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!

The thoughts expressed here are my personal thoughts and sometimes reflect my political views. As a private citizen I have every right to express these views.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Homily: Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul

Readings: Acts 12:1-11; Ps 34; 2 Tim 4:6-8,17-18; Mt 16:13-19

For those of us who constantly struggle to live our faith in a world increasingly hostile to the practice of Christian virtue, the lives of the saints can be a real inspiration. But they can also be a bit of an obstacle. I don't know about you, but sometimes the Saints seem to set a standard of holiness and virtue so high as to be virtually unattainable. The holiness of a Therese, or a Francis of Assisi, or a Mother Teresa, or the courage and submission of the martyrs can seem so beyond our reach that we become discouraged on our own journey of faith. How can we ever hope to measure up? How can we ever achieve the saintliness that God wants for each of us?

And yet, it's important to realize that saints don't become saints solely through their own efforts. Indeed, no one can become a saint. It’s God who makes saints. The two saints we honor today are among the best examples of God's saint-making handiwork.

For today we celebrate the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, the greatest of the Apostles, two men called by Jesus Christ, specially chosen: one to lead His Church and the other to spread the Faith throughout the world. Although each was a man of tremendous faith, and each would die a martyr's death in Rome, God could hardly have chosen two more different or more unlikely men than Peter and Paul.

Simon Peter, the callused, sun-burnt fisherman. The man of action, the rough and tumble blue-collar worker of 1st Century Palestine. A man of emotion, full of bluster and passion who often spoke and acted without thinking. A seemingly simple, straightforward man. And yet, beneath the surface, a complex man filled with contradictions. A man who readily responded to Jesus' call, but often resisted the message and mission that went with it. A man who spent three years with Jesus listening to a message he didn't really comprehend. A man whose faith underwent wild swings from deeply fervent to barely lukewarm. A man who could pledge undying loyalty to Jesus one day, then deny Him the next. A man who failed the test as often as he passed it.

And yet this is the man, Simon Peter, this complex mix of human strength and weakness, whom Jesus chose to lead His Church. For it’s Peter who dares to answer the Lord's question in today's Gospel reading, "And you, who do you say that I am?" It’s Peter who accepts and openly proclaims the revelation he has received from the Father: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God." And so it’s Peter to whom Jesus then turns and declares: "You are 'Rock,' and on this rock I will build my church."

Commissioned by Jesus, he is first among the Apostles, the first Vicar of Christ, the first Pope, the one chosen to represent the entire church: "I will entrust to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you declare bound on earth shall be bound in heaven; whatever you declare loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven." The authority and responsibility promised to Peter by these words was likely lost on him at the time. For it’s only later that he begins to understand what will be asked of him.

Recall how, shortly after the Resurrection, Peter and several of the Apostles share a breakfast of loaves and fishes prepared by the Risen Jesus. They are on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, sitting around a charcoal fire that Jesus had made, a fire similar to the one at which Peter had warmed himself in the high priest's courtyard the night Jesus was arrested. After they had eaten, Jesus asks Peter to confess his love, not once, but three times, as if to give him a triple chance to atone for his triple denial, to let him recapture what he lost when, overcome by fear, he turned his back on the Lord. By now Peter knows he is weak, and so he places all in Christ's hands: "Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you."

After each declaration of love, Peter is told, "Feed my lambs, feed my sheep." With these words, Jesus' earlier promise is fulfilled. Peter is singled out. He alone is given primacy. He becomes the shepherd of the entire flock, the universal church. And because "the jaws of death shall not prevail against" the church, Peter's authority is passed on to his successors down through history to our present day, even until the end of time.

Then, on that first Pentecost, just a few weeks later, we see a new Peter, now filled with the Holy Spirit, no longer fearful but bursting with enthusiasm to spread the Gospel and baptize -- a man transformed. Such is the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of God's grace, that it turns weakness into strength, cowards into martyrs, fishermen into popes. Peter is the Rock, not because of Peter, but because of Jesus.

Peter, the ordinary man who went on to do extraordinary things for God, gives us more than an example to follow. He gives us, the ordinary men and women of today, that which we need more than anything else. He gives us Hope, and reminds us of the greatness to which we are all called. But like Peter, we can realize that greatness only if we first humbly acknowledge our own emptiness and weakness before God.

In contrast to Peter, Paul was no ordinary man. He came from Tarsus, a Hellenized cosmopolitan city in Asia Minor, a local center of culture, philosophy, and education. An educated Jew and a Roman citizen, he was also a Pharisee, one of those legalistic nit-pickers so caught up in the minutia of Mosaic Law that they had lost any understanding of its spirit. "Hypocrites!" Jesus called them, "A brood of vipers." Clearly the Pharisees were not high on his list.

We first encounter Paul, then named Saul, early in the book of Acts. He takes part in the execution of Stephen, the first Christian martyr -- and, I might add, a deacon -- by guarding the cloaks of those who cast the killing stones. He then becomes a zealous persecutor of the early Christian Church -- an unlikely candidate for sainthood. But God had other plans for Paul.

We all know the story of Paul's miraculous conversion when Jesus reveals Himself on the road to Damascus. And like Peter, Paul can accept Jesus only because he first recognizes the truth about himself. Indeed, his conversion is symbolized by the scales that cover his eyes and blind him...scales that are removed only when he enters the embrace of the Church. Paul not only embraces the Church, he goes on to become the greatest of evangelists, the Apostle to the gentiles, spreading the Gospel throughout the Roman Empire. As the spiritual descendants of those first-century gentiles, we owe Paul, more than any other, a debt of gratitude for our Christian faith.

But Paul knows that the glory for his work goes to God, for it is through God's grace that he was brought to the Truth, and it is God's grace that sustained him in his ministry. Recall the words of today's second reading, written by an imprisoned Paul as he awaits martyrdom, "But the Lord stood by my side and gave me strength, so that all the nations might hear the gospel. To Him be glory forever and ever."

Jesus gave the Church these two great Apostles: Peter who had been Simon and Paul who had been Saul. Peter the fisherman, the small-town Galilean Jew. Paul the Pharisee, the scholar of the Law. Peter always conscious of the Faith's Old Testament roots, and Paul who found in Christ, "all things new." Peter who had lived and walked with Jesus. Paul who encountered Him outside of time itself on the road to Damascus. Peter and Paul in Rome. Peter in chains. Paul imprisoned. Peter crucified on an inverted cross because he felt unworthy to die as His Lord had died. Paul martyred by the sword, as befit a citizen of Rome.

Two very different men, and yet their message and their example of total abandonment to God's Will go out through all the earth…then and now.

To Him be glory forever and ever!

"His blood be on us and on our children"

As I've mentioned recently, one of the books I'm rereading this summer is the second volume Pope Benedict's remarkable work, Jesus of Nazareth. I read it rather quickly some months ago when it was first published, but it's not the sort of book that lends itself to a quick reading. It's actually the kind of book one should study and savor, and this I am trying to do by reading just a few pages each day.

Last night, as I made my way slowly through part of chapter seven on the "Trial of Jesus", I came across something truly wonderful, an insight by the pope that explained what for me had always been a challenging passage.

I'm sure you all remember that dramatic scene in St. Matthew's Gospel when the evangelist describes Pilate standing before the unruly crowd, washing his hands, and declaring, "I am innocent of this righteous man's blood; see to it yourselves." The people in the crowd, all Jews, respond with, "His blood be on us and on our children."

Well, as I said, this passage has always troubled me. It sounds a lot like a self-inflicted curse and has been understood as such by many Christians over the centuries. But I could never really accept this. God who made covenant after covenant with His Chosen People would not abandon them, even in the face of the rejection and crucifixion of His Son. Indeed, the history of salvation as described in the Old Testament is really a history of rejection, repentance, and forgiveness, and often enough the repentance wasn't all that sincere. But God was always ready to forgive. It's also important for us to remember that Jesus carried our sins with Him to the Cross, not just the sins of the Jewish people.

And so, what exactly does this passage mean? How should we interpret those words: "His blood be on us and on our children"? Here's what Pope Benedict has to say:
When in Matthew's account the "whole people" say: "His blood be on us and on our children" [Mt 27:25], the Christian will remember that Jesus' blood speaks a different language from the blood of Abel [Heb 12:24]: it does not cry out for vengeance and punishment; it brings reconciliation. It is not poured out against anyone; it is poured out for many, for all. "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God...God put [Jesus] forward  as an expiation by his blood" [Rom 3:23, 25]. Just as Caiaphas' words about the need for Jesus' death have to be read in an entirely new light from the perspective of faith, the same applies to Matthew's reference to blood: read in the light of faith, it means that we all stand in need of the purifying power of love which is his blood. These words are not a curse, but rather redemption, salvation. Only when understood in terms of the theology of the Last Supper and the Cross, drawn from the whole of the New Testament, does this verse from Matthew's Gospel take on its correct meaning [P. 187-188].
Now I understand! The Jews in Pilate's courtyard were not casting a curse on themselves; rather they were, even if unknowingly, asking for the redemptive, purifying power of the blood of Christ, for themselves and for all of humanity. Yes, how wonderful that His saving blood will fall on them and on their children. This is no curse; this is a blessing, or as Pope Benedict says, redemption!

How did Jesus put it just a few hours later, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" [Lk 23:34]? Like the Roman soldiers, those Jews in the courtyard didn't know what they were doing or to whom they were doing it. But that doesn't matter to Jesus. The redemptive power of His Precious Blood reaches out and touches all.

And are we any different today? How often do we fail to consider the effects of our sinfulness? Perhaps we should modify Jesus' prayer and make it our own: Father, forgive us; for we know not what we do.

The Blood of Christ! How blessed we are to have the gift of the Eucharist, the continuing presence of Jesus Christ, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, and the sanctifying, redemptive graces that God gives us through His Blessed Sacrament.

Pray for our pope; and pray for God's Chosen People, not so much for their conversion but for their fulfillment in their Savior, Jesus the Christ.

To Him be glory forever and ever...

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Pope Benedict Launches Vatican News Site...with a Tweet

For several years now, Pope Benedict XVI has been encouraging the universal Church to take advantage of the new technologies as a means to evangelize the world in response to Jesus' command to "Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations..."
It would seem the pope is getting a little techno-savvy himself since today he used an iPad to launch the Vatican's newest website: News.VA...and he did it with a tweet! I've included a video of the launching below. The pope got more than his share of advice and assistance from those involved in launching the new site.

The website is actually quite good, with excellent coverage of world news, the Church in the world, as well as happenings in the Vatican.


The Invisible World

St. Michael atop Castel Sant'angelo in Rome
I'm always a bit shocked when I encounter a Christian or a Jew who does not accept the existence of angels and demons. Given the number of times this happens, I suppose I should be used to it by now. Although I have no polling data or other hard, empirical evidence, my personal experience tells me this disbelief in the spiritual world has grown in recent years. I suppose we might expect this as our world becomes increasingly materialistic and discounts the existence of anything that cannot be perceived through the five senses.

About a dozen years ago, when I was working for a Catholic college in New England, I had an interesting lunchtime conversation with a man who taught at a prestigious prep school. As our our conversation drifted from one interesting subject to another, we found ourselves talking about scary movies (I'm a fan.) when one of us brought up The Exorcist, the 1973 film about a demonic possession in Washington, D.C. We agreed it was truly a scary movie, and then he said, "Of course, nothing like that could ever happen because demons don't exist."

This surprised me because earlier in our conversation he had made it clear that he was a believing Christian. And so I asked him, "You really don't believe in demons? What about angels?"

"No," he said, "I really don't believe in them either. I can't accept the existence of thinking, sentient beings who lack brains, the physical equipment necessary for consciousness. The idea that there are all these immaterial creatures out there in their own immaterial universe...well, that just seems a bit absurd to me."

It was the kind of comment I would have expected from an atheist or agnostic, but not from a Christian. My only response was to ask him, "Do you believe in God?"

"Yes," he said, "of course."

"Well, then, I suggest you just think about that for a while." With that our waiter handed me the check and our conversation came to an end.

Even very smart people can be led astray by the constant roar of the world's voices, and my luncheon companion was indeed very smart. He held two master's degrees, one in chemistry and another in mathematics, and taught both subjects at that upscale prep school. But like so many smart people he had come to accept man as the measure of all things. He even measured God according to human standards, and in doing so placed all sorts of limitations on God's creative power. I thought it particularly interesting that he didn't recognize the contradiction in denying God, a pure spirit, the ability to create other spirits. Maybe he thought of God as some giant material being, a kind of enormous Atlas, who bore the universe on his shoulders. I don't know because we never got around to his theology.

Of course, both angels and demons are mentioned frequently in Scripture, and we Christians should not simply dismiss these occurrences as psychological constructs devised by those lacking the scientific knowledge needed to explain phenomena they can't understand. In essence this was how belief in the spirit world was "explained" to me not long ago by a respected theologian. When I asked how he explained the Gospels' (and Jesus') frequent references to both angels and demons, he said that Jesus, being a Jew, would of course believe what most Jews believe, including the existence of angels and demons. When I suggested that in his divine nature Jesus would surely know whether or not such beings existed, he chuckled and said, "Well, yeah, except Jesus didn't know he was God, at least not until the Resurrection."

Wow! So many theologians just love to pick and choose what they want to believe, and what they want us to believe, all in complete contradiction to the magisterial teaching of the Church, teaching held consistently for 2,000 years. Fortunately, there are folks out there teaching the truth and making it available to us non-theologians in language we can understand.

The Invisible World: Understanding Angels, Demons, and the Spiritual Realities That Surround UsOne recent example is the newly published book by Anthony Destefano, The Invisible World, in which the author takes us on a marvelous journey through the world of angels and demons. Mr. Destefano, the author of several other books for both children and adults, provides a clear and well-written introduction to this invisible world of spirits, all firmly grounded in Church teaching. By increasing our understanding of the spirit world, the "Invisible World" as Destefano calls it, we can better understand this journey of ours through our material world, a journey that leads to our ultimate heavenly destination. This book, along with his previous book, A Travel Guide to Heaven, aim at showing us that reality includes much more than our material world.

Discussing how reality is misconceived by so many, Destefano says,
"We live in a very secular age which actually began over two centuries ago. We have what I call the 'superstition of materialism,' where we tend to think that everything in life - our ideas, our philosophies, our religions, our accomplishments; all the notions that we have of honor, love mercy and hope; all our art and our music; all the deepest mysteries of science and faith - that all this is simply the result of random dance of molecules in our brain. This is the disease of the age."    

I can promise you will enjoy this book.

Monday, June 27, 2011

A Ten-Volume Autobiography?

A Young Compton Mackenzie

A few weeks ago I shared my summertime reading list of about a dozen books through which I'm picking my way ever so slowly. The slowness is due to a recent discovery of a forgotten box in a closet. Inside the box were all ten volumes of Compton Mackenzie's autobiography which he titled, My Life and Times. Some time ago I set out to acquire all ten books, long out of print. It took over a year to locate relatively good hardbound copies of each volume at reasonable prices, but through persistence and the help of several particularly kind online booksellers, I managed to acquire all ten volumes, one at a time and very inexpensively.

At the time Diane and I had just completed our move to Florida and I was simply too busy to begin the reading of this man's remarkable life -- hence the forgotten box in the closet. I have always believed that biographies, autobiographies and novels should be read straight through, interrupted only by sleep and life's other necessities. And when the reading involves a ten-volume autobiography (close to 3,000 pages)...well, this demands I set aside a significant block of time. This time has now come and already I have completed the first three volumes. As a consequence, the summer reading list has suffered.

Compton Mackenzie in his old age

Unless one is particularly fond of English literature of the first half of the 20th century, I suspect few today have even heard of Compton Mackenzie. Born into a famous theatrical family in 1883, Mackenzie lived a long and productive life, dying in 1972 a few months short of his 90th birthday. He was actually quite the prodigy as a youth, and attended London's St. Paul's School and then went on to study at Oxford's Magdalen College. Not only did he publish over 100 books during his long life, but he also founded (in 1923) the authoritative and still-published classical music magazine, The Gramophone. He served in British Intelligence during the First World War and later wrote several best-selling books about his experiences in the Eastern Mediterranean. Particularly proud of his Scottish ancestry, Mackenzie was an unapologetic Jacobite and actually co-founded the Scottish National Party. Born an Anglican, he held strong Anglo-Catholic beliefs from his youth and eventually converted to Catholicism in 1914.

I first stumbled across Mackenzie about 30 years ago when I picked up a copy of his novel, Vestal Fire, in a used bookstore. Although I recognized his name, having encountered brief references to him in a few literary biographies, I really knew very little about him. Vestal Fire is a novel about an odd collection of ex-patriots living on the Italian isle of Sirene, a fictitious name for Capri where Mackenzie lived for a number of years. I actually enjoyed the novel and so began to pick up other examples of his fiction as I came across them. As I read more of his work, I became increasingly intrigued by the man himself and turned to his non-fiction, much of it autobiographical. It was then that I bought a copy of the first volume of My Life and Times. He began writing the ten volumes when he was 80, dividing his life into ten eight-year periods he called octaves. Probably the most honest autobiography I've ever read -- Mackenzie doesn't shy away from his exposing the mistakes and sins of his long life -- it not only describes the man, but also provides wonderful insights into the remarkable times in which he lived and many of the famous and not so famous he numbered among his friends and acquaintances.

This is why my summer reading list might well remain unfinished when September rolls around. If you're interested in reading some of this author's works, here's a few suggestions:

Whiskey Galore, Mackenzie's 1947 novel set in Scotland that was later (1949) made into a feature film.

Monarch of the Glen, another Scottish novel (1941) on which was loosely based the BBC TV series (2000-2005) of the same name. The series also appeared on PBS in the US. (The link I've provided is to a book that includes this novel, as well as Whiskey Galore and The Rival Monsters.)

Sinister Street, a novel focusing on the lifelong psychological and moral growth of his protagonist. His depiction of life at Oxford in the early 1900s is particularly interesting. One of my favorites.

The Four Winds of Love, was published in six volumes between 1937 and 1945. Almost 1 million words in length it was truly ambitious, a remarkable 20th-century Scottish novel. 

Gavin Wallace, one of Compton Mackenzie's biographers, offers this insight into the man:

"Although Mackenzie's output of novels (including delightful books for children), essays, criticism, history, biography, autobiography, and travel writing was prolific - a total of 113 published titles - it can truly be said that if he had never written a word he would still have been a celebrity. He had a personality as exhibitory and colourful as his writing, and remained throughout his life a gregarious man with a brilliant sense of comedy. Flamboyant, a raconteur and mimic, he was no less memorable as the formidable scourge of politicians, bureaucrats, and governments, and the passionate defender of the ostracized, the shunned, and the wronged."

Mackenzie was a remarkable man, and I'm truly enjoying this lengthy glimpse into his life and times.

Eucharistic Flash Mob

A few moments ago I received an email from a brother deacon who passed along a link to a remarkable YouTube video. Some Capuchin friars in the UK organized what can only be called a "Eucharistic Flash Mob" in the city of Preston. One friar exposed the Blessed Sacrament in a gold monstrance for all to see, while another proclaimed how Jesus is revealed in all the books of the Bible.

Talk about sharing Jesus in the public square!! I believe it to be a fitting video to post here, especially since yesterday we celebrated the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ.
I've also included the brief write-up that accompanied the video on YouTube. (See below.)

A Eucharistic flash mob in the centre of Preston, organised by the Capuchin Franciscans on Ascension Thursday 2011.

A small team of Catholic evangelists mingled with the crowd to hand out cards and explain what was going on. Here are some of the reactions....

"What is this about? What is happening? What is this about?"

One young girl said: "I've not seen anything like this since Church."

"Are they doing this all day? ... Will they be doing it again? ... Are they doing this any where else?"

Two young women asked: "Why does God allow hurt and pain in the world?" They agreed it was not God's fault but ours. Then they asked: "Why doesn't Jesus come again?" We explained that He is here in the form of bread, but would come again and we invited them to think about Him now.

"Is it religious? What is inside that thing?"

A man said: "What is that guy doing?" An old woman with him replied: "That's Jesus. Show respect."

"This is so moving! It is the first time I have seen it done outside. I can't wait to tell my parish priest!"

World Youth Day in Madrid

This year's World Youth Day -- which should really be called World Youth Week because of its length -- will be celebrated in Madrid, Spain less than two months from now. Millions of young pilgrims are scheduled to arrive in Madrid on the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, August 25 (or earlier); the week will conclude with a papal Mass at 9 a.m. on Sunday, August 21st.

I am always amazed by the huge numbers of young people from all over the world who attend these World Youth Day gatherings every few years. They began in 1984 when Pope John Pail II invited the world's youth to join him in St. Peter's Square for what he then called an International Jubilee of Youth on Palm Sunday. Over 300,000 young people filled the square causing the pope to remark, "What a fantastic spectacle is presented on this stage by your gathering here today! Who claimed that today's youth has lost their sense of values? Is it really true that they cannot be counted on?" Pope John Paul was so pleased with the turnout he decided to invite them back to Rome the following year for the first official World Youth Day. That was more than 25 years ago and since then World Youth Day has been held in many different locations throughout the world and the numbers attending have climbed considerably.

Surrounded by youth at Sept 2008 Papal Audience
Interestingly, on our visit to Rome for "deacons' week" during the Holy Year 2000, Diane and I were struck by the large numbers of young people we encountered throughout our week-long stay. At every event, at every venue, they vastly outnumbered us "mature" folks, and their enthusiasm and obvious joy were contagious. Since then Diane and I have returned to Rome three times and on each occasion encountered the same phenomenon: huge numbers of enthusiastic, prayerful young people. What a blessing! The mass media inundate us with one story after another depicting angry, self-centered, anarchic youth, who seem to lack any spiritual values whatsoever. How wonderful it is to know that these are not representative of all young people, that many of our youth are actively searching for the Way, the Truth, and the Life and striving to lead lives of holiness.

Keep our young people in your prayers, for they represent the future of our Church and our world. Blessed and guided by the Holy Spirit -- the Spirit of Truth and Wisdom and Love -- they can correct all those foolish mistakes our generations have made and can join in God's work of leading humanity to Jesus Christ. If you can afford it, you might consider helping one or more young people in your parish to make this pilgrimage to Madrid in August.

I've included two brief videos below. The first is the official "invitation video" asking young people to come and join the millions of others who will make this pilgrimage to Madrid, while the second highlights Pope Benedict's plans for making the pilgrimage with them. And here's a link to the official World Youth Day website.


Saturday, June 25, 2011

Homily: Corpus Christi -- Solemnity of the Body & Blood of Christ

Readings: Dt 8:2-3,14-16; Ps 147; 1 Cor 10:16-17; Jn 6:51-58

Not long ago one of my sons became quite interested in genealogy and asked me to pass along any family documents I might have. I have boxes and boxes of family stuff, so I began to go through them looking for anything he might find interesting.

One of the first things I came across was a 60-year-old certificate from my First Holy Communion. Talk about a forgotten relic! It doesn’t provide a lot of information, just my name, the date, and the name of the church, all handwritten on the bottom. The pastor's name disappeared along with a part of the certificate that was torn away.

Most of the certificate is a picture of two young children, a boy and a girl, dressed in their First Communion finery, and kneeling at the altar rail. Remember altar rails? Standing behind the rail, holding a host in one hand and a chalice in the other is Jesus, with two angels posed prayerfully behind Him. Printed above the scene are the Latin words, "Veni Dulcis Jesu, Veni" or "Come Sweet Jesus, Come".

It’s a pious scene, a sweet scene, the sort of scene that might bring about a few condescending smiles, even some cynicism. Oh, yes, such naiveté is fine for children, but we adults…well, our faith is far more sophisticated.

But as I continued to gaze at that picture I found myself transported from our adult world of pragmatism to a very different world – to a world too often forgotten or ignored; to a world where miracles abound and God’s hand touches all of creation; to a world of real faith in which the truth of a theological mystery like the Eucharist is readily accepted.

It was then I realized that this world in which a child can be filled with wonder over God’s Real Presence in the Eucharist – that this is the real world. It was then I realized how misleading, how utterly false our grown-up world can be.

Instead of marveling at God’s wondrous gifts, we spend our lives worried about and fretting over every conceivable worldly thing. We worry about money and jobs and retirement and health. We worry about our children’s education and their jobs and their worldly success. We worry about impressing others, about our friendships, about the clothes we wear, the house we live in, the vacations we take.

Yes, our place in this world so monopolizes our lives that most of us even define ourselves by how we earn a living. When someone asks “What do you do?” we provide the standard answers: I’m an attorney…or a mechanic…or an engineer…or a sales rep…or a teacher… or a hairdresser…or a mechanic…or a police officer.

But how many of us have ever answered, “I’m a Christian, a child of God seeking salvation”? You haven't? Well, why not? After all, that’s your true vocation; that’s why God created you in the first place. He didn’t create you just to hold down a job that pays the bills or promises a nice pension in retirement.

Yes, we live lives littered with all these important and urgent things, concerns so crucial that when placed alongside salvation they are…absolutely trivial. We reject the mystery of God’s creation and actually come to believe we can control our world, until we’re confronted with the stark reality of an illness, or an auto accident, or a tornado, or flood, or tsunami.

In our growing-up we've lost that childlike sense of wonder, the capacity to see and marvel at the mystery that fills our world. Lacking this we fail to recognize the face of God even when He’s standing right before us. This is why Jesus instructs us to be like the child, to be childlike, not childish. He wants us to reclaim that wonderful gift of faith He bestowed on us when we were children.

How did Jesus put it? "Father, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike." He wants us to believe as we once did, and to love as we once did. Brothers and sisters, God created us to love Him, and to serve Him by loving and serving others, and to spend our lives doing just that.

This is how we live our faith, the same faith I could see in the eyes of the two children in that picture. Kneeling in anticipation of receiving Jesus in the Eucharist – Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity – they don’t see a mere piece of bread. No, they see Jesus Christ standing before them, loving them, offering them the greatest gift he can offer: Himself.

The people in today’s passage from Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel had also lost their sense of childlike wonder. They denied the mystery of God’s power when confronted with Jesus’ words about the Eucharist. Quarreling among themselves, they ask, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?"This man… – They had witnessed miracle after miracle, acts only God could perform, and still Jesus was simply, “this man.”

But Jesus won’t let them take refuge in their cynical, adult ways. He forces the issue, repeating and expanding His claims. “…unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.  Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.”

Oh, yes, these were hard words for that incredulous crowd, just as they are hard words for so many today. On that day in Galilee, John tells us, after hearing these words, “many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.” Just as today many leave the Church and the very Bread of Life because they cannot accept Jesus’ Real Presence in the Eucharist. If they did, they would never leave.

It’s just a symbol, they say. Well, if it’s just a symbol it’s meaningless. Read the words of John’s Gospel once again. No symbol can fill you with divine life. No symbol can give you eternal life. No symbol can raise you on the last day. No symbol can bring you into communion with Jesus where He is in you and you in Him.

How did St. Paul put it in our first reading? “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” And later in that same First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul warns not to receive Jesus in the Eucharist unworthily: “Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord.” We don’t have to answer to God for a mere symbol. We must answer for the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.

And this is what we celebrate today, Jesus' redemptive sacrifice, the beautiful Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ. We used to call it simply Corpus Christi – the Body of Christ – and many of us will probably continue to call it that, if only out of habit. But in her wisdom the Church fittingly changed its name to reflect more accurately the reality of what happened at Calvary and at the Last Supper, and what will soon happen on this altar at St. Vincent de Paul Church.

A Eucharistic Procession on Corpus Christi Sunday
Though the Blood of Christ was always implied it was never particularly affirmed in this particular feast. Now it is, and this is good. On Thursday when the feast was celebrated in much of the world, and on Sunday in this country, Catholics will process through the streets carrying the gift of the Body and Blood of Christ to a disbelieving world. In the same way, with the Eucharistic Christ enthroned in our hearts, you and I are called to carry Him to others, taking Him – the Way, the Truth, and the Life – to a world in search of meaning, a world in need of real hope, a world begging for God’s love.

We must again be like the joyful children we once were, ever amazed at God’s gift of life, fully aware that we are fearfully, wonderfully made, and thankful that God has given us the miracle of His Real Presence to nourish our hearts and our spirits.

When we gather for Mass, we become one with Christ, transformed by history’s deepest act of love.  We become one with Christ in the starving child who aches for a piece of bread, in the victim of violence lying in the emergency room, in the young Marine dying of wounds in Afghanistan, in the African mother whose blood is poisoned with HIV.

Did you know that this is what happens here at Mass? We join our souls to Christ and offer our bodies with his on the Cross. We do it for the salvation of the world, for the salvation of souls so that God’s “will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

This is what happens at Mass. The sacrifice of Christ saves us anew. No words can explain it. But a child can understand it.

Abandoning God: the Bad Fruits

I don't always get a chance, or sometimes I simply forget, to read the weekly message that Pope Benedict XVI delivers during his Wednesday general audience. But I did manage to read last week's message (June 15) and am happy I did so.

In recent weeks the pope has been speaking on prayer, something he continued in this teaching by focusing on the prophet Elijah and his prayer atop Mt. Carmel. Elijah, the only surviving prophet of the Lord, had challenged the 450 priests of the false god, Baal, as well as another 400 priests of the god Asherah. It's a wonderful passage in which Elijah, confident in his role as intercessor, is determined to bring the people back to the worship of the one, true God [1 Kings 18]. Elijah had predicted that God would respond to his offering with fire, but that the false gods in their impotence would be silent.

The pope contrasts the prayer of the priests of Baal with those of Elijah. His description of the "prayers" offered by the false prophets is worth repeating here in its entirety:
"The prophets of Baal, in fact, cried aloud, worked themselves up, danced and leaped about and falling into a state of ecstasy, even going so far as to cut themselves, 'with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them' [1 Kings 18:28]. They had recourse to themselves in order to call on their god, trusting to their own devices to provoke his answer. In this way the idol’s deceptive reality was revealed: it was thought up by human beings as something that could be used, that could be managed with their own efforts, to which they could gain access through their own strength and their own vital force. Worship of an idol, instead of opening the human heart to Otherness, to a liberating relationship that permits the person to emerge from the narrow space of his own selfishness to enter the dimensions of love and of reciprocal giving, shuts the person into the exclusive and desperate circle of self-seeking. And the deception is such that in worshiping an idol people find themselves forced to extreme actions, in the vain attempt to subject it to their own will. For this reason the prophets of Baal went so far as to hurt themselves, to wound their bodies, in a dramatically ironic action: in order to get an answer, a sign of life out of their god, they covered themselves with blood, symbolically covering themselves with death."
The pope then describes the prayer of Elijah:
"Elijah’s prayerful attitude was entirely different. He asked the people to draw close, thereby involving it in his action and his supplication. The purpose of the challenge he addressed to the prophets of Baal was to restore to God the people which had strayed, following idols; therefore he wanted Israel to be united with him, to become a participator in and a protagonist of his prayer and of everything that was happening. Then the prophet built an altar, using, as the text says, 'twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying: "Israel shall be your name’" [v. 31]. Those stones represented the whole of Israel and are the tangible memorial of the story of the choice, predilection and salvation of which the people had been the object. The liturgical gesture of Elijah had crucial importance; the altar was a sacred place that indicated the Lord’s presence, but those stones of which it was made represented the people which now, through the prophet’s mediation was symbolically placed before God, it had become an 'altar', a place of offering and sacrifice...The words of his invocation are full of meaning and faith: 'O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back' [vv. 36-37]. Elijah turned to the Lord, calling him the God of the Fathers, thus implicitly calling to mind the divine promises and the story of the choosing and Covenant that bound the Lord indissolubly to his people."
Of course, as we all know, the false gods, the idols, could not respond and God vindicated Himself when "the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt offering, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, ‘The Lord he is God; the Lord, he is God’” [vv. 38-39].

Pope Benedict concludes his teaching by reminding us what we can learn from this great event in history:
"First of all the priority of the first Commandment is called into question: worship God alone. Whenever God disappears, man falls into the slavery of idolatry, as the totalitarian regimes demonstrated in our time, and as the various forms of nihilism that make man dependent on idols, on idolatry, also demonstrate; they enslave him. Secondly, the primary aim of prayer is conversion, the flame of God that transforms our heart and enables us to see God and so to live in accordance with God and live for others. And the third point. The Fathers tell us that this history of a prophet is prophetic too if, they say, it foreshadows the future, the future Christ; it is a step on the journey towards Christ. And they tell us that here we see God’s true fire: the love that guided the Lord even to the cross, to the total gift of himself. True worship of God, therefore, is giving oneself to God and to men and women, true worship is love. And true worship of God does not destroy but renews, transforms. Of course, the fire of God, the fire of love burns, transforms, purifies, but in this very way does not destroy but rather creates the truth of our being, recreates our heart. And thus, truly alive through the grace of the fire of the Holy Spirit, of love of God, we are worshipers in spirit and in truth."
To read Pope Benedict's entire message, click here: Audience, June 15

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Homily: Wednesday, 12th Week in Ordinary Time

Readings: Gen 15:1-12,17-18; Ps 105; Mt 7:15-20

A few years ago, a prison administrator told me about an inmate who had been incarcerated for nearly 40 years. He had been through many parole hearings but had always been refused parole. And then, quite suddenly, the parole board gave him his freedom. But on the morning of his release, when they went to his cell, he acted as if it were no different from any other day. In fact, he acted as if he didn’t intend to leave, and resisted doing so for almost an hour.

“Don’t you understand?” they asked him, “You’re a free man.” But he just stared at the door to his cell as if he couldn’t figure out why it was open. Finally he said quietly, “One of the guys said I didn’t have to leave if I didn’t want to.” One of the guys…there are false prophets everywhere, aren’t there?

And for many of us, just like that inmate, life’s routines become life itself. We are so caught up in the routine of our lives that we miss the truly important. He’d been imprisoned so long that the routine had become his life. He no longer even thought of freedom, of our human vocation to be free men and women. So caught up in that routine, he’d long ago lost sight of everything else. Of course, the ultimate vocation for all of humanity is salvation, eternal life, the reason we were created in the first place.

In the Gospel passage we just heard from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns us about false prophets, telling us we can recognize them by their fruits. How easy it is just to listen to the words of the false prophet, all the while ignoring what those words yield. Yes, false prophets abound, but fortunately we have the example of others, of those who yield good fruit.

St. Thomas More
Today we are triply blessed, a saintly triple-header in which we celebrate the feasts of three saintly men whose lives bore especially good fruit. Two of them – St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher – were executed by King Henry VIII with weeks of each other because they refused to accept the king’s temporal authority over Christ’s universal Church. I can think of no saints more relevant to our own times. Indeed, Pope John Paul II named Thomas More the patron saint of political leaders.

A modern politician would do well to emulate these two 16th-century martyrs, for each was both wise and virtuous. In wisdom each applied his intelligence toward the accomplishment of what was good, and in virtue each habitually chose the good, regardless of the consequences. This, of course, demands courage, the sort of personal courage rare among politicians of any time and place, but increasingly rare today.

Pilate: "What is truth?"
How sad that we live in a world where true wisdom and true virtue are more often ridiculed than praised. For too many, cleverness has supplanted wisdom and pragmatism has replaced virtue, and the intoxicating and corrupting influence of power becomes oh so apparent. Too many see no difference between good and bad fruit because they no longer recognize virtue, they no longer discriminate between good and evil. Relativism has replaced truth, and like Pontius Pilate they can look into the eyes of their God and sneer, “What is truth?” [Jn 18:38] Poor Pilate, the first-century relativist, never suspected (or did he?) that he was standing in the presence of Truth Himself: "I am the Way and the Truth and the Life" [Jn 14:6]

Like Pilate, some trees are deceivingly and splendidly arrayed, but have no fruit…while others bear only bad fruit, because they have chosen their own will over God’s will. Thomas More and John Fisher chose wisely and virtuously; and willingly gave their lives as a consequence.

St. Paulinus, Bishop of Nola
The other saint whose feast day we celebrate today is St. Paulinus, a fourth-century bishop who had a deep love for the  poor, whom he took pains to feed during the difficult times in which he lived. I’ve always had a particular fondness for him and consider him the patron of soup kitchens, for his love for the poor yielded bushels and bushels of good fruit.

These, brothers and sisters, are the true prophets, the ones we should emulate. All too often we listen to the others, the ones who speak well but yield nothing.

Let me conclude by quoting the patron of our parish, St. Vincent de Paul, who while preaching to his community warned them not to become those wolves in sheep‘s clothing that Jesus warned us about. In St. Vincent’s words…
“They pride themselves on their inflated imaginations. They are satisfied with the sweet exchanges they have with God in prayer; they even talk about it like angels. But when they come away is there any question of working for God, of suffering, practicing mortification, teaching the poor, searching for the lost sheep, being pleased when they lack something, accepting sickness or some other misfortune?”

How did St. John put it? “Let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth.”

Brothers and sisters, we should not let others deceive us with their empty words and false speech; nor should we deceive ourselves. Our task is really quite simple and consists only in doing the Father’s will.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Growing Persecution of Christians

Muslims call for death of Christian accused of blasphemy
The persecution of Christians, particularly in Muslim nations, is not only increasing but also becoming more overt. Although Saudi Arabia takes first prize in this category, that kingdom is a closed society in which Islam is the official and only religion permitted. One expects nothing less than persecution from the Saudis. 

Other Muslim nations, however, seem to be trying to catch up with the Saudis. In Pakistan, for example,the Islamist party, the JUI, has called on Pakistan's supreme court to ban the Bible from the country. According to their petition the Bible is blasphemous and therefore violates Pakistan's notorious anti-blasphemy law. This view arises from the Bible's treatment of biblical patriarchs such as Abraham whose failings and moral lapses are clearly depicted. It would seem that Muslims believe the "prophets" to be sinless, something I find a bit ironic considering what the Qur'an has to say about Muhammad and his activities. Will the court side with the JUI? Probably, given how Christians have been treated by the government in recent years through the misapplication of the blasphemy law. The law has become a weapon in the hands of Muslim businessmen who want to eliminate Christian competitors, and is even being used by Muslims to send Christian neighbors to jail. To read more: Pakistan's Bible Ban

Christians calling for repeal of blasphemy law
Persecution in Pakistan takes on many different forms. In the city of Faisalabad, for example, Muslim landowners decided to use tractors to obliterate a Christian cemetery. When the Christians began legal proceedings against the perpetrators, the police refused to investigate and the Muslims threatened the Christians' lives if they continued. In the same city a Christian woman was kidnapped, drugged and gang-raped. When she reported the crime, instead of helping her the police helped the rapists cover up the crime. To read more: Anti-Christian violence in Faisalabad  

Pakistan isn't alone. In Uzbekistan the government seems to be waging a similar war on Christians. Not only has the Bible been officially banned in this country, but Christians are prohibited from praying together. The police have been attacking Christians in their homes, inflicting severe beatings on men and women who violate these unjust laws. Our Protestant brothers and sisters have borne the brunt of this persecution, receiving jail terms and huge fines for simply owning a Bible and other religious reading material. In the capital, Tashkent, the homes of Baptists have been raided by combined task forces of police and special forces. Others have been threatened, along with the children, if they don't testify against their pastors. They all courageously refused to do so. To read more: Uzbekistan, illegal to own a Bible or pray together   

In the Sudan there are far too many Christian martyrs. Only last week a young Catholic seminarian and a young evangelical were both murdered by agents of Sudanese military intelligence and Islamist militants. According to the news story:

KHARTOUM, Sudan (Compass Direct News) - Military intelligence agents killed one Christian, and Islamic militants sympathetic to the government slaughtered another last week after attacking churches in Sudan's embattled South Kordofan state.

Christian sources said a Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) Intelligence unit detained Nimeri Philip Kalo, a student at St. Paul Major Seminary, on June 8 near the gate of the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) in Kadugli's al Shaeer area and shot him in front of bystanders. Kalo and other Christians were fleeing the town after Muslim militias loyal to the SAF attacked and looted at least three church buildings in Kadugli, they said...
On the same day, Islamic militants loyal to the SAF slaughtered a young Christian man by sword in Kadugli Market, the sources said. Adeeb Gismalla Aksam, 33, a bus driver whose father is an elder with the Evangelical Church in Kadugli, was murdered by Muslim extremists shouting, "Allahu-akbar [God is greater]!"

The Islamic militias were heard shouting "Allahu-akbar!" as they began shooting at a Roman Catholic Church building at 3:30 p.m. on June 8, during a mass in which the congregants were asking God to protect them.
Apparently the Sudanese intelligence agents justified killing Kalo because he was a Christian and therefore would oppose Sudan's Islamic government. In one day two were murdered, two others were tortured, and three churches were attacked. Nice people. Of course, this is just a drop in the bucket compared to the millions of Christians and animists murdered in the Sudan over that past few years. To read more: Blood of the Martyrs

And watch the below video -- it's just a few minutes long -- to see what's been happening in the Sudan. Do you think our nation might be a bit more involved if these millions of victims were Europeans and not black Africans?

That's enough for now. I can take such news only in small doses. Just remember, though, evil will not prevail for we live always in hope, always certain that the promises of our Lord Jesus Christ will be fulfilled.
"If you are insulted for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you." [1 Peter 4:14]

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Being Is Good...But in NYC It Can Also Be Dangerous

Every so often I come across something on the internet that merits more exposure, and a few moments ago I found another example. In this instance it's a video of a single intersection, one of thousands of similar intersections, in New York City. It made me recall why I would never drive into the City when I lived in the NY suburbs. I always took the train and the subway, and literally ran across intersections to decrease the time spent in the sights of NY cabbies and other insane operators of motor vehicles. The large numbers of bicycles, driven mostly by messengers with a financial interest in getting to their destinations quickly, are an interesting addition to the chaos that is New York. Put on your seat belt and enjoy the video.

Belated Financial Advice

Now, here's a drastic change of pace: the deacon giving financial advice. But living as we do in the world, even though as Christians we are not to be of the world, dealing with money is one of those necessary evils. Just let me begin with a warning: anyone who takes financial advice from me is very foolish indeed. Okay, that said, I'd like to share some financial advice I received, very indirectly, several years ago. If you're nearing retirement age or older, it will be of no real use to you, because for you it's too late. But if you're younger and won't be thinking about retirement for a decade or more, you just might find it helpful...or not.

It was in the fall of 2002 and I was driving to work listening to a local talk show on the radio. The host introduced a gentleman whose name I have unfortunately forgotten. All I recall is that he had written several books on investment strategies. After a few general comments the host opened the phone lines for people to call in with their questions.

The first caller could well have been me...but he wasn't. He began by stating that he was in his late fifties and hoped to retire in about five years. His children were grown and his wife had no income since she had never worked outside the home. He had a modest pension coming to him, but the combination of his pension and social security would not be enough for retirement. He also had a 401K, but at the time it had a value of only about $100,000. His only other asset was his house, which had appreciated substantially over the years. His mortgage would be paid off in three years and because of its desirable location his house had a current market value of about $800,000. His question: What do I do over the next five years to maximize my retirement income?

The guest expert didn't hesitate and replied, "Sell your house today, and move into a rental until you're ready to retire. Stash the proceeds into something nice and safe like government bonds and enjoy the ride. You can buy or build your retirement home once you actually retire."

At first there was dead silence, and then the host, the caller, and I all said, "What? Sell the house? In this booming market? You've got to be crazy." Well, okay, I didn't say it, but I thought it.

Ignoring us all, the expert went on calmly, "Okay, hold onto it, and then let me know what it feels like when you can't get $500,000 for your house five years from now. We are nearing the peak of a real estate bubble, the likes of which we've never seen before. It'll burst soon and most folks will suffer because of it. My advice is to help you become one of the few who will benefit." He than added, "Look, you're not a client, so I don't care whether or not you listen to me. Let me just say that over the past six months I have liquidated all my real estate holdings, except for my own retirement home which I built ten years ago and now rent. Too many people think home ownership is sacred, the holy grail of the American dream. It's not. And in tomorrow's market, it will make much better sense to become a renter."

I still thought he was crazy...until I found myself having to retire just a few months later. We sold our large family home in late 2003 at close to the very peak of the market and inadvertently stumbled into all the benefits this expert had touted. Buy low, sell high still apparently works. The key is knowing when those lows and highs will occur. He did. The current owners of that home of ours would have serious trouble trying to sell it today at anywhere near the price they paid me.

And then today while browsing one of my favorite websites -- First Things magazine -- I came across an article that mirrored what my unnamed expert had said over eight years ago. Of course the First Things' article has the advantage of hindsight; while my expert made a true prediction. You can read the article here: Why Renting Your House Is Better Than Buying.

Pretty interesting stuff. Of course I completely lucked out when it came to selling our home on Cape Cod; and then I turned around and built a retirement home which is now worth less than what it cost me. Yes, some of us are slow learners. But that's okay. If I were really clever about money I'd probably care more about it and end up a slave to it. It's a lot harder to be a slave to mammon when you don't have any.

God's peace...

Is Virtue Overrated?

I hesitate to write about this subject because of the nature of the events that brought it to mind. But I will try to address it as charitably and honestly as possible while avoiding the crudely prurient.

Despite the societal upheaval, the wars and rumors of wars, and the economic chaos that plague our world today, the news story that drew considerably more attention from the media during the past few weeks was the strange case of the Honorable Anthony Weiner, former U. S. Representative (D-NY). I call it strange not only because of the twisted nature of the activities that first got Mr. Weiner into trouble, but also because of the charade of his subsequent week-long defense, a steady stream of public lies that were transparent from the very beginning. Indeed, his string of network interviews were remarkable. Here's my abbreviated rendering of a typical interview:
"Okay, Congressman, you wont deny the photo is of you, or that it was sent from your Facebook account, but you're saying it was a prank by a hacker. Is that correct?"

"Yes, that's exactly what happened."
"Oh, okay. That sounds reasonable."

Yes, the strangeness continued as many in the media seemed to accept these lies -- giving Mr. Weiner a pass -- until they could no longer ignore the avalanche of contrary evidence that all but overwhelmed them. Even then the talking heads seemed more disturbed by Weiner's lying to them than by his immoral actions that precipitated the whole affair. And then the TV-addicted public had to suffer through two embarrassing press conferences -- the apology without the resignation, followed by the apology with the resignation -- during which the Congressman strove mightily to assure us that he will soon be cured of his odd predilections and will be ready to continue his important work, although in a different venue, on behalf of the oppressed. Happily, I watched neither conference, but just caught the highlights on later news shows.

Interestingly, up until his resignation, a majority of Mr. Weiner's constituents seemed to support him. As one fellow in a man-on-the-street interview assured us all, "Hey, that's his personal life. He's been a good congressman." It's this attitude that disturbs me: the idea that it is acceptable to compartmentalize a person's behavior into a private life where almost anything goes and a public life where one gives the appearance of conforming to the established norms of a civilized society. It would seem Mr. Weiner's difficulties stem from the fact that he allowed his private life to encroach on his public life, and he then lied about it. As for the behavior itself? Apparently that doesn't bother some folks all that much, and many seemed to think, The man's a congressman. Cut him some slack.

Have we, as a society, come to believe that certain people are privileged, and are therefore held to a completely different (lower) set of standards? A person who holds public office, or one who has achieved celebrity status through the media or entertainment or athletics, or a business leader, or one who simply has considerable wealth -- these and other notables should be treated differently from the rest of us. And they quite openly expect to be treated differently. In Massachusetts, the state where I lived before retirement, politicians at every level are noted for asking, "Do you know who I am?" Sadly, Mr. Politician, we might not always know who you are, but we certainly know what you are.

I don't believe we, as citizens, think enough about the kind of people we want to represent us. Too often we pay far more attention to what they say, while overlooking who they really are. They may claim to be a "public servant", but how many really accept their role as a servant of the public? When I vote for someone I make an effort to look for evidence of two traits: wisdom and virtue. There are a lot of intelligent and clever politicians out there, but few who are truly wise, who use their intelligence to accomplish that which is good. Intelligence is no virtue; indeed, it is morally neutral. But wisdom, at least from my perspective, is the virtuous application of intelligence.

Virtue, of course, is another word absent from the public discussion. In fact, I think it's probably true to say that in today's public discourse virtue is no longer a virtue, and a virtuous man or woman has for many become an embarrassment. A person who is virtuous is one who habitually chooses and does what is good, but in today's relativistic public square, "good" has lost all meaning. It appears that in today's world a "good" politician is simply one who brings home the bacon for his constituents regardless of how his actions might affect the good of the society as a whole. That such relativism is so widespread does not bode well for the future of our society. For the relativist, your good, your truth is no better or no worse than mine. Today's relativist is really no different than Pontius Pilate who looked down on his God and asked with a sneer, "What is truth?" [Jn 18:38]

Pope Benedict has repeatedly warned us about the perils of such moral relativism:
"We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as definitive and has as its highest value one's own ego and one's own desires... The church needs to withstand the tides of trends and the latest novelties.... We must become mature in this adult faith, we must guide the flock of Christ to this faith.”
And so, I think it important for all citizens to understand that virtue cannot be compartmentalized. If, when the pressure's on, a person lies about his private life, he will also lie about his public life. If he disregards the moral and the good as a private person, what will stop him from doing the same as a public "servant"?

A few weeks ago, I spent several nights making my way through The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, the sixth-century Roman philosopher, and came across a fitting passage [Book 3; Part 4]:
"Surely you can see how much disgrace high office heaps upon the evil?...We can scarcely consider men worthy of respect on account of the offices they hold, if we judge them unworthy of those offices! But if you saw a man endowed with wisdom, you would hardly think him unworthy of respect or of the wisdom he was endowed with, would you?...Because virtue has her own individual worth, which she immediately transfers to whoever possesses her. But as public office cannot do this, it is clear that they have no beauty or worth of their own."
It's a sad thing to watch someone self-destruct in public, but I trust and pray that Mr. Weiner will come to know true redemption -- not the false redemption offered by the world, but that offered only by our loving, merciful God. Pray for him.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Homily: Wednesday, 11th Week in Ordinary Time

Readings: 2 Cor 9:6-11; Ps 112; Mt 6:1-6

Jesus sure can make life difficult, can’t He? He doesn’t even want us to take credit for the good we do. As an agnostic friend once told me, “What good is it to do good if you can’t look good?”

Really now, we invest time, money, and energy into all those good works…and a little credit isn’t much to ask for, some praise for a job well done. Maybe you helped out someone in dire need, or cooked a meal at the soup kitchen, or gave a nice big check to Food for the Poor, or spent a weekend hammering nails for Habitat for Humanity. Does God really mean that we shouldn’t let people know how well we followed the Sermon on the Mount? Shouldn’t we show people how good Christians like ourselves love our neighbor?

Well, no…because in each of these instances, when we publicize our goodness, we run the risk of placing ourselves ahead of God. Just why do you love your neighbor?…assuming that you do. Because it makes you feel good to help them? Or because others will think better of you? Or maybe you hope you can buy your way into heaven? All the usual reasons, but all bad reasons.

You see, brothers and sisters, we love our neighbor because God commands it. He commands us to do good because doing so gives glory to Him. That’s it. That’s the reason.

St. Therese
St. Therese, the Little Flower, once wrote: “Offer God the sacrifice of never gathering any fruit off your tree.” What a wonderful way of summarizing Jesus’ message in today’s Gospel passage. Yes, do the good that God asks of you, but do it quietly.  And by doing so, you just might shed another layer of ego. What difference does it make whether or not anyone knows what you’ve done? God knows, and He’s the only one who counts.

The medieval rabbis used to say that the most perfect form of almsgiving is when the giver doesn’t know to whom he’s giving, and the receiver doesn’t who did the giving. Such an act of giving separates the act itself from the desires of the self. And if another person gets the credit, and this separation widens, all the better. You will have experienced simple goodness – goodness without gratitude, or recognition, or acclaim.

St. Bonaventure
When he prayed, St. Bonaventure used the words, “O Bonitas!” – Oh, Goodness – over and over again, for this was his name for God: Goodness. Bonaventure, as did his saintly contemporaries, believed that “It is the nature of goodness to pour itself out!” They believed this is why God created: He is goodness personified and He poured Himself out by creating the world and every one of us. And so, when you and I do something simply because it is good, and not to please or reward ourselves, we are truly acting Godlike.

Jesus gives us this teaching because He knows how difficult it can be for us to let go of that self. And so Jesus, to help us give God all the glory, tells us to do our good works quietly and humbly… or as St. Therese would say, never gather any fruit off your own tree.

Is this difficult? Oh, my, yes.
Jesus sums it all up by saying, “…the one who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted." This, of course, runs counter to the very core of our fallen human nature and the desire that almost compels us to push ourselves forward and upward. That pesky ego keeps getting in the way of developing a proper relationship with God.

And so, brothers and sisters, it’s not sinfulness alone that will keep us out of the Kingdom. If that were the case, none of us would come to salvation. What we do is certainly important, but often why and how we do it are more important. For Jesus knows we are all sinners. That’s why He began His public ministry by saying quite simply, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”

If we approach God with repentance and an awareness of our sinfulness, we are then more open to the Gospel message. For Jesus is always ready to teach us how to be His disciples. He’s always ready to teach us to give of ourselves, not out of human admiration and need for respect, but from the fire of His love.

And then we can write that donation check. Or we can cook that meal and share it joyfully with the hungry and the homeless. Or we can stretch our muscles by helping to build that house. We can be the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion or proclaim God’s Word to His People, and we can do all these things with hearts filled with thanksgiving and humility, focused on one goal: to give glory to God.