishops for the Archdiocese of Boston. As soon as I heard the names, I thought, "these are great appointments."  Both men have great reputations among the priests of the archdiocese and among the people of the archdiocese.  They are clearly men who love being priests. 

So often when some appointment in the Church is made, a portion of the Church is thrilled and another portion is left scratching it's collective head.  In this instance, I could not think of a single priest in Boston who could possibly have any reason to be anything other than completely delighted by these appointments. I think that these appointments leave everybody who knows these two priests thinking, "This is exactly right." It is one of those times in life when you just know the rightness of the decision.

One of my goals on this blog has been to highlight the good news of life in the Church.  In talking about my experiences as a priest as a pastor and as a university chaplain, in relaying stories about encounters that I have with extraordinary lay people, and in sharing the good news about vocations to the priesthood, I try to communicate to people that there are a LOT of good things happening in the life of the Church.  This is definitely one of those good things.  Last week, two great priests were named bishops.  Two men who love the priesthood and who are happy and faithful priests were made bishops.  This is good news worth sharing.