The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Monday, May 23, 2016

Benedict Arnold, American Patriot?

While we were away on our trip to New England, the magazines piled up along with the rest of the mail. Today I finally got around to reading the May issue of Smithsonian. in which I found a fascinating article about the American general turned traitor, Benedict Arnold. You can read the article online here: Why Benedict Arnold Turned Traitor. According to the article's author, Nathaniel Phibrick, the ultimate reason for Arnold's defection to the British was clear: money. 

The article brought to mind something Dear Diane and I saw in the fall of 2013 while visiting the UK. We had just left Victoria Station on a bus which would take us to Harwich where we would board our Celebrity cruise ship for the transatlantic voyage home. When the bus stopped in London traffic I glanced out the window and noticed a plaque affixed to the front entrance of a building. Here's a photo I took from the window of our bus.

I remember thinking at the time, "American Patriot?", and assuming the words were likely written either by Arnold's family or by some Brit bureaucrat who yearned for the empire's colonial past. No American could have written them. I especially liked the two flags -- British and American -- a nice touch.

The building entrance with plaque
Then I discovered that the plaque is a relatively recent addition to the Westminster neighborhood (1987), thanks to the efforts of one Peter Arnold, whom we are told is not a descendant. (You can read about the origin of the plaque here: American Patriot in London.) This current Arnold believes that Benedict Arnold was greatly misunderstood and simply tried to do what he believed was best for America. Yeah, right! At least that's what Benedict Arnold told himself and others to rationalize and justify his traitorous acts. But what he really needed, and demanded from the British, was cash to keep his new loyalist wife happy.

Yes, Arnold had been a patriot, at least, for a time, but that earlier loyalty to the American cause was wiped out by his one, final act of disloyalty -- disloyalty not only to his country, but also to the man to whom he owed so very much: General George Washington.

Oh, yes, the building displaying the plaque is now the office of an oral surgeon.

Rest in peace, General.

Homily: Monday, 8th Week in Ordinary Time

Readings: 1 Pt 1:3-9; Ps 111; Mk 10:17-27

“Are you saved?”

I remember the first time I was asked that question. It was about 40 years ago, and my young family and I were at the San Diego Zoo when a young person came up to us and shouted those words at me: “Are you saved?”

At first I was taken aback and didn’t say anything. But when he was joined by another young person who asked the same question, I simply said, “I working on it, but like St. Paul I’m working out my salvation with fear and trembling.”

I then said quietly, “Philippians 2:12”, gathered my family, and walked off to check out the gorillas.

It was one of those rare lucid moments when I actually said the right thing. Most of the time my perfect response comes to me about an hour later.

Of course, Jesus always said the right thing. And today’s passage from Mark is a wonderful example.

When the rich young man approached and knelt before Jesus, the disciples were surely excited that of one so favored might join their ranks. Jesus, too, treated him affectionately. 

'...he went away sad..."
When asked, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life" [Mk 10:17], Jesus didn't say, "Get rid of your wealth." No, instead he told him to keep the commandments.

It is only when the man persists, saying in effect, "I've done that, but I want to do more," that Jesus looked at him with love, and issued His unexpected and radical challenge:

"…one more thing you must do. Go and sell what you have and give to the poor; you will then have treasure in heaven. After that, come and follow me" [Mk 10:21].
And the effect? At these words, the man's "face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions" [Mk 10:22].

He’d been so sure of himself, hadn't he? He’d done nothing wrong; he’d followed all the rules. He was aware of his innocence before the Law, but unaware of his weakness before God. On this day, for the first time, a great sacrifice was asked of him. But he lacked the heart for it. The peace he sought seemed beyond his reach because he couldn’t let go of his possessions. He saw the way, but feared the renunciation. And this fear, this failure to follow God's personal call, always produces sadness.

Jesus saw the man's weakness, for nothing is concealed from Him, but says nothing else to him. And what of this weakness? Is it the love of money and material possessions? Or are these merely symptoms of something else, something deeper? The man's inability to shed his wealth results from his love of things over his love of others. But at the root of this disordered love is something even more serious: a form of self-love that refuses to place God first.

You see, Jesus doesn't condemn the rich solely because of their wealth. No, His concern is for those of us who place anything ahead of God. Material things, in themselves, are good. The sin lies in attachment, in trusting in them as if they will solve all your problems. Everything we have is a gift from God, a sacred trust which must be shared for the good of others.

"I am the way, the truth, and the life" [Jn 14:6], Jesus tells us. And therefore nothing, absolutely nothing, should take precedence over Christ in my life, over His right to rule over my heart. As St. Peter reminded us in our first reading, your faith is "more precious than gold" [1 Pt 1:7].

Let each of us meditate on that question today: What takes precedence in my life? Does my faith place God's Will first, or am I consumed by something else? Even human friendships, or the love for another person, can manipulate us, strangle us, and lead us away from God. For that which we place first in our lives – when it is not God – becomes a prison. Only when we place God first do we experience true freedom.

God is calling each of us, brothers and sisters, and He never stops calling. In return for our response, for our submission to His Will, He promises a different kind of wealth, a treasure far greater than you and I can ever imagine.

But only when we empty our arms of self can we stretch them out to receive the gift of salvation…just as Jesus, in total humility, and acceptance of the Father’s Will, emptied Himself and stretched out his arms on the Cross.

Then, when you stand before Jesus, with the fear and trembling well behind you, and He asks, “Are you saved?”, you can say “Yes, indeed.”

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Homily: Saturday, 7th Week of Ordinary Time

Readings: Jas 5:13-20; Ps 141; Mk 10:13-16

Prayer, healing, childlike faith and hope…these themes wind their way through today’s readings leading us to the spiritual perfection God asks of us.

In our first reading we find the James pleading with an audience of lukewarm Christians. Like all of us who must cope with the problems that life throws at us, they obviously need help and so James takes the teachings of Jesus and distills them down to the basics.

He begins with the most important: prayer. Are you suffering? Pray for relief, James tells them. Are you in good spirits? Offer a prayer of praise and thanksgiving. Are you sick, in need of healing? Have the Church pray with you and for you, anointing you in the name of the Lord. Do you need forgiveness? Confess your sins and pray for spiritual healing.
"...they should pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord..."
Note, too, that James emphasizes the power of sacramental prayer. For it is through the sacraments, celebrated in the midst of the Church community, that we tap into unique graces offered to us by the Holy Spirit. And James clearly describes the physical and spiritual healing that comes to us through the Sacrament of the Sick and Reconciliation. But the sacraments aren’t magic tricks. No, they are efficacious; they bring about healing and holiness, because of prayer – the prayer of the Church and the prayer of individuals.

Pray for each other, James goes on to tell us. And calling to mind the wondrous deeds of the prophet Elijah, he reminds us that “The fervent prayer of the righteous person is very powerful” [Jas 5:16].

Elijah: the power of prayer

We’re not to condemn people; rather we’re to help them to salvation. Pope Francis recently touched on this when he instructed us to stay clear of those who act as if they are the guardians of divine salvation. These are the scholars of the law who think that if you obey all the commandments, you will be saved. But in doing so, they neglect the greatest of the commandments: the commandment to love.

James addresses this by offering us a wonderful gift:  

“…whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” [Jas 5:20].
This is a good thing to remember, brothers and sisters. It’s the fulfillment of that great commandment: to love God with all my being and to love my neighbor as myself. Bringing others to God’s Love is simply obedience, a response to salvation which I have done nothing to deserve.

And that’s something we often forget. You and I do not deserve salvation. We can’t get to heaven on our own. Salvation is a gift. But do we really believe this? It demands trust, doesn’t it? The kind of childlike trust Jesus talks about in today’s Gospel passage. We must learn how to receive the Kingdom of God as a gift. The childlike, you see, recognize that everything is a gift, everything is a grace. And they accept their smallness.

Just consider how small we are when compared to God’s greatness and the vastness of His creation. And it’s because we can acknowledge this smallness that we are open to receive God’s love.

But to receive God's love, His grace, we must listen and contemplate. We must pray. And then we must act, loving as God loves.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Two Cheers for Political Incorrectness

I have to admit, the politically incorrect can surprise and delight, but I can really give it only two rousing cheers. The first relates to its truth: ironically, political incorrectness is usually far more correct than political correctness. I give it a second cheer because it's often pretty funny. But I withhold the third cheer because it can be uncharitable, forcing me to suppress my laughter. Of course, that's true of much humor.

Political correctness, however, deserves not a single cheer. We joke a lot about political correctness, but it's really not all that funny. Indeed, at the very heart of all political correctness, one finds the lie, and a lie is rarely humorous. Even the phrase itself -- politically correct -- belies its supposed truth and highlights the lie at its core. Something is either correct or incorrect, true or false. There's not a lot of gray when it comes to the truth. Once we modify the word "correct" with "politically" or any other modifier, we're admitting that it's really something other than correct, that it's in some way incorrect; that is, it's a lie. This all brings to mind Pope Benedict's warning about the "dictatorship of relativism." You can read his homily addressing the subject here.

Enforced political correctness, of the sort often mandated throughout our society -- by government at all levels, the educational establishment, many corporations, and much of the media --  is ostensibly aimed at eliminating language that might offend certain ideologically protected groups identified by race, ethnicity, sex and sexual preference, age, disability, religion, etc. Its real purpose, however, is something far less altruistic. What it really does is grossly restrict speech and even thought, all in an attempt to force the individual to say and think only what others believe to be acceptable.

George Orwell (1903-1950)
Political correctness, like the "newspeak" in Orwell's 1984, is designed quite simply to impose ideologically acceptable thought on the populace, to protect those in power from ideas that they believe threaten the maintenance of that power.

The very fact that not all groups are protected says a lot. The Catholic Church, for example, is by no means politically correct because its teachings so often conflict with the current Zeitgeist. Indeed, its stances on abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage, and a host of today's other hot-button issues place the Catholic Church near the top of any politically incorrect list. 

Antonio Gransci (1891-1937)
This is, of course, all driven by ideology, what has been called "cultural Marxism," which has its roots it the work of the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, among many others. One of the best books on Gramsci and the other European leftists who so greatly influenced postwar American intellecturals is Michael Walsh's The Devils Pleasure Palace. And if you're interested in digging a bit deeper into PC's roots, read this paper by Dr. Jefrey D. Breshears.

Have you ever noticed that PC folks tend to be as humorless as their beliefs. Such serious people, always on the lookout for slights, for anything that runs counter to their concept of ideological purity. One cannot simply disagree with them. Depending on the subject at hand, one who disagrees must be a hater, a racist, a misogynist, or a Xenophobe...the list of handy labels is long.

Political incorrectness, on the other hand, is almost always good for a laugh, unless, of course, you're so PC that you think nothing is funny. It also demands a certain degree of courage to be non-PC these days, and I suppose that's why I so admire the politically incorrect pundits who point out the lie at the heart of the politically correct. Perhaps his political incorrectness is the reason behind Donald Trump's growing popularity among the American people who have likely grown tired of having to suppress their opinions and beliefs. Trump is certainly not afraid to shout his opinions from today's cyber rooftops. One might consider some of his statements foolish or ill-advised, but they're certainly entertaining. Whether this is a suitable trait for the presidency is another question.

Anyway, all this talk about the ongoing conflict between the PC and the non-PC led me to retrieve some observations I had tucked away for future use. I don't agree with everything that follows, but these politically incorrect comments -- many at the expense of our very PC president -- are certainly good for a laugh or two.

"Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that." -- George Carlin

"I recently read a poll reporting that the majority of Israelis believe that Obama favors the Palestinians. Well, duh!, I mean if it's not bad enough that the Community Organizer in Chief curtsied to a Saudi prince, gets angrier about homes being built in Israel than nukes being built in Iran, can't say enough nice things about the religion of our sworn enemies, and denies that we're at war with Islamic fundamentalists, there's the matter of the U. S. Consulate in Jerusalem. It seems that it is dedicated solely to Palestinian interests. It has $530 million with which to fund summer camps, free movies, business classes, and 'promoting and preserving Palestinian cultural heritage,' whatever in hell that might be. Notable suicide bombers down through the annals of history? The programs are translated into Arabic, but not Hebrew. The education finance grants are available to candidates who must be Palestinian residents of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, or the Gaza Strip. Is my memory going, or aren't they the same folks we saw dancing in the streets on 9/11?" -- Burt Prelutsky

"The urge to save humanity is always a false front for the urge to rule it." -- H. L. Mencken
George Carlin -- Burt Prelutsky -- H. L. Mencken

"A society in which men and women are governed by a belief in an enduring moral order, by a strong sense of right and wrong, by personal convictions about justice and honor, will be a good society -- whatever political machinery it may utilize; while a society in which men and women are morally adrift, ignorant of norms, and intent chiefly upon gratification of appetites, will be a bad society -- no matter how many people vote and no matter how liberal its formal constitution may be." -- Russell Kirk

"There are, of course, millionaires and billionaires who are leeches on society, who bleed our GDP and contribute nothing to the commonweal. There was, for instance, a bright young man who worked all the scholarship angles so that wealthy donors (with their tax-dodging charitable contributions) paid his way through fancy schools. He embarked on an urban scam called 'community organizing.' Then he obtained a large sum for writing a book about his life and accomplishments at age 34 when he didn't have any accomplishments and hadn't led much life. He wormed his way into politics with all its perks and benefits. And now his big house, his stretch limousine, and his luxury jet are paid for out of the public treasury." -- P. J. O'Rourke 

"The reformer is always right about what is wrong. He is generally wrong about what is right." -- G. K. Chesterton
Russell Kirk -- P. J. O'Rourke -- G. K. Chesterton

"Back in America, the coastal sophisticates joke at those knuckle-dragging rubes who believe Obama is some kind of 'secret Muslim.' But really Occam's razor would favor such an explanation, wouldn't it? That a post-American Middle East divided between bad-cop nuclear Shia and worst-cop head-hacking Sunni was the plan all along. Because there are only two alternatives to that simplest of simple explanations: The first is that Obama and the Z-graders who fill out his administration are just blundering buffoons. And we all know, from Michael Beschloss, that he's the smartest president ever, so it couldn't possibly be colossal stupidity on a scale unknown to human history, could it? The second is that his contempt for American power -- a basic class signifier in the circles in which he's moved all his life -- is so deeply ingrained that he doesn't care what replaces it." -- Mark Steyn 

"They are ready to do such horrible things. When they are ready to fly planes into the World Trade Center, when they are ready to fly planes into the Pentagon...when they have this kind of hatred... and you know they're looking at us and they're laughing at us worrying about water-boarding." -- Donald Trump

"I too was once a male trapped in a female body, but then I was born." -- Chuck Norris

"If I were to say that all men throw a baseball faster than all women, I would be talking about the extension of the terms 'men' and 'women.' That is, I would be talking about each and every man and woman. In that case, my claim that 'all men throw a baseball faster than all women' is clearly false, since there are individual women who throw a baseball faster than individual men. One the other hand, when I say that 'men pitch baseballs faster than women because they have more upper body muscle strength' I am referring to what is comprehensibly true of men and women. And in that case, it is incontrovertibly true that men in general pitch baseballs faster than women in general. The distinction between extension and comprehension is clear, easy to understand, and essential to the proper exercise of our mental powers. This is why political correctness makes us dumb." -- Francis Beckwith
Mark Steyn -- Donald Trump -- Chuck Norris -- Francis Beckwith

Equally interesting are the many comments made by those normally heralded as icons of the left. You won't find the following quotations is today's PC textbooks, or in a professor's class notes, or in the campaign literature of a neo-Marxist presidential candidate like Bernie Sanders.

"I cannot conceive of Israel withdrawing [from the West Bank and Gaza] is Arab states do not recognize Israel within secure borders." -- Nelson Mandela

"The black is indolent and a dreamer; spending his meager wage on frivolity or drink...[we're] going to do for blacks exactly what blacks did for the revolution. By which I mean: nothing." -- Che Guevara

"I shall never fight in the Armed forces with a Negro by my side...Rather, I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by mongrels, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds." -- Senator Robert Byrd (D - WV) 

"We have no compassion...we shall not make excuses for the terror." -- Karl Marx

"We must meet hate with creative love...Let us hope there will be no more violence. But if the streets must flow with blood let it flow with our blood in the spirit of Jesus Christ on the Cross." -- Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It's an odd world we live it, isn't it? Keep your sense of humor, and laugh at those who hate.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

God or Nothing

Every Sunday morning you and your family make your way to your church where you join together with others to worship God freely. You don't worry that the police officer who directs traffic at the church entrance might have a colleague who's busily taking photos of every license plate in the parking lot. You don't expect to see a state or federal official standing in the back of the church and recording everything that is said. And on Monday morning you certainly wouldn't expect your boss to question you about your religious beliefs. 

Such things just don't happen here in the United States, where religious freedom is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the least, not yet. For those of you who might have forgotten, that First Amendment in the Bill of Rights reads:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. - See more at:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. - See more at:
Notice that the very first right of the Bill of Rights is freedom of religion. It comes before freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the freedoms of assembly and petition, and all the other rights enumerated in the remaining nine amendments. The Founders obviously considered the freedom of religion more important than any other.

Notice, too, that many people -- including, sadly, many of our courts -- speak only of the so-called "establishment clause" assuming that any mention of things religious by the government is a violation. The Founders, of course, were concerned only with ensuring there would be no established state church like England's Anglican Church. They did not intend to remove religious thought and speech from the public square. The new nation was, after all, already a nation of many faiths and the Founders wanted to ensure all Americans could exercise their faith freely, without government interference. This is evident by the wording that follows: "...or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Even the United Nations still pays lip-service to its Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 18 of this document, supposedly agreed to by the UN member nations, states:
"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."
This clearly stated right is, of course, violated daily by dozens of the UN's member states. All communist governments -- and probably a third or more of the world's population still lives under some form of Marxist rule -- reject  Article 18 in its entirety. And most Muslim-majority nations, especially those that accept sharia law, reject it as well. But we're also encountering growing threats to religious liberty among many of our so-called Western democracies.

It would seem that in Western Europe and increasingly in the United States, political correctness trumps just about everything, even the rights clearly enumerated in the Constitution. Same-sex marriage, for example, has become a cause célèbre in our country, particularly among those on the political left, and if a small business refuses to cater to a homosexual marriage for religious reasons, it is prosecuted. Religious freedom -- the free exercise of religion -- is in the Constitution. Can the same be said for same-sex marriage?

It's no different when it comes to abortion or contraception. The ACLU, a supposed protector of civil liberties and an organization well-loved by the Obama administration, has been suing Catholic hospitals, trying to force them to provide abortions and other forms of "reproductive care" that violate Catholic moral beliefs. So far they have been unsuccessful in court, but that could easily change depending on who replaces the late Justice Scalia on the U.S. Supreme Court. You can read the ACLU's take on the issue in which abortion supersedes religious freedom. Here's the link to their website: ACLU.

Ever since the court's infamous Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, abortion has become the most important issue of those committed to a culture of death. Sadly, the Democrat Party has completely embraced the issue, and any pro-life Democrat, regardless of his or her stance on other issues important to the party, will experience the party's wrath.

Here are just a few other areas where freedom of religion has been cast aside as meaningless in the face of political correctness:

  • Adoption and Foster Services. Catholic Charities can no longer offer adoption or foster care services in many states (e.g., Massachusetts, Illinois, Washington D.C....) because they will not place children with same-sex or unmarried couples.

  • Human Trafficking. The federal government no longer allows the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services to provide services for victims of human trafficking because the USCCB will not give referrals for contraceptive services and abortions.

  • University Discrimination. The University of California Hastings College of Law denied student organization status to the Christian Legal Society, because it required its leaders to be Christian and to abstain from sexual activity outside of marriage. This is the only group that has ever been denied such status.
Little Sisters of the Poor

  • Little Sisters of the Poor. Of course, unless you're a hermit, you've heard about the Little Sisters of the Poor and their legal battle with the Obama administration over the HHS mandate to include sterilization, contraception and abortion-inducing drugs in the health care provided to the Sisters' employees. 
There are many, many more examples at the federal, state and local levels. Certainly they don't even approach the kind of vile and murderous religious persecution Christians are encountering overseas, but as God is eclipsed by the kind of demonic nihilism on the rise in our country, and as man's flawed law increasingly pushes God's Law into the dustbin, don't be surprised when those who engage in the "free exercise" of their faith are told to shut up or else.

Cardinal Robert Sarah, Congregation for Divine Worship
The majority of our electorate seems to think that the upcoming election is about jobs and the economy. Don't believe it! It's about the very soul of our nation. Will we remain "one nation under God" or will we choose to serve another. As Cardinal Robert Sarah recently said while discussing the increasingly sad state of religious freedom in the United States, "In the end, it is God or nothing."

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Home Again

Late last week Dear Diane and I returned home from an almost month-long trip to visit children and grandchildren. The trip was precipitated by two events: one grandson's Confirmation in Massachusetts, and another's First Communion in California. Unfortunately, both events were scheduled for the same day, and the need for grand-parental attendance at each demanded some creative scheduling. We drove from Florida to Massachusetts, spent some time with one son and his family in New Bedford, then visited with one daughter and her family in Hyannis. After several days Diane flew to San Jose, California for the First Communion, while I remained on Cape Cod for the Confirmation. She then returned so we could spend a weekend with our other son and his family on Nantucket Island. Miraculously, we actually managed to spend some time with each of our children, their spouses, and our grandchildren. I suppose that makes it a successful trip.

Adding to the success was the opportunity to swap houses with another deacon and his wife. Deacon Joe, who was ordained about 30 seconds before me back on May 24, 1997, and his wife, Ann, wanted to spend a few weeks in The Villages and we wanted to do the same on Cape Cod. He and Ann have a lovely, old Cape Cod home in South Chatham, just about three miles from where Dear Diane and I lived for 25 years. It's also just a short drive to our elder daughter's home in Hyannis, which she shares with her husband and five of our grandchildren. And so the exchange was made.

I think we got the better deal. Despite the weather -- 40s, 50s, and too much rain -- every morning Maddie (our little Bichon Frise) and I would get up early and take a long walk down to the beach. I think she enjoyed the change of pace from our usual strolls around The Villages. I know I did. After our walk I'd feed the dog, then sit by the bay window, pray Morning Prayer, and sip my coffee while enjoying the songs and flights of the local bird population. What a wonderful way to begin the day.

Taking a few weeks off from a busy retirement in sunny Florida was exactly what I needed. Our temporary home turned out to be the perfect refuge from worldly cares and the pressures of multiple ministries. The only downside was Dear Diane's absence which put Maddie and me into a five-day funk. And to top it off, Dear Diane had to suffer the consequences of my cost-saving  travel arrangements which resulted in plane changes going and coming. She's a real trooper, though, and despite some tight connections, made it to San Jose and back to Providence on time, along with her baggage. I had blessed her and her luggage during check-in and had full confidence that all would go well. God is good!

One evening during her absence, and more tired than usual, I turned on the TV and stumbled onto the NFL draft. I did something I had never done before: I actually watched it. It was the first night of the draft, which included round one and part of round two. Why I watched this I cannot say. I'm not a big fan of professional sports. The huge amounts of money involved only create a breeding ground for corruption and distorted values, just one more effect of original sin. I also believe our professional athletes, like most of today's celebrities, are generally poor role models for young people. Yeah, I know...I've turned into a curmudgeon.

Anyway, watching the draft was mesmerizing. Just observing these future professional athletes -- their over-the-top clothing and jewelry, their attitudes and comments -- was both fascinating and more than a little depressing. Many of these young men, barely out of childhood, seemed completely wrapped up in themselves, convinced that they actually deserve the millions that will be thrown at them in the weeks to come. Sadly, if experience is any guide, despite the millions, many will be flat broke ten years from now.

As one young man said, "Football is my life!" I suspect he is not alone in believing this, even though many NFL draftees will never play in a regular season game. And among those who actually make the team and sign a rookie contract, most will play for only two or three years. And then what? Did they really get an education that will allow them to succeed in a world that places little value on their athletic prowess once they're off the field? They certainly possess some level of physical courage, but did they develop the moral courage needed to live good, productive lives? One can only hope they will come to an understanding of what is truly important in life, and do so sooner rather than later.

The trip up and down the East Coast also provided an opportunity to spend a few days with dear old friends in Virginia, the Lees, and in South Carolina, the Hathaways. Now that I think about it, our trip was characterized by what can only be called mooching. We exchanged houses with friends, visited other friends en route, and didn't spend a single night in a hotel. Ah least all our friends know that they are welcome to do the same when they come to Florida to escape the cold and snows of winter.

We had a wonderful time, but as Dorothy said, "There's no place like home."

Monday, May 16, 2016

Joe McCuen, Rest in Peace

53 years ago, during my plebe (freshman) year at the United States Naval Academy, I decided to audition for the Catholic Choir and the Glee Club. Being a member of these groups was actually a pretty good deal for a plebe since it offered some time away from the rigors of plebe year. 

Membership in the Glee Club was especially desirable since, in those days, it was one of the few organizations that allowed plebes to leave the confines of the Naval Academy for more than a few hours. We gave concerts in New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, and other spots along the east coast, even had a few TV appearances. The Catholic Choir also made occasional trips, and even sang on the White House lawn at JFK's funeral. Most of these trips involved at least one night away from Bancroft Hall. "Mother B", as we affectionately called this huge, eight-winged building, is the Academy's only dormitory and houses all 4,100 midshipmen. And, believe me, any time away from Mother B was a real treat. This was especially true during the bleak winter months, or "dark ages" as midshipman call them.
Catholic Choir 1964 (I'm in there somewhere)

USNA Glee Club 1964 (That's me: 2nd row, far right)

Another benefit of these excursions was the opportunity to enjoy a little female companionship. (These were the days when the service academies were all-male institutions.) Plebes, you see, lived a rather monkish existence in those unenlightened times and were not permitted to date. We couldn't even talk with a young lady while we were in the "yard", as we called the academy grounds. 

The only exceptions to this rule were the occasional, infamous Tea Dances (or "tea fights") at which young ladies from nearby colleges and towns would meet and dance with the plebes. These gatherings were held in cavernous Dahlgren Hall, in those days a huge gymnasium which also served as a rifle storage site. 
A more recent photo of a renovated Dahlgren Hall

The tea fights were organized and run by the Academy's social director at the time, Mrs. Emma Marshall. As one classmate, Dave Church, said at the time of her passing in 1995, "She organized the tea fights, which were tea dances, and we all cursed her under our breath for ruining our Sunday afternoons, because we had to attend. She honed our social skills and in doing so became a much beloved figure. She was, after all, the only female figure we had in Bancroft Hall." I'll not discuss tea fights here except to say they were uniquely strange events. If you'd like to read what one alumnus thought of these Sunday afternoon gatherings, you can click here: Tea Fights.

But I digress...

Master Chief Joe McCuen 1965
While auditioning for the Glee Club and Catholic Choir, I met Joe McCuen, who directed both organizations. Joe, a Navy Master Chief Musician's Mate, was a remarkable man. He was the best choral director and organist I have ever known and was solely responsible for the outstanding quality of the Academy's Glee Club and Catholic Choir. He was also a very nice man, one who put up with our adolescent antics and still managed to get us to perform at a high level.

The last time I saw Joe McCuen was during the week of my graduation in June 1967. A few years later I heard that he had retired from the Navy and relocated to Florida. As is often the case, lives diverge and those who formed a part of our past are forgotten until something or someone brings them to mind once again. Over the years, whenever I heard a glee club or a large church choir perform, I inevitably thought of Joe McCuen. He also entered the conversation when I encountered classmates who had been with me in either choir or glee club. We all thought the world of this wonderful man.

Yesterday I received an email informing me that Joe had died as the age of 87. He lived in  Ponte Vedra Beach, only about two hours from us here in The Villages. I wish I had known he was so close by...but, sadly, I didn't. His funeral Mass will be celebrated on Wednesday afternoon at Our Lady Star of the Sea Catholic Church. Coincidentally, I attended Mass there maybe a dozen years ago when Diane and I visited a deacon friend who ministered in that parish. Small world.

Recent photo of Joe McCuen
I will be unable to attend the funeral because I'm taking another deacon and his wife to a trauma center for a follow-up appointment. They were both injured in an automobile accident late last week when a large truck rear-ended them as they sat at a red light. Their car was totaled, but thank God they survived. Joe will understand, and I will have a Mass celebrated for him at our parish.

To read about this talented man's remarkable life, visit his obituary here: Joe McCuen.

Rest in peace, Joe.

Homily: Monday, 7th Week of Ordinary Time

Readings: Jas 3:13-18; Ps 19; Mk 9:14-29

A lot of questions, a lot of pain, a lot of confusion, and more than a little chastisement in today’s Gospel passage. And it all seems to stem from a lack of faith.

If you’ve ever had a seriously ill child, this incident described by Mark will certainly strike home. Is my faith strong enough? Are my prayers good enough? Will God do as I ask, or will I hear the same critical words Jesus leveled at the disciples?

“How long will I endure you?” [Mk 9:19]

Hard words…hard words indeed…especially since this all occurred right after the Transfiguration. Jesus comes down from the mountain, from an encounter with His divinity, and walks right into a boiling, very human conflict among disciples, scribes and the crowd. But this is the ministry for which He was sent. He must do the Father’s will, he must teach and heal.

The disciples are unable to drive out the spirit plaguing the young boy. As soon as Jesus rebukes the disciples for their weak faith, He encounters the same weakness in the distraught father: “…if you can do anything…help us.” [Mk 9:22]

If you can…” Jesus repeats the man’s doubt-filled words. Do you sense Jesus’ exasperation? What do you mean, “If…” There’s no “if” when it comes to faith. What happens when we toss the “if” aside? Jesus tells us: “Everything is possible to one who has faith.” [Mk 9:23]

The boy’s father obviously heard, and he utters those odd words: “I do believe, help my unbelief!” [Mk 9:24] Odd words because they’re so seldom heard, and display a truth often forgotten. Yes, Lord, I believe, but I know that faith comes not from me. Faith is a gift. Only through You can I have the faith that moves mountains, casts out demons, heals the sick.

Yes, Jesus, "help my unbelief!" It is these words that separate the father of this boy but from the disciples. It is this prayerful plea that shows he understands the divine source of what little faith he has.

How did Jesus put it when the disciples ask why they couldn’t drive out this evil spirit? “This kind can only come out through prayer” [Mk 9:29].

The father prays – “help my unbelief” – and Jesus takes him seriously. He acts, and He heals. Jesus comes down from the mountain and walks among the poor, the sick, the forgotten, the outcast. He admonishes, He teaches, but He always heals with divine mercy, for mercy is merely the manifestation of God’s love.

Brothers and sisters, in His mercy God promises us healing and forgiveness. If, like the boy’s father, we pray with expectant faith, He will free us from all that oppresses.

But prayer demands a slowing down of life; for only then can we let go of all that the world places between us and our God.

Let’s contemplate today what this father prayed – “I do believe. Help my unbelief.” – and make these words our own in prayer, so we, too, can trust in God’s unfailing love and mercy.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Homily: 5th Sunday of Lent - Year C

Readings:  Is 43:16-21; Ps 126; Phil 3:8-14; Jn 8:1-11

Have you ever been embarrassed alone? What I mean is: have you ever been embarrassed just thinking about something stupid you did in the past? I don’t know about you, but I certainly have. It’s especially then that I wish I had a more selective memory.

And yet our Christian faith encourages us to confess our sins, to put them behind us, and to look ahead, to look to the future. Of course, we’d all like to be able to do this, to forget the past, but it’s not so easy is it?

The Destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile to Babylon
We even encounter this in the Old Testament. In our first reading, the Jews, exiles in Babylon, look back nostalgically to a more glorious past. They long for the kind of liberation their ancestors experienced when they were led out of Egypt. They long for the loving care God extended to them during their wanderings in the desert. They long for a return to the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And they remember, too, it was their stubbornness, their disobedience, their sinfulness, that led them into exile. But God, speaking through Isaiah, chastises them:
"Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" [Is 43:18-19]
God wants them to trust in Him, to look forward not backward, to put their sins and their idolatry behind them and to serve the Living God. He wants them to realize that much better things await them in the future, that they remain His Chosen People, and that through them He will bring salvation to the entire world.

In today’s second reading we find St. Paul in a similar position. Paul had a past too, a past he could hardly forget, even if he wanted to. For before he was a Christian, Paul was a persecutor of Christians.
"I imprisoned many of the holy ones with the authorization I received from the chief priests," Paul tells us elsewhere,  and when they were to be put to death I cast my vote against them" [Acts 26:10]
Yes, Paul carried a heavy burden, but he also knew that God had given him incredible graces. And so he can declare:

One thing I do: forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.

Yet, despite Paul’s words, he couldn’t really forget the past. And he confirms this by ceaselessly telling stories: how God dealt with Israel over the centuries; what God did for the world through Christ; and, more personally, how God brought him, the least of the saints, to faith.

Yes, his past was important to Paul, and to forget it would be to forget what he once had been and what God had done for him. For Paul to forget his story was to forget his God.

The same is true for the woman caught in adultery. Despite Jesus’ “Neither do I condemn you” [Jn 8:11], neither she nor we can afford to forget her story. Not she, simply because it’s her story. And not we, because she’s really all of us, everyone from Adam until judgment day, all of us in need of a Savior, in need of forgiveness.

She’s the story of salvation, of sin and mercy, of sin committed and sin forgiven. And even though her sin is forgiven, she can never forget it, because it’s a part of her life.

Paul, a prisoner in Rome
Of course, for her, for Paul, for the exiled Israelites, for all of us, the danger lay in living in the past. For some, like the Israelites, it may involve basking in the glory days, yearning for them, and despairing of God’s saving act tomorrow. For Paul, languishing in a Roman prison as he writes to the Philippians, it would be easy to long for the time of miracles – for the road to Damascus and the days of amazing grace that followed.

The risk for the adulteress may well have been her sense of guilt. How can a God who prizes fidelity ever forgive my infidelity? How can my husband ever forgive me? How can I forgive myself? This Jesus, this strange, unique, compassionate man has said he won’t condemn me, that no one dares to condemn me. But how can I live with everyone knowing? How can I live with myself?

No, we shouldn’t live in the past. The Jewish exiles are called to focus on the “new thing” that God will raise in their midst. Paul must fix his eyes on the new life in Christ about which he constantly preached. And the woman must also begin a new life. She must not only go and sin no more, but also get to know and love the God who refused to condemn her. No, we can’t and shouldn’t live in the past.

A sense of nostalgia is a normal, human reaction to the constant change we encounter in the world, in our lives, in our Church. But to actually try to live in the past, to turn all of our attention to what once was…well that can be disastrous.

The point is, the Church is still God’s community of salvation. God still acts here, just as He still acted in Babylon. God acts through His People, wherever they are.

The other danger is to ignore the current challenges of life in favor of those glory days. And these challenges come in all flavors, don’t they? Whether it’s debilitating illness or forced retirement, old age or the nursing home, wayward children or alcoholism or family problems, or whatever. They can make us feel not only different, but diminished, and tempt us to push them away, to look back to happier, more stable times. And yet, as Christians we are called to confront the present and to look to the future.

Confront your sin, and go and sin no more, Jesus tells the woman and He tells us. As a Christian, I must keep growing until I die; for the goal of Christian striving, oneness with the living Christ, is never perfected here. No, for us the glory days are still ahead: life with Christ in glory.

And so, I must “strain forward” as Paul did, press on, keep dying with Christ so as to live more fully. For the true disciple of Jesus Christ, tomorrow is always better than yesterday, for each day is a new creation in the presence of a living God, a loving God.

And lastly, just like the woman in the Gospel, we must learn to accept Christ’s forgiveness. So many people don’t. They go through life, wallowing in guilt, afraid of hell, tormented by their pasts, unable to make peace with their brokenness and human frailty. This isn’t why God became man. This isn’t why He died that horrible death on that dark Friday afternoon.

"I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me," St. Paul insists, "and given himself up for me“ [Gal 2:20]. And that love is there, even in my sinfulness. So fix your eyes not on yesterday’s sin, but on today’s forgiveness and tomorrow’s hope. Repent, yes. But remember, the repentance that saves is not ceaseless self-scourging but fresh self-giving, a new birth of love.

Only two weeks of Lent are left. If you really want to rise with Christ, repeat the song He sings to you: “See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth” [Is 43:19]. Come to think of it, as Christians, we are the new thing. Why not spring forth?