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.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Gone to the Dogs

My life has changed drastically since we  adopted our dog, Maddie. I now join her on two-mile walks twice daily, once in the early morning and again in the afternoon. My days, once relatively free and and far less predictable, have now become as regulated as the German rail system. Contributing to this change, Dear Diane gave me a FitBit for Christmas. This clever little wristwatch-like device provides me with a wealth of health-related facts. I now know how many steps I take daily (always between 11,000 and 16,000), my heart rate, the miles I've walked, and all sorts of other data. I'm told the American Heart Association recommends walking at least 10,000 steps daily. After two months with this device I suspect the American Association of Funeral Directors recommends a minimum of 11,000.

Maddie - 5 am Wake-up
In truth these walks with Maddie have been a delight, even though the morning edition sometimes starts long before dawn. On Thursday mornings, for example, Diane and I must be at the soup kitchen by 6:30 so I set the alarm for 5:00. This gives Maddie and me enough time for our 45-minute walk in the early morning darkness. Maddie dislikes being taken from her bed so early, but adjusts well after a few full-body stretches and gaping yawns. Within a few minutes she's at the door, ready to go. She and I leave the house promptly at 5:10 and wander through our neighborhood enjoying the pre-dawn silence.

For Maddie a walk in the dark is really no different from a walk in the noonday sun. She's just happy to be out in the world where she can enjoy its variety of smells and sounds. Unlike most people, the average dog is easy to please. If a dog enjoys something, it never tires of it. Indeed, dogs seem to thrive in a well-regulated, habit-driven environment.

Maddie is a rescued Bichon Frise, already six years old when she entered our home. Her life during those first six years is a complete mystery to Dear Diane and me, so we cut her a lot of slack and just enjoy her uniqueness. And, believe me, she arrived with her own personalized bundle of neuroses. For example, she dislikes riding in the car, but loves to ride in the golf cart. Of course, she's usually restrained in the backseat of the car, but sits next to me or on my lap in the golf cart. Her aversion to the car might also have something to do with the 7,000 mile, cross-country road trip we took just two weeks after she joined our little family. 

Ready to Walk
We, of course, break all the rules of dog ownership. She sleeps with us on our king-size bed, and for someone who weighs only 15 pounds, seems to take up a lot of room. She also demands long stretches of belly-rubbing each morning before rising. Of course, Diane obliges.

Maddie's also rather un-doglike in her eating habits. We feed her twice daily, after her morning and late afternoon walks, but she'll often leave a bowlful of food uneaten for hours. On Thursday, for example, we filled her bowl at 6 a.m. and it hadn't been touched when we returned from the soup kitchen at 1 p.m. I've never known a dog to do that. All our previous dogs treated each meal as if it were their last. And yet, once Maddie realized we were home for the day, she went into the kitchen and emptied her bowl. It would seem she associates eating with our presence, although oddly she will not eat if either of us are in the same room. It's all quite perplexing, but there's more.

Maddie likes most humans and really doesn't discriminate. If  she spots a dog-less person walking toward us she will often sit down and wait. When the person finally arrives she excitedly offers licks and hugs. She's this way with everyone...except one man, who lives a few blocks away. Whenever Maddie sees him she utters one of those low growls, and if he approaches she barks at him. It's all very strange since she acts this way with no one else. Makes you wonder, doesn't it?

When it comes to dogs, however, she's far more circumspect. On our walks, she'll approach other dogs but always gingerly. If the other is friendly, she responds accordingly; but if she senses hostility -- and there are many little, ankle-biting Yorkies here in The Villages -- she simply backs off and avoids the offensive creature. I've seen her bark and growl at another dog only once, and he was particularly nasty old dog. Interestingly, she seems to have developed a crush on a little neighborhood Westie named Odie. It was love at first sight and has continued. If their paths cross she rushes toward him excitedly, and if we pass by his home she stares hopefully at the front door. 

Maddie has no street smarts whatsoever. Before crossing the street she doesn't check for cars, but just goes. Our other dogs seemed to realize that moving cars are large, fast, and potentially deadly objects, things to avoid. Fortunately, I still have the will to live and always restrain her on a leash. So far neither of us have been squished by a speeding SUV.

I offer these thoughts today for those considering bringing a dog into your home, especially those of you who, like Dear Diane and me, are retired. Owning a dog in retirement is far different from owning one with a houseful of children. Maddie has been a wonderful addition to our home, but a needy and demanding addition. And while your life with a dog will change drastically, I know Diane will agree that in our case the change has been a delightful one. Maddie, who sleeps at my feet as I type, is definitely a keeper. I trust she feels the same about us.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Reflection: Friday Stations of the Cross

When I was a senior in high school our chemistry teacher, a priest, read the Sermon on the Mount every morning. He told us this was the only way he could ensure he’d at least try to do as Jesus asks. Don’t worry, I’m not going to read the entire Sermon on the Mount to you.

But among its opening words, in the beatitudes, Jesus makes a promise: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” [Mt 5:7]

I think this might be a good verse for us to focus on today, as we begin our Lenten journey. It’s certainly one that Pope Francis has preached frequently during these opening weeks of the Year of Mercy. Indeed, mercy and forgiveness have been at the core of his teaching since he was elected pope.

Mercy and forgiveness. Mercy, of course, is all about forgiveness, but true mercy is a divine attribute, one that we can share only through God’s grace. That’s right; we need God’s help to be merciful because we’re surrounded by the unmerciful. We live in a world that rejects acts of mercy, that rejects forgiveness, a world that opts instead for self-interest, for revenge.

To be merciful, to be forgiving, is to be like Jesus.  Pope Francis reminds us of this in strong words when he says, “If you can’t forgive, you are not a Christian.” Strong words indeed: You cannot be Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ, if you cannot forgive as Jesus forgives.

St. John tells us that “God is love” [1 Jn 4:8] and it’s through His mercy and forgiveness that we experience His love most deeply.

Look at how Our Lord forgives in the Gospel. He doesn’t condemn. He doesn’t denounce. He doesn’t beat the penitent down with recriminations. No, Jesus simply forgives.

He began His ministry with the words, “Repent and believe in the gospel” [Mk 1:15], and as He completed it on the Cross He said, “Father, forgive them…” [Lk 23:34]

Jesus extends divine mercy to all who come to Him in repentance. And when Jesus forgives, the sinner is filled with joy, for he’s tasted God’s love up close and personal.

Let’s all look into our hearts today, into the dark corners where we’ve hidden all those whom we just can’t forgive. Let’s carry them out, bring them out into the light of God’s love. Let Jesus forgive them, and He will give you the grace to do the same.

God forgives and calls us to extend mercy and forgiveness to others…all others. This is what the power of the Cross is all about.

As we follow Jesus along the way of the Cross this afternoon, let’s ask God to set us free from the habit of sin, to give us the grace to be merciful, to fill our hearts with his love and truth. 

Homily: Baptism of Baby Matthew

Reading: Mk 1:9-11

We’ve all heard this Gospel passage many times. But why was Jesus Baptized? After all, He’s the Son of God. He’s sinless. Why should He be baptized? Scriptural scholars have debated this question for centuries, but I think there’s a simple answer.

Christ was baptized, not to be made holy by the water, but to make the water holy, to purify it at its source for the dispensing of baptismal grace to all Christians, to people of all ages.

And Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist because Jesus asked John to do it. Jesus, the Son of God and a man of faith, asked John to baptize him, and John in full obedience did as he was asked.

We baptize today in full obedience to Jesus’ command, and because a person or persons of faith ask us to do it. And so we do it.

Of course, little Matthew here didn’t tell me he wanted to be baptized, and were I to ask him I probably wouldn’t get much of an answer.

Matthew certainly hasn’t asked to be baptized. And I suppose it would be a stretch to call him a man of faith. But does he trust in God? Once again, no. In fact, I’m pretty sure that Matthew trusts only that Mommy and Daddy are there for him when he needs them, when he’s hungry or afraid or just wants to be loved.

If all this is true, why then are we baptizing Matthew, this wonderful little gift of God?

We’re baptizing him because his parents, Megan and Matt, are people of faith, and because they have asked us to. Can we then offer the saving Grace of Baptism to a baby (even a cute little guy like Matthew) just because his parents are people of faith and ask us to do it?

As usual, the answer comes to us again and again in the gospels where we encounter Jesus saving innocent children based upon the faith of a parent.

He raised a dead girl to life because Jairus, the girl’s father, asked Him to [Mk 5:21-24].

He freed a woman’s possessed daughter from the grasp of evil because the woman begged Him [Mt 15:21-28].

He raised the dead son of the widow in Nain out of simple compassion
[Lk 711-17]

In each case a child was saved, a child lived through the saving power of God. These events remind us, too, of the centurion who approached Jesus and asked Him to heal his faithful servant with the words we repeat daily as Mass:
"O Lord I am not worthy to receive you under my roof, but only say the word and my servant will be healed" [Mt 8:8].
And how can we forget that scene when the disciples tried to keep the children away from Jesus:

"Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked them, but Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” [Mt 19:13-14].

Yes, Jesus wants the children brought to Him, so they too can be blessed, so they too can experience salvation. 

In the same way your son, Matthew, will experience today the saving power of Jesus, through the work of the Holy Spirit. Today you will share Matthew with God the Father who will claim him as His adopted son.

It is your faith that allows all this to happen. And that same faith places a huge responsibility on you. For today you promise to bring Matthew up in the faith and teach him to trust in God, to grow in friendship with Jesus Christ.

And godparents, Angela and Chris, you are called to help Matthew’s parents in this ministry, for that’s what it is -- a ministry of the family, of the domestic church.

Given the name of our soon-to-be Christian, I think it’s especially fitting to conclude with the last words of Matthew’s Gospel. These are the final words of Jesus to His disciples before He ascended to the Father in heaven:

“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” [Mt 28:19-20].
And so we are called to baptize and to teach. Today we do the first of these for Matthew. But you must now begin to fulfill the second, to teach.

We know you trust in God. We know Matthew trusts in you. Live up to that dual trust by doing as God has commanded you.

Homily: Saturday, First Week of Lent

Readings: Dt 26:16-19; Ps 119; Mt 5:43-48

As a Navy pilot during the war in Vietnam, I flew search and rescue helicopters. We were stationed aboard ships in the Tonkin Gulf and most of our rescue work involved picking up fighter and attack pilots who had been shot down. Although we were armed with a .30 caliber machine gun mounted in the cabin door, and we all carried small arms, these light weapons really provided very little protection. Anyway, our goal was to avoid detection. We just wanted to get in, pick up any survivors, and get out as quickly as possible. On the few occasions that one of our helicopter crews actually fired their weapons, I don’t think they ever hit anybody. I suppose they made us feel safer though.

The enemy, of course, were the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong communists. As my POW friends will attest, they were not nice people. And as my many Marine friends discovered when they liberated the ancient city of Hue, the communists had tortured and murdered over 7,000 men, women, and children during their month-long occupation. Yes, they were an easy enemy to hate.

But hating them troubled me because I had read the Sermon on the Mount and knew what Jesus had commanded of us. And so one day I paid a visit to the Catholic chaplain and asked him how we could reconcile the command to love our enemies with this conflict in which we were engaged. I’ll always remember that conversation.

It was a long conversation. I won’t go into our lengthy discussion on the just war doctrine. That’s a subject for another time. But I will tell you what he had to say about enemies and hatred and love and forgiveness.

He began by saying that if our enemies are those we hate, we have ceased being Christians. As disciples of Jesus Christ we are to hate no one. But if our enemies are those who hate us, then we will always have enemies.

After all, Jesus had many enemies, simply because He loved everyone, especially those despised by the world, and He spoke the truth even when it upset people, and did the Father’s will. Yes, Jesus had enemies, but He hated no one.

Our enemies decide how they will treat us. We decide only to love them or to hate them. Love and hate, you see, are not emotions. They’re decisions. Jesus calls us to make the decision to love regardless of the evil others do. And He calls to exclude no one from our love.

These are hard words for us, aren’t they? Hard indeed… until we come face to face with the Cross, and we hear His words, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” [Lk 23:34]. It’s there, on the Cross, that we encounter Divine Mercy: God’s perfect  love, a love that demands forgiveness.

Forgiveness is the only thing we can do to those we are called to love. If we refuse to forgive, we are refusing to love.

Do you remember the movie, “Dead Man Walking”? Well, one person you won’t see in the movie is Debbie Morris, the one victim who miraculously survived kidnapping, rape and torture -- a horrific ordeal at the hands of Robert Willie. He was executed based largely on her testimony. But after a long healing process, she said, “Justice didn’t do a thing to heal me. Forgiveness did.”

Yes, it’s easy to hate and scream for justice, for man’s justice, but it never brings healing. It never brings the closure the world promises. Only forgiveness can do that. Only forgiveness can heal.

The world will never run out of objects for our hatred, especially today when enemies abound. If we hope to become the people Moses spoke of in our first reading, “a people sacred to the LORD” [Dt 26:19], we must live up to God’s expectations for us, we who were created in His image and likeness.

And so He calls each of us to view this life as a pilgrimage of love, one in which we seek out others, finding Jesus Christ in each person we meet, and letting them recognize Jesus in us.

Let God be the one who will judge His creations.

We need only love.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Happy Birthday, Big Brother

Jeff (missing tooth) and Yours Truly, c. 1947
My big brother and only sibling, Jefferson Brian McCarthy, died in January 2010, a little over six years ago. He was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut on February 8, 1941, so today would have been Jeff's 75th birthday. A day doesn't go by when I don't think of him, and miss his presence in my life.

Growing up together, but separated by four years, we probably had the typical big brother-little brother relationship. We fought and wrestled and played together, and shared everything. And I could always count on Jeff to be the protective big brother when I needed reinforcements. Our personalities, though, were as different as day and night, and yet we seemed not to notice or be bothered by the differences. He was by far the smarter, always among the top students in his class, always willing to do the extra work needed to achieve the highest grades and win the prizes and awards. I, on the other hand, found that my interests didn't always coincide with the subjects taught in school, and would spend more time on that which aroused my curiosity. I did what was necessary to earn acceptable grades -- high enough to prevent parental interference -- but I was never a candidate for valedictorian. I suppose our mother understood us best. She once said, "Jeff's the smart one, who wants to please others; but Dana's the clever one who wants to please himself." I'm still not sure if that was a compliment or a criticism.
Our dad, John McCarthy, and Jeff at West Point on graduation day - June 1962
Dana (me), our Mom, and Jeff - Summer 1963 at home in Chatham on Cape Cod
Jeff went to West Point, graduating in 1962, and after a year at Georgetown University, I went to Annapolis, graduating in 1967. Because my grandfather and father both served in the Army, I suppose I was a bit of a black sheep who broke with tradition. But Jeff and I never saw it that way and were proud of each other's service. Our only serious disagreement came on the day of the Army-Navy game.

Jeff's sudden death from heart failure shortly before his 69th birthday came as a shock to me, especially since I'd always assumed he'd outlive me. I know that sounds strange since Jeff was almost four years older, but to me he'd always seemed healthier, at least until his last few years when his health began to deteriorate. Although his decline during those final years was evident, I didn't realize how ill he was. I suppose that's not uncommon: the failure to recognize and accept that one we love is near death. Based on some of our last conversations, I suspect Jeff knew he was approaching the end of his life. I just didn't realize it until later, when I played those conversations back in my mind. 

If I learned anything from Jeff's death it's that we should treasure every moment we have with those we love. Indeed, as Pope Francis is fond of reminding us, we should treasure every person we encounter, every child of God, and recognize the presence of Jesus Christ within them. That's a hard lesson to learn and put into practice.

Rest in peace, big brother, I'll see you again soon enough.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

G. K. Chesterton on Islam

I thought my tiny but select group of readers might find these comments by the great G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) of interest:
“…but out of the desert, from the dry places and the dreadful suns, come the cruel children of the lonely God; the real Unitarians who with scimitar in hand have laid waste the world. For it is not well for God to be alone.” -- from Chesterton's wonderful book, Orthodoxy, a book every human being should read. It was written 108 years ago, in 1908.
“There is in Islam a paradox which is perhaps a permanent menace. The great creed born in the desert creates a kind of ecstasy out of the very emptiness of its own land, and even, one may say, out of the emptiness of its own theology. It affirms, with no little sublimity, something that is not merely the singleness but rather the solitude of God. There is the same extreme simplification in the solitary figure of the Prophet; and yet this isolation perpetually reacts into its own opposite. A void is made in the heart of Islam which has to be filled up again and again by a mere repetition of the revolution that founded it. There are no sacraments; the only thing that can happen is a sort of apocalypse, as unique as the end of the world; so the apocalypse can only be repeated and the world end again and again. There are no priests; and yet this equality can only breed a multitude of lawless prophets almost as numerous as priests. The very dogma that there is only one Mahomet produces an endless procession of Mahomets. Of these the mightiest in modern times were the man whose name was Ahmed, and whose more famous title was the Mahdi; and his more ferocious successor Abdullahi, who was generally known as the Khalifa. These great fanatics, or great creators of fanaticism, succeeded in making a militarism almost as famous and formidable as that of the Turkish Empire on whose frontiers it hovered, and in spreading a reign of terror such as can seldom be organised except by civilisation…” -- from Chesterton's brief book, really a eulogy, on Lord Kitchener (1917).
“When people talk as if the Crusades were nothing more than an aggressive raid against Islam, they seem to forget in the strangest way that Islam itself was only an aggressive raid against the old and ordered civilization in these parts. I do not say it in mere hostility to the religion of Mahomet; I am fully conscious of many values and virtues in it; but certainly it was Islam that was the invasion and Christendom that was the thing invaded." -- from Chesterton's book, The New Jerusalem (1920)
The above comments make one wonder what Chesterton would have thought of Islam today, particularly those expressions of Islam that manifest themselves as ISIS, al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, et al.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Homily: Monday, 4th Week in Ordinary Time

Readings: 2 Sm 15:13-14, 30; 16:5-13; Ps 3; Mk 5:1-20
 “Legion is my name. There are many of us” [Mk 5:9].   

When I was much younger, I thought those words were among the most frightening in the Bible. There was just something very chilling about them. Part of it was the demon’s brazen declaration of who he and his gang were. Was that name, “Legion”, supposed to scare Jesus? Well it might have scared me, but it certainly didn’t scare Jesus. It was also the idea of that poor man possessed by so many demons. After all, a Roman Legion could have as many as 6,000 fighting men.

And yet, if you think about it, Satan is the father of lies and his minions follow suit. How many were there? We don’t know. And I suppose the last thing they resembled were the disciplined soldiers who made up a legion. To be disciplined is to obey and that’s one thing Satan doesn’t do.

Recall how Jesus commissioned the disciples:
“Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…” [Mt 28:19-20]
Yes, “…all that I have commanded you.” In other words, through obedience to His commands the Church will remain united. Jesus calls us to unity.

But Satan…his name in Greek – diabolos (διάβολος) – means the scatterer. He doesn’t unite; he scatters. He strives to destroy community, to create dissension. He tears apart all that is good. This is exactly what he did to the Gerasene community that Jesus and the apostles visited.

This was not a Jewish community. The Gerasenes were gentiles, pagans…and Jesus encountered three types of beings during His brief stay.

The first was the man who meets Jesus on His arrival. Living among the tombs, a kind of wild-man, he was being destroyed by the demons who possessed him. But he came to Jesus didn’t he? He saw Him from a distance, ran up to Him, and fell down before Him.

Was this the act of the man himself, and not the demons who possessed him? Did he exert what little free will he still had? Driven by the Spirit, did he run to Jesus, and throw himself to the ground in a silent act of worship? Is that what happened? I’d like to think so.

But that’s when Jesus encountered the second being, the demon who spoke for them all. He, too, recognized Jesus, the “Son of the Most High God” [Mk 5:7].

He also knows that his time is up. He came face to face with the power of God Himself. “…do not torment me” [Mk 5:7], he begged. He also asked to remain among the Gerasenes. Apparently the pickin’s were good there. And he saw an opportunity to divide further, to scatter. “Send us into the swine” [Mk 5:12], he begs. And Jesus does just that. 2,000 swine, valuable livestock, run off a cliff into the water and drown.

With this Jesus encounters the third group of beings, the people of Gerasene. The swineherds, who had witnessed it all, told the locals everything that had happened. They saw the possessed man standing before them as normal as can be; indeed, more normal even than they. It was all too much for them. As Mark tells us, “…they were seized with fear” [Mk 5: 15] and begged Jesus to leave them, to go away. They saw the work of God but refused to recognize His presence among them.

Yes, Satan did his work, didn’t he? He scattered. And Jesus allowed it…for now. Satan probably thought he’d won. After all, Jesus was sent away. But the scatterer failed to notice something important…because Jesus didn’t really leave, did He? At least not entirely. For His Word remained there in the person of a disciple.

Jesus sent the one he freed from Satan’s grasp to proclaim the Good News. Unlike Satan, he obeyed. Yes, this man, once possessed by a legion of demons became the first missionary to the Gentiles.

Jesus chooses the most unlikely among us to demonstrate His power and His mercy. No matter how we’ve failed in the past, no matter how sinful, how unworthy, God continues to call us. He will never stop extending His bountiful mercy. For God is love and can do nothing else.

Oh, yes, I didn’t mention one group of people who were there with Jesus during His visit to Gerasene: the apostles. And yet we hear nothing from them, do we? They say not a word. Perhaps they too were frightened by those chilling words and all that took place that day. Only later would they realize why Jesus had taken them to that dark place: to give them a taste of what they would encounter as they “make disciples of all nations.”

And how about us? Do we extend mercy to the most unlikely, the most unloved, those rejected by the world? Do we carry Jesus’ Word and His merciful love into the dark places of our world?

Or do we instead do the work of the scatterer?