Sunday, April 28, 2013

The City of God (Sunday homily)

In the second reading we have the new Jerusalem, the city of God.
What does this tell us about who we are and where we’re headed? 
Let’s look at it.

The thing about a city is there is a lot of interdependence.
When I got up this morning, I wanted hot water; I turned the knob. 
To fix breakfast, I had bread on the counter, 
and eggs and bacon, butter and milk in the fridge.

But all those wonderful things only happen 
because of other people in this city, who run the water plant, 
maintain the gas and electric lines, and who bring food in 
from farms and faraway places to the grocery store.

The City of God works the same way. We belong together.

Our American way of thinking emphasizes individualism.
We like being free to do as we wish.

So a lot of Catholics tend to think about faith as being an individual thing.
And when we, or our bishops, talk about the obligations of being a Catholic, 
it doesn’t always register.

I think this explains why so many don’t go to confession.
Why can’t we just tell God? 
And the answer is because our sins don’t just involve God, 
they involve his Body, the Church.
And so, also, our reconciliation is in and through the Church.

The opening prayer mentions “Holy Baptism.”
Baptism is when each of us became citizens of that City.

Most of us were born citizens of this country; 
but if you talk to people who are naturalized, 
they’ll tell you about the many steps they took, 
and they’ll talk about how powerful it was 
to swear their allegiance and become a citizen.

Well, it’s even more true with baptism. 
That’s why we renew our baptismal vows at Easter, 
and why we profess our Creed each Sunday. 

And being a citizen in God’s City, the Church,
means we live our lives in our Faith and by our Faith.
When you think of it that way, 
how can we have a part of our lives we live outside the City?

And yet, that’s where a lot of Catholics are. 
Go on the Internet--get outside; 
how we run our business, or treat other people, 
how we shop or how we vote: we go outside the City.

And this is why we come here every Lord’s Day.
This is where the city we are not yet--
but which God is fashioning us to be--is made present.
This city doesn’t have a mayor; we have a King.
And the King is here! Of course we come!

If you read further in the book of Revelation, 
you’ll see that in the center of that City is a Tree:
“the Tree of Life” that gives fruit for the nations twelve months a year.

That Tree is the Cross. 
And so that we can become who are called to be,
that Tree becomes present here, at every Mass, at the altar.
The Eucharist is the Fruit of that Tree!

This is the City of God. Of course we come!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

How to celebrate a birthday

Today is my birthday. Facebook has told the world, so there's no point in trying to keep it secret. Everyone has his or her own way to celebrate the day, here are my thoughts.

It doesn't make sense to me to celebrate it as if I accomplished something. This is the anniversary of a gift--the gift of life. (Actually, a day roughly nine months earlier, so for me sometime in July--but I never had the brass to get an exact date from my parents.)

In any case, this is a day for gratitude.

Of course, my thoughts turn immediately to my parents. When I was growing up, we had a custom. On our birthday, we found mom and wished her a happy mother's day. Parents, may I suggest such a ritual for your families? It taught me, at any rate, to recognize that my life is a gift to me.

Upon further reflection, naturally, I realize it's also father's day; and in later years, after my mom had left this life, I would call my dad. On my birthday each year, since both are gone, there's a little sadness that I can't call them anymore. So I talk to them in prayer, and I look forward to seeing them again. I remember them at Mass, more than just one day--but this day in particular.

It didn't take me long to notice I was number seven; and the last of the children in my family. It wasn't hard for me to notice, even 40 years ago that most families didn't have that many children. If my parents had elected to have the "usual number" of children, that wouldn't have included me.

So it isn't much of a leap for me to say, contraception and abortion mean I never exist. It makes it personal.

I'm grateful for all the kind wishes and the love they represent. I hope I can repay it adequately.

For me, a birthday isn't about me; it's about what God has done through me, through others. A day to be thankful.

Thank you mom and dad! Thank you Heavenly Father.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Accused Boston bombers: what if someone had told them about Jesus Christ? (Sunday homily)

In my homily today, I’m going to try to answer two questions: 
what do we mean by “salvation,” 
and why are we supposed to tell everyone about it?

It says in the first reading that Paul and Barnabas 
brought them the word of salvation.

What is that salvation?

Sometimes we talk about our sins being taken away; 
or we talk about heaven being opened to us; 
or, we talk about the life of the Holy Spirit being poured into us.

Salvation is all of that and more.

But it might help if we talk about what we’re saved from.
And that’s the sin-problem that all humanity has.

Of all the things we believe as Christians, 
people can challenge all of them--except one.
It takes no faith all to agree that humanity has a problem.

A sin problem. The problem of evil.
We saw it on display in Boston last week; 
we see it in all the wars going on. 

Or in the horrors of an abortion chamber in Philadelphia,
that the media is barely reporting about.

But if the problem of evil 
were merely a matter of a couple of misfits in Boston, 
or an abortionist here or there, 
or a dictator in some foreign country,
We could easily deal with evil.

But the great Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, 
The “line dividing good and evil”
isn’t between nations, or groups of people--
It “cuts through the heart of every human being; 
And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

One way or the other, each of us has a part of the problem.
Because our sin-problem is ultimately a self-problem, a pride-problem.
The words first whispered to Eve in the Garden 
echo a thousand ways, every day, in ourselves: “you shall be as God.”

Now, God could have responded by saying, 
“Too bad my experiment failed!”
Or he could have fixed us without telling us, 
the way you might wipe a computer clean 
and start over with new software.

But in choosing to save us, God chose a way that invites a choice from us.

Man’s sin-problem put the cross at the center of our world;
God let us put him on that cross;
And when we realized what we’d done, 
all that was left was either to turn away,
Or to kneel and let him love us.

When we do that, we receive the life of the Spirit 
as an alternative to a life of self-worship--
which is how we got in our mess in the first place.

So that’s the answer to my first question.
That’s what salvation is: God’s life in us--the Holy Spirit--
so that we can have life, forever, in God.

In the Gospel, our Lord said, no one takes us from his hand;
But that doesn’t keep us from jumping out.
Baptism puts us there; and when we’ve lost our way, 
the sacrament of confession puts us back.

Now, why do we tell others about it?
Or am I assuming something: 
Do we tell others about this salvation?

Paul and Barnabas went far and wide sharing this message--
and they paid a terrible price for it.

If the people they came for would have done about as well 
whether the Apostles had made the trip or not, 
Then how foolish Paul and Barnabas were!

Fast-forward to last week, in Boston. 
Those two young men who are suspected of setting off that bomb--
who seem to have lost their way and listened to evil counsel;
I wonder if anyone told them about Jesus Christ?
What if they listened?

The amazing thing is, no one had to go around the world, 
to the Caucasus Mountains, to share the hope of Christ.
Those men came here, where the vast majority are Christians;
To a city with hundreds of thousands of Catholics.
The older one, who died, looked around and said, 
no one has any values anymore.

Does it matter if we share our faith?
Does it matter if our lives are convincing witnesses?
What do you think?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Next up: polygamy

Here comes the campaign to legalize/normalize polygamy. As predicted, scoffing from advocates of "gay marriage" notwithstanding.

Here's a key paragraph that says it well:

The definition of marriage is plastic. Just like heterosexual marriage is no better or worse than homosexual marriage, marriage between two consenting adults is not inherently more or less “correct” than marriage among three (or four, or six) consenting adults. Though polygamists are a minority—a tiny minority, in fact—freedom has no value unless it extends to even the smallest and most marginalized groups among us. So let’s fight for marriage equality until it extends to every same-sex couple in the United States—and then let’s keep fighting. We’re not done yet.

That's actually a sound argument--given the premise, namely: that "heterosexual marriage is no better or worse than homosexual marriage." Of course, I don't believe that; but once that premise is established, then it follows that "marriage between two consenting adults is not inherently more or less 'correct' than marriage among three (or four, or six) consenting adults."

Indeed, I would point out that while the prohibition on marriage being same-sex can be rooted in nature--and not in any particular religion--the restriction of marriage to two, and only two, contracting parties is particular to some religions. Which raises a question: will advocates of polygamy argue that the restriction to two persons is cannot be justified on a non-religious--and hence, constitutional--basis? I'm not an attorney, but that approach would interest me if I were carrying that water.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Are you Peter--or the Sanhedrin? (Sunday homily)

When we hear in the first reading, 
the Apostles are saying what the Lord sent them to say,
And they are met with hostility.

Let’s hit the obvious point: we’re still being told, 
“stop saying that stuff”--
and we face the same choice as Peter:
Do we obey God or men?

There are some pretty obvious connections:
We Catholics are getting lots of opportunities 
to feel like Peter these days. 

The mandate on what’s included in health care: 
do we obey government or conscience?
We’re being told to hush up about marriage;
And even moreso, the underlying question 
of what we believe about physical intimacy 
being meant for a man and a woman, 
but not meant for two men or two women.

Now, if I stop there, some folks are happy, others, not so much.
But I can’t stop there.

The Lord had some tough things to say about money; 
About truly serving the poor; about war and violence; 
and what he said about forgiveness:
turn the other cheek, forgive 70 times seven times.

At some point or the other, it’s not that we’re Peter, being brave; 
but that we’re the Sanhedrin saying, we don’t want to hear that!
Think about that.

From the homily cutting-room floor

It may or may not be obvious that when a priest prepares a homily, there are things he thinks about including, and ultimately leaves out. Sometimes because he decides to take a different direction; sometimes because it gets too involved and too long. Many times because it's not really homiletical--i.e., there's a lot of interesting things I'd love to share about a reading, but it isn't necessarily all that helpful for folks at Sunday Mass figuring out how to live the word of God they just heard.

Because I write my homilies--and because I can write fairly fast, and writing things down is a way I crystalize and organize my thoughts--I often write quite a bit more than ever makes into a homily. My rule of thumb is one hundred words a minute (because long ago, I timed myself; and as far as I know, it's still a reasonable benchmark); and I can pretty easily write a thousand, fifteen hundred words on a subject, just typing away. But that doesn't mean its all edifying! For me, writing long is easy; cutting it down is the hard part. (So...when you see some of my really long posts...? Now you know the rest of the story!)

Sometimes I'll post that unused material. Here's what ended up on the cutting-room floor this weekend. Feel free to ask me why, or offer any observations.


Last week we saw how Jesus got most of the Apostles back in the fold. 
Remember, all but John ran away.
And we saw how the Lord reached out to Thomas.
So now it’s Peter. Remember how the leader of them all had not only run away, 
but actually denied the Lord--three times!

Notice how the Lord restores Peter.
He doesn’t ask, three times, “are you sorry?”
Nor does he ask, three times, “Are you my follower?” 
or, “Do you believe in me?”

He says, “Do you love me?”

And when Peter says yes, Jesus says what?
“Tend my sheep…feed my sheep.”

Of course, the first reading happens after the Gospel. 
Maybe just a matter of months.  

Do you think as Peter stands before the Sanhedrin, 
He remembers? Both the three denials, 
and then the three times he said, “you know I love you”?

May I suggest that the only way we will find the strength and courage 
similarly to stand up and bear witness, despite all,
Isn’t because we fear God--that helps--
but because we have a powerful recognition 
of what it really means to say, “I love you Lord.”

This is what love really means. It’s not just in how we feel--
but the choices and sacrifices we’re prepared to make;
Often without any applause--often indifference.


As Catholics and Christians 
we are getting an increasingly hostile reaction around us 
when we talk about some matters. 

You might say, prolife--and I’d say yes, to some degree;
On the other hand, we actually get something of a hearing on that.
There are at least some people who, not agreeing with us 100%,
Will at least give us a partial hearing.

What about laws re-defining marriage? 
That is one where the culture is rapidly changing around us, 
and it seems that a lot of Christians and Catholics, specifically, 
are sort of shrugging and saying, “so be it.”

But at the root of that question is, indeed, 
something that seems impossible to talk about anymore.
And yet, that silence means misleading people 
about what we as Catholics believe. 
Now, I’ll be brief--and I’ll be delicate given the context.

What I’m talking about is why we believe--
why the Church teaches--
that a certain type of intimacy belongs only in marriage, 
and only between a man and a woman.

Where does this come from?
We believe it because of, one, what our Lord himself said; 
Two, what the Scriptures as a whole say;
Three, because it’s what Christians have believed from the beginning, 
And four, because of what nature itself tells us.

If I had more time, I’d develop that fully; 
but for the sake of brevity, let’s just make some brief points.

This is all bound up with our being made 
“in the image and likeness of God.”
Even though each of us, as an individual, is an “image of God,” 
nevertheless, that image is incomplete.
It is man and woman, in the way each completes the other;
but even then, it goes still one more step.

This is what Pope John Paul taught in his “Theology of the Body”: 
When a man and a woman come together in that special way,
their love--by it’s very nature--
is designed and intended by God to go beyond themselves--and do what? 
Do the most Godlike thing a human being can ever do:
To create new life!

So, to draw out the implications of that:
Any time this special gift of sexuality 
is used or expressed contrary to this design, it is gravely sinful.
And that’s why it’s for man-and-woman only--and only in marriage; 
and always open to the gift of new life.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The fascinating distraction of evil

Father John Zuhlsdorf recently posted something about exorcisms and related matters, offering to provide some prayers and texts not in general circulation.

A brief discussion ensued in the comment box, to which I contributed one comment, regarding the desirability of providing the material. I wrote a bit about the unhealthy fascination this subject too often generates, and was against providing the material generally. (Father Z clarified subsequently he would only provide it to bishops and priests.)

A couple of commenters wondered at my counsel, wondered about seminary training in this subject, and wondered why priests shouldn't be made more aware.

Father Z wisely closed comments on that thread. For those who may wish, I will add some comments here. But, out of prudence, I, too, will close comments on this post. (I don't wish to have to police these comments closely to prevent the discussion going in an unhelpful direction.)

First, let me say a little more about the "fascination" I described--because I've experienced it.

Many years ago, when I was in my 20s, I was in a place in my life where I'd had a powerful conversion experience, I'd given my life to Christ, and unfortunately, I'd decided that experience meant I should leave the Church and join another Christian church. (While I don't mind discussing that, that's not really what this remembrance is about; but it's context.) I was thus in a phase of my life--remember my age--where I was full of zeal and eagerness to learn and discover everything I could about our Lord and about what we believe.

Somewhere along the line--and I just can't recall much about this now--I was reading something about the occult. I had one or several books from the library. I think I was skimming through them.

Very suddenly I had a very uneasy feeling. It was powerful. To use a Father Z'ism, call it my "spidey sense." I closed the book I had, said a brief prayer, and promptly took the volumes to the library. No drama afterward. Then and now, I knew God was my protection, and that's really the important thing! But that was a useful discovery about myself.

Now, let me tell you some other things.

In my years as a priest, I have had people seek me out to pray with them, or to visit their house, because they said they were experiencing evil things. I am respectful but cautious in reaching a judgment. People do have mental imbalances; how does one sort these things out? So I'm as kind as i can be, I certainly pray, but I'm extremely careful not to give "confirmation"; that would be terribly irresponsible.

One night a fellow came to the rectory and said, "you may think I'm crazy." I listened, and I was honest with him: very kindly, I said, yes you might indeed be "crazy"--i.e., what you've experienced could be something arising in the mind alone, and it's good to recognize that. I did what I could for him, in conversation and in prayer.

Someone said, on Father Z's blog, that we need to know things. Well, yes and no.

Here's what we need to know: We need to know who our Savior is. We need to know how to call on him.

Yes, we affirm the existence of damnation and those spirits that fell from grace. Yes, we have stories in the Bible--but relatively few words of Scripture are devoted to this topic. A good example for us!

Notice this: when our Lord encounters the enemy--and when there are other people around--what does he almost always do? Tell the evil spirit to shut up! Then he drives it away. He's not afraid of them; perhaps he doesn't want anyone else to be dazzled or distracted by them?

A wise old priest I know makes a valid observation: sometimes we unwittingly "dabble" in occult matters, when we play certain board games, or read or watch certain entertainments. Even if there is no actual encounter with evil forces--who knows?--what we are certainly doing is feeding our own imagination with images and ideas that run riot.

Now, on simply a natural level, this makes sense. If you watch a movie about dinosaurs, are you surprised if dinosaurs show up in a dream later? No. Whether it's fun or scary, it's pretty normal; it's how our brains work.

In trying to counter the ways many people downplay the reality of evil, we can commit another error: we overstate the subject. We magnify the role of evil; and if you think about it, isn't that exactly what the enemy would have us do?

See, here's what may be happening: this is often an ego trip, dressed up as spirituality.

Let me use another personal example (having nothing to do with evil) to show my point.

When I was a seminarian, I told my spiritual director that I'd had dreams in which my mother--who was deceased--would appear. I found very comforting. I asked him: do you think that really is a message from my mother?

My spiritual director said something I've always remembered, and often cited: who cares? What difference does it make? After the shock of his answer wore off, he explained:

That's your ego, wanting to be "in the know." Why not just accept the experience for what it's worth: a good thing happened. Be comforted. Why did I need any more explanation?

Here again, we like to be "in the know." It's an ancient temptation. Our church history prof at the seminary told us, every heresy in the history of the Church has either involved dualism, or elitism. Gnosticism, for example, featured both. Also, consider how people buy into political theories involving "hidden" knowledge; consider how many ads you see on TV or the Internet, selling you a book or a subscription so you can have "inside" information.

Well, guess what: we already have the best "inside" information. We know the Most Holy Name, and His Name can be on our lips any time we wish! Speak his Name: the Name of Jesus, to whom every knee must bend and every head bow.

Jesus is Lord. That's our "inside" connection. We belong to him--and if you don't, dear reader, you can. Focus on that.

So, keep it simple. If someone has a fear, or a sense of unease, pray; put up holy images in your house--not because they are magic, but because they are reassuring reminders that give us good things to dwell on. Keep a Rosary, and use holy water; again, not as magic, but as reminders that God is present and nothing frightens Him. And, it should be obvious, separate oneself from unwholesome things. Destroy unwholesome images, stop watching that show or reading that book.

If you're worried about evil, and don't want to be caught unawares, consider this. The most pressing dangers we face are sin and indifference. Work on that. Pray; repent; go to confession. Trust in the awesome power of our Savior. Delight in the company of the saints and heavenly powers. Listen to Saint Paul's good (and Holy Spirit-inspired) advice:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you (Philippians 4:4-9).

Saturday, April 06, 2013

The Boldness of Christianity (Sunday homily)

The starting point for our reflection at Easter is the Resurrection.
Jesus Christ rose from the dead “in the flesh.”
In the Gospel: our Lord showed them his hands and his side, 
and invited Thomas to touch them.

So let’s notice that this part of our Faith is put to us--
and to the world--
as not merely a theory or a point of view, but a fact.
Which is to say, either it happened, or it didn’t; 
there’s no middle-ground.

Either astronauts landed on the moon in 1969--or they didn’t.
And, either Jesus rose from the dead, and people saw him--or not.
And if not, then Christianity is a lie. Don’t believe it!

Now, I don’t mean to suggest there’s no faith involved. There is.
My point is to identify what’s unique about the Christian Faith, 
which is that we claim there is a reality that changes everything.
God is real, God came here, became one of us,
And he has begun to change everything, starting at the Cross, 
and now through his Church: through us.

There is a boldness to the Catholic Faith!
People will ask, why does the Church ask such-and-such of me?
Why does this part of my life matter to God?
And this is why: because Christians don’t go to the world, and say,
We have a nice philosophy; we have a book of “deep thoughts.”
We go to the world to make known Jesus Christ, who changes everything!

Now, if someone says, how do I know these things are true?
We answer, the act of faith isn’t blind;
Our Faith is reasonable, 
even though it goes farther than reason alone can take us.

But because, as I said, our Faith is bold--
then the key to whether people will make that leap of faith, 
Is not so much because of the Gospels--which they may never read.
But even if they do, then they may say,
“This is a wonderful idea--too wonderful!
It’s too good to be true!”

And at that point, only one thing remains.
Will they see evidence that the impossible story really is true?
But not in the Gospels--in me! In you!

Only in each of us can people find that answer.
Only in you and me will people be able to say, “it’s true!
Christ really does change lives.
His Mercy is real; and I see that Christians actually practice it!”

The early Church started with a few hundred…then thousands…
She spread from Judea to the entire Roman Empire.
The empire tried to exterminate Christianity;
Instead, Christianity conquered pagan Rome.

Why would people join a Faith under a sentence of death?
Because they saw how great a change Christ made in people.

So I say it again; the first and only Gospel most people will read is me. And you.