Sunday, September 27, 2015

Hands and Boxes

Dominic enjoying a box
Readings for Sunday, September 27 / 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time:
Numbers 11:25-29
Psalm 19
James 5:1-6
Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48

Pope Francis!

I really hope everyone is reading his homilies and addresses if you’re not watching them. Such richness in his words and some real challenges that invite us to do a little soul searching. If you haven’t, do take the time to read them.


Anybody that comes by the rectory and goes into the main part of the house is likely to notice something that might seem a bit odd: a few empty boxes scattered here and there.  The reason is pretty simple. Cats like boxes. There are tons of videos on the internet of cats trying to fit into all sorts of little boxes and even some of lions and tigers playing in huge boxes, noting that it’s not just little cats that like them. Cats enjoy boxes, it is said, because it is a place of comfort. There is protection around their sides and it eases their nerves. Looking around the rectory this week got me thinking about what my own box looks like. What is my comfort zone? As NASCAR cars have logos of sponsors and who they support all over them, I began to question what the stickers on my comfort zone box would say. Through the course of the Pope’s visit I’ve been intrigued to see the response of some Catholics whose comfort zones were not acknowledged, or at least not as much as they’d have liked, by the Holy Father and how it became a source of tension. It made me wonder if sometimes rather than being fervent Catholics if we Americans aren’t instead fervent Democrats, Republicans, etc. who simply cover our political logos on our box with those of the Gospel. While the Church is made up of members each with different gifts and who are called to labor and focus upon particular missions and ministries in the Church, we must be willing to stand up for the fullness of the faith and not simply parts of it. It challenged me to pray about not just what my comfort zone is, but also what are those things that ought to be there on account of the faith that I am reluctant to agree to? What are those places where I’m not comfortable with the Church’s teaching or practice? What are those stickers from the Gospel that should be on my box, but aren’t?

This weekend the Scriptures are quite clear in calling us out of our comfort zones. In Numbers we hear of how the Lord God sought to spread around the spirit He had placed upon Moses and to let the 70 assist in the prophetic place he held among the Israelites. This was fine with the Israelites until Eldad & Medad enter the picture. These two were outside of the meeting tent, the place of encounter with God, and received the spirit out in the camp amongst the regular people. Upon receiving the spirit they prophesy and a young man runs to tattle on them to Moses, whereupon Joshua chimes in commanding Moses to ‘make them stop!’ It was fine for the spirit to be spread around. It was fine for Eldad & Medad to receive it. It was fine for them to prophesy. BUT – they had to do it in the confines of the meeting tent. They didn’t know how to handle when things were done differently. What might happen if they start prophesying in the midst of the people? What if the spirit begins to stir things up the camp? What happens if things get messy and don’t go as previously planned? In short, if Eldad and Medad prophesy in the camp, the comfort zone can easily be challenged and things have to be addressed that might be difficult to explain or make sense of.

The Gospel has a similar situation with John running to tell the Lord about a man who was casting out demons in His name. His concern wasn’t that he was casting out demons, though. His concern was ‘he does not follow us’. He’s not on our team and he’s doing things that are unexpected and about which we don’t know how to respond. Moses and Jesus have similar responses: don’t prevent them. The situation must certainly have been an uncomfortable one because the disciples had no way of trying to rein in this random exorcist and they’d simply have to do their best to respond to things as they went along. Whoever is not against us is for us.

When we live a life as faithful children of God, as much as we might like to keep things comfortable and as convenient as possible, the Gospel demands that we allow ourselves to get into the messiness of this world and to allow the Gospel to spread in the ways that sometimes challenge us in our faith. The question is this: are we willing to let go of comfort?

Look, Ma! No hand!
You see my hands? I’m quite attached to them. My hands and I have been together for 31 good years now. I know the stories behind the scars and all the imperfections. And not only that, I’m intimately attached to them physically – flesh and bones, tendons and veins. My hands enable me to do so many things with such ease and to accomplish many good works that would be impossible otherwise. And yet the Lord God says that if my hand causes me to sin, it would be better for me to cut it off. No matter my attachment to it – it’s been there my whole life! – it would be better than to keep it and go to Gehenna, aka Hell. The Lord isn’t literal in this statement, otherwise we’d all be fumbling around with no feet, no hands and no eyes and we’d be quite a site to see for people visiting from out of town! The Lord is illustrating for us the importance of being able to let go of those things that encourage comfort and prevent us from living the Gospel more seriously, even if we've been attached to them for whole life. Is my comfort zone worth clinging to all the way to Gehenna? Am I willing to let go of some of my convictions at heart and experience another step in my life-long conversion process?

I’m not saying we need to change the faith. I am saying that we need to revisit from time to time why we do the things we do, why we don’t do the things we don’t do, and whether our deeply held convictions are in accord with the Gospel. May the Holy Spirit, our advocate, come with his gifts of wisdom and courage that we might take up the words of Pope Francis and keep moving forward. Always moving forward.  

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Be Good and Be Blessed?

Readings for Sunday, September 20/ 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time:
Wisdom 2:12, 17-20
Psalm 54
James 3:16-4:3
Mark 9:30-37

As the day nears for Pope Francis to arrive here in the U.S. I see more and more speculation about what he will say while he is here. While I don’t have mystical gift to see the future, I am willing to bet that while he will say many things that are encouraging and uplifting to us as a nation, but he’ll also say some things that upset people. This shouldn’t surprise us, though, since it seems his entire mission as Holy Father is to shake things up a bit. If he doesn’t ruffle our feathers a bit, it means we’re not listening to him enough! It’s striking if you think about it; the Vicar of Christ on Earth, the head of the Holy Catholic Church is a man that is loved by many but who also is the target of numerous slanderous words, hateful remarks, and violent intentions. It flies directly in the face of an idea that is not Christian but that has made its way into the mind of many Christians these days and it is the idea that if we are ‘good people’ or ‘good Christians’ that everything is going to be okay for us, that we’ll be ‘blessed’ in some concrete way.

The Jewish people had a clear nation that being good meant one would be blessed. We see it most clearly in Job, who is contrary to that idea. Job lost his wealth, his cattle, his children, and his wife all in a short period of time. His friends come to him and ask what he had done wrong. When he says he had done nothing wrong they are shocked because they thought ‘if you’re not blessed, you’re not in God’s good graces’. In like manner, there are numerous Christian sects that have trumpeted a ‘Gospel of prosperity’ that says if you live a good life God will bless you. That if you go to church on Sunday and put money in the collection plate that God will bless you. If you are kind to others, God will be kind to you. If you post a picture of Jesus on your Facebook wall, you will be blessed. All of these implicitly  treat the relationship with God as a contract – I do X and deserve Y in return and if I don’t receive Y then God has let me down.

The readings this weekend paint for us a different story. The Book of Wisdom clearly shows us that the wicked see the good as obnoxious and seek to bring them to a wicked end, to tear them down as much as possible and put them to a shameful death, all the while saying, “oh, but I thought your God was going to save you!” We see it fulfilled in its cruelest form with the Lord Jesus on the Cross as the passers-by shouted ‘He claimed to save us, let him save himself!’ and the like. Here the good person enjoys anything but worldly blessing. Instead, for his goodness he becomes a target of hatred, envy, and wrath. Quite a blessing there!

St. James takes things a step further for us and reminds us that it is not just a group of ‘wicked people’ who do wicked things. It can easily become the just who allow their passions to well up within them and issue forth in wrath, hatred, and harmful words. These two ideas came together for me quite clearly in the form of one of my brother seminarians. My friends and I were pretty comfortable in our spirituality and faith at the seminary; we did the things expected of us to grow in holiness – daily Mass & prayer, the rosary, joining in community prayer, retreats, and on. Then along came a new seminarian who was more pious than any of us. He would be found kneeling in the hallway staring out the window at the image of Mary in our courtyard and we’d remark ‘Doesn’t he know the hallway is for walking, not a chapel?’ or we’d see him arrive early for Mass and stay late afterward and remark ‘He’s always in the chapel, I wonder if he has time to shower.’ How quickly my heart turned from good to wicked when faced with someone that rubbed me the wrong way, that upset my norm, and challenged me to do more than what I was currently doing in the way of faith. My brother was obnoxious to me and I tried to kill him with my words.

This all comes together in the Gospel as we see the Lord give the clearest explanation of the Passion to that point – ‘We’re going to Jerusalem, I’ll be handed over, they’re going to kill me, and three days later I will rise from the dead.’ Seems pretty clear and yet the disciples don’t understand His words. Why? Because they were too busy focusing on themselves and their own blessings to be received shortly. Jockeying for first, you can imagine how they easily sought to increase their own value and decrease that of the others. How on may have said to Peter, ‘You can’t be #1 because you tried to walk on water and fell because of your lack of faith.’ And Peter responding, ‘Well, I didn’t see you get out of the boat in the first place, did I?’ and so on. So consumed are they with the blessings they’d get for being good disciples that they miss the message of their leader.

Pulling a child into the scene, Jesus illustrates to the crowd that true blessing consists in one not seeking oneself but rather in receiving others in the name of the Lord. It is a holy indifference about ourselves that desires rather to look to the other for love of Jesus. The end point is this: the Lord Jesus calls us to an ever-deepening relationship with Himself without seeking what we get out of the deal. If through the course of this life we are blessed to have good health, wealth, the joy of family and friends, and all goes well for us, God be praised! But if through the course of this life we must daily take up a cross of poverty, poor health, loneliness, and countless crosses til the day of our death, God be praised! More clearly put, this life can bring many things to us but ultimately we are simply passing through this life. Heavenly life awaits the faithful and there will be such joy there that the worst day of our life on this earth will seem as nothing at all, and the best day of our life on this earth will be the same. In that sense it is absolutely true that if we are good Christians we will be blessed, but simply being blessed with Heavenly joy isn't our goal since that's still self-centered. If we do our best to live each day in union with God in this life - whether it be full of blessings, crosses or both – we will know the joy of beholding our God, seeing Him face to face, and enjoying His embrace as the child enjoyed the embrace of Jesus for those few moments. But let us not go there alone, seeking only our salvation! Rather, let us make it our goal to suffer well the things of this life so as to bring many souls along with us, that all of us might together reign with our God, whose love is shown in such mysterious ways.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Healing Encounters

Isaiah 35:4-7
Psalm 146
James 2:1-5
Mark 7:31-37

Some things never change. The Gospel passage we just heard recounted one of the many instances in which the Lord Jesus worked a miraculous healing. This particular one is one that while public is such that it is meant to take the man off to the side to foster a personal encounter with the Lord and bring about the healing of his hearing and speech. This miracle performed, the Lord goes back and tries to have it not spread around everywhere, but the people immediately misunderstand the intention of the Lord and like a wildfire, news spreads all over the countryside about the miracle worker who has come to town.

I say ‘some things never change’ because a similar story happened this week. Pope Francis wrote a letter regarding the upcoming Year of Faith and sought in that letter to address certain issues that sometimes make it burdensome or impossible for certain persons to receive the grace that is held out. He addressed the SSPX, a religious community that broke away from the Church some 25+ years back and has not come into full communion yet, but who minister to a number of Catholics who tend to find greater nourishment in their community; he permitted their priests to validly absolve from sins during the Jubilee Year, a wonderful gift to them and to the faithful who might not otherwise celebrate the sacrament in union with the Church. He addressed those who cannot make it to the Holy Doors of the Vatican or even of the local Cathedral on account of infirmity or imprisonment. He spoke of their ability to unite themselves to the Lord in prayer and seek the grace, and specifically for inmates to contemplate the mercy of God as they cross the threshold of their cell, recalling the Holy Doors they long to enter. To this he added one more instance that caught the media’s attention: the granting of faculties to all Catholic priests to absolve from the sin of abortion and lift the penalty of excommunication. In response I saw headlines to the effect of “Catholic Church radically changes teaching on abortion” and “Catholic Church offers forgiveness for abortion” and the like. Much like the Gospel, Pope Francis sought to make possible a personal encounter with Jesus Christ that would bring about healing and peace, and a wildfire of misunderstanding and confusion spread through the countryside.

So what was actually said and what does it mean?

Pope Francis gave all Catholic priests the faculty to forgive the sin of abortion and lift the penalty of excommunication. The problem is that it can seem as if both of those are new ideas, when in fact they are not. Every priest who has faculties, that is the ability granted by his bishop, to hear confessions is able to absolve an individual of the sin of abortion. That was never even a question. There has not been a time recently when a person was unable to receive absolution and forgiveness. The Church’s teaching hasn’t changed on that; God’s mercy is infinite and open. The thing that was a bit new was that during the Jubilee Year of Mercy all priests will also be able to lift the penalty of excommunication.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says in paragraph 2272: “The Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life [abortion]…. The Church does not thereby intend to restrict the scope of mercy. Rather, she makes clear the gravity of the crime committed, the irreparable harm done to the innocent who is put to death, as well as to the parents and the whole of society.”

The statement from the Catechism shows us that excommunication is something that still exists in the life of the Church and that it may be applied to a person participating in the sin of abortion. As it says, this is not a limiting of mercy in any way but rather a ‘penalty’ that highlights the serious nature of the act. In normal scenarios the lifting of the penalty of excommunication is reserved to the bishop. In layman’s terms that means it would require an individual to go to the bishop of the diocese to be release from the penalty. That can sounds like being sent to the principal’s office to get ‘a good talking to’ but is it really? Let’s take a closer look.

There are other events in the life of the Church that are reserved to the Bishop of a diocese. The consecration of churches, receiving the vows of religious brothers and sisters, and the blessing of certain religious objects for use in churches comes to mind. But another might be more applicable in this instance: the Sacrament of Confirmation. Technically every priest has the ability to celebrate the Sacrament of Confirmation – I’ve done it myself on three occasions in connection to RCIA and Easter Vigils – but the norm is that it would be reserved to the Bishop. This is so that the bishop has the joy of meeting face to face with those on whom the Holy Spirit is given in His fullness and to ensure that every member of the flock will have the opportunity at least once in their life to meet the Bishop, the successor of the Apostles. It is essentially to make possible the individual encounter that is spoken of in the Gospel with the Bishop at least once for every Catholic. Rather than a slap on the wrist, the mandate for a person to visit the bishop to be released from the penalty of excommunication is simply to hear from the representative of Christ Himself that they are not only forgiven but that they are in full communion with the Church, not someone on the outside but someone who is important and vital in the Church’s life.

Excommunication literally means ‘out of communion’ and highlights that something so serious has taken place that union between the individual and the larger community has been ruptured. Point this out is not meant to be a sign of public shaming so much as a call for healing. It’s not a punishment to browbeat people but a medicine to bring forth repentance and reunion. What Pope Francis did is that he recognized in many places throughout the world, individuals have a very hard time getting to their bishop. They may get Mass only once every month or so, let alone have the privilege of the being in the Bishop’s presence. Recognizing this reality, Pope Francis said that for the Year of Mercy, every parish priest will be able to lift the penalty of excommunication, since getting to the bishop may be impossible. In effect, he made it possible for countless people to more easily obtain not just the forgiveness they desire but the assurance that they are in the life of the Church and able to participate in the sacraments fully and without fear of being shamed. He enabled that personal encounter with Christ that brings about healing in the life of the Church. Admittedly, this doesn’t really change much in practice in the U.S., since most dioceses, including our own, have already had the policy that all priests could forgive and lift the penalty. But for the larger Church, this is quite a gift to bestow.

What’s the takeaway from all of this? If we haven’t had any connection to abortion, there is still something profoundly important for us to realize in this moment and it is the fact that Jesus Christ wants to have a personal encounter with each and every one of us. In every one of our hearts He can look as see a sin we struggle with, a relationship that’s wounded, a hurt that won’t go away, a regret or fear that needs to be addressed. Not one person in this Church today is perfect, so the invitation is extended not just to a certain group of people but to all people: come aside with the Lord for a moment and let Him lay hands upon us and bring about some healing. He wants to heal us, but we have to be willing to go off to the side and let Him do the work. I encourage you. I urge you. I beg you. If it works, I command you! Go to Confession! There’s no such thing as receiving ‘too much grace’ from God. There’s no such thing as being ‘too healed’ from past wounds. Don’t think that it has to be major things. Just like little kids that often get a little bump or ‘boo-boo’ on their hands and arms and cry up a storm; parents know you don’t have to administer drugs or get stitches or take x-rays. More often than not a parents’ gentle kiss makes it all better. Jesus wants our big stuff, but he also wants our ‘boo-boos’ to make everything better. Go to Confession. Ephphatha! Be opened. Be healed.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Papal Intentions for September 2015

Papal Intentions for September 2015

Universal Intention: That opportunities for education and employment may increase for all young people.

Mission Intention: That catechists may give witness by living in a way consistent with the faith they proclaim.

Prayer for the Pope

V. Let us pray for Francis, our Pope.
R. May the Lord preserve him, give him life, 
and make him blessed upon the earth, 
and deliver him not up to the will of his enemies.
Our Father... Hail Mary...
O God, Shepherd and Ruler of all Thy faithful people, look mercifully upon Thy servant Francis, whom Thou hast chosen as shepherd to preside over Thy Church. Grant him, we beseech Thee, that by his word and example, he may edify those over whom he hath charge, so that together with the flock committed to him, may he attain everlasting life. 
Through Christ our Lord.