Saturday, April 17, 2010

True Worship (Sunday homily)

The second reading, from the Book of Revelation,
shows us the saints in heaven, worshipping.
Actually, if you go through the entire Book of Revelation,
you’ll see a series of scenes: some on earth, then some in heaven.
On earth you see conflict, persecution and distress.

But what you see in heaven is always the same:
the angels and the saints, peacefully, and very intensely,
worshipping the Lamb of God.

Is worship an afterthought? Or is it the center of our lives?
God is letting us know that you and I, and the whole human race,
can only find our true selves, and true justice, true happiness,
with true worship of God.

So for example, people who say they don’t have time to worship God,
Or they can “worship God in their own way”—
Can end up worshipping Money or Getting Ahead;
Or they worship a God who coincidentally
agrees with all their own ideas!

In short, there is always the danger
that our focus will shift, gradually,
from being centered on God, to being about ourselves.

I’ll begin with myself. One of the grave temptations
many priests experience
is to inject too much of ourselves into Mass.

If I were a shy, retiring sort of person—hah!—
maybe that wouldn’t be an issue.
But for me, and for many priests, it is a constant temptation:
add a comment or a joke or an explanation here…
and here…and here…

Now, there’s a place for some of that.
But it’s like red pepper: a little can go a long way;
and those who like it, always put in way too much!

A lot of folks want the priest to do that.
Mass is “boring,” we like it when Father livens it up.
What’s wrong with that?

The Mass is not about me.
My purpose is to be as transparent as possible—
which, given how thick I am, is no easy miracle for God!

It’s kind of a paradox.
Worship is “for us”—in the sense that it benefits us;
God doesn’t need it.
Yet in order for worship to be “good for us”—
it cannot be about us—
we have to fight every temptation to make it us-centered.

And if I can tell you how tempting that is for me,
isn’t that true for all of us?

So we often ask, what should we do to draw people in?
What makes us feel good when we walk out of church?
What do folks like?

I’m not saying those aren’t fair questions;
but you see the danger?

The Mass is what Revelation describes:
God’s people intensely centering their worship
on the Lamb of God;
Jesus who is both Priest and the Lamb slain,
offering himself to wash away our sins
and to plead for us to the Father.

We often say, “Mass is a celebration.”
Again, that’s true to a point.
But we can’t celebrate our being saved,
without also facing the fact of our being lost—and needing it.

In Revelation, we see our future—we are saved!
But we come to Mass in our present,
in a world where we face pressure to keep our Faith to ourselves;
where like Peter, will both want to serve him,
but are tempted to deny him.
Every day we face 100 choices: His way—or my own?

In this world, we take part in the Mass
needing Christ to pour his grace down on us and on the world.
That’s why our focus, our everything, is on the Lamb of God.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Getting the facts right about the pope

(This is more or less what I plan to put in the church bulletin this coming weekend. I may change it based on feedback I receive, here or elsewhere)

No doubt you’ve read stories criticizing Pope Benedict, saying he was negligent or blocked action regarding abusive priests.

Of course this is delicate, because too many people suffered terribly at the hands of a few priests who did horrible things. Too many, especially bishops, were passive, or protected the offenders. These are valid criticisms of the Church. Still there is a question of fairness. No one wants to lump the innocent with the guilty.

So are these claims about the pope “fair and balanced”?

The Vatican is fairly faulted for being slow-moving, including in responding to the media frenzy. However, many are expecting the Vatican to do what local bishops are supposed to do, such as removing an offending priest from active ministry.

This whole mess exploded in this country around 2002, and we’ve taken steps to deal with it. Now much of the world is catching up. Europe is going through what we went through in 2002. And so in the media, it all comes back up as if it’s new.

It may yet be the case that Pope Benedict deserves criticism, what I’ve learned so far leads me more to fault the media for being sloppy and looking for the big “score.” For example, the New York Times relied on an online translation program to convert a document from Latin* to English, without having anyone check it for accuracy!

One story accused Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict), as Archbishop of Munich, of putting an abusive priest back into service. It is true the priest was returned to service; but it was not Ratzinger’s decision. While in the U.S., a bishop would make that call, in Europe another official, the vicar general, makes that decision. That was all too common in the 1980s, but it doesn’t happen now, thankfully.

You heard about a case from Milwaukee, where a priest was facing a church trial to be “laicized”; and you heard about something similar from California. The claim is made that then-Cardinal Ratzinger slowed things down.

To unravel this, I have to clarify some terms many use interchangeably.

1. We refer to a cleric being “removed from ministry.” The local bishop does this—not the pope; and he can do it immediately. It can be temporary, while something is investigated, or it can be permanent. Not taking this step is probably the single-biggest harm many bishops caused in this whole mess.

2. We also refer to “laicizing” a priest. Remember, we believe that the sacrament of holy orders imparts an indelible change—“once a priest, always a priest.” But “laicizing” means he no longer has the obligations of a priest and can no longer function as a priest.

3. Often, a priest himself will ask to be “laicized” for various reasons; he feels he can no longer carry out his ministry, he wishes to marry, has had a crisis of faith, etc. The pope is not obliged to grant the request, and usually does not.

4. Then, there are cases of “involuntary” laicization, what the media calls “defrocking.” When a priest has committed grave offenses, his bishop will seek this action. The priest has the right to contest it, so there is a long process, in a “church court,” just like a secular court of law. Rome has the final say.

The problem is, the media are mixing all these together. Many have faulted Rome for taking time on laicization, failing to note that this doesn’t prevent a bishop from removing a priest from all active ministry. They are independent.

Yes, it is true that laicization takes time, and many of the stories highlight how long it took in the ’80s and ’90s. What they don’t tell you is that it has been streamlined since 2001. And who spearheaded this change? Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict.

An AP story really muffs this. A California priest wrote to Rome asking for voluntary dismissal. Ratzinger wrote back, saying slow down “for the good of the church.” Turns out, the same priest was also an abuser (which he obviously didn’t say in his own letter to Ratzinger); and in time, the bishop sought to have him laicized. But the AP doesn’t make clear just what request the letter they’ve quoted was responding to.

A New York Times story about a priest from Milwaukee claimed Ratzinger stopped a church trial of a dying priest. But the judge in the case—who said the Times never even talked to him—tells a different story: yes, Ratzinger was asked to stop the trial, because the priest was ill. But before Ratzinger even responded, the priest died.

Now, it may yet be that we’ll learn something deserving criticism. But the whole story should be told. If you go online to, you can read about how Rome deals with these things. You can also read the tough letter Pope Benedict addressed to the Irish Church, in light of terrible events there.

Also, a lot of people see this through the lens of some mistaken assumptions.

Many assume the Vatican is a massive bureaucracy. Not so. Many assume the pope can do whatever he wants, such as firing a bishop. In theory, yes; but in practice, no. Many claim that if only the priesthood were open to women, or priests were married, this would all be different; yet we know these crimes happen in other religious settings, in schools, sports teams and elsewhere, where celibacy and Catholic theology have nothing to do with it.

I thought these were points you would like to consider as you read these things. My conclusion is the pope, and our Church, are being treated unfairly—Father Martin.

* Correction: it was a translation from Italian to English. See link in comments.

Update, April 19, AD 2010: This article in the UK Catholic Herald is very good. Biretta-tip to Rich Leonardi at Ten Reasons

Saturday, April 10, 2010

'Power to change us...we can change the world' (Divine Mercy homily)

There are two things I’d like to highlight in the Gospel.

The first is the authority
that Jesus Christ shares and gives over to the Apostles.
He said: “As the Father sent me, so I send you.”

If I had a billion dollars and gave you my checkbook and said,
“As I can sign checks from this checkbook, so can you”—
what would that mean?
Maybe the last time I saw you—or the checkbook!

When Christ says that to the Apostles,
he’s really communicating his divine power and authority to them.

In an age when everything seems tattered and suspect—
Our Congress doesn’t look much like the Founding Fathers;
Our sports and entertainment heroes don’t inspire;
Our financial institutions aren’t trustworthy;
And our church leaders come under attack;
We might wonder if we can really believe this idea
that the Church is Christ’s true presence and authority on earth.

Well it depends on what we expect before we will believe that.
If we expect those of us who make up the Church to be immune
from temptation, from weakness of judgment and character…

Then, no, we can’t believe the Church is divine.
And that is how a lot of folks approach it.
We profess that the Church speaks with the authority of Christ;
and then someone looks for a flaw—and they find plenty.

But that misunderstands what we believe.
We never claimed the Church is made up of only perfect people;
How weak Christ would be
if he could only be effective through perfect people!

When Jesus came, he chose flawed people as his messengers.
That’s who he was looking at when he said,
“As the Father sent me, so I send you.

It is despite this that the Church has been, and is,
His Ambassador to the world—acting with his authority.
One good thing is that no one can ever misled
about what makes it work.
If you walk into a structure built solidly,
there’s nothing remarkable about it staying upright.

But if you walk into a building made of dodgy materials,
put together haphazardly, and then you were told
“this building has withstood winds and storms and earthquakes—for two thousand years!”
You would say: “this is a miracle—only God’s power can explain it.”

And that is the Church. It’s built of us, and with our help.
The Architect must shake his head;
and yet the Risen Lord cannot and will not be constrained by our weakness.
When we profess the Church is his divine instrument,
it’s an act of Faith in him—not us!

I said there was something else worth noticing—
and it has to do with why this first thing is important.

Notice what else the Lord gives his Apostles—notice the purpose:
“Receive the Holy Spirit: whose sins you forgive,
are forgiven them;
whose sins you retain, are retained.”
The world needs the Church to be Christ’s Teacher:
a sure light amidst so much uncertainty.
But that only cause for hope if the Church is also a Healer:
Giving Christ’s mercy and power to change.
What good is it to show people the way to heaven,
if we are unable to help anyone actually get there?

These truths confront us as they did Thomas: Do we believe this?
If we don’t have the conviction
that there’s something unique about our Catholic Faith;
if we are not convinced
that true mercy and conversion is in our midst;
then what will impel us to share our Faith with others?

And this is a challenge in another way:
if you tell me I have the power to change,
what excuse, then, do I have, for remaining as I am?

People flocked to the Apostles not because they were perfect,
but because Someone Perfect was at work through them.

And yet the Apostles had to be willing:
to be set afire by the Holy Spirit, to be a beacon of hope.
The Lord appeals to us as he did to Thomas:
Doubt no longer, but believe.
Christ can change us; and we can change the world.