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!

Although I am an ordained deacon of the Catholic Church, the opinions expressed in this blog are my personal opinions. In offering these personal opinions I am not acting as a representative of the Church or any Church organization.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Religion and Our Nation's Future

John Adams
Our nation seems to be rapidly approaching a crossroads that demands we as a people make a decision about the kind of society our children and grandchildren will inherit. We have made many such decisions in the past, but at some point the cumulative effect of these decisions may just lead us down a path to an irrevocable future, one that will alter the very structure of our society. I believe the stability of our society is dependent more on our adherence to religious values than on anything else. Once we jettison those values, once we reject the religious faith that motivated our ancestors, we also must reject the "permanent things" that form the very foundation of our society. As John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, in 1775, "A Constitution of Government once changed from Freedom, can never be restored. Liberty, once lost, is lost forever."

I may have time to revisit this subject in more detail later, but until then I've included below some relevant comments made by folks much wiser than I. Some were present when our nation was formed, while others came after but recognized the indispensability of religion to the life of our nation.

George Washington
The first is an excerpt from George Washington's Farewell Address (1796), a document all Americans should read:
"Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

"It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?"
Today, sadly, some are indeed attempting to shake that very foundation. Here are a few other comments worth pondering:
"Our constitution was made only for a moral religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” -- John Adams, Letter to the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts, 1798
"Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of learning shall ever be encouraged.” -- First Continental Congress, Northwest Ordinance, 1787
Imagine that! Schools that focus on turning out good citizens by instilling both wisdom and virtue.

Alexis de Tocqueville

After his extensive visit to the United States early in the 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote the classic, Democracy in America, in which he commented on the the religious values of the American people:

“I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in their religion—for who can search the human heart?—but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or to a party, but it belongs to the whole nation and to every rank of society . . . While the law permits the Americans to do what they please, religion prevents them from conceiving, and forbids them to commit, what is rash or unjust.”

Once religion is suppressed or removed from the public square, on what will our nation base its administration of justice?

William O. Douglas
And finally, here's a comment made by a self-proclaimed twentieth-century liberal, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who wrote for the majority in a 1952 decision (Zorack v. Clausen) that permitted public schools to release children early to attend religious education.

“We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being. We guarantee the freedom to worship as one chooses. We make room for as wide a variety of beliefs and creeds as the spiritual needs of man deem necessary. We sponsor an attitude on the part of government that shows no partiality to any one group and that lets each flourish according to the zeal of its adherents and the appeal of its dogma. When the state [343 U.S. 306, 314]   encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events to sectarian needs, it follows the best of our traditions. For it then respects the religious nature of our people and accommodates the public service to their spiritual needs. To hold that it may not would be to find in the Constitution a requirement that the government show a callous indifference to religious groups. That would be preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe. Government may not finance religious groups nor undertake religious instruction nor blend secular and sectarian education nor use secular institutions to force one or some religion on any person. But we find no constitutional requirement which makes it necessary for government to be hostile to religion and to throw its weight against efforts to widen the effective scope of religious influence.”

My, how things have changed. I can't think of a single liberal politician or judge today who would agree with Justice Douglas' comments. By today's standards, he sounds very much like a staunch conservative.

God bless America.

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Monday, September 19, 2011

Wise little boys

Ezekiel & Phineas
It's early evening and I'm sitting here with two of my grandsons watching a rather strange animated show, "Fireman Sam", on Sprout. For those of you not blessed with either children or grandchildren, Sprout is a cable network offering fare for the pre-school crowd. The show is strange -- at least to me -- because it features a nasty little boy named Norman who time and again causes major, and usually costly, chaos in his small community and yet is still permitted to live there. After watching only three episodes I was ready to keelhaul the little brat, but the townsfolk, afflicted with an overabundance of tolerance, never cease to forgive Norman. Deep down I recognize the value of the show's message, but Norman pushes the envelope. It would also seem I have a problem suspending my disbelief when faced with fictional Normans. My two grandsons, of course, enjoy the show immensely and have no trouble recognizing the absurdity of Norman and his over the top selfishness. They also applaud the townspeople and their continual forgiveness -- "not seven times, but seventy-seven times." And I thought grandfathers were supposed to be a family's source of all things wise.

Live and learn...

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Friday, September 16, 2011

A Bishop on Bishops

On September 8, the day on which we celebrate the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Archbishop Charles Chaput was installed as the new archbishop of Philadelphia. In the course of his homily that day, he made some interesting comments about the role of the bishop in the Church. I have included them below.

Along with a ring, two other symbols really define a bishop’s ministry. The first is the pectoral cross that rests next to the bishop’s heart. And Jesus tells us that if we want to be his disciples, we need to do three things (Mt 16:21-27): We need deny ourselves, we need to take up our cross, and we need to follow him. It’s vitally important for the bishop to really believe this, and to live it, and to preach it, even when calling people to accept it is very difficult, because it's difficult to be faithful to the Gospel.
The second symbol is the crosier, which is a symbol of the shepherd. The Good Shepherd was the first image of Christian art created by the earliest disciples in the catacombs in Rome. One of first representations of Jesus we have is the Good Shepherd who carries a lamb on his shoulders. All of us, especially the people of Philadelphia, should keep that image in our hearts in the months ahead because the Good Shepherd really will bring the Church in Philadelphia through this difficult moment in our history to security and joy and a better future.

This installation today takes place in the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. The word cathedral comes from the Greek word cathedra, which means "the chair." The cathedral is the church that houses the bishop’s chair, which has always been seen as another key symbol of the bishop’s role – in this case, his teaching authority. St. Augustine of Hippo, speaking in the 4th century captured the role of the bishop in these words. He said:

“Jerusalem had watchmen who stood guard . . . And this is what bishops do. Now, bishops are assigned this higher place” -- the bishop’s chair in the basilica – “so that they themselves may oversee and, as it were, keep watch over the people. For they are called episkopos in Greek, which means ‘overseer,’ because the bishop oversees; because he looks down from [his chair] . . . And on account of this high place, a perilous accounting will have to be rendered [by the bishop] – unless we stand here with a heart such that we place ourselves beneath your feet in humility.” ...

My dear brother bishops, it’s crucial for those of us who are bishops not simply to look like bishops but to truly be bishops. Otherwise, we’re just empty husks -- the kind of men St Augustine referred to when he said, “You say, ‘He must be a bishop for he sits upon the cathedra.’ True – and a scarecrow might be called a watchman in the vineyard.” ...

This Church in Philadelphia faces very serious challenges these days. There’s no quick fix to problems that are so difficult, and none of us here today, except the Lord Himself, is a miracle worker. But it's important to remember and to believe the Church is not defined by her failures. And you and I are not defined by our critics or by those who dislike us. What we do in the coming months and years to respond to these challenges – that will define who we really are. And in engaging that work, we need to be Catholics first, and always. Jesus Christ is the center of our lives, and the Church is our mother and teacher. Everything we do should flow from that.

Click here to read Archbishop Chaput's entire homily.

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On the road again...

It seems as if Diane and I just returned from our last trip (that one to the cornfields of Iowa), and now here we are again leaving the familiar comforts of home, driving north on the always exciting I-95. On the previous trip we celebrated the marriage of the son of our dear friends, Nancy and Dave Lee, but this time we will join in an even more personal celebration: the marriage of our youngest, Brendan, to his sweetie, Amari. The wedding will take place on October 1st on the island of Nantucket where they both live. Of course, we will also make the rounds and visit our other three children and eight grandchildren who, sadly for them, all live in Massachusetts.

I like to think age has had little effect on me, that I'm still as vigorous and healthy as ever, but there's nothing like a long rode trip to bring reality to the fore. It's especially evident whenever we stop for gas or a bite to eat. I swing my body out of the driver's seat and my aging back and joints rebel. I suspect it's quite a sight for onlookers. Also, in the past I often drove 700-800 miles I'm a day; now I'm lucky to log 500, which is how far we drove today.

This, I believe, is one of God's blessings. As we age and our bodies begin to deteriorate, we are reminded of our mortality, that death cannot be avoided. While pondering our faith and the brevity of our lives, we come to realize that we had better turn to our loving God -- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit -- and reorient our lives to God's will. There's nothing like advancing age to remind us of the true insignificance of our petty, worldly concerns and all the pomps and works of men, and force us to confront that which is truly important: our salvation.

Oh, yes, it's also cold here in North Carolina. Right now it's a miserably cold 59 degrees, which for us Floridians is downright wintry. We were looking forward to a nice balmy September in New England, but now I expect we'll be regretting our decisions on what clothing we packed. Ah, well, it will only make our return to Florida that much sweeter.

Keep us in your prayers as we negotiate the insanity of northeast Interstates. God's peace.

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Location:Lumberton, NC

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Homily: Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

Note: Today, September 14, is a special feast in the liturgical calendar of the Church. We celebrate both the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem (the first of which was built during the reign of the Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century) and the discovery of the Holy Cross by Constantine's mother, St. Helena, in 320 A.D.


Readings: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 78; Phil 2:6-11; John 3:13-17

St. Helena
The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross is an ancient feast, going back to the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem in 335 A.D. The church encloses both Golgotha and Jesus’ tomb, and on this site St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, found the true Cross.

Among the many legends surrounding this event is one that says Helena found three crosses. Since she couldn’t identify the real one, each cross was placed on a man suffering from a severe handicap. The true Cross was the one that healed.

If there are doubts about the actual Cross, there is less doubt about the site. The Church was completely destroyed on several occasions; first by the Persians in 614 AD. When Jerusalem was recaptured, the Cross was brought back from Persia in triumph and enthroned in the partially rebuilt Church.

Emperor Heraclius intended to carry the cross during the dedication ceremony; but he couldn’t budge it, and so Bishop Zachary told him to remove his royal garments. Heraclius changed clothes, put on penitential garb, and carried the Cross easily.

The church was again destroyed in 1009 by the Egyptian Caliphate, along with every other church in the Holy Land, except the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem. But in the 12th century the church was rebuilt once again, this time by Crusaders.
As you might imagine, legends about the true Cross abound. It really matters little whether or not they’re true. The point is, they still offer us some truths in which we can take comfort and apply in our lives. Just like St. Helena’s handicapped man, we too can experience the healing power of the Cross. And it’s been healing throughout time, even when it wasn’t explicitly recognized.

Listen again to these words of our 1st reading from Numbers: “with their patience worn out by the journey, the people complained against God and Moses.” I don’t know about you, but I can relate to this.  The life of faith often seems like a long trip in the desert, and our faith can suffer.

Moses and the bronze serpent
Because of their sin, their faithlessness, God’s people were afflicted by venomous snakes. So God instructed Moses: "Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live."

The bronze serpent, lifted up, points to the Cross of Christ, which defeats sin and death and obtains everlasting life for those who believe.

From Jesus "being lifted up on the Cross" and his Resurrection, we are reborn “in the Spirit" as adopted sons and daughters of the Father. God not only redeems us, but fills us with divine life that we might share in his glory.

Jesus gives us the Holy Spirit so we can witness to Him, spread and defend the gospel by word and action, and never be ashamed of Christ's Cross. This same Holy Spirit gives us his seven-fold gifts of wisdom and understanding, right judgment, and courage, knowledge and reverence for God and his ways, and a holy fear in God's presence that we may live God's way of life.

Do we pray for the gifts of the Spirit? Do we thirst for new life in the Spirit? We should. We must.

Another truth that comes out of those early legends: Like the emperor, in humility we can always glory in the Cross. A friend, a Christian but not a Catholic, once told me that she didn’t mind the Cross, but she found a crucifix to be offensive. You see, for many, and for far too many Christians, Catholics included, Christ crucified is an embarrassment.

Our second reading, from Philippians, not only affirms our faith in Jesus as fully divine and fully human, but more than that, it affirms the Cross. It focuses on the seemingly absurd notion that the Creator of the universe allowed Himself to be murdered by His creatures. Yes, the Cross is a scandal to so many. They want a comfortable faith, like a warm blanket on a cold night, when of course, true Christian faith is really the Cross, the Cross with our God hanging on it.

Yes, the Cross is about a God who loves us so much He willingly suffered a painful, ignominious death. It’s about suffering, something the world tells us to avoid. It’s about redemption, something few people believe they really need. And it’s about grace, something that few of us understand.

Too often grace is seen as God’s medicine, as His analgesic for life’s difficult times. But before God’s grace can heal, it often cuts with the sword Christ said He came to bring. Grace follows the crosses of our lives: illness, depression, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, a crisis of faith, tragedy or sorrow in our children’s lives, personal rejection. It’s then, when we suffer the most, when we carry our cross, that God’s grace is most abundant – if only we ask for it.

Pope John Paul II
In John’s Gospel we hear Jesus asking Nicodemus, a Jew, to understand the story of Moses lifting up the serpent in a new way, as a foreshadowing of the Cross of our redemption. And Jesus reassures Nicodemus and us with those wonderful words: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish, but might have eternal life.”

Jesus turned the Cross, an instrument of cruelty and shame, into a symbol of God’s love and glory. As He hung on that Cross, He transformed the world. He transformed history.

Our only response to this wonderful gift is prayer, obedience, and our feeble attempts to respond to His love by loving one another in His name.We are called to focus our gaze on Jesus, on Christ crucified, and on the glory of His Resurrection. Let us never be dulled to the power and promise of the Cross, and willingly share its sign with the world: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Homily: 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: Sir 27: 30 - 28: 9; Ps 103; Rom 14: 7-9; Mt 18: 21-35

A few weeks after the events of September 11, 2001, a local New England TV station interviewed the mother of a young woman killed in that terrorist attack. The woman was leaving the Catholic Church where the funeral Mass for her daughter had just been celebrated. A reporter approached her and her other grown children, stuck a microphone in her face and asked that time-honored, yet still idiotic question: “How do you feel?”

One of the woman’s sons turned on the reporter and began to push him away when the woman reached out a hand and stopped him and said:

“No, it’s alright. I’ll answer his question. I’ll tell you how I feel. I’m filled with grief at losing my daughter in such a horrible way. I’m more angry than you can imagine at those who planned and carried out these senseless, murderous acts. And deep down I want revenge, pure unadulterated revenge.

“But then I remember I’m a Christian and I’ve just been to Mass to praise God for the gift of my daughter. Then I remember that Jesus forgave His killers as He hung on that Cross. Then I remember that we are called to forgive just as He forgives. And if I don’t forgive then I am no longer a Christian. I will never forget because I’m a mother who lost her child. But I have already forgiven them, all of them.”

She then turned and walked away.

Her comments were aired on the early evening news, but they were dropped from the late news. I suspect they weren’t what people wanted to hear.

"I forgive you." Hard words aren’t they? Perhaps the hardest thing we ever do -- this matter of forgiveness -- because it seems to grind against our deepest sensibilities.

Why forgive? Well, one reason is given to us in today's first reading: "Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight." Exactly so! How tightly we sinners grasp this refusal to forgive. We wait for the other person to make the first move, but where does reconciliation really begin? Maybe our answer to this question shows us why forgiveness is such a rare commodity in the world.

A few years ago, waiting in the dentist’s office, I read a magazine article about a man on death row here in Florida. He had shot and killed a young policeman. Now I'm not going to address the Church’s teaching on capital punishment…at least not today. That's the subject of another homily on another Sunday.

No, what struck me were the words of the dead policeman's family. They had allowed a very natural grief to turn into something else: hatred that spawned a need for revenge. During the years of appeals, they were consumed by one goal: to witness the execution of the killer of their son. Any suggestion of forgiveness was quickly dismissed. It just seemed so very sad.

Now society certainly has the right and obligation to punish those who commit crimes. Jesus never instructed us to set criminals free unpunished. I recall the words of a theology professor of mine years ago, a Jesuit who had spent years brutalized in a Chinese Communist prison: "You punish crime; you forgive sin."

And remember John Paul II tenderly holding the hand that held the gun, and forgiving his would-be assassin. But the Holy Father didn’t ask the Italian government to release him from prison.

In today’s gospel passage Jesus once again begins his teaching in response to a question, this time posed by Peter: "Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often should I forgive him? As many as seven times?"

Now, to a Jew, the number seven indicated completeness. So Peter no doubt thought he was being generous, and probably expected praise. But Jesus is unimpressed, and responds, "…not seven times, but seventy-seven times."

77 was also symbolic to the Jews, meaning unlimited. In other words, Jesus is telling Peter to place no limit on forgiveness. Is He serious? No limit to forgiveness? No point at which we are justified in saying, "Enough! I've had it up to here with you and your cruelty…or your lying…or your abuse"?

Well, we first must make a distinction between forgiveness and enabling. Forgiveness is not synonymous with stupidity. If someone is in a dangerous situation, to remain there is foolish and often only encourages continued bad behavior. And second, we must realize that forgiveness does not begin with us. It begins with God.

Alexander Pope, the great Catholic poet, summed it when he said: "To err is human; to forgive divine." Indeed, throughout the Old Testament, despite the unfaithfulness of His People, we encounter a God of love and forgiveness. For generation after generation, the prophets summoned the people of Israel to national repentance: for lies, injustice, violence, idolatry, slaughter of the innocent…acts that denied God and separated them from Him. Time and again, a loving, forgiving God reached out to them, for God never stops offering His love, asking only that we accept it and agree to love Him and each other in return.

That’s the good news in today’s gospel: if we accept God's terms, His spirit will move within us. Listen to God’s Word in Ezekiel: "A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you." And from our 1st reading from the Book of Sirach: "Forgive your neighbor's injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven."

You see, Jesus didn't tell us anything about forgiveness that God had not already told the people of Israel. But for us Christians, this message of love becomes incarnate in Jesus. It becomes inscribed in His very flesh. "For God so loved the world" that He gave the world – that’s you and me – not some avenging angel wielding a sword, but His own Son, "so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but have eternal life."

Think of the forgiveness this involved. Recall today's parable. Believe me, it's important. Like the master in the parable, God has forgiven us a huge debt, a debt so enormous that we could never hope to repay it. It’s the debt that comes from sin, our sin, our separation from God. Nothing anyone else can do to us can remotely compare to that debt. Nothing we can forgive can compare with what we have been forgiven.

You see, brothers and sisters, it is our sin that brought about the suffering and death of God's only Son. To pay our debt, the Son of God was crucified. And what was His response? "Father, forgive them…" Is it any wonder that Jesus says we should place no limit on our willingness to forgive?

A few moments from now, we will join together and pray the prayer Jesus taught us; and we’ll utter the words: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." What does it mean for God to forgive me?

It doesn't mean He forgets what I’ve done. My sin is still a fact. It happened. It doesn't just go away. No, for God to forgive me is for God to change me. And when the priest, acting as an instrument of God's mercy, utters the words of absolution, I am changed. Through God's grace, at the very root of my being, I have a new relationship with God. My entire being becomes alive with the life of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit live within me. I become St. Paul's "new creation."

Only God can forgive like that – a forgiveness that tells the sinner he or she is now radically different, has been transformed. Only God can change hearts, but you and I can be God's instruments, bringing His forgiveness to the everyday incidents in our lives that threaten to tear us one from another.

The harsh words spoken by husband or wife.

The stubborn streak that keeps me from taking the first step toward reconciliation.

The hardness of heart toward those who are hurtful toward me…whatever the issue.

The anger within me toward the obnoxious boss, or the driver who won’t move when the light changes, or the rude clerk at the local store, or the needy family member who demands so much, or the priest or deacon who didn’t listen to my problem.

With this forgiveness comes remarkable benefits. "If you forgive others," Jesus tells us, "your Heavenly Father will also forgive you." And for those we forgive, we can create paths for God's grace. Isn't this our Christian vocation? To be evangelists or, as St. Paul put it, ambassadors for Christ.

That’s what forgiveness is: carrying out the reconciling work of Jesus Christ. Without reconciliation with God, there’s no redemption, no salvation. And, yes, we are called to forgive terrorists, even as we demand justice for their crimes. Men and women are brought ever closer to God's saving Love only to the extent that we join Jesus on the Cross,  link our arms with the crucified Christ and murmur, "Father forgive them…"

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

World Youth Day: a Jewish Reaction

David Hatchwell Altaras
It seems that last month's World Youth Day celebration in Madrid was well received by more than the world's Catholic youth. David Hatchwell, vice president and spokesman for the 10,000-member Jewish Community of Madrid, was enthusiastic in calling it an "absolute success."

Hatchwell was interviewed by ZENIT, an international news agency based in Rome that provides news on the Catholic Church. In the course of the interview, he said some interesting things; for example:
"Those of us who think the same things must be together. Catholics, as other groups, have the right to express themselves, even if there are protests against this. They have the right to believe what they believe, and for this reason we have this closeness, because we Jews know very well what it is to be vilified. We understand what it is to be de-legitimatized, and I live it constantly in my flesh.
"I am very sensitive, and not only am I concerned but I am annoyed by the tendencies to de-legitimize people. One can be in disagreement with someone, but attacks do not have to happen on groups in an unjustified manner and out of context. In this connection our support of an event such as WYD is clear. I rejoice that this WYD was held and hence the proximity with the event."
When asked why he was so pleased with World Youth Day, Hatchwell stated:
"Without a doubt this trip of the Pope was an absolute success. It is the greatest event of the last decades: I don't remember something like it. To see Madrid with all kinds of young people on the streets -- people that you can tell are very healthy, with positive energy -- has been incredible, and a delight to see it. The evaluation can only be positive.
"In the multitude of events that succeeded one another, it was demonstrated every day that what was wanted was a very powerful spiritual moment, and this happened."
Hatchwell was also enthusiastic about the message delivered by Pope Benedict XVI to the hundreds of thousands of young people from throughout the world:
"Without a doubt the message was very important, especially the reconnection with a series of values. This appeal transcends a specific creed; they are not just Christian messages, but universal.

"The Pope asked young people to be very courageous in their convictions. We are before a very profound ethical relativism, with a tendency to rob value of the things many people have as basic principles of their education. In this we are totally in agreement with the Pope: Values are necessary in a modern society to confront relativism and to continue believing in the moral convictions that people desire.

"Another striking aspect of the message was that we not live in the tyranny of the individual, there is no absolute I, but that collective common spiritual values and service are necessary today...Jews and Christians share core common values. Jesus was a Jew, and so were the first Christians; hence the shared values that without a doubt continue to be the same."  

To read the complete interview with David Hatchwell, click here: A Jewish Reaction to WYD

Hatchwell has been instrumental in fighting the ongoing campaign in Europe that not only attacks Israel and denies its very right to exist, but has also encouraged attacks on Jews in general. It's a campaign of pure hatred and is backed, encouraged and bankrolled by Iran and its two puppet terrorist organizations in the Middle East, Hizbullah and Hamas. Like all campaigns founded on hatred, it has spawned a growing number of physical attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions throughout Europe. Even Europe's mainstream media and, unfortunately, too many of its political leaders, are either indifferent to what has been happening or passively support the campaign.

Interesting, isn't it? Believing Christians are coming to understand that attacks on and hatred of Jews are also attacks on Christianity. The Jews not only preserved God's revealed Word and kept it intact over the centuries so it could be received by the Church, but they also kept themselves, God's Chosen People, intact. And from them would come the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ, who was born, lived and died a Jew. To hate the Jews is to hate Jesus, the Word of God Himself, and His bride, the Church.

As the world becomes increasingly hostile to revealed truth and to those who believe in the one, true God, faithful Jews and Christians are realizing that they must come together and support and defend each other and their shared Judeo-Christian values. And while persecution is certainly not welcome, it's important for the faithful to understand that God always brings good from evil to those who love HIm. Persecution brings strength to the weak, and puts the spotlight on the truth, pushing the lies into the surrounding darkness. The truth will always triumph, and it was fitting that Pope Benedict made this point on several occasions during his time in Madrid.

I was particularly moved by Pope Benedict's comments during the welcoming ceremony when he stated:
"World Youth Day brings us a message of hope like a pure and youthful breeze, with rejuvenating scents which fill us with confidence before the future of the Church and the world. Of course, there is no lack of difficulties. There are tensions and ongoing conflicts all over the world, even to the shedding of blood. But, with all my heart, I say again to you young people: let nothing and no one take away your peace; do not be ashamed of the Lord. He did not spare himself in becoming one like us and in experiencing our anguish so as to lift it up to God, and in this way he saved us."
For full coverage of Pope Benedict's homilies and addresses during World Youth Day, go directly to the Vatican's website: Apostolic Journey to Madrid

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Homily: 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Ez 33:7-9 • Ps 95 • Rom 13:8-10 • Mt 18:15-20

As a deacon I’ve conducted my share of marriage preparation sessions over the years.As you might expect, most are enjoyable. After all I’m helping two people as they prepare to take what will likely be the most important step of their lives. They’re in love, with stars in their eyes, and they’re very happy because they haven’t a clue about what marriage will demand of them in the years to come.

I tell them many surprising things. For example, when I ask, “What’s your greatest responsibility as a husband or wife?” I get some strange answers. And when I tell them it’s to aid in the eternal salvation of  their spouse, I get some even stranger looks.

Every so often, though, during one of these sessions, something unpleasant would arise. I’ll never forget one young bride, a local girl with a large extended family in our little town. When I suggested her wedding would no doubt be attended by a large contingent of her relatives, she said: “Oh, no, deacon, my mother hasn’t spoken to any of her family since her marriage 25 years ago. She won’t let me invite any of them.” When I asked why, she said, “Oh, I really don’t know, something personal, I guess. It was a long time ago.”

How extraordinarily sad! None of the many aunts and uncles and cousins, not even the bride’s grandmother, would share in the celebration of this young woman’s marriage…and all because of some foolish reasons that have long been forgotten. For a quarter-century a family was torn apart because no one forgave, because no one asked for forgiveness, because a family never came together to pray for unity, because no one tried to correct the sinner. And yet they all attend Mass on Sunday and pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Don’t they realize what they’re saying? Don’t they know they’re telling God not to forgive them of their own sinfulness? Later, when I brought up the subject to the bride’s mother, she just turned and walked away. Talk about a “hardened heart.” What bitterness. Just consider how that lack of forgiveness poisoned an entire family, and how it will likely drew in another family, that of the groom.

If a wedding won’t bring them together, what will? Perhaps a funeral. Sometimes it takes death to wake people up. Sometimes it takes the tears of grief to wash away the sins of the past.

Of course, such things aren’t restricted to the human family; they also affect our spiritual family. The “God of peace” gathers the Christian community together, and because it is Christ who “is Himself our peace,” the life of the Church, like the life of any family, must be marked by a continual quest for peace and unity.

When the risen Jesus appeared to the Apostles, He said, “Peace be with you.” And St. Paul, in his Letter to the Philippians, promised that “the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Now they weren’t talking about some utopian ideal, some fuzzy peace way out in the future. No, they meant peace and unity fully realized in the here and now. After all, the Church is already the Body of Christ.

And so in today’s passage from Matthew we see Jesus addressing His Church, telling us that peace and unity should be its natural state. When this peace is disturbed, Jesus tells us, the one intolerable attitude is indifference; we must seek reconciliation. This applies to the universal Church, the local church of our diocese, and to the parish church, the church that comes together as a community of worshipers, listening to and living out God’s Word and fed by the miraculous gift of the Eucharist. It also applies to the domestic church, the family.

You see, the Church is essentially and fundamentally holy at the very center of her being. She’s utterly immaculate in her deepest identity as the Bride of Christ whom, as Paul reminds us, the Son washed clean with the blood of His Cross. “Christ loved the Church,” Paul wrote, “and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify her… and present the Church to Himself…holy and without blemish.”

Of course, while on this earthly pilgrimage, the Church exists as a community of sinners – and that’s us. It’s within us where the struggle is waged, the struggle between the impulse of the Holy Spirit and that of  the evil one. And sometimes we hide from the truth and cave to the evil one. But when the truth is set aside, peace and unity leave with it.

Today far too many people reject the very notion of truth, preferring to view the world in relativistic terms. As Pope Benedict reminds us, “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 result is a moral vacuum, a chaotic mindset and lifestyle in which anything goes, a make-believe world where nothing is evil and nothing is good, a world where sin is rejected.

Ah, but the world can’t just wish sin away, can it? Because it’s there, as big as ever…rationalized, disguised, sometimes even glorified, but it’s still sin. Yes, Jesus knew all about sin. He readily called a sin a sin, never hiding the truth. Indeed, He speaks often of sins and sinners, just as He does in today’s passage from Matthew.

Here He reminds us that we sin against God, and also against one another, against our brother. His use of the word “brother” is significant because in the Church we’re called to see one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, as children of the one heavenly Father and one Mother, the Church.

But correction can be tricky, can’t it? Our own motives can get in the way. Some people correct others simply because they’re busybodies. Some enjoy putting others down, thinking this will make them look better by comparison. Others focus only on their own hurt and are really looking for payback. Yes, judging another isn’t easy, which is why Jesus instructs us first to speak to the other person privately, without an audience.

The true disciple, you see, always intervenes out of love – out of a love for God, and out of love for the sinner himself. As St. Paul tell us, “…restore him in a spirit of gentleness.”

And if the sinner refuses to listen…? “If he does not want to listen to the Church, let him be to you like a Gentile or a tax collector.”  This might sound harsh to our 21st-century ears, but the Jews of Jesus’ day readily understood what Jesus meant. And Paul echoed this when he wrote, “If anyone refuses to obey what we say in this letter, note that man, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not look on him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.”

Just like Ezekiel in our first reading, who was given the responsibility to remind people of their sinfulness, we too are called to be prophets. We are all called to bring God’s Word to His people. We are called to reconcile with love, to remind the sinner that he, too, is a child of God, a God that loves him and wants him united with the Church.

Are you a prophet in your own family? Do you have a wayward child? Are you thinking, “But he never listens, so why bother?” The answer is simple. Because God commands it. Never give up, brothers and sisters. After all, God doesn’t. As a parent, there is no better, no more deserving object of your prayers.

And remember, too, we are all sinners in need of reconciliation, and before we judge others too harshly, let’s look first at ourselves, and be willing to accept the correction of others. See in the love of those who care about the state of our souls a sign to us of God’s love; a plea to turn away from sinfulness and to lives of holiness.

As Paul reminds us in today’s second reading, we owe a debt of love to our brothers and sisters, and real love always seeks to lead others to salvation.

May God's peace be with you always.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

World Youth Day - Madrid

Popemobile makes its way through the crowd
"But I am not the star, I am only the vicar. I point beyond myself to the Other who is in our midst." -- Pope Benedict XVI on the eve of World Youth Day

I'm a little late commenting on World Youth Day, that spectacular gathering in Madrid of faithful youth from all over the world that took place August 16-21, but life's events conspired against me. Our long-planned trip to Iowa to celebrate the wedding of the son of our good friends and then Diane's surgery this past week monopolized much of my time. As it turned out, because we were on the road during most of World Youth Day, I didn't even get to watch the events on TV. I did catch a few reports on the mainstream media and was once again amazed at how they willfully distort religious news. Almost two million young people come together to celebrate their faith and the media coverage I saw focused on a few hundred protesters. My, so many in the media despise the Church. Not to worry, though. Were not the last words of Jesus to His apostles, "And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” [Mt 28:20]?

Young people greet the pope in Madrid
In recent days, as I reviewed some of the coverage after the fact, the joy and faith of these young folks was so apparent. Joyfully, singing and waving the flags of their homelands, they filled the streets and the squares of Madrid, and when they greeted Pope Benedict XVI they seemed almost to burst in their enthusiasm.

A few years before he became Pope Benedict XVI, I met the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger on a Roman street not far from St. Peter's Square, and had the opportunity to speak with him for a few minutes. He is a very unassuming man, a rather small, shy man. I expect he's more at home in the role of professor than as Vicar of Christ, the leader of Christ's Church on earth. But setting aside his personal desires, he responded to the call of the Holy Spirit and these young people responded to him with the kind of exuberance you'd think they reserved only for rock stars.

What brought these young people together? What could possibly draw so many of today's teens and twenty-somethings to Madrid to celebrate their faith, the faith of the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church? Why would hundreds of thousands of the world's youth look to the Catholic Church for direction when everyone who is anyone knows that the Catholic Church is a repressive organization determined to impose its medieval morality and ancient rites on a progressive world? And why would these same young people express such enthusiasm for this old man, this defender of the Faith, a faith rejected by so many of their parents?

Pope Benedict greets the youth of the world
Interesting questions, aren't they? And what's more interesting is that today's faithful youth seem also to have rejected the liberal, relativistic version of their faith espoused by so many of my generation. Instead, they have turned to the Church and its magisterial teachings in search of the "permanent things", the unchanging truths that provide a stable anchor in this unstable world. They look at the world we have handed them and they say, "Thanks, but no thanks. You have given us a world that ignores its holy roots, a world cluttered with material goodies, but void of real meaning."

Do you remember that TV show from the 80s called "Fame"? It featured the students attending a high school in New York City devoted to the performing arts. The show's theme song included the following lyrics:
I'm gonna live forever. I'm gonna learn how to fly.
I feel it comin' together. People will see me and cry.

I'm gonna make it to heaven. Light up the sky like a flame.
I'm gonna live forever. Baby, Remember my name.
The words point to a human desire, one that is especially evident in the young, for something greater than what the world seems to offer most of us. "I want to live forever..." are words that seek immortality, but these children of the 80s could see their fulfillment only in the fame that comes from being a celebrity, a false form of eternal life, one that crumbles into dust along with everything else in the material world. And yet, tucked in among the lyrics is the statement, "I'm gonna make it to heaven...", words that betray what the human heart seeks above all else, true eternal life, the happiness that comes only from being in the very presence of God.

Kurt Cobain
I believe many of today's youth have come to recognize this. They see the unhappiness and despair of those who were promised so much by the world. They see their celebrities, their supposed heroes, the ones who "made it", and they see them self-destruct right before their eyes. The despair of a Kurt Cobain is very real when he says, "The finest day I ever had was when tomorrow never came", and then kills himself.

Or they watch a talented Amy Winehouse dissolve into absurdity on a series of public stages as she is eventually overcome by drugs and alcohol.

They see these finders of fame and others like them and ask, "Is that what comes from material success? Is that what I want?"

Amy Winehouse
The wise ones among today's youth are searching for something that transcends the ephemeral pleasures offered by the world, and in doing so they have turned to what their ancestors bequeathed them, a bequest long ignored but retrievable. They have found the Faith, and in the discovering they can hardly believe the joy it has brought them. For now their lives have real meaning.

Interestingly, while these thousands of joyful young people were gathering in Madrid, many of England's youth were engaging in a collective temper tantrum, burning and looting and assaulting. Given so much in the way of material benefits, they simply want more. Pampered, not required to work for anything, continually given whatever they demand, they are continually dissatisfied. Since their society has rejected Christianity and by extension its moral values, why should they feel any need to adhere to a morality deemed obsolete by their parents?

Young looters in London
If we're not careful, we can see such increasingly common riotous behavior and believe it to be the future. We, too, can be led to despair for the world. Don't let this happen to you. Remember, the world was changed once before when twelve men were sent out by Jesus Christ to evangelize a troubled planet. From a human perspective the odds against their success could not have been higher, but they carried with them the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit will not be denied. In the same way, today's young evangelists have been sent from Madrid to bring Jesus Christ's message of salvation to an even more troubled world. And they, too, will carry the gifts of the Spirit. They, too, will be instruments of God's grace in the lives of those they encounter. Pray for them always.

This is why I never despair, regardless of the chaos that seems to rule the lives of so many in our world today. These young people who joined Pope Benedict in Madrid have the kind of faith that moves mountains. They are natural evangelists for they approach their world unafraid, filled with the confidence that comes only from the Holy Spirit. We old folks can learn from them. One 18-year-old American girl in Madrid, Hannah Davidson from Kansas, told a reporter, "My faith is definitely stronger and I am going to promote it a lot more." Simple words but can you think of a better way to say it? I can't.

A "Young" Pope Benedict XVI
As Pope Benedict told this global gathering of youth during one of his homilies,
"They will wonder what the secret of your life is and they will discover that the rock which underpins the entire building and upon which rests your whole existence is the very person of Christ, your friend, brother and Lord, the Son of God incarnate, who gives meaning to all the universe."

This call to evangelize, then, must be realized not simply through our words, but through the lives we lead as Christians. As the pope stated, "They will wonder..." It is Jesus Christ, this light of our lives, that must shine through the gloom of the world, calling others to want to know the secret of our Christian joy. It's an open secret, one that the Church has preached and taught for 2,000 years.

Here's a brief video on World Youth Day in Madrid. I think you'll enjoy it.

A few days after World Youth Day, the pope, speaking to a group of his former students, apologized for the many Catholics who have ignored the call by Jesus to evangelize. "We who have known God since we were young, must ask forgiveness...we bring people so little of the light of His face, because from us comes so little certainty that He exists, that He is there, and that He is the Great One that everyone is waiting for." This, of course, echoes the pope's frequent call for radical Christian discipleship, repeating the call issued by Jesus again and again in the Gospels. It is a call we cannot ignore.

God's peace...

Thursday, September 1, 2011

St. Justin Martyr on the Mass

I find it interesting that a lot of people, and not just Protestants, but Catholics as well, don't realize that the celebration of the Mass as we know it today has roots that go back to the earliest days of Christianity. Of course, as Catholics we believe that the first Mass was indeed celebrated by Jesus at the Last Supper on the night before He died. We also believe that when He instructed the apostles to "do this in remembrance of me" [Lk 22:19], they did just that in what they called "the breaking of the bread". This command of Jesus was also accompanied by a promise, that He would be present in the bread and wine offered by the Apostles and their successors: "This is my body...This is my blood." St. Paul certainly believed in the reality and fulfillment of this promise, a belief evident in his First Letter to the Corinthians:
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes. 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. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself. [1 Cor 11:23-29]
Were the bread and wine simply bread and wine, how could one eat and drink unworthily? How could one be called to answer for the body and blood of the Lord?

And it was also Paul who helped the Jews of his time understand the nature of Jesus' redemptive sacrifice on the Cross. Again, in First Corinthians, he makes sure his readers understand that it is through the Last Supper, that first Mass, that Jesus makes His death a sacrifice in which his sacrificial blood establishes the New Covenant.

And if you've read any of the early Church Fathers, you find that their understanding of the Eucharist is consistent with that of the Catholic Church throughout the ages. One of the more interesting descriptions of the Mass in the early Church was written by St. Justin Martyr in approximately 155 A.D. This particular work of Justin's, his First Apology, was written to the Roman Emperor to prove that Christians were upright, moral people and good citizens. During the course of the letter, Justin describes the Mass as it was celebrated in the Church. Note how today's Eucharistic Celebration mirrors what Justin describes. He begins with a baptism, followed by Mass.
But we, after we have thus washed him who has been convinced and has assented to our teaching, bring him to the place where those who are called brethren are assembled, in order that we may offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized person, and for all others in every place, that we may be counted worthy, now that we have learned the truth, by our works also to be found good citizens and keepers of the commandments, so that we may be saved with an everlasting salvation. Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to γένοιτο [so be it]. And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.
And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, This do in remembrance of Me, [Luke 22:19] this is My body; and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, This is My blood; and gave it to them alone.
And we afterwards continually remind each other of these things. And the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost. And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succors the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration. [St. Justin Martyr, The First Apology, 65-67]
Once again, echoing St. Paul, Justin proclaims the Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ present under the appearances of bread and wine. This belief, held dear by the Church for 2,000 years, has not wavered and is manifested daily in the Celebration of the Eucharist in every Catholic Church throughout the world.

Here are two excellent and very readable books that should whet your appetite to dig more deeply into the subject:
Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, Brant Pitre, Doubleday, 2011

The Mass of the Early Christians, Mike Aquilina, Our Sunday Visitor, 2001
I often find myself completely overwhelmed by just the thought of the Eucharist, that our Lord and Savior, the Creative Word of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity is actually present -- Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity -- in the bread and wine we share in Communion at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. 

The Eucharist is God’s most special gift to His people, and what a marvelous gift it is! First and foremost it is a sign of His total and everlasting love; for in the Eucharist God gives us the gift of His Son, making Jesus truly present to us and in us. And what a special way for God to fulfill the promise Jesus made as He ascended to the Father: "And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age." [Mt 28:20]. Is it any wonder why the Church calls the Eucharist "the source and summit of the Christian life."  

Eucharist is real food for the soul, and “preserves, increases, and renews the life of grace received at Baptism.” [Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1392] Indeed, the more we share in the Eucharist, receiving the living Christ within us, the more difficult it is to break away from Him through sin.
The Eucharist also unites us as members of Christ’s Mystical Body. It strengthens and renews the Church, uniting the faithful to each other, to the Church, and to Christ. And it helps us recognize the presence of Christ in all His people, particularly in the poorest of His brethren. To see Jesus in the poor, the weak, the persecuted, the homeless, the hungry and thirsty, the imprisoned takes on new meaning when we realize that, through the Eucharist, Christ is truly present in them.
And lest I forget, here's an interesting video I came across a while back. It presents the words of St. Justin Martyr that relate to the Mass in the 2nd century.

What a gift we have in the Eucharist! 
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever.