Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Wounded Souls, Field Hospitals, and Mine Fields

In a few weeks, I have to go for my annual physical. Last year, it was such a great appointment because I had followed the doctor's orders and had done amazingly well both in regards to fitness and diet. Alas, the past few months have not been so disciplined, so I know that an uncomfortable lecture awaits me. And, worse than that, simply acknowledging his rightness about these matters will not be sufficient. No, he won't let me off that easily. For every excuse that I come up with, he will propose a solution. And then he will ask specific questions on how I plan to rectify the situation. I'm not looking forward to it at all. 

Wouldn't it be better if the doctor would just affirm me as I am? Wouldn't it be better if instead of pressuring me to live in a particular way, he just let me do what I wanted? I mean really, who is he to judge me? Who is he to tell me what I should and shouldn't do? If he really cared about me, he'd not insist upon imposing rules on me. If he continues down this path, he risks pushing me away, doesn't he?

Why should I even bother going if all the doctor is going to do is tell me that I need to change certain things? I go back because I know that there is a truth that lies outside of myself. I go back because I know that the doctor actually cares about me. I go back because I know that deep down, the doctor prefers to encourage me in my positive behaviors than he does in challenging me about my lack of exercise. But, he cares enough about me to challenge me. When I call him, he always returns my calls. When I need something, he always responds. When he corrects me about something, I see it in terms of my total health. I don't see it as a personal attack.

Our Holy Father, Pope Francis is fond of referring to the Church as a field hospital. I've always liked the imagery of the priest as a physician of souls, and so the image of the Church as a hospital is appealing to me. These days, however, it feels as though our field hospital is located in the middle of a mine field and is under heavy shelling!

I remember once hearing a friend of mine who is a doctor saying that it is important when treating a patient to remember that you are treating a person and not just an illness. In other words, you don't reduce the person to a particular affliction.  That disgusting wound is not what you are treating. You are treating a person who happens to have that disgusting wound. For me, it's a great reminder about the spiritual life.

Recently, I've watched--and participated--in some debates surrounding moral issues and the Catholic Church. It seems like oftentimes these debates are fixated on the wounds rather than on the patients. And, to be clear, we are all patients in one way or another. There seems to be, at least, three unsatisfactory approaches taking place: Focusing solely on the wound, conflating the wound and the wounded, and ignoring the wound. 

Some people want to focus entirely on fixing the wound. They speak about the wound to the exclusion of remembering that there is actually a patient attached to that wound. They are experts on the wound, but they seem to have no regard for the wounded. This is the doctor with no bed-side manner. The wound to him is like a challenge. If he can just fix this particular wound, he'd be done with you. 

Another issue is the conflation of the wound and the wounded. This is where we attach "being" to the wound. "I am this wound." If the physician calls attention to the wound, then he is attacking me personally and assaulting my dignity. "I have been this way for a long time. I've always done this." The wound and the person are seen as one and the same. They are allies. An attack on one is an attack on both. This approach ultimately denies that there is any wound at all and to suggest otherwise is portrayed an act of hatred. 

Lastly, there is the approach of ignoring the wound. This approach suggests that since the person is wounded but doesn't want to discuss it, it's better to just act as though the wound doesn't exist. Let's avoid that awkward conversation because . . . well, it's awkward. 

If the Church is, in fact, a hospital, its hospital staff needs to be experts in treating persons and wounds. It means learning how to get the person to keep coming back even though the physician might say, "You haven't been exercising and you need to do so." But, to do that, the Church also has to be willing to be rejected. There are things that are good for our spiritual health and there are things that are bad for our spiritual health. 

The fact is, sometimes people are going to smoke even though the Surgeon General insists that smoking causes health problems. Similarly, even though the Church is going to teach that we must worship God every Sunday at Mass, forgive those who have harmed us, and support the works of the Church, some people won't. Even though the Church is going to teach that marriage is permanent, that sexual activity is only moral between a man and a woman united in matrimony, that cheating in business dealings is immoral, and that welcoming the stranger and feeding the hungry are obligations, some people will ignore these things.  It may make us squirm. It may make us uncomfortable. It may make us indignant. But, that doesn't mean the Church shouldn't teach them. If she is truly a hospital, then she needs to be comfortable in identifying spiritual health risks and epidemics.

I suppose my physician takes a risk every time I show up and he gives me the lecture. He risks on my freedom. He risks that I am going to keep returning to his office because I trust that he sincerely cares for my well-being. He risks that when he speaks to me, I know that he sees more than just my cholesterol levels. He sees a person.

Where does all of this leave the spiritual hospital staff (which is all of us)? Ignoring the wound, seriously endangers the patient. Focusing exclusively on the wound is an injustice to the person. That leaves us with loving the patient and addressing the wound as best we can under the present conditions. We shouldn't kill the patient in our attempt to heal the wound. And at the same time, we shouldn't kill the patient by ignoring the wound. 

There is a lot of pressure these days placed on Catholics to be silent about the moral life. Some say, "Don't talk about sin because it turns people away." This approach takes far too lightly the deadly nature of sin. Then, some angrily respond by talking only about sin.  They appear obsessed with shaming people about their sins.

But then, there is the Catholic way. The Catholic way is with tranquil and joyful confidence to affirm that we are all wounded and in need of Jesus, the Divine Physician. And Jesus practices medicine at the Hospital of the Catholic Church.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Undeniable Attraction of Pure Catholic Life

Newly Baptized and Received into the Church This Past Easter
Everyone is fighting. Citizens, athletes, members of the Church. If you frequent social media, everybody is arguing about . . . everything    . . . and accusing their opponents of the same things for which they themselves are guilty. 

Here's what I'd like to offer:

Whenever we have a visitor at daily Mass at the BU Catholic Center, I like to watch their surprised reaction when, after I impart the final blessing, all of the students kneel down and spend time in thanksgiving. Nobody has ever cajoled them into doing that.  It's something that's just become natural to them. Some stay for a few minutes and some stay for twenty. It's beautiful to witness. The quiet, stillness, and devotion of those moments is like an oasis.

Today before Mass, I sat on a stone bench outside of the University Chapel because someone asked me to hear his confession. (For Sunday Mass we use the interdenominational chapel, so there is no confessional). As soon as one person noticed that I was hearing a confession, a line of students formed.  It's kind of beautiful to sit there as people pass by. Whether they believe in the power of the sacraments or not, whether they believe in God or not, these passers by cannot but help be struck by the scene.

After every Sunday Mass, I am always impressed by how the students wait in a long line to shake hands with me and to say hello. How did they become so polite, friendly, and mature?  Beautiful.

There is a small group of students who come to the Catholic Center every Sunday evening and make sandwiches for the homeless. Then they go out to the streets and deliver them. It's not a soup kitchen. They don't feed thousands.  They feed a few. 

When you're a preacher, you know whether or not people are paying attention! I'm always amazed and grateful that the students are so attentive during Mass. Actually, in this present culture, I'm amazed that they are at Mass at all. I'm even impressed that a lot of them dress up each week for Mass. 

The students at the BU Catholic Center love each other. And, they reach out to others--not to make their numbers bigger, but to welcome others into the joy of the Catholic life. 

Today after Mass, a student asked me to bless a crucifix that he bought for his room for when he prays. Let that sink in. In today's day and age, there is a graduate student at a very secular university who went out to buy a crucifix and had a priest bless it because he wants to pray in his room.

They are simple things, but there is a purity about them. They do not solve all of the fighting and anger that surrounds us, but they remind me of what is true, and good, and beautiful. These encounters and moments, in their simplicity and purity are REAL.

What saves me are these moments. So, I thought by sharing them, that they might awaken within you a deeper gratitude and hope and a desire to live like this, and not be swept into the constant current of anger and noise.

Amid all of the noise of the world, on a bench on a college campus, students bless themselves and say, "Bless me Father, for I have sinned." This quiet, humble, and pure prayer is far greater than everything that has been or ever will be posted on Facebook or Twitter.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Evangelization: There Is A Clear Choice

St. Paul wrote in his First Letter to the Corinthians, "But we preach Christ Jesus, and Him crucified; a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles." One would think that if Paul were trying to win people over, he might change up the message a bit. How about re-brand the product in order to increase market share? Shouldn't his pastoral and missionary plan be more consumer friendly? And, let's not forget that there were lots of issues going on in the communities to whom Paul was writing and preaching.  There were issues of sexual immorality, factions, lack of attention to the poor, and community members jockeying for position. If St. Paul was trying to build up the parish collection and increase numbers for the parish census, perhaps he should have found a more attractive message than saying everything depended upon one, crucified man. But St. Paul was not trying to convince people to attend his parish. He was trying to save them. He was not afraid to place before them a clear choice.

Two thousand years after St. Paul preached, another saintly apostle arrived on the scene. Pope John Paul II preached all over the world and, in a remarkable way, he powerfully touched the hearts of young people. John Paul's preaching moved the hearts of young people because he trusted Christ and he trusted the desire of young people to be challenged to greatness. He knew that some would reject the Gospel, for thus has it ever been so. He also knew, however, that some would hear this Word and leave everything to follow Christ. John Paul was not afraid to tell the world that there was a choice to be made. There was a choice between life and death. There was a choice between selfishness and true love. There was a choice between light and darkness. There was a choice between Christ and the world. He held out this choice to all. He made it clear that the choice for Christ and His way of life was the most important decision a human being could make. John Paul II was unafraid to announce that this choice had consequences.

To choose Christ--to take up the Cross and follow Him--means that your life will never be the same. It means laying down your life. It means saying no to many things. It means dying to self. Some, like the Rich Young Man in the Gospel, will walk away from this call. And this is truly a source of sadness. For those, however, who accept this call, they become new creations. No matter how many times they may fall along the way, those who follow discover that only in Christ is the true way to happiness.  He makes all things new and leads man to the Father.

It is difficult to put my finger on it, but it feels as though so many current "evangelization" efforts are falling flat because they do not make any definite proposal. They do not offer a clear choice. Instead, it sounds like, "We are trying to keep our parish open and need you to come. Keep doing whatever it is you happen to be doing, but do it here at our parish." This is a long way from "Take up your Cross and follow me." Our efforts often sound more like membership drives than they do the proclamation of the Gospel. Yes, parishes need to be places where people feel welcomed, but they also need to be places where the clear and unambiguous proposal of the Gospel is proclaimed. Evangelization has to be about Jesus Christ more than it is about our parish. Of course parishes and Church institutions should be welcoming, engaging, and friendly. And, of course, we should always be working on those things. But, parishes and other Church communities have to be more than just social clubs. They have to stand as a constant proposal and invitation to people to follow Christ.

The same is true about priestly vocations.  "Do you like to work with people and have a sense of adventure?" is not a helpful vocations promotion. The way to promote healthy vocations is to say, "Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Are you willing to lay down your future and your life in order to be his priest?" Some will say no. Others will say yes. The choice, however, is clear.

When it comes to the moral life, ambiguity does not make the Catholic Church more attractive. In fact, it makes it far less attractive. It is far better to be a Church that proclaims the full truth of the Gospel, than to be a church that appears to hide its moral teachings in the hopes of attracting more members. The Catholic Church is at its best when it clearly teaches the Truth. Part of that truth is that we all are weak and we all stumble and fall. We all struggle. Part of that truth is that when we fall, the Lord is ready to pick us up and put us back on the right path. But, part of that truth is that there is, in fact, a right path. There are many wrong paths. There is only one right path. That path is Christ and Him crucified.

In the Garden of Eden, the serpent attempted to sow ambiguity in the relationship between God and man. "Did God really say this?" Where before there was utter clarity, "You shall not eat of that tree or you will surely die," now there is ambiguity. "Did he really say . . . ?" The serpent attempts to convince man that God's clarity is somehow unloving and untrustworthy. God placed before man a clear command. The serpent introduced ambiguity.

What made John Paul II such a great evangelist is that he trusted Christ and he trusted the human heart. Proposing to others the Truth of the Gospel in a clear and unambiguous way is an act of love. And people--especially young people--respond to this clarity. We can know the Truth because the Truth has revealed Himself. The Truth calls us to greatness. The Truth is the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ loves each human person and calls each person to eternal happiness. The path to happiness, however, demands a response. It requires a clear "yes," or "no." It requires the Cross.

Whenever I heard John Paul II preach, I knew two things. Firstly, I knew that Jesus Christ loved me and secondly, I knew that Jesus Christ--and Him crucified--was the path to eternal life. Both things were crystal clear.

Ambiguity is a fog that leads people astray. What we need in our evangelization efforts is to announce Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

To Some Friends Who Aren't Going to Mass: I Love You and You're in Danger

St. Charles Borromeo
One of the saints of the Church for whom I have devotion is St. Charles Borromeo (1538-84). Recently for my meditation time, I've been reading a newly published collection of his orations, homilies, and writings. St. Charles lived during turbulent times in the life of the Church, and he met those times with pastoral brilliance. He was a true shepherd after the Heart of Christ. He loved his people, was close to them, and was an exemplary pastor. St. Charles was serious about renewal in the Church, and he saw that renewal in the Church had to begin with the interior renewal of individual Catholics, most especially bishops and priests.

In his pastoral advice, St. Charles implores the shepherds of the Church not to become mere observers of their flocks. The shepherds of the Church are men on the watchtower whose duty it is to warn the flock of dangers. Like a true pastor, Charles mentions a common fear that can be present in the shepherds of the Church. He says that we can become hesitant to fulfill our pastoral duty of warning of dangers when, "we see the aroused irritation of mind" of those to whom we are preaching. He says that we can cower from warning them, lest we be rejected and hear them say, "This is how we have been living for a long time, thus did the previous generation live and behave. There is no need to change anything in our way of life."

St. Charles warns that pastors who fail to warn their flocks of such dangers will eventually stand before the "irate judge" who will reproach them and ask, "If you were the watchmen, why were you blind?" "If you were the apostles, why did you forgo apostolic strength and instead do everything for the eyes of men?"As I prayed over these words today, the faces of people whom I love came to mind. Some of them, I know have stopped going to Mass on Sundays. Some of them, I suspect no longer attend or do so only on occasion.

Their faces brought two sentiments to my heart. The first was a great affection. In His goodness, the Lord entrusted these people, at one time or another--now or in the past--to my pastoral care. He appointed me as a watchman to serve them and to warn them of danger. Priests are not like hired hands who have no regard for the sheep. Priests are conformed to the Good Shepherd, and so they love the flock. The flock is not just a job to the shepherd. The shepherd knows his sheep and they know him. There is a beautiful and indescribable affection that the priest has for those whom he is called to shepherd.

The second sentiment that came to my heart when these people came to mind was guilt. I realized that some of them I've just allowed to wander away. I stopped seeing them at Mass (or suspected that they were no longer attending Mass ) and I didn't call out. I may have hinted. I may have opened the door to a conversation, but I didn't say to them, "I'm worried about you. I'm afraid that you are in danger."  Such a dramatic remark risks irritating someone whom I love. Such a remark could spoil the friendly pleasantries that we exchange when we run into one another in person or on social media.

But, God wants more for me than to have pleasant acquaintances. He didn't call me to be a barber or a bartender. He called me to be a shepherd, a watchman. The friendly pleasantries that I share with them are only good if they are instrumental in me being a better shepherd to them. The friendly pleasantries are not an end in themselves. Sometimes, in order to save the friendly pleasantries (which I enjoy), I hesitate to warn the wandering sheep. And not warning the sheep when they are in danger makes one a bad shepherd.

So, as a first step in better fulfilling my priestly obligations, I am writing this post. If you've wandered from the Sunday Mass, you're in serious danger. I tell you that not to burden you, but because I love you. I am offering a warning. (I hope I'm not coming across as a person who harangues or yells at someone for "being a bad Catholic").  In fact, the very first sentiment that my heart feels when I think of you is pastoral love. I'm not judging you or condemning you. I'm just concerned for you. Not worshipping God is serious. Being deprived of the Eucharist is serious. Wandering away from Christ's Church is dangerous. The longer you are away, the more difficult it is to return. The farther away you wander the more precarious is your situation. 

Perhaps at first you felt some guilt or some trepidation? But now, the longer you've been away you think, "Well nothing terrible has happened. I sometimes feel regret, but no lightning bolt has struck me."   What the person in this situation doesn't understand is that the catastrophe has already occurred. The wolf has already attacked. The catastrophe is to be away from the Lord. Gradually, little by little, the sheep is led away. Away from the Lord--away from the Mass--they forget the sound of the shepherd's voice. Soon, they listen to the voice of strangers who only seek to destroy. They listen to the voice of wolves dressed in sheep's clothing. They are seduced by lies....lies which eerily sound like the ambiguous serpent in the garden, "Did God really say . . . ?" 

I am certain about two things. Firstly, if you've been away from the Sunday Mass, you are in serious danger. Secondly, the Good Shepherd loves you and is asking you to return. Oh, one more thing I know: I love you too and if I can help, let me know.

In fact, I love you so much, if I don't see you, I'm going to give you a call.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Joy of the Gospel Preached to a Priest

"First Week." That's what everyone at the BU Catholic Center calls the first week of school. It means much more than just "the first week of school." It means an all-out offensive to reach out, meet, and welcome new students. Every day is filled with events designed to allow new students ("new" meaning first time students and also students who have never been part of the community) to discover the beautiful friendship that exists among the Catholic community at Boston University. It is amazing how much work the Catholic Center students put into "First Week." This year, we had a particularly great First Week. It's completely exhausting (and the next few weeks will be more of the same), but it is that good kind of tired. It's the kind of tired that comes from knowing that the Holy Spirit is at work in our community.

Today (Sunday) kind of marked the end of First Week--even though it really is the beginning of a new week. Our Masses had that "something great is happening" feel. I want to share just one thing that transpired this week.  It was basically the very last thing that happened during First Week. I don't have experiences like this very often, but it really stopped me in my tracks. And, I know that when I try to write about it, it will fall short and not sound all that impressive!

Tonight after our last Mass of the day, I was leaving the church and noticed a young man (a graduate student) whom I had met last Sunday. He was kneeling in prayer. As I passed by, he came over to say hello. We chatted for a few moments about how his first week at BU was going, and then I said, "You always looks so happy."  (He was smiling and just had a very joyful expression on his face.)  He said, "Really?" I said, "Yeah, you're always smiling." What he said in reply was spoken with such purity that it actually made my eyes fill up. Smiling away, he said, "Oh, well I just received Holy Communion."

He didn't say it in a way that sounded "Holy Roller." There was a beautiful purity and sincerity to it. In that moment, I knew that I had just heard the Gospel proclaimed to me. It was like a homily, a retreat, a theological course on the Eucharist all in one brief sentence and in one smile. "Oh, well I just received Holy Communion." These simple words spoken with such joy and purity were a total surprise to me. In that brief moment, I realized that God was speaking to me. God wanted me to love the Eucharist more. God wanted me to believe in the Eucharist more. God wanted me to be filled with greater gratitude and joy for the gift of the Eucharist. That brief encounter was filled with the joy, freshness, and newness that are hallmarks of the Gospel. The Gospel never is old, and its newness and power are never exhausted. 

Although we went on to speak about a few more things, my mind and my heart were still in that moment when he testified to the Eucharist. Even now, a few hours later, I am still struck by that beautiful encounter. The purpose of First Week is to reach out to new students and to evangelize them. This year's First Week culminated in a new student evangelizing me. When we gather--two or three in the Name of Jesus--He is in our midst. He speaks to us and teaches us. We encounter the beauty of truth.

All true Catholic Evangelization begins from and leads to the Eucharist. I bet our churches would be filled if all of the Catholics who received the Eucharist on Sunday had joy and happiness written all over their faces on Monday. People might ask us, "Why are you so happy?"  All we would have to say--with simplicity and purity--is, "Oh I just received Holy Communion yesterday."