Monday, January 29, 2018

On Demons, Pigs, Rock Throwers and Jesus

The Gospel today at Mass relates a remarkable event.  A man possessed by demons is convulsing before the Lord.  As the Lord prepares to cast the demons out of the man, the demons beg to remain.  They ask if the Lord would cast them into a herd of nearby swine instead of banishing them outright. As soon as they enter the swine, the swine--two thousand in number--cast themselves off of a cliff.  The previously possessed man, however, is free.  What always strikes me about this Gospel is what happens next. The townspeople, who have come out to investigate all that has occurred, hear the stories of the witnesses and they see the previously possessed man free and acting normally. Their reaction?  They beg Jesus to go away.  In the sight of such extraordinary Divine Action, they ask Jesus to go away.

In the first reading today, we hear about King David who is having a pretty bad day. His own son has turned against him and is seeking to destroy him. David flees with a handful of his men lest they fall into the hands of his son and be killed. As they are fleeing, some angry guy starts throwing rocks at David and cursing him. I think we've all had days or weeks like this.  Just when you think your day couldn't get any worse, you now have some dude calling you names and throwing rocks at you! David's men want to kill the guy. Solve the problem and move on.  But David's reaction is interesting. He decides to let this guy continue to humiliate him. David says, "Perhaps the Lord will look upon my affliction and make it up to me with benefits for the curses he is uttering this day." And so, David continues down the road and endures the taunts and the abuses heaped upon him by this angry and bitter guy.

In both readings, people are trying to get rid of the reality in front of them. In the Gospel, they try to get rid of Jesus. In the first reading, they try to get rid of a nuisance. Sometimes in the spiritual life--when we experience the power of God--we can become afraid and we beg him to go away from us. This is always a mistake. When we hear his voice calling out to us, offering us the grace to turn away from sin, to be freed from our burdens, to be his disciples, to be holier . . . when we have those moments when we know that we have witnessed the power of God . . . even if our inclination is to run, this is the moment to stay with him. Even if we see that there is a cost--like an entire herd of swine--we should trust in Jesus' presence and power.

Similarly, sometimes we can feel like David walking along the road and being menaced by some annoyance, temptation, weakness, or enemy. Like David's soldiers, we might be tempted to cut off the head and be done with it. But King David shows us something different. He recognizes that perhaps enduring this maniacal rock thrower's taunts and tirades might actually bring about God's blessings. Maybe God allows this annoyance into King David's life so that--through it--God will eventually bless David even more.

Whether we are experiencing at a given moment the awesome power of God or the sufferings of the world, let's ask for the grace to remain in the moment. Let's not beg God to leave us, and let's not be too quick about dispatching our enemies. Today, many of us hear these readings at Mass. We come to the place where Divine Power and Human Suffering meet, the Cross. May this Holy Sacrifice set us free from our enemies, but on God's timeline and by His power, and not our own.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Physicians of Bodies, Physicians of Souls, and Child Sexual Abuse

I'm not exactly sure how I stumbled upon it, but for the past few days, I've watched coverage of the sentencing hearing of Dr. Larry Nassar, a physician who sexually abused scores of adolescent girls over a thirty year period. For four days, incredibly articulate and courageous young women testified to their horrific experiences of abuse and to the devastation caused by that abuse to themselves, their families, and their lives.

Of course, as a Catholic priest, I cannot hear their stories without relating it to the experiences of those who were abused by priests. These young women spoke about being "powerless," "afraid," and "voiceless." They spoke about how they felt guilty for the abuse that they suffered or how they felt ashamed. They did not want to tell their parents because they did not want to disappoint their parents.  Shockingly, many of these girls were abused by the doctor while their mothers were in the room, oblivious to what was taking place. Many of these women now feel betrayed by Michigan State University, the gymnastics world, and the US Olympic Committee. I was struck by one woman--in her thirties--who no longer receives any medical care because she is terrified of the medical profession.  One doctor--one man--did all of that.

I grew up as a Catholic. I went to Catholic schools my whole life. I was an altar boy, hung around the rectory when I was in high school, went to seminary, and was ordained a priest. The Church is the air that I breathe. That there exists in the Church persons who do bad things doesn't shock me. (Heck, I'm in the Church and I do bad things.) I've been hurt by people in the Church and I've probably hurt some people in the Church. But, I've always been able to shrug it off, move beyond it, chalk it up to sin.  Done.

I mention that because I think that sometimes when I hear about sexual abuse, it is easy to think about it in terms of "all the bad things that happen in the world." But, the testimony of these amazing women during these past few days laid bare--once again--the unique and devastating destruction that sexual abuse causes. Everything about their lives was thrown into chaos. Familial relationships were destroyed, trust was broken, addictions ensued, and anxiety and other mental disorders destroyed years of their lives. 

Each time one of the women mentioned how angry she was at Michigan State University, USA Gymnastics, or the US Olympics, I thought to myself, "and these are just mere human institutions." The abuse that these young women experienced in their youth took place within the context of institutions which they were taught to trust. How much more devastating must that be when that institution is the Church? And when they said how they now feared doctors and medical professionals because of this one man, it made me sad to think that one priest could so damage persons that they live a life away from the most beautiful of God's gifts, the Sacraments.

I was deeply impressed by how many of the young women who spoke over these past few days mentioned their Faith, quoted scripture, or spoke about prayer and their relationship with God. It was profoundly moving. And then, I saw anew how grievous sexual abuse within the Church really is because it attacks even the spiritual refuge of the one abused. It is hideously evil because it attacks and undermines the one place where true healing and peace are to be found. It twists the place of refuge into a place to be feared.

I was really impressed by the women who spoke over these past few days. Many of them said how for years they felt like they had no voice or no power. They felt helpless. It was deeply moving to witness them regain their voice and begin the process of reclaiming their lives. 

I'm just one Catholic priest. I write all of this today just thinking that maybe one person affected by sexual abuse in the Church might someday read this.  Firstly, let me say this: If I have said anything here the wrong, way, I sincerely apologize for that. I don't claim that I know the right things to say or the right way to say them. Secondly, I'm sorry for what happened to you or to your loved ones. I don't really comprehend the full weight of it, and I never will. But I'm really sorry that the place that should have been your greatest refuge became the worst place of terror. That it was, is truly evil. 

And lastly, I pray for you. I pray that your voice is heard. I also pray that if you were driven away from the Sacraments because of the evil perpetrated upon you, that you be given whatever is necessary to return to them. Those gifts--the Sacraments--were given by Christ for you. I think of the woman who spoke about how she no longer receives medical care because she was abused by a doctor and is now terrified to be treated medically.  In an analogous way, it is easy to see how someone abused by a priest (or by someone else in the Church) could be too terrified or too angry to approach the Sacraments. If that's you, I really pray for you. You were robbed. Nobody had any right to steal those healing gifts from you or to instill fear in you about approaching the greatest of God's gifts, the Sacraments. I pray that somehow you are able to find your way back to these gifts and that you reclaim what rightfully belongs to you. 

Again, if I've said anything wrong or in the wrong way, I apologize.  God Bless You.

Monday, January 8, 2018

The iGeneration Catholic: Humility and Hope

Baptism of the Lord
I remember when I was first ordained and would preach about Confession, I'd get those looks that said, "Is this guy for real? Everybody knows that Confession went out with Vatican II."  Thankfully, St. John Paul's influence renewed many places in the Church's life. Wherever parishes and communities welcomed the New Evangelization, a resurgence of Sacramental Confession has always followed. I think one important sign of the spiritual health of a Catholic community is the number and quality of the confessions that are heard. If there are few confessions being heard in a particular parish or community, there's a good chance that the spiritual life of that community is weak.

For the past five years, I've been assigned to work with university students at the Catholic Center at Boston University. These young people--mostly born between 1995 and 2001--are part of what some refer to as the "iGeneration." I'm not particularly skilled at understanding trends, demographic charts, and the like. Some people can look at a chart and immediately know what it means. For me, I need time. I need to experience the people represented by the chart. I need to listen to them, engage with them, and live with them. It's just my way of learning.

After five years of spending almost every day surrounded by Catholic members of the iGeneration, one thing about them definitely stands out to me: their ability to confess with total honesty and sincerity. It really is striking. I've spoken to other priests who have confirmed my experience. So often, people in their 30's and older come to confession and try to make themselves sound good. It might well be because we were not well-catechized on how to confess and how to examine our life. People my age often had no real sense of the seriousness of sin, and thus could not really appreciate the extraordinary grace that was offered in the Sacrament of Penance.  But, what I find among the Catholics of the iGeneration is a profound honesty before the Lord.

As a confessor, I am often struck by the humility and total transparency with which these young men and women confess.  I want to provide some examples--just to give a sense of what I mean. The following examples, however, are not from actual confessions but are rather the "type" of thing that I am talking about.  I'd like to offer these example in comparison to what a priest might typically hear in confession.

A typical confession: "Father, I suppose I don't go to Mass as often as I probably should."  From an iGeneration Catholic, I would more likely hear, "Father, I missed Mass on two Sundays. I told myself that I had so much work to do, but I knew that I was lying to myself. This also showed me that I sometimes put so many other things before God. I don't love Him above everything else. Instead, I love my free time more. And I'm really sorry for that and want to change that."

A typical confession: "Father, I probably could be kinder to people."  From an iGeneration Catholic, I would more likely hear: "Father, sometimes I really use people to get my own way. And, I do it in a way that they don't even know I'm using them. When I do that, I realize that I think that I'm better or more important than other people, and I'm really not. It's a really dishonest way to live, and I don't want to be a dishonest person."

A typical confession might exclude any reference to sexual sins or speak about them in vague generalities.  From an iGeneration Catholic, I would more likely hear: "Father, I struggle with pornography and masturbation. Also, I've disrespected women by purposefully putting ourselves in situations where we could have sinned. In this way, I was not loving them, God, or myself. Even though nothing happened, I was kind of hoping that it would. I was using them, and using people really is horrible."

These made-up examples, I hope, convey what I'm talking about. There is a great openness among young people and a great depth to their self-examination. This, at least, is my experience. Perhaps it has to do with a greater intentionality to living the Faith. In other words, many of them no longer live with any sort of cultural or familial expectation that they will practice the Faith. So, if they are going to live the Catholic Faith, they aren't going to do it in some half-hearted way. They're not living the Catholic Faith as a mere "going through the motions." If they're going to do it, it's because they are serious about it.  I'd say, that this is even true of the young people who might not be as active in living the Faith. There is something refreshingly honest about their confessions.  When an iGeneration Catholic comes to Confession, you get the sense that they are thinking, "Well, I'm not going waste my time doing this unless I am totally honest." 

I suspect that this quality is not something that is limited to active Catholics of the iGeneration. I think this particular generation has a greater freedom in expressing themselves honestly, and that they are, in fact, very open to a relationship with God. For many of them, they've been provided limited or no spiritual formation, but they are not closed to it. Their humility is evident in their honest self-examination . And, humility is fertile ground for the Gospel! They are also very open to the witness of their peers who are active in living the Catholic Faith. I am always deeply moved by students who tell me that the reason they are living the Catholic Faith is because they were moved by the witness of one of their fellow students. iGeneration might not be raised in a culture friendly to Christianity, but they are open, willing to be convinced, and humble.

I often go to a local shrine for Confession. I like being in the line with all of the other sinners. (Well, I like it as long as I'm towards the front of the line). There's something great about all of us being there together.  I am writing this post on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. On this day, Jesus did something pretty awesome.  He went down to the Jordan River and got into line with all of the sinners.  Yes, he was without sin, but he came to be close to us. He is not afraid to get in line with the sinners. It's so awesome, isn't it? Not only did Jesus take on human nature in the Incarnation, so that He could be close to us, but He even humbled Himself to get into line with all of the sinners.  If He who was without sin is willing to humble Himself and to get into line with all who have sinned, then we who are sinners should all the more be willing to humble ourselves and to join the line of repentant sinners.

Scholars will study the iGeneration and it's religious and spiritual opinions. I am only speaking from my very limited experience of five years of college ministry. From that limited experience, however, I hold out a lot of hope. The iGeneration, I think, is not too proud to get into line and admit their imperfections, their emptiness, their sins, and their desire for something more. When they humbly get into that line, Jesus is always standing there with them. And, wherever Jesus is, there is always hope.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Epiphany: Do Not Return to Herod

Oftentimes when I  preach, I catch myself saying things like, "This is one of my favorite passages in the Bible."  I say it a lot, but it's true every time! Similarly, there are a lot of feast days in the Church that I really love or think, "Yeah, this is one of my favorites."  This week, we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, and I have to say that it is definitely at the top of my list. I love the Epiphany.  There is just so much that one could preach on for Epiphany! There are so many beautiful points of reflection on the Gospel for Epiphany. There's the star, the Magi, Herod, the gifts, the Holy Family, adoration, allusions to the Lord's future suffering, joy, Faith, searching, being led, obedience . . . !  What a great Feast! This year, I did not preach on the Epiphany, but I still like the chance to talk about it.

One line from the Epiphany Gospel often stands out to me. It is the very last line of the Gospel. "And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way." So often in our individual spiritual and moral lives we find ourselves feeling compelled to return to particular sins or situations.  Similarly, even in the life of the Church, we often find ourselves returning to the same old arguments with the same old adversaries. And, in our engagement of the culture, we find ourselves having the same discussions repeatedly, and constantly arriving at the same old stand-offs. We keep going back to Herod.  In many ways, the world itself feels trapped in a continuous loop of the same tired old debates, repeated continuously.

Epiphany and the Magi, however, invite us to do something totally new. They remind us that we do not have to return to Herod. When we encounter Christ, we find that a new way has opened; a new way of life is made possible. We are not compelled to go back to Herod and fight on his terms. We are free. The Magi encountered the Christ Child and discovered a new freedom. Going back to Herod was a trap! But they could go home by a different way. The encounter with Christ brings novelty and freshness. Into a tired, broken, and fallen world, Christ comes and opens up a new path. In encountering Christ, the Magi discovered a new way of life.

Today, many people experience an overwhelming compulsion to return to Herod. For some, they are dragged continuously back to relive the pain and the hurt of betrayals. No matter how many times they return to these memories, they lose to Herod. Some return to the lies that life is empty, without meaning, without hope. They return to the lie that they are not loved, not valuable, or that they have no future.  They too return to Herod and lose. Others return to the Herod of their addictions to drugs, alcohol, pornography, pleasure etc. They think, "I will just go for a while. This time I will keep it under control." They lose to Herod.  Others know that the life of power and money makes them and their families constantly miserable, but they feel compelled to make power and riches their "temporary" goal until they "have enough."  They return to Herod, and Herod destroys them and their families.  

Others return to the same old debates. They go back to Herod to win an argument about Christianity, about morality, or about God. But, they lose to Herod. They lose because they are playing Herod's game. They are playing on his turf.  They are playing by Herod's rules. Herod expects them to return. 

Instead, Epiphany reveals to us that a new way has opened. Christ frees us to go home by a new path, a path of freedom and joy. We can now circumvent the decrepit and putrid palace of Herod. Epiphany allows a new and radiant light to guide us into a new way of living and a new way of engaging reality. The point of reference is no longer the palaces of power, pleasure, or prestige. The point of reference is Christ. He liberates us from the shackles of a tired world.

If you're reading this, I just want you to know that you do not need to return to Herod. You have encountered Christ and have been set free. Don't see yourself in reference to Herod. Don't think that your life is defined by Herod. Don't be deceived into thinking that you must beat Herod.  No, your life is defined by the One who is found laying in the manger in the arms of His Mother, Mary. A new light has shone on those who have dwelt in the shadow of Herod's palace. And this light has shown that Herod's palace is petty and pitiable.  Want a good New Year's resolution? Know yourself loved by the radiant light that has been born for us. See your life entirely in the light of Christ. And then, remain in the light by going home a different way.