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.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Homily: 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)

Readings: Ez 18:25-28: 7; Ps 103; Phil 2:1-11; Mt 21: 28-32

Some years ago, a friend, a retired a State Trooper, told me of the time he pulled over a well-known politician for speeding and reckless driving. As he was handed the citation, the politician looked at the trooper incredulously and asked, "Don't you realize who I am?"

"Yes, sir," my friend responded, "and that's why you you're not getting a warning. Someone in your position should have more respect for the law than you demonstrated today."

Not a career-enhancing move on the part of the trooper, but a satisfying story for the rest of us.

"Don't you realize who I am?"

Perhaps one day historians will look back on our era and label it, "The Age of Self-esteem". Obsessed with feeling good about ourselves regardless of our behavior, we’re unwilling as a society to accept responsibility for the ills that plague us.

Our children kill each other, so we look for solutions in legislatures and courts, never dreaming that the cause lies much closer to home. But to question our own values and those we instill in our children might damage the self-esteem of both parent and child. And so we slide down the cultural slope ignoring the impact of abortion and euthanasia and capital punishment on the value we place on human life. Protect us from the unwanted, the expendable!

Addictions -- drugs, alcohol, gambling, pornography -- devour the lives of millions and devastate families. So what do we do? Governments go into the gambling business. TV networks air shows glamorizing drug dealers. Government agencies fund the pornographic and sacrilegious because the grant request self-servingly labeled it "Art". But perhaps our most insidious cultural attitude is the idea that a person’s value is best measured by wealth and position – which just leads to another addiction.

A few years ago, I had a conversation with a man who was demonstrably proud that he and his wife, both business professionals, earned nearly a half-million a year. Their children? Well, they were being raised by schools, day-care centers, au pairs, and baby-sitters.

“To succeed today you have to work hard,” he explained. “That means long hours. But we grab all the quality-time we can, and try hard to pass our values on to our children." Lucky kids.

He also mentioned that he and his wife were planning a two-week vacation to the islands…without the children. "Parents need an occasional break from the pressures of family life," he said. I couldn't help but think, "What family life?"

Ezekiel in Exile
How we rationalize to avoid responsibility for our actions and to please ourselves.

Of course this is nothing new. Indeed, in today's first reading the prophet, Ezekiel, reprimands the Jewish people who were then held captive in Babylon. They actually blamed God for their problems, believing He had punished them unfairly for the sins of their ancestors. But Ezekiel tells the exiles, "No!" It’s not God who’s unfair, but you who are sinful. You alone are responsible for your sinfulness, and this will keep you from salvation.

He goes on to explain that they have a choice: they are either for or against God. There’s no avoiding it, no comfortable middle ground, no room for compromise, no acceptable rationalizations to preserve their self-esteem. Ezekiel, the prophet of personal responsibility, leads God's people -- and leads us if we’ll listen -- along the only path to salvation.

We hear a similar message in today’s brief Gospel parable of the two sons [Mt 21:28-32]. One son, when asked by his father to do some work, willfully refuses, but later he thinks better of it and does what was asked of him. The other son at first says "Yes" to his father's request, but ultimately does nothing.

Jesus told this story in the temple in Jerusalem, speaking to the elders and chief priests, men who were overly fond of the power and esteem and wealth that came with their positions. Aware of their self-righteousness and hypocrisy, Jesus wants them to take personal responsibility for their behavior. He contrasts them with those they considered the greatest of sinners: tax collectors and prostitutes.

The people's dislike of tax collectors didn't stem from cultural hostility to the idea of taxation. No, the Jews disliked tax collectors because they viewed them as pawns of the Romans, an occupying power, and because many were corrupt, becoming rich from bribes and over-taxation. Matthew, this Gospel’s author, was himself a tax collector when he responded to the Lord's call. Jesus’ association with Matthew and public sinners brought only scorn from the self-righteous elders.

This leads Jesus to compare his audience to the parable’s second son, the outwardly pious son, who says all the correct things, but then goes on to lead a life of self-serving disobedience. And the tax collectors and prostitutes? Like the first son, they repented of their disobedience, accepted God's loving forgiveness, and went on to devote their lives to doing His will. Jesus makes it clear which of the two will be welcome in God's Kingdom.

And so we are left with one word ringing in our 21st Century ears, a word that clashes mightily with our modern sense of who we are: Obedience.

How can I possibly think well of myself if I’m constantly forced to do the will of another? Think of the effect on my self-esteem. Am I not a free person? Do I not have the right to do as I wish…at least within the boundaries of the reigning political correctness? "Don't you realize who I am?"

As usual, St. Paul supplies the answer. Yes, we have the freedom to choose; and with freedom comes personal responsibility for the results of our decisions.

In our second reading Paul instructs the Christians of Philippi to "humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others" [Phil 2:3-4]. Yes, Paul stands our modern mantra on its head by asking: "Don't you realize who they are?"

Then, in one of the most beautiful passages in the New Testament [Phil 2:6-11], he holds up Jesus as the example of freely chosen obedience to God's Will. It's a hymn that reflects both the divinity and the self-effacement of Jesus, Jesus who is God in His very essence: unchangeably, inalienably.

The key is what is called Jesus' kenosis (a Greek word meaning emptiness). It’s the act of Jesus emptying Himself, pouring Himself out until there’s nothing left. He didn't shed His divinity, but rather He shed the privileged status of His divine glory. He didn’t come to exalt Himself by shouting "Don't you realize who I am?" No, He humbled Himself. And for what? For the love and the salvation of the world. Instead, He asks us, “Don’t you realize how much I love you?”
It was all a freely chosen act of obedience to the Will of the Father, a heroic obedience that accepted even the degradation of death on a cross! From that lowest point, the Father exalted Him, and in Paul's words, "bestowed on Him the name above every other name" [Phil 2:9]. For Jesus is the master of all life, brothers and sisters, the master of all creation. We can give Him nothing but the obedience, love and loyalty that no one else can possibly deserve -- not in slavish, broken submission to power and might, but out of recognition of what He did for us. But out of love for Him.

"Don't you realize who He is?"

Jesus Christ is Lord! [Phil 2:11]

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Homily: Wednesday, 23rd Week of Ordinary Time

Given the busyness of my life in recent weeks, I neglected to post this brief weekday homily. Better late than never, I suppose.
Readings: 1 Cor 7:25-31; Ps 45; Lk 6:20-26

How did Paul put it? “The world as we know it is passing away” [1 Cor7:31].

Kind of a scary thought, isn’t it? Well…not really, since it’s one of those statements that’s always going to be true, for the world and those who live in it are always undergoing change, always, in a sense, passing away. So it’s really not that radical a thought…at least not to our way of thinking today.

But for the ancients, who lived when Paul wrote these words –the Greeks, Egyptians, Persians, Romans – these words were radical indeed. About the only people of that time who would have accepted this idea were Jews and Christians. You see, the Greeks and virtually all other pagan societies saw the world in cyclical terms. To their way of thinking, all of life, all of history, imitated the seasons, the movements of the heavenly bodies, always returning, constantly repeating, never moving toward any defined end.

If you think about it, this way of thinking was utterly depressing, and led to nothing but despair. It saw humanity as spending eternity on the global equivalent of a gerbil wheel, expending lots of energy but never really getting anywhere. And their pagan religions mirrored this thinking. The pagan concept of the divine came from within man and depicted the gods as man envisioned them.

But Judaism and Christianity were different…very different. You see, their concept of God -- our concept of God – comes from God Himself. It’s not so much a religion as a revelation. The pagans described their gods as they saw them, created in their image. The Jews and later the Christians received God’s revelation of Himself. They described God as He revealed Himself and His relationship with humanity. God creates us in His image.

God reveals Himself to Moses with the words, “I am who am” [Ex 3:14-15] – in other words, I am existence itself -- words no pagan, with the possible exception of Aristotle and perhaps a few other Greek philosophers, would likely have used to describe a divinity.
"I am who I am." ...This is what you will tell the Israelites: I AM has sent me to you.

At the center of this revelation – this self-disclosure by God – is His plan for the future of humanity. And it has an end – eternal life and the consummation of the world – an end revealed in those closing words of the book of Revelation, “Come, Lord Jesus” [Rev 22:20]. Yes, the world will be consumed, and so as Christians we must avoid getting caught up in the things of this world…always considering ourselves as poor in spirit.

For the Kingdom of God belongs only to those who experience this stark poverty. Brothers and sisters, never deny that reality. Never fail to acknowledge the hunger of your heart for God's food. If we don’t experience poverty in its realistic starkness, let us be poor in spirit and accept our own inner poverty. And let us always be oriented practically to the needs of the poor, Gods blessed ones.

And so let us pray today that we may not be conformed to the world but transformed by the Holy Spirit with the spirit of poverty.

“Come, Lord Jesus.”

Lost in War: In Memoriam

This year, a year in which we mark the centennial of the start of the First World War, we can only look back in sad amazement at the tragic consequences of that global conflict. And once again I cannot ignore the fact that I am far from young. Although I was born 26 years after the end of that war, it never seemed very far away. Growing up I knew many men who had served during World War One, men who on occasion would talk of their experiences. Believe me, if I were there, they certainly had a ready audience for their tales.

As the first conflict that can truly be called global, World War One took a tremendous toll on Europe's youth. And it wasn't just the working class that suffered; no element of society was spared. The total number of military deaths in the war approached 10 million, while 7 million civilians perished. Another 20 million people, civilian and military, were wounded. The following are just the military deaths. 

Germany 1,935,000 
Russia 1,700,000 
France 1,368,000 
Austria-Hungary 1,200,000 
British Empire       942,135
Ottoman Empire 725,000
Italy                680,000 
Romania              300,000 
United States        116,516 
Bulgaria              87,495 
Belgium 45,550
Serbia 45,000 
Greece 23,098 
Portugal 8,145 
Montenegro 3,000 
Japan 1,344

What a tremendous waste of life! Many of those who died were among the best and brightest of their generation. So many poets, so many writers, so many great minds of their time were sacrificed needlessly in a conflict that brought us a century of bloodshed. And so many others, men with families and sweethearts who would never see them again and men with wonderful ideas that would never come to fruition. History may remember only the wars and brutal ideologies that caused them, but we should also remember those whose lives were taken during that century's first war. Here are just a few:

Rupert Brooke (1887-1915). Described as "the handsomest young man in England" Brooke died en route to the Dardanelles and is buried on the Greek island of Skyros. His War Sonnets included "The Soldier" which begins with the famous lines "If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field that is for ever England." 
Julian Grenfell (1888-1915). His celebrated poem "Into Battle" appeared in the same year he was killed at Ypres.

Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918). An American poet who is perhaps best known for his poem, "Trees", Kilmer also wrote much memorable war poetry, including "Memorial Day", "Rouge Bouquet", and "When the Sixty-Ninth Comes Back". He was killed by a sniper's bullet during the Battle of Ourcq. I've always had a particular fondness for Kilmer since he lived for several years in Larchmont, NY, the town where I grew up. As a Catholic he also worshiped in our parish church, St. Augustine.

H. H. Munro (1870-1916). Best known by his pen name, Saki, Munro wrote many wonderfully humorous stories, most of which were delightful satires of life in Edwardian England. When I need a bit of amusement, I always turn to Saki. Munro refused a commission, preferring to serve as a regular trooper, and was noted for his courage. He was killed by a sniper during the Battle of Ancre.

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918). His poem "Greater Lovefrom his Collected Poems gave us the famous openings lines: "Red lips are not so red as the stained stones kissed by the English dead." Owen won the Military Cross and was killed just a week before the Armistice.

Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918). Although Rosenberg, a Jewish-English poet, was killed in action in 1918, his Collected Works weren't published until 1937. Their publication confirmed his importance as a writer of realistic war poetry.

Charles Sorley (1895-1915). Sorely was only 20 when he was killed at the battle of Loos. He left comparatively few complete poems but was well regarded by his contemporary poets.

Edward Thomas (1878-1917). Encouraged to write by the great American poet, Robert Frost, Thomas was killed at Arras and his work, including his war poetry, is now highly regarded.

Top L to R: H. H. Munro, Wilfred Owen, Joyce Kilmer, Charles Sorley; 
Bottom L to R: Edward Thomas, Isaac Rosenberg, Julian Grenfell, Rupert Brooke

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Strange Doings

Every so often I come across a few isolated news stories that together offer more than a glimpse into the decay of our once-civilized society. Interestingly, this decline is most obviously manifested among those otherwise thought to be the most civilized among us: lawyers who ignore the rule of law; doctors who murder the most innocent of their "patients"; politicians who place their own welfare above the good of the country and the people; philosophers who arrogantly reject the thought of all who preceded them; religious leaders who redefine truth and morality to align with the current zeitgeist. Such attitudes are nothing new, but sadly they have in recent years become more the rule than the exception, and this downward spiral into modern barbarism seems to be picking up speed.

The most obvious cause of this decay, especially in Western Europe, is the decline of religious faith among those once considered Christians. In much of Western Europe approximately a quarter of population no longer believes in God, essentially making them atheists. Among the rest a large percentage believe not in God, but in some ill-defined Star Wars-like "force". In the UK, for example, only 37% agree with the statement "I believe there is a God." (Poll results available here.) Once the religious "cult" is removed from the culture, nothing much remains. Here are a few examples from the news:

Immorality of Down's Syndrome. Oxford professor and professional atheist, Richard Dawkins, has stated that it is immoral for parents to allow a Down's Syndrome baby to be born. They should, in his words, "abort it and try again." I apologize to my dear friend Michael for the doctor's thoughtless comments and assure Michael that I am very happy God and his loving parents gave him the gift of life.

I'm always amazed when I encounter an atheist who speaks of things moral and immoral. After all, if we are simply biological accidents, the products of an impersonal evolutionary process, where exactly does morality come from? Should we not, then, always act in our own individual best interests and simply do what will provide the most pleasure in this brief life. Maybe killing Down's Syndrome babies gives the good professor pleasure.

Sainsbury: Politically Correct Ani-Semitism. In another story from the UK, Sainsbury, the large supermarket chain, decided to appease anti-Israeli (i.e., pro-Hamas terrorists) protestors by removing all kosher foods from its shelves. Of course, kosher foods are not Israeli; they are Jewish. Sainsbury, therefore, showed its hand and its raw anti-Semitism. Click on the above link and you will encounter other examples of the reemergence of Jew-hatred in polite society. Only 70 years since the holocaust and it's apparently become an acceptable mainstream attitude in Western Europe.

Fine for Refusing to Host a Lesbian "Wedding": $13,000. An upstate NY couple were fined a total of $13,000 by the state's curiously named Division of Human Rights (DHR) because they chooses not to host a lesbian couple's wedding on their farm. Apparently, then, in the land of the free a family owned small business can no longer base a business decision on strongly held moral and religious beliefs.

Let's see, how does that first clause of the First Amendment to our Constitution go? "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." It would seem that the owners of the farm were simply exercising their religious freedom. And didn't the federal courts just support Hobby Lobby's freedom to do just that?

Global Destruction of Churches. Although the Chinese Communist government's hostility toward Christians has received a lot of press coverage lately, they aren't alone when it comes to the destruction of religious buildings, whether churches, synagogues or mosques. Perhaps most surprisingly Russia joins the Chinese as leaders in this category. Close behind are Tajikistan, Nigeria, Egypt, Pakistan, Syria, Central Afridan Republic, Kenya, India and Iraq. Unfortunately when it comes to religious freedom, the trends all seem to be heading in the wrong direction. As Christianity grows -- and it's definitely growing in Africa and Asia -- it is perceived as a threat not only by other religions, but also by statists and others who can't abide the worship of a higher power than man himself.

What is the one place in the Middle East where Christians are safe? An interesting question and one answered clearly by Eastern Orthodox priest, Fr. Gabriel Nadaf, who lives and ministers in Nazareth. Fr. Nadaf makes a powerful case that Christians in the Middle East are safest in Israel, "the only free country in the region." In every other nation in the region -- and I challenge any reader to offer convincing evidence to the contrary -- Christians are persecuted. Click on the link and read more about Fr. Nadaf.

Each of these stories points to a future in which any expression of religious faith, especially Christian faith, will be increasingly attacked and both socially and legally. Get ready to be marginalized, folks. 

A few years ago Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago, speaking to group of priests, made the following prophetic comment:
“I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.”
Given the direction the world and our nation are headed, I believe the cardinal is probably on target with his prediction. 

Pray for our nation. Pray for our world.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Odd World

Nothing surprises me anymore. I don't know whether the world has degenerated into absolute weirdness or that nothing can escape the attention of the worldwide web. I suspect the latter. Sins that were once kept private are now shouted from rooftops so high the entire world can hear them. But we're now exposed to more than the public airing of personal and communal sins. We're also subjected to a steady stream of videos in which humans delight in sharing their own stupidity or their pets' intelligence. I must receive five or six of these video-infected emails daily. I used to watch a few, but now simply drop them unopened into the virtual trash can. Even worse are the dozens of cutsie, Photo-Shopped digital pics that arrive all bundled together in emails telling me my day won't be complete unless I look at them all. These too I trash. Maybe with my recent birthday (I turned 70 last week) I have evolved into the next stage of life: curmudgeon-hood. This would explain my hostility toward online gossip and forced cuteness. But what really irks me are the surprising things said and done by those who should know better. Here is a sampling encountered in today's news:

Justin Welby, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, stated in a recent interview that he sometimes doubts the existence of God, a rather interesting public admission from the religious head of the established Church of England. According to the church, only about 3% of Britain's population regularly attend Church of England services. It's just one more reason to praise the wisdom of our founding fathers who rejected the idea of a government-established religion.

And then there's our Commander-in-Chief who insists on repeatedly telling our enemies what he won't do when it comes to the use of military force. Talk about making the enemy's job easier! He then goes on to confirm this remarkable lack of leadership by stating that as Commander-in-Chief he will personally approve every target to be attacked by our Navy and Air Force aircraft. One can only marvel at the depth of the President's military knowledge, gained no doubt during his years as a community organizer in Chicago.

Not to be outdone by his boss, the Vice President insists on speaking in public. Remember how the media pummeled Vice President Dan Quayle for his so-called gaffes? Compared to Joe Biden Quayle was the personification of eloquence. At least he didn't call lenders "Shylocks", or praise a former senator who resigned in disgrace for sexual misconduct, or offend Asians with a perceived ethnic slur...and those are just a few of this week's Bidenisms.

Local politicians can also surprise. Charles Barron, a NY City councilman and candidate for the state assembly, wants to play host to Robert Mugabe, the blood-thirsty, murderous dictator of Zimbabwe, should the African "leader" pay another visit to NY. In an interview this week Barron called Mugabe "a shining example of an African leader" and included the dictator in his pantheon of heroes, along with Cuba's Fidel Castro and the late Libyan dictator Muammar el-Quaddafi. According to Barron, "All my heroes were America's enemies." One wonders why this man remains here when he could move to an earthly paradise like Zimbabwe...or Cuba...or even Libya.

The United States Air Force has decided to allow enlisted personnel and officers to omit the words " help me God" from re-enlistment and appointment oaths. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James issued the order as a result of a complaint from a Nevada airman. According to Secretary James, “We are making the appropriate adjustments to ensure our Airmen's rights are protected.” I find it interesting that she somehow believes such rights were ignored for the past 225 years.

Finally, it seems the current polarization isn't limited to things political. According to a recent survey by Pew Research, liberals and conservatives have very different views when it comes to instiling religious values in children. Apparently conservatives believe teaching religious faith is more important than teaching tolerance, while liberals believe the opposite. It's an interesting survey, although I dislike the use of the word "tolerance." Simply tolerating another does not seem especially Christian. We are, after all, called to love others, not merely to tolerate them. And there are certainly things we should never tolerate. The religious values of the Islamic State (or ISIS or ISIL) should not be tolerated. We are called to love the terrorist but not what he does or the horribly misguided religious faith that motivates him. Anyway, I never get too excited about polls and surveys since far too often respondents are forced to assign relative priorities to a range of unrelated values. What's more important, curiosity or creativity? 

I suppose that's enough. Anyway, there's a football game to watch.