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, July 17, 2013

Confronting Illness

Increasingly I seem to be spending time with those who suffer from illness of one kind or another. This, I suppose, should be expected since my ministry as a deacon certainly involves visiting the sick. Another obvious reason for this increase is that earlier this year Dear Diane and I began to minister as volunteer chaplains at our local hospital. After all, one doesn't go to the hospital with the expectation of encountering too many healthy people. And then there's my age and that of many of my friends and acquaintances. Most of us are at or approaching an age when we begin to encounter serious threats to our health. As a consequence we seem always to be praying for or visiting those who are hospitalized, or awaiting surgery, or in rehab, or entering hospice care. As you might expect, all of this is reflected in our conversation when we get together with our friends. Although we might begin by sharing stories about our grandchildren, the conversation inevitably devolves into a discussion of the three D's: doctors, diseases and drugs.

Now you might think all this involvement with illness would be depressing; but I haven't found it so. Indeed, I have been buoyed, literally raised up, by many of the most seriously ill people I have encountered. Their illnesses seem to have focused their minds and hearts on what is truly important. Let me pass along a few examples:

On one of my recent chaplain days at the hospital Dear Diane had a doctor's appointment of her own that morning and couldn't join me until later.  And so I was alone when I entered the room of a woman who suffers from several forms of cancer. After I introduced myself she told me she was a "believing Christian" -- as I recall, she later indicated she was a Baptist -- and then thanked me for stopping by. We spoke a while about her illness and then she said (these might not be her exact words, but they're close enough):
You know, one of the blessings I've received from my illness is the understanding and firm acceptance that our stay here on earth is purely tentative. It's a little like being on probation, isn't it? We are such fragile creatures, but God, and only God, can make us strong enough to face the end of our stay here with faith and really with a kind of happiness. I find that wonderful, but very strange at the same time. 
She is a perfect example of the surprising benefits and joys of hospital ministry. I'm not convinced that I bring very much lasting comfort to those I visit, but they certainly do educate me about the human condition.

Something else Diane and I have discovered as we make our rounds at the hospital relates to the love and care provided by family and friends. So often the patient's spouse will be there when we enter a room. Many of the patients we visit have been married 40, 50 or 60 years and the love between husband and wife has an almost physical presence. More often than not the spouse will be the one with the questions and concerns, the one who asks us to pray with the patient, the one who seeks signs of hope. This obvious care and concern, this open manifestation of faith, tends to have a positive effect on the spouse who is ill. The patient who has a caring, loving spouse and a devoted family seems to be the happier, more hopeful patient.

Interestingly, these same hopeful patients are those who often have the most visitors. Here in our large retirement community strong friendships seem to form rather quickly, resulting in informal but equally strong networks of solidarity formed to help and care for those in need. On many occasions we have entered a hospital room to find two or three friends and neighbors visiting the patient, seemingly very pleased to be there. They, too, usually join us in prayer before we leave the patient.

I should be used to the miracles God works in the lives of those who suffer because I witness them so frequently. A few weeks ago a parishioner approached me after daily Mass and said she wanted to discuss the meaning of suffering. Now I know that this woman suffers from the early stages of Alzheimer's and has experienced many severe problems. As you might expect, her life has undergone significant changes.

At first I tried to get her to talk about her own situation, but she'd have none of it. "Oh, no," she said, "I'm fine. I just want to know what suffering is all about. Someone told me it's a bad thing to suffer, and that didn't sound right to me."

I agreed that what she'd been told wasn't right. "How can suffering be bad," I asked her, "if Jesus instructs us to take up our cross in imitation of Him?"

And so we talked about the Cross, about how we can come to discern God's plan in our lives, about how the key to that discernment is the Cross of Jesus Christ. We shared our joy that Christ, the Word of God Incarnate, has taken on our weakness, our humanity, and done so through the mystery of the Cross. I mentioned to her that one of the "joys" of accepting the suffering in our lives is that we can become, through this, a source of hope and salvation for others. With this her face brightened into a wide smile. And then she asked, "Do you mean, I can just climb up on that Cross with Jesus, and be with Him, and just suffer right alongside Him?"

As I have said already, those who are ill, those who suffer have become my best teachers.

Pax et bonum...

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Homily: Mass for Healing - Saturday, 14th Week of Ordinary Time

Readings: Gn 49:29-32, 50:15-26a; Ps 105; Mt 10:24-33

Good morning to you all...and praise God!

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Deacon Dana McCarthy, one of the permanent deacons who ministers here at St. Vincent de Paul Parish. I’m honored to have been asked to preach at this Healing Mass celebrated by our pastor, Fr. Peter.

Many charismatic Catholics and other Spirit-filled Christians usually attend this Mass. Is that true today? That’s wonderful – praise God – because we want the Holy Spirit here today in all His power, in all His wisdom, so we can come to know our loving Father better, all through Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Because that’s the first step in true healing, brothers and sisters: to get to know the source of all healing, the Divine Healer. And so today, we’re all drawn together at this Mass of Healing to praise and worship Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to ask that God’s healing power work miracles in our lives.

You know, I’m going to let you in on a little secret about this Healing Mass: you see, every Mass is a healing Mass. How could it be otherwise? For where God is present there is healing.

He’s certainly present here today. He’s present in us, gathered together in His Holy Name [Mt 18:20]. He’s present in His Word, proclaimed here; for is not Jesus the living Word of God Incarnate? [Jn 1] And in a most special way, He’s present in the Eucharist, in this unique gift through which Our Lord Jesus Christ fulfills His promise to be with us until the end of the age [1 Cor 11:23ff; Mt 28:20].

It’s through this ever-deepening three-fold presence that we can come to know our loving God, the Divine Healer. Just think about it.

Through His presence in us we come to recognize Him in each other. Do you want to know, love, and serve God? Well, then, learn to know and love and serve each other. For it’s in each other we first recognize God’s presence in the world, His love for us.

And then, through His Divine Word, we can plumb the depths of this love, as it is revealed in His plan for our salvation.

And, finally, through the Eucharist, through our Communion we are pulled together by God Himself, united through the Real Presence of His Body and Blood. Indeed, the Church has declared the Eucharist to be the “source and summit of Christian life.” For as St. Paul instructs us, when we receive the Eucharist worthily, “It is no longer I who live but it is Christ who lives in me.” [1 Cor 11:27; Gal 2:20]

Believe me, then, when I say God is here among us and in us, and that He awaits only our response. And yet how often do you and I turn away, refusing to accept God’s healing touch when it’s offered so freely? How often do we respond not in love but in fear?

God offers us forgiveness, the healing of our souls, and yet we don’t accept it, fearing we have sinned too much, or thinking we haven’t sinned at all. God offers us eternal life and yet we fear death. If we believe in the immortality of the soul, in the good news of God’s plan for us – if we believe that, if we have faith in Jesus Christ, what’s there to fear?

“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus tells us, “whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” [Jn 11:25-26].

And so never let fear be an obstacle to healing. Accept God’s gift of faith and watch all your fears evaporate.

Jesus did a lot of things during His public ministry. He preached, He taught, He listened, He warned, He prophesied…but the one thing He did everywhere He went was heal…and He was always telling us not to fear.

A few years ago I received one of those emails – you know the kind: the ones that get sent around to everybody – and it told me that in the Bible God says, “Be not afraid,” exactly 365 times, one for every day of the year. But, of course, like so many things that pass through the internet, it’s wrong. And it’s unfortunate that some people feel the need to exaggerate and make up such things, because it’s so unnecessary.

If God had told us to “fear not” only once, this would be sufficient. After all, He only had to say, “Let there be light,” once to begin the work of creation, because God’s Word makes things happen – as we say, it’s efficacious.

As it is, throughout Scripture, we’re told not to fear perhaps 100 or more times. Indeed, in today’s brief Gospel passage from Matthew 10, Jesus tells the Apostles not to be afraid three times. And so this command of His – and it is a command: “Be not afraid!” – must be pretty important.

Fear is a very human emotion; it’s the imagination’s testing of the future, of what could happen. Yes, it’s very human indeed. But by this command Jesus invites us to step out of our world, to move beyond our mere humanity, to suppress the unreality of our imagination, and to step into the reality of the divine life. And that’s pretty big step, at least it is for me.

Did you notice what else He told the Apostles in today’s Gospel passage?

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

That’s right, Jesus wants us to become like Him. He wants us to step into the true reality of the Divine Life He offers us. This, brothers and sisters, is what makes us disciples, this desire to become like Him. It’s step one on the path of the disciple. Some of us spend most of a lifetime before we have the courage to take this first step, and others…well, let me tell you of an experience I had.

Back in 1954, when I was just ten years old, I was stricken with acute appendicitis and rushed to the hospital. The surgeon operated on me almost as soon as I arrived. In those days they kept you in the hospital forever; and so I had plenty of time to feel sorry for myself. Of course, my family visited me daily, but I had another visitor, a young boy, about eight years old.

His name was Luke. He too was a patient in the hospital, and every afternoon he’d make his rounds of the children’s ward in his pjs, handing out comic books and other goodies to all the kids. He’d ask if I were feeling better, and then tell me that everything would be all right. As he left to visit the next kid, he’d always promise, “I’ll say a prayer for you.”

I didn’t quite know what to make of Luke, and so the morning I was released I asked the nurse about him. “Oh, Luke’s dying of leukemia,” she told me. “He probably has just a few more months, but he likes to make people happy.” As it turned out, Luke died a month or so later, and yet this eight-year-old responded to God’s call to discipleship far better than most of us.

You see, brothers and sisters, the fact that we’re ill, just because we’re in need of healing…this doesn’t free us from responding to God’s call to discipleship. Young Luke, it seems, understood this at a very early age.

Children and young people die every day in our broken world. And people always question how a loving God could allow such things to happen. But it’s only a reasonable question if one believes that this brief life on earth is our ultimate destination, that there’s no eternal life. And so when someone asks me that question, I speak to them of Luke – Luke the disciple. Was Luke healed of his illness? Well, in a way, yes he was. But more importantly Luke was himself a healer.

When I was ordained to the diaconate, my bishop instructed me to preach, to teach and to heal. It’s taken me a long while to understand the depth of that command: that while we might preach with our words, we teach with the example of our lives, and we heal simply by serving, by serving all those whom God places in our lives.

Do you see now what Jesus means when He tells us that “unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven”? [Mt 18:3] And He went on to say, “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” [Mt. 18:4]. Once again we are called to imitate Jesus who, as St. Paul reminds, us “humbled Himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” [Phil 2:8], even to the point of crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” [Mt 27:46]

This, brothers and sisters, is His glory, and this is our salvation; for this is the greatest miracle, the greatest healing of all. What does Jesus accomplish through this redemptive, saving act of His? Quite simply, He makes us children. And He gives us the freedom of the child. He turns us all into Lukes.

This is the very essence of our faith as Christians. Because of this redeeming work of Jesus we can say, “Abba, Father” [Rom 8:15]. Because of Jesus we can call God our Daddy, and we can do so with the freedom, the openness of a child. This is the wonder, the miracle of God becoming one of us in Jesus Christ.

In the Gospel we find those most willing to take that first step are those who come to Jesus for healing. But I especially like the healing of Bartimaeus, the blind beggar of Jericho [Mk 10:46-52].

Surrounded by his disciples, and followed by a crowd, Jesus was leaving Jericho, on His way to Jerusalem, to His passion and death. Near the gates of the city sat Bartimaeus, a blind beggar. Alone in his misery, he knew full well how needy he was, how helpless if left to himself.  His dependence is manifested when Jesus passed buy and Bartimaeus cried out: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”

No longer the quiet, blind beggar, no longer looking for alms, he now wanted only what God can give. He wanted divine mercy. Moved by the Spirit, he called Jesus by His messianic title, “Son of David.” Repeatedly shouting, “Son of David have mercy on me.”

Filled with the hope that comes from being in the Lord’s presence, Bartimaeus taught us three essential elements of Christian discipleship:

* He recognized his true condition
* He turned to the only one who could heal him
* And he persisted in the face of all opposition

Our Lord was surrounded by those who had yet to learn the way of the disciple, who tried to keep the blind man, the beggar, far away from the Healer. But Jesus, overruling His disciples, said, “Call him.”

Called by Jesus, Bartimaeus leaped to his feet, tossed aside his beggar’s rags, and went to his Lord with nothing but his enthusiasm, his love, and his faith. And we share in his joy. He asks for that which only God can give. He asks only to be restored to wholeness: “Master, I want to see.”

But Jesus doesn’t say, “I have healed you.” No, He says, “Your faith has saved you.” God doesn’t extend the fullness of His love and power where there is no faith, where it doesn’t find a heart ready to receive Him, a heart that recognizes who Jesus is and calls to Him, that He may intervene and change his life. We must invite Jesus continually to be Lord of our life. He never imposes Himself on us, never forces us to love Him, for love can exist only in freedom. Instead of loving God unconditionally, we spend so much of our time piously trying to manipulate His power to suit our own desires…but not Bartimaeus.

“Go your way,” Jesus says. But as Mark tells us, Bartimaeus turned and followed Jesus on His way, for He is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Oh, that we could all be like leaping Bartimaeus… the blind man who accepted his condition as a child of God. Let’s make that our prayer: that we can recognize our own blindness, all the apparent dead ends in our lives, and expose them to the light of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ. We, all of us, who have lived in the slavery of our own sinfulness, have been made free by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yes, brothers and sisters, as Pope Francis recently preached, “He has healed us at the very core of our existence.”

We would do well to think about this, and to think how beautiful, how liberating it is to be child of God.

It is good that only God loves with the love that can heal.

It is good that our God loves so much that He’s willing to go to the Cross for us.

It is good that Jesus on the Cross is God with skin on, a God up close and personal and touching, a God who actually cares for each and every one of us.

It is good that God wants His disciples to seek healing, to implore God boldly and unceasingly.

For the Risen Christ lives. He lives in our world…speaking...guiding...healing…walking with us...eating, drinking, crying. And He wants us to join Him in His healing work.

And so today, let’s all of us make an act of surrender, an act of childlike abandonment.  Let’s take all that we have, all that we are, and turn it over to God. He wants to take it all, and He does so out of a love so great it’s beyond our understanding.

After Mass we’ll have a laying on of hands. I urge you to come forward. Turn your heart and mind to Jesus Christ. Give Him permission to come into your life, to make you His disciple, to work His will within you.

“Heal me, Lord.” Let that be your prayer. “Heal me, Lord, of all that is keeping me from being one with you.”

Praised be Jesus Christ…now and forever.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

News You Won't See on TV

Our politically correct and remarkably biased mainstream media can always be counted on to ignore any news that doesn't fit it's worldview, particularly when that news involves the persecution of Christians. Here are just a few of those intentionally overlooked news stories that I came across during less than a half-hour of browsing on the web. I've including a link to each story.

Christians tortured and enslaved in Sinai. This is a horrendous story involving kidnapping, torture, slavery and murder. It describes how more than 7,000 Eritrean Christians were taken from their homes and treated abominably by Arab Beduins. Probably 4,000 of them died as a result of this murderous treatment. Read the complete story, one you are not likely to see on the network evening news...and then ask yourself, "Why not? Why hasn't this been reported?"

Iranian Christians continue to be tried for apostasy and illegal worship. You may recall (if you get your news from non-mainstream sources) that Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-American pastor, was sentenced to eight years in prison last year for "starting a house church aimed to disrupt national security." Such trials are still taking place. Mostafa Bordbar, another Christian convert, is currently being tried in Iran's Revolutionary Court in Tehran. And he is just one of many Christians imprisoned simply because they are Christians. 

Port Said church attacked by Mursi supporters. Gunmen, thought to be supporters of ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Mursi, for the third time in 24 hours, attacked sites in Port Said. In this incident, the Islamists fired on the Mar Mina Church. Fortunately there were no casualties from the attack, although only three days earlier a Coptic priest was murdered in the coastal Sinai city of El Arish. His murder was preceded by attacks at four military checkpoints in the region. Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood has been fierce in its criticism of Coptic Pope Tawadros who is the spiritual leader of Egypt's more than 8 million Coptic Christians. Under Mursi's government, strongly supported by most Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, the persecution of Egyptian Christians increased dramatically in both frequency and intensity.

Saudis force Ramadan on non-Muslims. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a nation we consider, for some unknown reason, an ally, continues to display its unique brand of religious intolerance. During the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims are required to fast from food, drink, and smoking during daylight hours, the authorities have decreed that all foreigners, including non-Muslims, must also follow the Ramadan fast. Those whom the religious police see breaking the fast in public will be arrested, fired from their jobs, and expelled from the kingdom. What a country!

The following story doesn't relate directly to Christian persecution, but it is symptomatic of how so-called liberals love to force their distorted worldview on others, particularly the Catholic Church.

Jimmy Carter: Catholic Church Causes Discrimination. Former President Jimmy Carter, certainly among the worst of our twentieth-century presidents, continues to cement his reputation as our worst ex-president. The man simply refuses to sit on the front porch of the family farmhouse in Plains and dictate another volume of soporific memoirs. No, dedicated to embarrassing himself and our nation, he has become a globe-trotting, self-appointed ambassador who apparently believes he is called to solve the most pressing of the world's problems. Sadly, his solutions are inevitably wrongheaded and only exacerbate the problems they are intended to solve. Spurred on by these failures, he has now decided to take on the Catholic Church, which he considers a prime cause of sexism because of its refusal to ordain women priests. His comments, repeated in the linked article, only highlight his ignorance of both Church history and Catholic theology. The Church, of course, will not change its teaching since it believes it is based on divine, not human, law. I believe I can safely say that the Church will listen politely to our former president, ignore his words, and continue to pray for him.

Flannery O'Connor on Christianity today

O'Connor with peacock at Andalusia

Among the books in my personal library, perhaps my favorite is the fascinating collection of Flannery O'Connor's letters, The Habit of Being (1988). Here's a sample of her straightforward wisdom:

"One of the effects of modern liberal Protestantism has been gradually to turn religion into poetry and therapy, to make truth vaguer and vaguer and more and more relative, to banish intellectual distinctions, to depend on feeling instead of thought, and gradually to come to believe that God has no power, that he cannot communicate with us, cannot reveal himself to us, indeed has not done so, and that religion is our own sweet invention. This seems to be about where you find yourself now. Of course, I am a Catholic and I believe the opposite of all this." - Flannery O'Connor in a letter to Alfred Corn, June 16, 1962

And some wonder at the dwindling congregations of mainline Protestant churches. Honest seekers of the truth with not look where the very concept of objective truth is rejected.

O'Connor died of lupus in 1964 at age 39. The above photo shows her on the front steps of her family farm, Andalusia in Milledgeville, Georgia, as she greets one of her beloved peacocks.