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.

Friday, February 28, 2014

The Declining Church in Europe

Despite the remarkable growth of the Catholic Church in Asia and Africa, the Catholic Church in Europe may soon resemble the mere skeleton of a Church, one populated only by a clergy astonished that the pews before them are empty. Their astonishment is quite extraordinary since they are fully responsible for the decline, a decline they try with little success to blame on others, specifically the Vatican.

Two recent articles, one by Fr. Gerald Murray, of the Archdiocese of New York, and another by Fr. Mark Pilon of the Diocese of Arlington, provide a needed glimpse into the moral chaos symptomatic of the sad state of the Catholic Church in Germany and indeed in much of Europe today. As Fr. Pilon warns, when the clergy abandon the Church's moral teaching, Church unity suffers, and the faithful dwindle. Already many of the great churches of Europe have ceased being places of worship and become mere tourist attractions. On our recent trip to England Diane and I entered dozens of Anglican churches, all of them empty, except for us and an occasional docent who happily described the building's glorious past, while sadly telling of the dire need for funds to keep the doors open. The Anglican Church paved the way to perceived superfluity by adopting an anti-dogma of moral ambiguity. When a Church adopts a moral position of "anything goes" everything and everybody goes as well...out the door.

Take a few moments to read both of these brief articles. You can find them here:

Bad news from Deutschland, by Fr. Gerald E. Murray

Germany's "Pay to Pray" Regime, by Fr. Mark A. Pilon

Monday, February 24, 2014

Change and More Change

Change, surprisingly rapid change, seems to define our world today. No aspect of human activity is immune, including religion. Events and movements within religion, however, often fly well below the mainstream media's radar because they are mistakenly believed to be unimportant. I suppose one cannot expect irreligious people to take religion very seriously, although such an attitude displays real ignorance of both human history and human nature. But when religion is discounted by the media and given little intelligent coverage, the general public is shortchanged. Even when the secular media covers religious news, they tend to cover it as they would political news; consequently they usually get the story wrong.  More often, however, religious news is simply ignored.

Here are a few items that reflect some significant changes that may have escaped the notice of most media outlets. 

The Changing Face of Anglicanism. In his blog Fr. Dwight Longenecker gives a brief overview of some of the remarkable changes that have occurred within the diverse Anglican community in recent years. Fr. Longenecker, an American Catholic priest, knows of what he speaks. Brought up in an Evangelical home, he followed an atypical path on his personal religious pilgrimage. A graduate of fundamentalist Bob Jones University, he went on to study theology at Oxford and was subsequently ordained an Anglican priest. After serving many years as an Anglican cleric in England, he and his family converted to Catholicism in 1995. He now lives in South Carolina. You can read Fr. Longenecker's conversion story here.

Growth of Catholicism in Asia and Africa. Few Western Catholics are aware of the rapid growth of the Church in both Asia and Africa. As the faithful in Western Europe shrink to record small levels, their numbers worldwide have grown remarkably. That this growth is unremarked in the U.S. and Europe just highlights the parochialism of many Western Catholics. This growth, though, has been increasingly hard to ignore as more and more priests from Asia and Africa are recruited by our bishops to work as pastors and parochial vicars in American parishes. Not too long ago the Church in America was a major source of missionary priests to the less developed world; now that world sends missionaries to us. Indeed, my pastor is originally from the Philippines and the priest who serves as chaplain in the nearby federal prison, and who lives in our parish, is from Nigeria. Yes, the Catholic Church us truly catholic. (To get a good sense of the growth of the Church in Asia and Africa, read this synopsis of the statistics published in the 2013 Pontifical Yearbook.)

Cardinal Yeom
The Church in South Korea. South Korea is a largely secular Asian nation in which Catholics make up only 11% of the population. But the Church there is growing in both numbers and stature. Pope Francis' recent elevation of Seoul's Archbishop Andrew Yeom Soo-jung as the nation's first cardinal was warmly welcomed by all Koreans as was the Vatican's announcement approving the martyrdom of 124 Koreans who were executed for their faith during the 18th and 19th centuries. We can expect to hear more about these brave men and women as the beatification process continues. I also believe we will be hearing much more about the growing Church in South Korea in the years to come. Just this month 38 new priests were ordained in the Seoul Archdiocese, so don't be surprised if one day a South Korean priest shows up at your parish.

The Disappearing Christians of Iraq. Most of us in the West believe Iraq is a marginally better place since the overthrow and death of Saddam Hussein. But for the Christians of Iraq, those few who remain, nothing could be further from the truth. Few people outside Iraq realize that the nation once boasted an active and vibrant Christian community that represented over 10% of the population and worshiped in hundreds of churches throughout the country. Christians now make up only about 1% of the Iraqi population -- a number that's dwindling rapidly -- and worship in only a few dozen churches. In the spirit of ecumenism, I suggest you read this article published on the website of First Things magazine: The Vicar of Baghdad. It tells the remarkable story of Canon Andrew White, a courageous Anglican priest who ministers to the Christians of Iraq. It's a story you won't read in the New York Times.

Egyptian Catholic Reaction to Our President. Here's another story you won't read in our secular media. Last year during the chaos surrounding the removal from office of President Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood reacted by attacking Christian churches, businesses and homes throughout the nation. Egyptian Christians hadn't suffered such persecution in centuries. In the midst of these open and violent attacks on the nation's Christian community, President Obama called for the to return to power of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood allies. In response, Fr. Rafic Antoine Greiche, the head of the Press Office of the Catholic Church in Egypt, released a scathing criticism of President Obama. You can view a video of Fr. Greiche below: 

Don't rely on the mainstream media for news on religious matters, and especially for news on the Catholic Church.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Homily: 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Lev 19:1-2, 17-18; Ps 103; 1 Cor 3:16-23; Mt 5:38-48

Interesting readings, aren’t they? In our first reading from Leviticus, Mosaic Law teaches us: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” [Lev 19:18]. And then in our Gospel passage from Matthew, Jesus, in the midst of His Sermon on the Mount, tells us “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” [Mt 5:44].

Love your neighbor and love your enemy...Gosh, who’s left? Actually, the great G. K. Chesterton once wrote: "We are commanded to love our neighbors and our enemies; they are generally the same people." There’s a lot of truth in that, and loving those we’re with every day can be a bit of a challenge.

As a Christian it’s easy for me to say, “Yes, I love that Jihadist terrorist who’s been led by others, or by a hateful ideology, to do such horrible things over there in Afghanistan, or Syria, or Libya, or even in New York City...” And it’s pretty easy to express Christian love for the murderer on death row. After all, I really don’t really know any of these people, do I? That makes them a lot easier to love.

But when you know someone well, someone who isn’t all that nice, love doesn’t come quite so easy, does it? It’s so much easier to despise someone up close and personal, someone who has treated you abominably, one of those neighbors or family members we so often turn into enemies.

When I was just a boy in suburban New York, we neighborhood kids would often play stick-ball and other games in our street. Now there was one neighbor, Mrs. Counts, whose yard was, well, sort of right field. It was surrounded by a hedge, and the only break in the hedge was the gate that led to her front walk.

Now Mrs. Counts was very old, probably sixty. And whenever a ball would go over that hedge, we’d open the gate and run into her yard to retrieve it. The gate squeaked, a noise that always brought her to the front door, from which she screamed at us for daring to hit a ball onto her lawn. We, of course, retaliated as only children can, by taunting her, calling her names. It was not a good relationship.

To the children of the neighborhood, Mrs. Counts was more than a neighbor; she was the enemy. We neither liked nor loved her. Mrs. Counts was a grumpy old woman, and we were equally grumpy little brats.

Trivial events you may argue, and yet it was through these trivial events that we all demonstrated a remarkable lack of charity. Of course, it’s unlikely that we children ever made a connection between our judgment of Mrs. Counts and the Sermon on the Mount. Indeed it would be decades, in a different neighborhood, this one on Cape Cod, before I made that connection.

One summer afternoon a soccer ball flew over the fence into our yard and rolled onto a patch of Lilies of the Valley. In an instant our neighbor’s two grandsons jumped the fence and ran through the flowers, trampling as they went, to retrieve the ball. I stood there in the yard, watching them, and was about to let them have it with both barrels of indignation, when suddenly I thought, Heavens! I’ve become Mrs. Counts! And so I waved at the two boys. They said, “Hi!”, grabbed their ball, jumped the fence, and were gone.

Yes, every so often, I do what is right in God’s eyes. Every so often I am slapped on one cheek and actually turn the other. You see, brothers and sisters, we’re all called by Jesus, by the Gospel, and every so often we experience the tension arising from our imperfect lives.

The world, of course, tells us to ignore that tension, to fight anger with anger, violence with violence, evil with evil. But deep down we know it’s just a mask to cover our selfishness, to hide our self-righteousness. We want to stand out in our battles with evil, to win, to shine; whereas Jesus instructs us, offer no resistance to one who is evil.

Forget about man's justice, He tells us. Don't worry about just compensation. We’re instead called to overwhelm the wrongdoer with incredible generosity. Love your enemies!

Is that even possible? Well, yes, it is. For that’s exactly what Jesus did as He spread His arms wide on the Cross. He offered no resistance and seemed to allow evil to triumph.

He begged the Father to forgive those who would kill Him, and by doing so set an example that St. Stephen and countless others would follow. This remarkable act, this self-sacrificial act of redemption gives us a glimpse into God's holiness.

Take up your cross, God tells us, Do as I do.

My holiness is loving. It admits no hatred, although it might occasionally reprove.

I don’t seek revenge, and neither should you.

I forgive, and so should you...seventy times seven times.

So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect
[Mt 5:48].

And we reply, in all honesty, "How can we be perfect, Lord? Perfection is what You are, imperfection is what we are."

He knows that. The distance between us and God is infinite. He simply wants us to follow the Son’s example, for His perfection is our model. It’s not the perfection of God’s infinite power and wisdom, the unapproachable divine perfection that we seek. No, such perfection is always beyond us.

But still the command is there: Be perfect!

It’s the perfection of the Beatitudes to which we are called: to be poor in spirit, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to seek meekness and purity of heart, to be merciful…for these are all attainable. Come to me, he pleads, and I will give you an abundance of grace. I will help you on this remarkable journey of conversion.

That command – "…be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” – is the command of the Son, and so the Son shows us the way. He became one of us, and in doing so shows us what is possible in our own lives.

Yes, we will falter. We will each fall prey to our own brand of sinfulness. But forgiveness is only a moment away, as near as the sacramental grace we receive in reconciliation, as near as our own repentance. And that’s what He asks of us.

Jesus began His public ministry with the words, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” [Mk 1:15] – for with God repentance always brings forgiveness. Recall the words of today’s responsorial psalm…

He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities…as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” [Ps 103:10, 12].

Yes, brothers and sisters, God forgives, but we must forgive in turn.

In a few moments, as we prepare to receive the Real Presence of Our Lord in Holy Communion, we will join together with Fr. King and recite the Our Father. As we pray those words given to us by the Son, we make that bargain with the Father: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" [Mt 6:12].

Let’s use this moment today to tell the Father that we have indeed forgiven all those neighbors, all those enemies, and all those neighborly enemies who have offended us.

I forgave grumpy Mrs. Counts years ago. I pray only that she forgave me.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Early Morning Thoughts

Every so often I can't resist the temptation to offer the readers of this blog -- a select group, a very select group -- some of the odd thoughts that strike me in the early morning hours. These thoughts usually arise after Morning Prayer and a quick perusal of the daily newspaper that arrives at my doorstep at about the same time I climb out of bed. Although most, probably all, are gross generalizations I make no attempt to explain or defend them. They are simply the result of personal observation and likely reflect my own take 'em or not.

Here are this morning's rather random thoughts, each distilled to a sentence or two and offered in the order in which they arose in my aging, increasingly confused brain.

The holiest people in the Church are in the pews, not in the sanctuary.

A bishop who courageously and publicly defends the Church and it's teachings will fill the pews and the seminary.

If a new technology can be abused, it will be. And the amount of abuse is directly proportional to the amount of power the technology puts in the hands of the abuser. 

When given complete freedom of choice, a government agency will choose incorrectly. In other words, it will take the action that leads to the worst outcome.

For a politician, self-interest trumps national interest.

Failed leadership results from the desire to control rather than serve.

It would seem I've become a bit of a cynic, but that's to be expected of someone who believes in original sin. God's peace...

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Early Morning

Early morning in Central Florida - Photo taken 2/10/2007
I am waking earlier these days. Perhaps it's just a symptom of aging, but whatever the cause, the result is more than mildly irritating. After all, I'm supposedly retired and should be able to enjoy the luxury of sleeping in. But this morning I was once again wide awake by 5 a.m. Rather than tossing about and running the risk of waking Dear Diane, I usually just rise and leave the bedroom. She sleeps on, oblivious to my wakefulness, and I cannot but envy her. 

There will be no morning walk today because I can hear the rain as I make my way to the front door. My first task every morning is to retrieve the newspaper. It's then I realize that for many others 5 a.m. is far from early. The man who delivers our daily newspaper has already been up for hours and can be relied on to toss my copy of The Villages Daily Sun accurately onto the center of our driveway by 4:30 every morning. I have never met this man, although I have caught a fleeting glimpse of him on a few occasions as he speeds down our street in the early morning darkness. And yet I hold him in the highest esteem. His reliability, his punctuality, his accuracy, the care with which he double bags the paper on rainy mornings -- all these virtues contribute to the daily restoration of my faith that, when challenged, people will do what is right. I must remember to pray for him.

For at least the last 35 years my daily newspapers have all been delivered by adults. Do paperboys still deliver papers, or is that now considered a form of child abuse? When I was a boy, I had a paper route and delivered The Daily Times, the now-defunct afternoon paper that once served Mamaroneck and Larchmont, New York. I had "inherited" the route from my older brother, Jeff, who had moved on to more lucrative jobs once he turned 16. It was the easiest, and therefore the best, paper route in town. As I recall, I had about 70 customers, all located in a one- or two-block area of downtown Larchmont. I delivered papers to about a dozen shops and offices and to three or four single-family homes. The remaining customers were residents of one large apartment house. I could easily deliver all 70 papers in a half-hour and most of that time was spent indoors far away from the cold and rain and snow and slush. For this I was unfairly paid the same as another paperboy with 70 customers all in single-family homes. But like the workers in the Gospel parable [Mt 20:1-16], I suppose we had all agreed to the terms in advance.

There are, of course, others who rise early to make our lives more pleasant. Before retiring to Florida, we had spent the previous 25 years on Cape Cod. There we had no town pick-up of trash and garbage and had to make frequent trips to the town dump a few miles away. But here, a large garbage truck moves noisily down our street every Tuesday and Friday morning. Two young men jump on and off collecting our bags of refuse and tossing them into the truck's gaping maw. It looks to be dirty, dangerous, and exhausting work. I often encounter them on my early morning walks, and so I wave and wish them a cheerful "Good morning!" They always respond in kind. How seldom do we show our appreciation for the work done by such as these? I must add them to my prayers as well.

It's good for us to remember and thank God for these people, those who work the difficult jobs with odd hours, all designed to make our lives better. As I consider them and how they spend their early morning hours, it makes my complaint about 5 a.m. wake-ups seem trivial indeed.

Yes, being is certainly good.

Now to Morning Prayer.

God's peace...

Friday, February 7, 2014

Friday Thoughts

Prayer Breakfasts. Our president, the nation's self-proclaimed leading aficionado of religious freedom, decided to address the issue at Thursday's National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC. And let me tell you, it was an uplifting, hopeful address and was doubtless equally well received by the politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists, justices, and other holy folk who came together to ask God to advance their respective ideologies.
President and Mrs. Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast
Okay, let me give the president his due. I was very pleased to hear him mention Pastor Saeed Abedini, an American who has been imprisoned in Iran simply because he is a Christian. I may be wrong, but I believe this is the first time the president has mentioned Pastor Abedini publicly. He also referred to another American, Christian missionary Kenneth Bae, who has been imprisoned by the even more barbaric regime in North Korea. The president stated that “The United States will continue to do everything in our power to secure his release because Kenneth Bae deserves to be free.” Later, speaking of Pastor Abedini, he said, "Today, we call on the Iranian government to release Pastor Abedini.” It was good to hear these comments and promises, regardless of their efficacy. [Note: As I write this I just heard a news report that North Korea has transferred Kenneth Bae from a hospital to a labor camp, where he will serve out his 15-year sentence. Sad news indeed. We await the president's response.]

Pastor Abedini and his family
The president also referred to the blasphemy laws used by Muslim nations to persecute non-Muslims, especially Christians. As one might expect, Mr. Obama's reference was somewhat circumspect and avoided mentioning Islam: "Going forward, we will keep standing for religious freedom around the world.  And that includes, by the way, opposing blasphemy and defamation of religion measures, which are promoted sometimes as an expression of religion, but, in fact, all too often can be used to suppress religious minorities." 

The president drifted off into political correctness a few times, as when he said, "We sometimes see religion twisted in an attempt to justify hatred and persecution against other people just because of who they are, or how they pray or who they love" [my italics]. With this comment, of course, the president accuses those who believe homosexual acts to be sinful of twisting religion and justifying hatred. I guess that makes me and the Catholic Church and most orthodox Christians twisted haters. I've been called worse things.

Kenneth Bae
Political correctness was also obvious in what the president didn't address. His administration's attack on the Catholic Church and others who object to being forced to use health insurance that funds contraception, abortion, and sex-change procedures was conspicuously omitted, as was the fact that our nation has slaughtered 55 million unborn human beings since 1973. 

My problem with prayer breakfasts is that they center less on on prayer and more on poorly veiled political speeches. The president's comments [you can read his entire address here] are not addressed to God but rather to the gathered Washington insiders, and their purpose is less worshipful than political. But I suppose we should be happy they actually get together once a year to talk about God...a far better subject than what they usually talk about.

Persecution of Christians. The Pew Research Center has released its latest findings on global religious persecution, and not surprisingly Christians are the most persecuted of all believers. The persecution of Christians has been reported in a mind-boggling 110 countries. Jews, who make up a tiny percentage of the world's population, experienced persecution in 95 countries. Interestingly, the harassment and persecution of believers increased in every region of the world, except the Americas. Furthermore, the number of nations experiencing religious terrorism and sectarian violence also increased significantly, doubling over the past five years. These trends are less than encouraging.

The Internet as Teacher. There's a lot of trash on the web, actually more than a lot, but there's also some very interesting stuff. You can read virtually all of the world's great literature. You can access the minds of experts in every field. You can work your way through courses offered by some of the world's great universities. You can even read this blog. And you can do much of this absolutely free! It's truly remarkable. Another fascinating online resource is Youtube. Yes, I admit that there are a lot of strange and ridiculous videos on Youtube, but there are also some very useful things. YouTube is eminently practical. For example, if you want to learn how best to re-grout the ceramic tile in your shower, there's a video showing you how. If you want to clean your Mossberg shotgun...yep, there's a video. Even more remarkable, however, Youtube can teach you how to open a bottle of wine using only your shoe! This is something I've been aching to learn for decades, and now, here it is, wonderfully encapsulated into a 49-second video, thanks to Mirabeau Vineyards.

One can also learn how to open a bottle of beer without a bottle opener, but for some reason it requires over six minutes of instructional video. Perhaps beer drinkers are slower learners.