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!

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Two Cities

St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo
Over 1,600 years ago St. Augustine wrote his masterpiece, The City of God, in which he strove to convince his readers, then and now, that the entirety of human society, from its very beginnings until its yet to be encountered finality, has as its end the formation of a Holy Society. This society, toward which we are struggling, is the very reason everything, meaning the entire universe, was created. Certainly very few prior to Augustine, with the obvious exception of Jesus Christ Himself and the Mosaic author of Genesis, had ever considered human society in such expansive, universal terms. In other words, according to Augustine, this City of God not only includes the entire world, but explains its very existence. All of creation, therefore, has meaning only as it relates to this Holy Society, the City of God.

In his work, Augustine compares this City with the human city, which in Augustine's time was the city of Rome, and by extension the entire Roman Empire. Of course, at the time the Empire was under siege. Alaric and his Visigoths had recently shocked the Empire by a decade-long ravaging of Italy culminating in the sack of Rome itself (410 A.D.). The pagans, and there were still many Roman pagans, ignored Rome's decline and moral decay that had begun long before the Christian ascendancy and blamed Christians for the failure of Roman power to protect the capital. Augustine would have none of it. Through many pages of wonderful argument Augustine shows that the Roman city was really no true city because it lacked true justice. The only true city is the city that manifests true justice, and this can only be a city with Christ as its head. This is the City of God.
Alaric and the Visigoths Sack Rome (410 A.D.)

Today we inhabit both of these cities. We live and work and struggle in a city of man with its distorted sense of justice, peace, and well-being. For many of this city's inhabitants justice has come to mean only order, peace only the absence of conflict, and well-being only material prosperity. Such attitudes can easily lead a worried populace to accept a level of authoritarianism that promises stability and safety. But with that authoritarianism comes its partner, injustice. Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Soviet Union, Mao's China and too many others all morphed from authoritarianism to totalitarianism and brought injustice on a massive scale to their enslaved people. Lest we become complacent, it's important to understand that no nation, even a constitutional republic such as ours, is immune. Just glance back through our own recent history to a time when American citizens were confined in camps and stripped of their liberty and property because of their national origin or ancestry; or when an entire class of citizens were deprived of their constitutional rights because of the color of their skin. Yes, even the United States has sometimes succumbed, although it has struggled mightily to correct some of these injustices. But injustice continues simply because it will always be present in the city of man. Indeed, today our nation allows the slaughter of its most innocent, the unborn, an injustice that has cost the lives of over 50 million future citizens.

The city of man offers us a series of imperfect choices of the kind we now encounter in the upcoming election. And because we must inhabit this city, we must choose. We must choose one candidate or another or none at all. But whatever our choice, as Christians we should be aware that no election will ever lead to a society of perfect justice, despite the predictions of the candidates and hopes of the people who support them.

I'm not advocating an abdication of our civic responsibility or a pulling away from human society. We must still live and work; we must pay our taxes; we must respect legitimate civil authority; but in all these we must avoid doing evil. St. Paul reminds us of all this in Romans 13, calling us as Christians to be good citizens in the city of man

This doesn't mean that we don't confront our society when it falls short of God's will for it. After all, as individuals and as a society, we must always obey God's commandments: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments" [Jn 14:15]. And we must encourage our fellow citizens to do the same, to turn to God in love and to obey His commandments, which were given to us for our good and the good of society as a whole. But we cannot expect political solutions to cure all our societal ills. For example, I have long believed that the end of the scourge of abortion will never come about through political means. Such a change -- a change in a society's deep-seated morality, in its sense of justice -- demands a real change in the hearts of its citizens, and that can happen only when those citizens turn to God in repentance and love. We repent because we are a society of sinners and we love because God commands it. How did St. Paul put it?
"Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law" [Rom 13:10]
And with what words did Jesus begin his public ministry? "Repent and believe in the Gospel" [Mk 1:15]. If we, as a society, obey this timeless command of our Lord we will see the coming of the City of God. This is why the Church constantly preaches that its primary task is one of evangelization, and why all Christians are called to join in this effort. We are called to do God's work in the world, to bring about the Holy Society Augustine foresaw so long ago. No politician will do this for us.

Pray for our nation.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Absent Republicans

As you may have noticed, if you read this blog, I am by no means a fan of Donald Trump. But I cannot imagine a worse scenario for our nation than the election of Hilary Clinton. For no other reason than the makeup of the Supreme Court, it is critical that she be kept out of the Oval Office. I am, therefore, appalled that so many notable Republicans have not only refused to attend their party's national convention, but that some have actually declared they will not vote for the party's candidate. Whom do they think their lack of support will benefit?

A few moments ago, former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu, during an interview with Fox News anchor Stuart Varney, in effect said that Trump must pay more attention to these reluctant Republicans (including, by the way, Sununu himself) who are important figures in the party and the government. Governor Sununu thought Trump should have scratched the speeches by family members and replaced them with speeches by a few of these reluctant non-supporters. He went on to suggest there was far too much family focus at the convention. Actually, the speeches by Trump's wife and son made me a bit more inclined to like the man himself. But the irony, apparently lost on Sununu, was his claim that he couldn't attend the convention because he was campaigning for his son, who is running for governor of New Hampshire. Remarkable isn't it?

Anyhow, my first reaction, and that of Dear Diane, to Sununu's comments was, "Who does this man think he is?" We the people are the important ones here, not those who are elected by the people to do the people's business. The people are sovereign in these United States of America. Politicians are servants of the people, or at least they should be, and the only thing that should motivate them is the good of the people, the good of the nation. If their little noses are out of joint because they lost an election or were treated in a less than friendly way by another politician...well, too bad. As we used to say in Naval aviation: suck it up and fly the mission. That's what you're paid to do. I suggest our reluctant Republicans do the same.

Enough! This is why I despise politics today.

A timely postscript for those Christians who are considering a vote for Hilary Clinton. The readings for today's Mass include the opening verses of the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah:
The word of the LORD came to me: "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you" [Jer 1:4-5].
This reading was followed by a selection from Psalm 71 which included:
You are my hope, Lord; my trust, GOD, from my youth. On you I have depended since birth; from my mother’s womb you are my strength; my hope in you never wavers" [Ps 71:5-6].
Yes, before we were formed in the womb, we were known and loved by God. And in our nation we have slaughtered well over 50,000,0000 infants in the womb, all known and loved by God. This is why, above all else, this election is so critical.

Pray for our nation.

Donald Trump and Norman Vincent Peale

Some years ago, I had an interesting discussion with a parishioner who believed that God wanted all of the faithful to be successful in their chosen professions and to live prosperous lives filled with material blessings. Out of this belief I also sensed an admonishment toward those who lacked these blessings. He seemed to be saying that those he considered unsuccessful lived mediocre or poverty-stricken lives because they were unwilling to do what was necessary to lift themselves up and achieve the prosperity God wanted for them. Such people, he believed, were doomed to live unproductive, unrewarding lives because they did not focus on the positive, because they had no drive to excel. 

It was then that I asked him if he were a big fan of the late Norman Vincent Peale (1898-1993). He brightened at the mention of Peale's name, and that's when I realized changing this man's mind would be a serious challenge. 

Peale is perhaps best know for his popular book, The Power of Positive Thinking, which has sold several million copies since it was first published in 1952. A minister in the Reformed Church of America, Peale was the long-time pastor of New York City's Marble Collegiate Church, but he was also a kind of self-help guru who combined his unique brand of Christianity with his psychological theories about mental health and living the good life. 
Norman Vincent Peale
The book received criticism from both directions. Many mental health professionals believed Peale's approach offered adherents nothing more than a dangerous panacea that would only aggravate their problems and not cure them. And most Christian theologians considered Peale's approach to be nothing less than heretical, a cult that misread and misapplied the teachings of Jesus Christ. I'm neither psychologist nor psychiatrist, so I won't presume to address Peale's teachings from that direction. But I will take a moment to discuss his religious views.

In essence Peale dismissed the humility of Jesus Christ and the merciful love of God, preferring to view God as a Being who desires only to help you achieve success and avoid life's problems. He, therefore, placed man at the center of reality, turning God into a kind of impersonal force that we can use to our material advantage. As you might expect from someone who thinks this way, suffering is never a good thing and is simply an indication that one is not living life as he ought. Repentance and the need for forgiveness are also pushed aside lest they interfere with the need always to think positively. Peale's "faith" then becomes a form of Christianity without the Cross. Indeed, It replaces the Cross with man himself. In a sense, Peale was a forerunner of many of today's televangelists who preach a distorted gospel of success and wealth, while ignoring the Gospel of Jesus Christ that calls us to carry our cross alongside the Cross of Christ.

Something I didn't know about Peale was the extent of his influence on Donald Trump. I discovered this yesterday when I opened the latest issue of First Things, and turned first, as I always do, to the essay on the last page. The title of this month's essay is "Donald Trump, Man of Faith", written by Matthew Schmitz, First Things' literary editor. In it Schmitz explains many things about the Republican candidate for president, including some of the comments he has made on his religious faith. The essay is certainly worth a read for those who want to understand better Donald Trump's worldview. 

Trump, addressing his enthusiasm for Peale and his preaching, recently said,
"Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking was my pastor...To this day one of the great speakers I've seen. You hated to leave church. You hated when the sermon was over. That's how great he was at Marble Collegiate Church."
If you want to get a taste of Donald Trump's approach to work and life, check out the below, brief (3-minute) video in which he is interviewed by televangelist Paula White. In it you will see how belief in oneself seems to take precedence over a belief in God:

As you might expect, I don't agree with Donald Trump's Peale-inspired theology, which to me is little more than the glorification of materialism; but it's important to realize that variations on this theology have been shared, or at least praised, by many recent Presidents, including Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. 

Oh, yes, I never did change that parishioner's mind. He walked away convinced that God wanted him to be rich.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Reluctant Politics

My, my...the Republican Convention is underway in Cleveland, and I find myself inundated with things political. It's everywhere, and about the only way to escape is to flip the remote to Animal Planet or to one of the old movie channels. But, of course, most of us don't. We feel compelled to follow it on the cable news network of choice. There's an attraction to it all, not unlike that which draws us to watch a grisly horror movie or a news story describing some horrific crime. Yes, indeed, like these, modern political theater appeals to our basest instincts...and so, we watch.

As you already might have guessed, I have come to despise politics, largely because I find it a very dirty business in which honor and the good of the nation rarely, if ever, outweigh personal gain. And secondarily because I cannot think of a single living politician whom I respect...not one. I certainly realize that the upcoming presidential election might well be the most important of my lifetime, so I suppose I should be more enthusiastic, more focused on the politics of it all. Have I become jaded as a result of all this? Perhaps. But I'm insufficiently introspective, so I really don't know. Neither do I care.

I only occasionally discuss politics on this blog, and usually because a political issue touches on things theological or moral. But the current political storm is so heated and gusty that I just can't ignore it. So let me just throw out a few brief, and very personal, observations that have ripened in my aging brain these past few months as I have watched American presidential politics march by.

About Donald Trump...I find him semi-articulate, far too shallow in his thinking, and of questionable temperament; and yet he was able to convince enough primary voters to handily defeat a collection of seemingly more qualified candidates. Who could have predicted this? Well, one person did: Donald Trump.

And so, like him or not, we must take him seriously, and we must also admit he has struck a nerve with a large number of Americans. Looking back on the past year, I can understand why. Many, perhaps most, Americans believe strongly that the folks who have held the reins of power in Washington simply don't care about the nation and its people. They have a valid point. And as many Republicans discovered during the primaries, the voters weren't angry at just the Democrats. If you inhabit the Boston-NY-DC corridor, you probably don't understand this. But if live out in the national hinterlands you know exactly what it means. As a result, come January a lot of folks might be looking for a job. The world is focused on the upcoming presidential election, but the results of the congressional elections might actually be more surprising.

About Hilary Clinton...According to her newest best friend, Director of the FBI Comey, it would seem she is not only a likely criminal but also a serial liar. Of course, anyone who has followed Hilary Clinton's long and checkered career already knew that.

Nobody -- not even her strongest supporter, not even her husband -- seems to like her. I suppose we can safely say that even Hilary Clinton doesn't like Hilary. As for me, I could never support her simply because she, like the current president, sees nothing wrong with killing babies by the millions. Anyone who holds such belief is seriously flawed and should not hold any public office.

About the big loser...Well, the biggest loser is Bernie Sanders. This not-so-nice Brooklyn Marxist from Vermont convinced enough uneducated college kids, their equally uneducated parents, and their Woodstockian grandparents to vote for him that he actually gave Hilary, Inc. a bit of a scare. The Democrats tossed a few socialist bones onto the platform so he could gnaw on them during his convention speech, but ultimately Bernie will be no more than a footnote.

The other losers...all those Republicans who never had a chance to claim the nomination  but whose grossly inflated egos drove them into the race. With few exceptions, they all complain about Trump's victory while ignoring the fact that their numbers -- Heavens! There were almost 20 of them! -- made his victory possible. Such a collection of foolish, egotistical men (and one woman) has rarely been seen in politics before.

I'll admit here that I'm no fan of Donald Trump, but I find the actions of some of his Republican opponents to be despicable. Remember how they attacked Trump when he balked at signing the pledge to support the party's ultimate nominee? He finally signed it. They all did. But now many have decided to ignore that pledge.Their word then means nothing. I find that dishonorable, which for me is about the worst thing you can say about another human being.

They all act like little children who didn't get their way. Ohio Governor John Kasich refuses to attend his party's convention, a convention being held in his state. In a sense, by his snub he insults himself. How bizarre. And sadly, Jeb Bush, of whom I once thought rather highly, has joined with Lindsey Graham, and stated that they will neither support nor vote for Trump, the Republican nominee.

The problem is evident. When people have been long embedded in the political establishment, they cannot accept intruders who don't play by their agreed-on rules. If you're not a member of the club, if you don't accept those rules, you'll be pushed to the sidelines. Party affiliation means little. It's why they are able to compromise so easily on moral issues instead of leading the people to understand and accept that which is morally right.

If Hilary wins in November, I think we can safely say that the electorate simply disliked her less than they disliked Donald Trump. But that scenario is hard to imagine, and so my prediction -- always a scary thing -- is that Trump will win.

Homily: Monday, 16th Week of Ordinary Time (Year II)

Readings: Mic 6:1-4, 6-8 • Ps 50 • Mt 12:38-42

“…an evil and unfaithful generation” [Mt 12:39]. Jesus came on pretty strong here, didn’t he? Actually, only moments earlier he’d called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers” [Mt 12:34], so I suppose this wasn’t so bad.

Poor Pharisees. They seemed to be in conflict, didn’t they? They saw all the wondrous things Jesus did, and were attracted to Him. But, at the same time, they just couldn’t accept that this humble teacher was anything special. It really bothered them that in essence He’d declared Himself greater than the Temple and the Sabbath, greater than Abraham and Moses, and now, greater than Jonah and Solomon.

And so they asked for a sign. To which Jesus seemed to reply: 

Stop looking at your scrolls and laws; just look at Me, the One standing before you. Everything God has already told you points only to Me. 

And it’s this self-revelation by Jesus that bothered them no end. Indeed, just a few verses later, Jesus said to them:
“But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear. Amen, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it” [Mt 13:16-17].
And yet, they still asked for a sign. They heard His words and witnessed His deeds, but it was all encased in His humility. And this they couldn’t understand. How can the Messiah, the Lord of History, God’s anointed One, be a servant?

Imagine Jesus’ frustration. These Pharisees, these teachers of the Law, still didn’t realize that Jesus Himself was the sign for which they searched. They demanded to see what was standing right before them.

Jesus must have been thinking back to those words of Micah from our first reading:

“You have been told…what is good, and what the LORD requires of you: only to do the right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God” [Mic 6:8].
Here they were, able to walk with their God, the God they wouldn’t recognize because they rejected the humility. They simply wouldn’t listen. Yes, indeed, an “evil and unfaithful” generation. They ignored Jesus Himself, preferring to hear words and words and more words, instead of embracing the Word of God standing in their midst.

"the LORD commanded the fish to vomit Jonah upon dry land"
You reject Me, and yet you demand a sign from me?

Oh, yes, you will certainly receive a sign, the Sign of Jonah – Jonah whose preaching about an unseen God led the king of Nineveh to cover himself in sackcloth and sit in ashes. But before his prophetic preaching, before his mission to Nineveh, Jonah spent three days buried away from the world in repentance for his sins. How did Jesus put it?

“Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights” [Mt 12:40].

He was made sin...
Jesus was buried not for His sins, but for our sins. As St. Paul reminded the Corinthians:

“For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him” [2 Cor 5:21].

Jonah saved the Ninevites by admitting his own sin and repenting. He allowed himself to be thrown into the sea, but not into death, for God saved him.

Jesus, who is sinless, saves the world by taking on the sins of the entire human race. He becomes sin, every sin from the very beginning of time, and weighed down by it all, He throws Himself into death, into real death.

You see, brothers and sisters, it’s all for the Pharisees, it’s all for the sinners, it’s all for us.

Tell this to everyone you know. Shout it in the streets, in the marketplace, tell your children and grandchildren, tell each other. 

God won’t abandon us because of our sinfulness; He won’t abandon us because we turn our backs on Him who loves us.

This is the “Sign of Jonah.” It’s the Sign of the Cross.

It’s this sign that lets Him break through our resistance to His Love.

After He was raised up on the Cross, Jesus Christ lowered Himself – that was His mission. In total humility He descends, lowering Himself into the lowest, darkest places of creation, just as Jonah was lowered into darkness.

But Jesus goes further; He goes into the darkest depths of the human heart, and it’s there He brings the Light of Christ.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Homily: 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C)

Readings Gn 18:1-10a; Ps 15; Col 1:24-28; Lk 10:38-42


Shortly after we moved to Florida, my wife, Diane decided to help out at the Wildwood Soup Kitchen. And like a good deacon, who always listens to the deacon’s wife, I too was volunteered. Now, a dozen years later, Diane’s the Thursday cook and I’m the Thursday captain or head flunky.

It’s a wonderful ministry, a true ecumenical ministry in which well over 200 volunteers from more than 30 local churches participate. Last year we served nearly 90,000 meals and will no doubt exceed that number this year.
Now, one thing I’ve learned from this experience is that people volunteer for all sorts of reasons.

Some love to cook, and just can’t pass up the opportunity to spend a good part of the day cooking 300 meals.

Some don’t know what to do with the free time that retirement brings, and volunteer just to stay busy.

For others it’s a kind of social event, a chance to form friendships with other volunteers.

Some volunteer out of a sense of guilt. Their affluence is a burden to them, and they hope to ease that burden by helping those in need.

Some simply want to serve others, and the soup kitchen is a wonderful way to satisfy that need.

And some, and I wouldn’t try to guess how many, volunteer out of love. They see Jesus Christ in every person they serve and are overwhelmed by a love for God and neighbor. They might hate being in a kitchen, but they come, and they do the work solely out of love, following the Gospel mandate to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger. Indeed, that’s our guiding principle at the soup kitchen: “We don’t serve meals; we serve Jesus Christ.”

When it comes right down to it, it’s really a ministry of hospitality; and yet those who exercise this ministry are driven by so many different motives. It’s not unlike what we just heard in today’s Gospel reading from Luke.

One day, Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Man, the fullness of life and truth, walked into the living room of a pair of sisters named Martha and Mary. Both women immediately recognized the privilege of having Jesus in their home and set to work fulfilling the sacred duty of hospitality. The problem was, they had conflicting ideas of what that duty entailed.

Martha’s response is very recognizable, typical of how most of us would probably react.

Open the best wine, the expensive stuff, and brew some good coffee. Get out the good china and silver. Use whatever food you have in the pantry to whip up your best assortment of hot and cold dishes. And hope He won’t want a dessert.

My mother’s name was Martha, and once, when I was a teenager, I asked her if she’d be like the Martha in the Gospel if Jesus came to our house. Without a second’s hesitation, she said, “Oh, no, I’d call a caterer.”

Anyway, while Martha was busying herself in the kitchen, Mary took a different approach to hospitality. For her, the greatest compliment she could pay, greater even than the best of foods, was to give Jesus her full attention. 

Now, we don’t hear from Mary in this passage, but it’s apparent she somehow knew that Jesus, the fullness of truth, had come to her home to nourish and transform her. She saw Jesus as a gift, and not to receive and unwrap this wonderful gift was an insult to the giver. And so Mary listened; she listened to the Word as He spoke the Word. Mary became to Jesus what no rabbi at the time would allow any woman to become…Mary became His disciple.

This was pretty radical stuff back then. Women were expected to prepare the meals and serve them, and certainly wouldn’t be praised for taking part in the discussions. Luke stresses that Jesus takes women seriously, that His words are for all people, men and women, and that salvation comes to all who listen to His words and act on them.

Luke certainly doesn’t relate this incident to endorse laziness, just as Martha isn’t criticized because she attended to her guest’s physical needs. In our first reading from Genesis, when God, in the form of three travelers, visits Abraham, it’s good that Abraham and Sara spare no expense. No, Martha’s hospitality isn’t the problem. The problem was that she allowed the activity of hospitality to become an end in itself. She subordinated discipleship to hospitality. And that hospitality, by becoming an end, also became a distraction, and turned her into a bit of a fussbudget, so much so that she actually got angry with her sister for not joining her.

You can almost feel the tension and pressure building up until it boils over and Martha vents her frustration…but she vents it on the wrong person. Notice that Martha attacks, not Mary, but Jesus Himself: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me” [Lk 10:40].

How authentically human of Martha – to work out her frustrations on the wrong person.

Now, if I were in Jesus’ place, my reaction would be, “Hey, Martha, why blame me?” But not Jesus. He turns to her, and repeating her name -- “Martha, Martha…” -- calms her down. Yes, Martha was, as Jesus told her, “anxious and worried about many things.”

Jesus doesn't rebuke her for serving Him – not at all. He simply tells her that there is something more important. He underlines the truth that they are blessed who hear the Word of God and keep it.

I’m sure a lot of you here remember the old Baltimore Catechism answer to the question, “Why did God make you?” Remember? “God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him forever in heaven.” It’s still a very good answer. Before we can serve God, we must first know Him and love Him.

If our lives are spent solely in activity – only in the serving – we can’t take the time to know our God through prayer and attentiveness to His Word. It’s through prayer, and listening to His Word, and the grace of the sacraments, that we can come to know God, and develop the kind of personal relationship that Jesus wants with us. It’s only through that relationship that we can continue to deepen our love for God.  And it’s through our love for God that we come to see Him in others, and can accept the call to serve Him by serving them.

Our service, then, must be grounded in love; for it is love, and only love, that calls the Christian to serve others: “… whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me [Mt 25:40].

And so for Christians, the two great commandments – loving God and loving our neighbor – merge into one, a single commandment of love.

Yes, hearing and reflecting on the Word of God in prayer is a condition for true, selfless, loving service of the Body of Christ. Martha didn’t appreciate this…not at first. And so she worried, and was anxious about things, as so many of us are. How human and how easy it is, just as it was for Martha, to become obsessed with busyness, to move those things – those things that are really just accidental parts of our lives -- to the center of our lives; and in doing so to send the true center of our lives to the sidelines.

This just cannot be. The fullness of truth, the fullness of life, the fullness of grace deserves our full attention. Jesus can’t be merely a part of our lives, but must be the focus of our lives, always at the very center. 

In our excessively busy lives today, too often we don’t spend time on the important things. When Jesus knocks on your door and my door, when He enters our lives, just as He enters the soup kitchen dozens of times every day, certainly we should serve Him. But we should serve Him in love and attentiveness; listening to Him; and not allowing our service of receiving Jesus to distract us from Jesus Himself.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Statues in the Lateran, Iconoclasts, and Islam

Constantine at the Lateran
The first time Dear Diane and I traveled to Rome, during the Holy Year of 2000, the first church we entered happened to be what is commonly called the "Basilica of St. John Lateran" or simply "The Lateran." It's full, official name is quite a mouthful: the "Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior and Saints John the Baptist and the Evangelist in the Lateran." I suspect the basilica's office receptionist uses one of the abbreviated versions when she answers the phone. The Lateran, though, probably deserves an especially long name; after all, it's the first church built for public worship in Rome, and perhaps in all of Christendom; hence, it is the mother of all churches. The original structure was built by the Emperor Constantine (306-337) in the early 4th century on land donated to Pope Miltiades (311-314). The archbasilica was officially dedicated by Pope Sylvester I in 324.
Lateran Facade

The Lateran, and not St. Peter's Basilica, is the pope's cathedral church, something many Catholics don't realize. As the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome, it is also the home of the pope's cathedra, or cathedral seat. The Lateran, therefore, takes precedence over the other three major papal basilicas of Rome: St. Peter's, St. Mary Major, and St. Paul Outside the Walls. 

Of course, the current church is very different from the church built by Constantine. Over the centuries fires and earthquakes, barbarians and wars, decay and neglect, renewal and reconstruction, and dramatic shifts in artistic expression all brought about major changes and gave us the church we see today. Anyway, I digress...

Statue of St. Peter in the Lateran
On that first visit back in 2000, I was almost knocked off my feet by the statues that line both sides of the Lateran's nave, statues of the twelve Apostles, each standing in its own niche and each larger than life. Indeed, these marvelous Baroque statues seemed almost alive, and as I moved toward the high altar from one Apostle to the next I realized how much I liked -- no, how much I needed -- a church filled with statues and other works of art. It suddenly dawned on me why I had never felt at home in those minimalist churches built back in the 1970s, buildings that tried to imitate so many bare-bones Protestant churches. To me they more closely resemble barns than churches. 
Minimalist Catholic (Cistercian) Chapel

The Baroque churches of Rome are in no way minimalist. They were constructed or renovated in a style that broke away from the classical, elegant styles of the Renaissance. In a sense they broke all the architectural rules and presented the world with an in-your-face richness designed to display the deep and varied theology of the Catholic Church. Patriarchs and prophets, archangels and cherubim, the Virgin and the Apostles, martyrs and saints, popes and bishops, friars and monks  -- all come alive and all point to Jesus Christ, leading the faithful more deeply into the church and to the altar on which the Eucharistic sacrifice is offered. It's enough to take your breath away. And I think that's exactly what the Jesuits hoped to achieve when they supported the spread of Baroque architecture in the Church. One need only visit the 16th-century Gesu, the mother church of the Society of Jesus where the Church Triumphant is on obvious display. When I first entered this church, I could do nothing but stand there agape in a vain attempt to take it all in. I simply did not know where to start, and so I didn't. I just sat down and let it fill me.
The Gesu (Jesuit Mother Church) in Rome

I give thanks to those many early popes who strongly resisted the iconoclasm of the Byzantine Empire, a movement influenced in part by the Muslims in the Middle East. In those dark days virtually all the worldly power was in the East, but the popes remained in Rome in the chair of Peter. Some, like Gregory VII and Innocent III, were powerful and influential, protecting the eternal Church from kingdoms doomed to disappear. Many others were weak, but even they resisted the attempts to strip the Church of its beauty, to make religious art something other than religious. 

Even today, some Protestant Christians still consider any religious images to be nothing more than idolatry. (A few years ago, in nearby Wildwood, Florida, a young lady working in a grocery store called me an "idol worshiper" because Catholic churches contain statues. Not particularly good public relations, but I gave her a pass.) And certain elements in Islam -- e.g., the Islamic State, the Taliban, and the religious leadership in Saudi Arabia -- have spent much effort destroying ancient historic structures, shrines, and other religious sites.

St. John Damascene, one of the last of the Early Church Fathers, lived his entire life under Muslim rule and wrote extensively against the iconoclasts. He saw iconoclasm as something indeed evil:

“Does anyone who has divine knowledge and spiritual understanding not recognize that [iconoclasm] is a ruse of the devil? For he does not want his defeat and shame to be spread abroad, nor the glory of God and his saints to be recorded.”

Yes, we can all thank the popes and saints like St. John Damascene for holding the line against the iconoclasts and allowing art to thrive in the Church. Without it, we would be much poorer and certainly much duller.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Chuck Smiley: Mentor and Friend

As we age it seems our thoughts more often turn to the past than to the future. The past, after all, represents a far greater percentage of our lives than does the future which, quite honestly, could be very brief indeed. And as we settle into a kind of quasi-retirement, our plans and hopes tend to focus on a less distant horizon. I also believe that, because our extensive pasts are brimming over with a lifetime of experiences, our thoughts naturally turn in that direction when we encounter something new. We measure the new by placing it alongside that which we have experienced and evaluate it accordingly. But it's not just our own experiences that enter into the mix, but the experiences of the special few who have had a major influence on us. 

If one is fortunate his life will be blessed by a few people who have freely offered not only their wisdom but also their encouragement, their advice, and their hope. And if one is extremely fortunate, that wisdom will always be timeless, that encouragement always positive, that advice always sound, and that hope ever fulfilled. I for one have been extremely fortunate.

My father, John McCarthy, is certainly at the very top of the list of those who changed my life, who changed me, always for the better. But there were others -- just a few others -- and right up there on that same list with my father was Captain Charles Boone Smiley, United States Navy, Retired.

Chuck and I cutting cake 1970
Several days ago I was going through some boxes filled with old documents and photos when I came across a photo taken back in 1970. It's a photo of my commanding officer and me cutting a cake celebrating our helicopter squadron's return to our home base at then Naval Air Station Imperial Beach in Southern (very Southern) California. The Navy has traditionally celebrated important events with cakes and since we had just completed the recovery operation for the Apollo 13 ill-fated lunar mission, I suppose a cake was in order. 

That commanding officer, Chuck Smiley, then already a mentor, eventually became a lifelong close friend. Interestingly, Chuck's wife, Sally, filled the same role for my young wife, Diane. Indeed, whenever Diane uttered the words, "Well, Sally said...", I knew that further discussion was unnecessary; all was settled; Sally had spoken. 

Sally & Chuck (2008)
Anyway, after finding that photo, I picked up the phone and called Chuck. He and Sally have made their home in San Diego for decades and I hadn't spoken to them for several months. As I punched in their number I felt a bit guilty for calling so infrequently. The phone was answered by their son, David, who informed me in a broken, grief-filled voice that Chuck had died only days before. He was 85 years old. At first I was heartbroken and could think only of the many lives, including my own, that would be emptier with Chuck gone. But then, after a wonderful, long chat with Sally, I realized that all those lives had been blessed by Chuck's presence, and that Chuck Smiley was still with us because he had influenced so many people in so many wonderful ways. Our lives weren't emptier; rather, they had been filled by this remarkable man.

Did two people share a greater love?
Chuck had suffered from multiple myeloma for a dozen years, which in itself was remarkable. I suppose I had simply concluded that he was indestructible, and would go on forever. But on those few occasions when he spoke about his illness with me, he revealed that he knew it would likely take his life at some point. In the meantime, though, he fought it tooth and nail. That was just the way he was. Simply to be in his presence was an ongoing learning experience.

C. B. Smiley: 1930-2016
For me personally, however, Chuck's most instructive traits were his deep Christian faith and his remarkable humility. The former ruled every aspect of his life and led Diane and me to ask Chuck and Sally to be the godparents of  two of our children. The latter taught all who served with him what it meant to be a naval officer. He never placed his personal ambition above the needs of the country, the Navy, and those under his command. Unlike many who "serve" today, Chuck Smiley was no careerist. And I suppose, from the point of view of some, he paid a price for that. Chuck, of course, would disagree.

A wonderful husband, father and grandfather, a friend like no other, a patriot, and a faithful servant in the Lord's vineyard -- how we will miss him! 

May The Lord bless you and keep you, Chuck. May His face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May He look upon you with kindness and give you peace.

Rest in peace, Chuck. If I could bake a cake, I would.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Homily: Saturday, 14th Week of Ordinary Time (Cycle II)

Readings: Is 6:1-8 • Psalm 93 • Mt 10:24-33

In the gospels, and it’s especially noticeable in Matthew’s Gospel, we encounter two major threads that weave their way through the proclamation of the Good News, two timelines if you will.

The most obvious focuses on Jesus Himself: His ministry as He proclaims the Good News, a ministry that ultimately leads to His sacrificial act of redemption, His Passion, Death and Resurrection.

But the other major thread focuses on His disciples: how Jesus formed them over time, how they gradually, often in fits and starts, came to understand their vocation, exactly what Jesus expected of them. Their formation continued all the way to the first Pentecost and beyond, but it began right here with Jesus.

In today’s Gospel passage Jesus shared with the newly chosen Apostles some of the elements of good discipleship. He began with the basics:

“No disciple is above his teacher, no slave above his master” [Mt 10:24].
He cuts right to the heart of it, doesn’t He?  Far better than any psychologist, Jesus understood what lies in the depths of the human heart. He recognized that these disciples of His, especially the Twelve -- those few He personally singled out -- He knew of their human desire to exceed, to outdo others, to become something special. He also knew that they were as yet unformed, that they hadn’t accepted, or even recognized, the core truth of real discipleship.

Your see, brothers and sisters, Jesus revealed something very un-human, so un-human it’s Divine, a Divine paradox. He revealed to the Apostles that they could grow as disciples only by remaining as they were!

Sounds impossible, doesn’t it? And yet, that’s exactly what Jesus told them: that as disciples, if they are to grow in discipleship, they must remain exactly what they are: servants. If we strive to become something greater, we cease to be disciples.

This is the great paradox of true Christian discipleship: that in order to advance upwards into the very presence of God, we descend to the lowest human level; we must be servants. The world tells us to advance in the eyes of others, to become someone great, but Jesus says, “No!” He takes all our human desires, all our human hopes, and upends them, turns them completely around. 

He emptied Himself...
And He reveals this through His own person. How did St. Paul put it in his great hymn to the Philippians?
“…He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…” [Phil 2:7]
Is it even possible to wrap our minds around that truth? …that God Himself, the Creator of all that is, not only became one of us, but in the deepest humility accepted even death, at our hands. But out of that – this act of humility beyond comprehension – out of that, God raised Him up so that 
“…every knee should bend…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord…” [Phil 2:10-11]
It’s a glorification in which we, too, will share, because it has been promised.

It’s also important to realize that He’s not telling the Apostles, or us, to debase ourselves, to become something lower than human. He doesn’t want His disciples to be weak and oppressed, existing in some kind of blind subservience. Not at all; for He tells us:

“It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, for the slave that he become like his master” [Mt 10:25].

To become and remain His disciples, then, we must become like Him. We must allow God to cure us of our pride; to replace it with the humility of Jesus Christ, with the same kind of sacrificial love that brought us our redemption.

Earlier, in our first reading, we encountered Isaiah who, in his humility, was purged of his sinfulness and, like an apostle, sent out as God’s messenger, as God’s disciple [Is 6:7-8].

In the same way, we must empty ourselves and meet Jesus in His humility, sharing our sufferings with Him and each other as we go about the disciple’s task of building up the Kingdom.