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.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Homily: 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

Readings: Am 8:4-7; Ps 113; 1Tim 2:1-8; Lk 16:1-13


An angel appears at a university faculty meeting and tells the dean he has come to reward him for his years of devoted service. He then asked the dean to choose one of three blessings: great wealth, great fame, or great wisdom.

Without hesitation, the dean asks for wisdom. “You got it!” says the angel, and disappears.

All heads turn toward the dean, who sits glowing in the aura of wisdom. Finally one of his colleagues whispers, “Say something wise.”

The dean looks at them and says, “I should have taken the money.”

Now that just proves that academics can be funny when they want to be.

Some years ago, when I was working at a Catholic college, I got involved in a conversation about the Gospel with an older professor. He claimed he was an agnostic and had lost his faith because he found the Bible “too depressing.” “There’s no humor in the Bible,” he said, “especially the Gospels. Everything’s about sin and damnation. And Jesus never laughs. I can’t worship a God who doesn’t have a sense of humor.”

Before I could stop myself, I blurted out, “What do you mean; He created you, didn’t he?”

Not very charitable, and certainly not the best way to evangelize, but it was a pretty good one-liner.

In truth, Scripture is full of humor, especially the Gospels. Indeed, to His 1st century audience, the humor and absurdities present in Jesus’s parables surely brought on smiles and laughter. But too many of us don’t seem to recognize this.

Like the docetists, a bunch of early heretics who thought Jesus just pretended to be human, too many Christians today seem to think Jesus was too serious to ever be humorous, to divine to be human. To our modern ears much of the humor in the Gospels is subtle – after all the four Evangelists weren’t stand-up comics – and recognizing it demands some knowledge of the culture and the times.

The parable in today’s Gospel reading from Luke is a good example. It’s really a pretty funny story. The steward Jesus describes was lazy, incompetent and dishonest, and it all finally caught up with him. His boss fired him, but first wanted a full accounting of his stewardship.

Now the steward might have been a crook, but he was remarkably honest about his own capabilities. He neither denied his sinfulness nor ignored his limitations. How did he put it? Too weak to dig ditches and too proud to beg.

And he was also a very clever crook. Looking to the future, he ingratiated himself with his boss’ debtors by reducing their debts.

Now, Jesus didn’t applaud the steward’s dishonesty, and the steward didn’t get his job back. No, the only praise for the steward is that he responded to a crisis by acting shrewdly.

The punch line of the story is where Jesus says, “…make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings” [Lk 16:9]. In other words, take your assets, your gifts, your cleverness, your self-knowledge, your drive for self-preservation and spend it on that which is lasting – that which has true value – that which can’t be stolen or taken away by others. Jesus isn’t telling us to imitate the dishonesty of the steward. He’s simply telling us to use our wits by focusing on the important, lasting, holy road to salvation, a road paved with faith and acts of love.

It’s the same message we find in John’s Gospel where Jesus tells us to act fully in the world, but not to be of the world [Jn 17:11-16]. Yes, Jesus tells us: Use money, tainted as it is, to win friends, and thus make sure that when it fails you, they will welcome you into eternity.

But who are these friends? Certainly not the fair-weather friends who suddenly appear when we throw our money around. Anyway, it’s unlikely they have the power to welcome us into God’s Kingdom. And he’s not referring to the dishonest merchants described in the parable, who work on the “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” principle.

Who, then, are the friends we should cultivate? Who will welcome us into God’s Kingdom?

The answer’s found in today’s first reading. The Prophet Amos lived almost 2,800 years ago and yet his words have lost none of their impact. He warns those who exploit the poor that the Lord sees their deeds and won’t forget them. Amos uses powerful language, accusing the exploiters of thinking they can buy up the poor as if they were just another commodity to be traded.

It’s the Gospel message pointing to what the Church calls the preferential option for the poor. Jesus announced the Good News first to the lowly, not to the great and powerful, and His public ministry continued to follow this pattern. He sought out those on society’s edges: the poor and helpless, public sinners, rejects and outcasts. His Church does the same today, continuing His ministry to the poor and rejected.

And the "poor" are not simply those deprived of material goods. The poor are those who have no defense, those who cannot help themselves, those who have only God…and God's people. Jesus didn’t neglect the rich and the powerful. He also ministered to them, but more often than not, it was to correct them, to tell them to let go of their greed, pride, and hypocrisy.

Yes, Jesus spent most of His time with the poor, and calls us to do the same. It’s among them that He carries out his ministry of healing. And it’s through us, through you and me, that He continues to encourage them and console them and heal them. These are the friends we are to cultivate – the poor and helpless of this world – for they will welcome us into the Kingdom.

There’s an echo here of Mathew’s Gospel [Mt 25] where Jesus describes the last judgment: Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers that you do unto me. Here our Lord identifies Himself with the poorest of the poor. The disciple, then, can serve his master only by serving them.

Monsignor Ronald Knox, the great English theologian, wrote that today’s Gospel parable “is only meant to emphasize a single point--that we must make proper use of our worldly goods while we have still time to do it.”

While we still have time…I just celebrated another birthday, another reminder that I really don’t have too much time left.

While we still have time…Yes, time to gain the only thing that matters in the end: the kingdom of God.

But we must serve God’s people not just sitting in our comfortable homes writing checks. Jesus calls us to do as He did: to get up close and personal, to love as He loves, to see Christ in others and to be Christ for others. Getting close to the least of our brothers and sisters doesn’t come naturally to many of us, but it remains our calling as true disciples. And so we must call on God for the grace of His Spirit to lead us.

Yes, brothers and sisters, we are in the time of grace, we are in the time when God has mercy on us and gives unsparingly. But when, at the end of our lives, the time comes for us to appear before God, the time of grace will have ended.

And don’t forget, it was our Mother, Mary, who prophesied in the Magnificat that Jesus would lift up the lowly. It is to Mary we acknowledge our sinfulness when we surrender “the hour of our death” to her care.

We will then face the moment of divine justice. But unlike the steward in the Gospel, we don’t have to wait until the last minute. We can and should begin today.

If Jesus can love those who are despised by the world, so can we.

If Jesus can speak words of encouragement and healing to those who need it most, so can we.

If Jesus can touch the leper and forgive the sinners He encountered, so can we.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Syria, Prayer and Fasting

On Saturday Pope Francis joined 100,000 people gathered in St. Peter's Square for a four-hour prayer vigil. The vigil was in response to the pope's call for a day of prayer and fasting for peace. The focus of this call for peace is, of course, on the civil war in Syria and the planned strike now being debated here in the U.S. Throughout the world the Church's bishops joined Pope Francis in proclaiming the fast and holding similar prayer vigils. The response, however, extended well beyond the Church. Even in St. Peter's Square the crowd was swelled by many non-Christians who expressed solidarity with the pope. One man, a Hindu, said, "This is already a success, the fact that all of us here, Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, atheists made an effort to fast, not to do many things, and come here from all over Italy and Europe. This is already a success." Muslims, too, were present. Indeed, several hundred members of Italy's Arab community joined in the prayers. And in Damascus, in the very heart of Syria, the grand mufti wrote a letter thanking Pope Fancis for all he had done and invited Muslims to fast as well. In his remarks to the crowd the pope said,

"This evening I ask the Lord that we Christians, and our brothers and sisters of other religions and every man and woman of good will, cry out forcefully: Viloence and war are never the way to peace." 

Earlier in the week the pope issued a plea for peace in the plain and clear language to which we have become accustomed:

"There are so many conflicts in this world which cause me great suffering and worry, but in these days my heart is deeply wounded in particular by what is happening in Syria and anguished by the dramatic developments which are looming. I appeal strongly for peace, an appeal which arises from deep within me. How much suffering, how much devastation, how much pain has the use of arms carried in its wake in that martyred country, especially among civilians and the unarmed! I think of many children who will not see the light of the future! With utmost firmness I condemn the use of chemical weapons: I tell you that those terrible images from recent days are burned into my mind and heart. There is a judgment of God and of history upon our actions which are inescapable."

The pope offers the world a strong moral argument favoring restraint. But there are also geopolitical arguments that should be raised. At this point we must ask ourselves whether a strike on Syria will achieve anything positive. Will it lessen the fighting? Will it stop the civil war? Will it stop the use of chemical weapons by either the Assad regime or the rebels or both? Will it bring about a significant shift in the balance of power in the country and the region? If an air strike leads to the eventual end of the Assad regime, what will replace it? Who exactly are the rebels and what are their motivations and goals? Are any of the armed rebels truly moderates? If we attack Syria, what might be the short- and long-term ramifications on our key ally in the region, Israel? How will Assad's ally, Iran, react? And then there's the wild card, Russia, a nation ruled today by a former KGB apparatchik. Can anyone predict the full range of unintended consequences of an American attack on Syria?

The fact that the answers to these questions do not come easily only reinforces Pope Francis's argument for restraint. That few if any of these questions have been answered publicly by the Obama administration is additional cause for concern. Indeed, one gets the idea that strategic issues are decidedly secondary, that the president's primary motivation is to save face, to salvage his personal credibility regardless of the consequences.

The above comments were written last Sunday morning before the real weirdness set in, before Secretary of State Kerry's gaff, before Putin's diplomatic coup, before the president's odd speech to the nation, before Putin's New York Times op-ed...before this strange concatenation of events. It all leads me to believe that prayer and fasting have had a positive result. Keep it up. And while you're praying, take a moment to read this story about Fatima and world peace.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Syria and Ducks and Tebow and Democrats and Abortion and God

The Kerrys and Assads Enjoy Dinner at a Happier Time
The news today overflows with strange stories. Most of the world seems focused on Syria and the current location of the "red line" President Obama continues to draw in the shifting sands of the Mideast. I can see no good outcome from the situation the president has created for our nation. Whether Barack Obama initiates a limited, short-term, focused attack on the regime of Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, or ultimately decides to walk away from the whole thing, the result will be pretty much the same: the United States will appear weak and ineffective. This will not turn out well and could lead to something much worse.

In a recent post I confessed a fondness for the family starring in the A&E reality show, "Duck Dynasty." And if the ratings are any measure, it would seem much of the country likes them as well. This is to be expected since, despite their obvious oddness, the members of this extended family love each other and love the Lord. They break bread together; they laugh and criticize and argue and joke and work together; they hunt and fish and play togther; and they pray together. There are still a lot of Americans who appreciate all this and the positive family values depicted in this show. And because such values are a rarity on television today, I expect the show will continue to be successful.

The Duck Dynasty Family at Prayer

Yesterday Tim Tebow was released by the New England Patriots. I had hoped he'd make the team as its third quarterback, but this was apparently not to be. And inexplicably neither Bill Belichick nor Robert Kraft called me yesterday to ask for my advice and consent. Go figure!

Tebow, of course, has generated all kinds of commentary since his NFL debut with the Denver Broncos two years ago. Much of that commentary has been highly negative. If the pundits are to be believed, the criticism of this young man is centered on what they perceive to be his lack of pro quarterback skills. But this is a red herring. He may not be a top-tier pro quarterback, but the media's real objection to Tebow is something else entirely. This is obvious because most of the public criticism centers on his supposed "polarization." And why do they believe he's so polarizing? That's simple. Tim Tebow is a believing Christian who lives his faith and lets others know it. This is not something public figures are supposed to do. Christians can be tolerated but only if they never proselytize.

The truth is, many in the media hate Tebow simply because they depise Christianity. They despise Christianity because it collides with their atheistic/agnostic worldview. Indeed, I suspect many of these haters of Christianity also hate the very idea of God, especially a God who calls on them to "Repent and believe in the Gospel." Pray for them. And pray, too, for all those nominal Christians who are just as uneasy about the Tim Tebows of the world who refuse to hide their faith under a bushel basket.

Tim Tebow may never again play professional football, but I am confident in believing he will go on to do great things.

Now a word to all those pro-life Democrats out there. Yes, there are some. I know this because I've met them and they proudly proclaim both their allegiance to the Democrat party and their pro-life beliefs. The fact that they've never voted for a pro-life candidate at any level of government does not seem to bother them. One would think that many of these Democrats are pro-life because of their religious belief in the sanctity of human life created by a loving God. Some believing Democrats, however, disagree. At a party function in Iowa, one of the faithful, an activist named Midge Slater, spent some time in public prayer thanking God for his gift of abortion. In Ms. Slater's words:

"We give thanks, Oh Lord, for the doctors, both current and future, who provide quality abortion care...We pray for increased financial support for low-income women to access contraception, abortion and childcare."  [Why they would need childcare is not explained.]...we pray for women in developing nations, that they may know the power of self-determination. May they have access to employment, education, birth control and abortion....we pray for the families who have chosen. May they know the blessing of choice..."

And then she added: "We pray for women who have been made afraid by their paternalistic religion." Yes, can't you just see all those Catholic women quaking in fear because popes, bishops, priests (and deacons?) refuse to stop calling abortion a sin. I've included a video of this prayer service below.

This is the state of your party today, pro-life Democrats. It's leadership has enthusiastically overseen the killing of over 50 million unborn infants since 1973. I'm not suggesting you register as Republicans tomorrow. Heaven knows how ineffective Republican leadership has been. But I do ask you to send your party a pro-life message and, at the very least, register as an independent. In truth, I can't see the party changing its stance on any life issues because its activist leadership truly believes that abortion trumps everything else.

Pax et bonum...