Saturday, September 29, 2007

Don't forget the poor (Sunday homily)

We might wonder what, exactly,
sent the Rich Man to hell.

The Parable gives us hints:
It wasn’t that the Rich Man didn’t do enough;
but rather—he didn’t do anything:

He didn’t even give scraps from the floor…
He provided no comfort to a sick man—
who had only dogs to show him mercy…
And he didn’t even bother
to bury Lazarus after his death.

Yet, when he saw Lazarus, in the Bosom of Abraham,
he recognized him! So it wasn’t that he didn’t know.

Three years ago, Charles Chaput,
the Archbishop of Denver,
gave a homily on these readings.
He said the following that gets it right:
“If we ignore the poor we are going to go to hell.”

We are all poor in God’s eyes.
Yet Christ, the Richest one of all, left Heaven,
and came to the gate where poor humanity lay dying.
We had all been shut out by Adam’s sin,
but Christ did not leave us to die outside the gate.

Rather, he went to die, outside the gate!
He became poor, for us; to make us rich!

Many of us are rich in material things,
at least by comparison to the rest of the world;
but we are all rich, rich as rich can be,
in the gold of eternity, God’s forgiveness,
the life of the Holy Spirit.
We are rich in Christ.

We know people who are poor in spiritual things—
they don’t know the Lord,
they are on a path of destruction.
But that’s their problem, not ours.

Yet if we forget the poor, we are going to go to hell.

And there are poor in material things—
whether at the “gate” of our nation,
the richest on earth;
or people in Piqua who need help.

This is what our St. Vincent de Paul Society does;
this is what Catholic Social Services does—
remember that, when someone complains
about sending money to that fund.

But we have a duty not only to charity,
but also to pursue social justice:
charity means direct help to those in need;
social justice means action
to change the structure of society.

If we have a good education,
what are we doing to ensure others get one?

If we have a job, what are we doing
to insist our business and political leaders
make jobs and development
a priority for our local community?

What is the governor doing?
The state legislature? City commission.

Better: what are we doing to get them to act?

The Rich Man couldn’t do it all. He didn’t have to.
He just had to do what he could.
His eternal mistake was he didn’t even do that.


Father Zuhlsdorf at his popular and useful site, "What does the Prayer Really Say?" has a survey on the best terminology to distinguish the two forms of the Roman Rite, or Roman Mass, now in use.

Two forms, you say? Yes--the usual, "ordinary" form that is most familiar is according to the Missal adopted after Vatican II, what you experience in most parishes.

The "extraordinary" form, or usage, is according to the Missal revised by Blessed John XXIII, the pope who summoned the Second Vatican Council. This older, longstanding form of the Mass is called by many names, most frequently (but somewhat misleadingly) "Tridentine." I consider that somewhat misleading because very many mistakenly suppose it originated with Trent; when, in fact, it long predated the Council of Trent in the mid-1500s, back at least as far as the 600s. Of course, there have been some changes all along the way, even up to 1962, as noted (it came to be called Tridentine because Trent regularized the normal form of Mass for almost all Roman Catholics).

Well, anyway, what shall we call this older form of the Mass?

Father Z has a survey--go vote if you wish. You can find comments there to see what people advocate; you will find my arguments for a particular vote if you really want to know.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Some exegesis on 'Lazarus and the Rich Man'

As I sit here, trying to derive a homily for Sunday, I sometimes find it helpful to do some exegesis on the passage. I wrote out my notes, and they follow.

Jesus said to the Pharisees:
"There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen
and dined sumptuously each day…."

Why did the Lord tell this parable to the Pharisees? Was he speaking to a particular group? Was he visiting someone’s house, looking around at the guests at a meal? What might the Lord have seen as he approached the house?

If you look at the larger section of the Gospel, to discover the setting for this, the only hint you get is back at Chapter 14, it begins, "On a sabbath he went to dine at the home of one of the leading Pharisees, and the people there were observing him carefully." Whether all that follows took place at that dinner is not clear, but it’s possible.

"And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,"

—note the vivid contrast in what "covers" each: "purple garments"…"sores."

"who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man's table.
Dogs even used to come and lick his sores."

The contrast—between what a dumb animal does and what a human being fails to do—is striking.

"When the poor man died, he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham.
The rich man also died and was buried,"

Was poor Lazarus not buried? Why not? Was this part of the Rich Man’s failure, that he didn’t even notice, or care, about a corpse at his doorstep? Or was he not buried because the angels carried him away? If he was not buried, that of course would be a noteworthy injustice, as burying the dead is a very fundamental act of mercy, a duty we owe one another.

"and from the netherworld, where he was in torment,
he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.
And he cried out, 'Father Abraham, have pity on me.
Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue,
for I am suffering torment in these flames.'"

Note: the Rich Man recognizes Lazarus! He knows his name.

"Abraham replied, 'My child,"
This comment makes clear that the Lord’s parable is about a Jew, not a pagan.

"…remember that you received what was good during your lifetime
while Lazarus likewise received what was bad;
but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented."

We might here ask the question: just what did condemn the Rich Man to torment? Was it merely because he was rich? The text might be read as saying something like that--or even, "you were fated to have your good times in time, and bad in eternity--that's how it works sometimes!" But that would be very hard to reconcile with the rest of what is revealed to us by God. Being rich, per se, is not a sin, but it can be a snare.

The parable seems to raise the question: what was the Rich Man's responsibility regarding Lazarus? The details of the story suggest that the Rich Man's sin was the total lack of concern, his complete passivity: he didn't even provide scraps of food, worthless to himself; he provided no help to a sick man, so that only dogs could be counted on to provide comfort; and--if this is the meaning--he neglected a corpse. There is nothing to suggest the Rich Man had to divest himself of his wealth, in order to be saved. But he ought to have done something for Lazarus, but he did absolutely nothing.

Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established
to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go
from our side to yours or from your side to ours.’"

The reason someone might wish to go from torment to Abraham’s bosom is obvious; but for what reason might anyone wish to take the opposite journey?

"He said, 'Then I beg you, father, send him to my father's house,
for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them,
lest they too come to this place of torment.'"

Interesting: the Rich Man shows some concern for his fellow man. One could take that a couple of ways: (1) Does this reveal that someone in hell can still have a decent impulse? Or (2), does it serve rather to advance the narrative—to prepare for the final part of the story—and therefore, should not be read as suggesting someone in hell is capable of such impulses. I tend to the latter, because it seems to me the nature of damnation—of being "lost"—suggests the sparks of decency have been extinguished. But that reflects my own view of salvation and damnation.

"But Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.'"

This is worth noting here. You will hear people make rather breezy comments about the Four Gospels, trying to contrast them one from the other, and in doing so, will create oppositions between them, and their messages, that the texts themselves don’t support. So, for example, folks will say, "Oh, Mark emphasizes the humanity of Christ, John the divinity." Well, there’s a kernel of some truth in that, but really, that’s so misleading: they both present our Lord as very much God, and very human.

Or, someone will say, "Oh, Matthew is very Jewish, while Luke—who was a Gentile—goes the other way." So many flaws built into such a facile contrast. I may be wrong, but I don’t recall anything definite on whether Luke was ever a Jew—i.e., he might have converted to Judaism or been on the way to doing so. But in any case, folks who say such things haven’t read either Gospel closely enough. Matthew, for example, begins with the genealogy, which many people skim past.

It is very revealing, including the highlighting of many Gentile ancestors of our Lord, who—if you look closely—was adopted: i.e., he is presented as belonging to Joseph’s lineage, and yet, the text makes crystal-clear that Joseph had nothing to do with the conception of Jesus. Of course, this doesn’t call Jesus’ Jewishness into question, but in the context of the genealogy, with several Gentiles included, it presents the picture of the Church that St. Paul preached: of the Gentiles being "grafted in." And if you go carefully through Matthew, you’ll find lots more—i.e., all in anticipation of Matthew’s closing scene, where Our Lord says, "Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations…"

Then, here, in Luke, you have something like this phrase, which is remarkable—Our Lord is saying, the Law and the Prophets are sufficient. Our Lord would say many times that they point to him, that he is the Message of the Law and the Prophets. Sounds like something that was supposed to be in Matthew! Yet here it is in "very Gentile" Luke.

My point is not to deny contrasts and differences among the Gospels, but to point out that many make far too much of them; and many try to come up with shorthand descriptions of the individual Gospels that distort the picture.

"He said, 'Oh no, father Abraham,
but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.'
Then Abraham said, 'If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets,
neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.'"

Many have noticed the following. First, of course, that we know Our Lord will die and rise from the dead—and many will still not be persuaded.

Second, some find very interesting that there was a Lazarus, who died and rose from the dead, and yet folks were not persuaded by that. They note additionally, Abraham did not actually refuse this latter request.

This is fascinating, no question, but I should note, however, a caution on the latter point: the raising of Lazarus from the dead is part of the Gospel of John, not Luke; Luke nowhere mentions it, or that Lazarus, if memory serves. So while there may be an historical connection, there is no textual connection—we cannot assume, without other evidence, that Luke is expecting his reader or hearer to know that other story, because it may not have been written yet, and we don’t even know if Luke knew about that other Lazarus. Yes, it’s a spectacular story, but so many things Our Lord were spectacular, and he raised others from the dead. We know Luke doesn’t include the story, but we don’t know why. If John did write his Gospel after Luke—we really don’t know—but if he did, it’s possible he had this parable in mind. But since John doesn’t include this parable, one might wonder—did he know about it?

For some, this may seem too esoteric; but many mistakenly combine different stories into one, or assume that if someone named "Lazarus" is mentioned more than once in the Gospels, then of course they all must be the same person. In fact, the Lazarus described in John is not a poor beggar, abandoned by all, but a man of some means, with many friends. I am at a loss to reconcile the two Lazaruses; if someone knows how that is done, please share. In the meantime, it seems better not to try.

Now, above I faulted those who make too much of each Gospel’s particular features, so I want to be careful not to do so myself. But this parable—which only appears in Luke—shows one of the things he is known for emphasizing: the reversal of rich and poor, mighty and lowly. Some find Luke the most "revolutionary" Gospel—if Liberation theologians preferred Luke, I could see why.

(By the way, "liberation theology" is not entirely bogus—it has many valid points. It’s error lay in focusing far too much on salvation in this world’s terms, through political or social change. And that is usually how it is with teachings that are deemed error or heresy—it’s not that they aren’t true, as far as they go, but rather, they don’t go far enough. Or they aren’t broad enough—they make too much of a true insight, but in isolation from the broader truth, and thus arises their error.)

This Gospel, along with the first reading, are naturals for a homily on social justice, as were last week’s readings. FYI.

A few more notes.

Somewhere or another, I've seen Catholic apologetics use this passage to support praying to the saints, i.e., asking the saints to intercede for us. They point to the following details: the Rich Man seeks Abraham's help (i.e., Abraham is a saint, although we are not accustomed to calling him that), as well as Lazarus'; and it shows people in eternity well aware of, and concerned for, people in this life. I.e., those who don't pray for the dead, and/or don't seek the intercession of the saints, often say, "I wonder if people in heaven know anything about what's going on here." Because, of course, if they did, you'd have a hard time explaining why they don't pray for us...and if they know, and pray, then merely thinking about someone in the next life, and wishing they would pray for you...oops! you just prayed to someone in heaven, asking for intercession!

While you can make these points, I'm not sure you can go further, and assert that Our Lord, or Luke, intended this parable to address these questions.

Finally, someone may wonder why the Rich Man is sometimes called "Dives." If memory serves, that is a Latin word for "Rich Man."

Sunday, September 23, 2007

What will you do for social justice? (Sunday homily)

You might have been wondering
what the Prophet Amos was describing.

When he says, “diminish the ephah, add to the shekel,”
he’s talking about inflation.

When he says, “we will buy the lowly for silver,
and the poor for a pair of sandals”—
he could be describing predatory lending.

When he refers to being eager for “the new moon”
to be over, he’s talking about how work and business
encroach on the Sabbath.

In our time, there is no Sabbath anymore—
no day of rest. Business seven days a week.

Many of our parishioners
cannot come to Mass for Sunday due to work.
Their employers could give them schedules
that allow for worship of God—but they don’t.

We hear that first reading, and we may wonder:
OK, what can I do—how can lift up the poor?

This is where our Faith calls us
beyond charity to social justice.
Charity means we give direct help to those in need:
food, clothing, or help with the electric bill.
Social Justice means we do our part
to change the structure of society.

We might want to express thanks to businesses
that give their employees a break on Sunday;
even better, maybe we can minimize
the business we do on Sundays?
After all, if we go shopping on Sundays,
someone has to work, to take care of us.

St. Paul calls us to pray for kings and people in authority.

But in our time, we can go further:
we can make our views known to people in authority.

To lift up the poor—our community needs jobs!

On Sundays, we pray for that to happen;
but as good stewards, each of us has the right—
and I would argue, the duty—
to tell our Governor, and our legislators,
we need them to act.

We have an election coming up this fall in Piqua.
Our city commission has a role to play.

So, again, we pray for those seeking office—
but each of us have a duty to tell them how urgent it is
that they make jobs and development happen.
For another couple of weeks,
we can still register to vote:
one day, God will ask us how well we used that privilege.

To our younger parishioners: you can’t vote yet,
but you can still get involved; you can speak out.

In today’s bulletin you’ll find names and addresses
of our governor and state legislators,
and how to register to vote.

In the Gospel, the Lord talked about stewardship.
As citizens, all of us are stewards together
of our community.

We often talk about what those people
in Washington, or Columbus, do—
but now, the question is, what will the people in Piqua do?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Do you get used to glasses?

I picked up my "seamless" bi-focals today. They worked fine in the shop; but they are a little odd, since then.

Apparently, my head moves--more than I knew--because when my head moves, what I see, changes. And I now have to get used to holding my head a certain way to see things.

One gets used to this?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Oops it's Wednesday already

Well, if you're interested, here's my week so far...

Monday: went down to Dayton and visit a book store. Stopped at the grocery on the way back.

Tuesday: school Mass for younger children (we have one school, but two campuses--campi?--between both parishes). Worked at my desk most of the day, stopped in at the girls' volleyball game, then to an enrollment-marketing meeting, then to Adult Faith Formation committee meeting, lastly 4th Degree Knights had a steak-fry. Saved that for last! Home after 9 pm.

Wednesday: worked on homily at home this morning, in office all afternoon. Most of yesterday and today, I've been preparing materials for an effort to raise money for building needs at St. Boniface. The parish faces $176,000 in very urgent repairs, plus another $260,000 in necessary repairs that need attention before long. (Since so many others raise $ via web sites, you'll see more on this soon.... But if you feel so inclined, make check payable to St. Boniface Parish, 310 South Downing Street, Piqua, Ohio 45356. Be sure to specify "building fund" on memo line or in a note, so it goes to this project--and thank you!

The bells just rang the Angelus; in a bit, I'll head over for the weekly Bible study, then get home by 8 pm. An early evening!

Tomorrow will be a busy day: more work on the fundraising effort, preparing my own talk, give blood, staff meeting, visit the hospital, wedding rehearsal, then the big meeting.

Thankfully, all the other things that need attention seem a bit calmer this week, knock on wood.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Father is not angry; but He is looking for us (Sunday homily)

What do the Scriptures today teach us about God?
He welcomes us back; yet the false god must be destroyed.

God is merciful—but also just.

The readings raise the question: is God angry?
From the first reading, it seems so.
But that’s not really what’s going on.

God did not need Moses to explain mercy to him.
See, what’s really happening is that
Moses needs to have the insight—to plead for mercy.
That’s why it happens this way.

Look at the Parable:
The Father is not angry; but he is filled with longing.
He “caught sight” of the boy while “still a long way off.”

When do you usually notice a speck on the horizon—
is it not when you’re out there, searching and hoping?

Jesus tells us: if we are away from the Father,

we may happily forget all about Him—
but He never forgets about us!

The lost son came back to re-earn his Father’s favor.
But notice: the Father ran to him, embracing him!
God’s Favor is a gift: we respond to it—it changes us;
but we never earn it!

Parents: this sort of embrace
may be the easiest gift you’ll give your children—
all it costs is your pride.

If we have bad memories, we can’t go back,
but we can be compassionate now.

This is a great time to talk about
the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Will the priest be angry or think less of you? No.

Like the Father in parable, when a parent welcomes back a child,
friends or siblings embrace again—
in what way is that awful or demeaning—it’s wonderful!

For the priest, that’s what the confessional is.
It’s one of the best experiences of being a priest.

Some will say, it’s been too long—I don’t know how.
Don’t worry about it.

I’m going to take a couple minutes to review how;
there’s a handout, at the doors, that will help;
but in any case, just ask the priest!

Here’s how you do it.
First, pray and reflect on your life.
If we do this frequently, we won’t have
dark corners in our lives we’re afraid to face.

This handout gives questions you can use,
and the basic form of confession.

When you come to the priest, you choose:
face-to-face or anonymously.

Make the sign of the cross.
After the priest says “welcome,” or a prayer,
you say, “Bless me father, for I have sinned.
It has been”—say how long—

“since my last confession. Here are my sins.”

No, you don’t have to do just that way,
but this helps get you started, so you don’t feel awkward.

Tell your sins, and only your sins—not the stories,
not what wrong things other people did!
It can be very easy to get off-track.

Don’t leave out any mortal sins—
mention them by type and number.
This can be awkward, but here’s why we do this:

Reconciliation requires a starting-point of honesty.
Sometimes we hedge or minimize.
If we go to a doctor, we don’t just say,
“I hurt somewhere” or “sometime,”
but we say, “I hurt here”—
“it hurts once a week” or “once a day.”

You don’t have to mention all venial sins.
But the confessional is the spiritual garbage dump—
Feel free to get rid of it all!

The priest may give advice or ask a question.
Don’t worry—we never repeat anything.
We prefer to forget everything we hear!
I pray to forget, and I do!

We will give you a penance, which is a prayer,
or something you do, as your part of the healing.

The priest will ask you—or help you—
to say an “Act of Sorrow.”
Most important, as part of a longer prayer,
the priest will say, “I absolve you”—this is when
the Father forgives and forgets your sins, forever,
and clothes you once again with a robe of salvation.

We do this every Saturday—9 am at St. Boniface,
3:30 pm at St. Mary—the priest is waiting for you.
Wednesday evenings, 5 pm, in St. Clare chapel.

If those times don’t work, call us.
All you have to say is,
“meet me in the confessional, so I can be anonymous.”
We’ll be waiting.

Every Mass we have a sacrificial feast—
not a calf, but the Lamb, the Son of God.
But we don’t come casually;
If we have been away from the Father,
if we need to be brought back to life,
that’s what the Sacrament of Penance is for.

Our Father is not angry—but He’s looking for us:
to welcome us back, to forget and heal,
and to give us back the dignity that belongs to us.

Friday, September 14, 2007

What about usury?

In my August post about the "sub prime lending" problem, a couple of posters complained that I didn't discuss usury. I might point out, neither did they.

I wonder if they discovered what I did: that the Catechism of the Catholic Church says almost nothing about it, other than saying its a bad thing.

So what is usury? It's lending money at excessive interest. At one time in the tradition, it was understood as lending money at interest at all, but the Church came to see that there is time-value to money, and that it is not in itself illegitimate to charge a reasonable interest for the use of money, any more than it's wrong to charge a reasonable rent for the use of property.

I did find the following the Compendium on the Social Doctrine of the Church:

341. Although the quest for equitable profit is acceptable in economic and financial activity, recourse to usury is to be morally condemned: “Those whose usurious and avaricious dealings lead to the hunger and death of their brethren in the human family indirectly commit homicide, which is imputable to them”. This condemnation extends also to international economic relations, especially with regard to the situation in less advanced countries, which must never be made to suffer “abusive if not usurious financial systems”. More recently, the Magisterium used strong and clear words against this practice, which is still tragically widespread, describing usury as “a scourge that is also a reality in our time and that has a stranglehold on many peoples' lives”.

Common sense tells us that with lending comes risk--and a lender has to be able to cover that risk, or else lending would cease. Does anyone think we would be better off without lending as a tool of finance?

So back to the sub-prime situation. I guess what commenters want me to say is usury is bad. It is. But since the key distinction lies in "excessive" interest, then how shall we determine what is "excessive"?

I really don't know. So, while I readily believe some of these lenders were usurious, I don't happen to know which ones. Nor do I really have much confidence in the various attorneys general or other politicians who get on the warpath about such things, that they are going to make suitable judgments.

Here is an interesting situation involving something that seems clearly usurious: so-called payday loans. Unfortunately, I can't find the link, but a few weeks ago, I read something surprising. A non-profit agency decided to try to offer pay-day loans at the minimum amount necessary to break even--and the rate, when risk and defaults were taken into account--was surprisingly high. That isn't surprising, really, is it?

But we all recoil at the idea of people being charged exhorbitant rates for such things, or for check-cashing.

I'll leave it to you to suggest how we know when the interest charged is "excessive." Let us move onto the next question: what do we do about it?

If you say, the state should regulate it, should cap the interest rate, my response is, okay, fine--then what?

Do you really suppose the folks who were getting such loans will still get loans at the better rate? Some perhaps, but not all. So what will they do?

You and I know full well what they will do: they will get loans other ways. We know from whom, too. The mob charges usurious rates, and has other ways to deal with default, and the reasoning, while abhorrent, is otherwise sensible: they can't sue you, so how do gangsters enforce their claim on the debt? They cause some other harm.

Now, of course, we can go after such rackets and we do.

But I do think it's good to ask whether we need to outlaw everything that is morally abhorrent. Sometimes we realize that the solution is a lot harder to identify than the problem.

Someone will make a facile comparison with abortion: i.e., since we seek to outlaw that, then we must seek to outlaw everything that is wrong. But of course that's not true. Sometimes the difficulty is in identifying a workable solution; sometimes it has to do with the gravity of the wrong. The greater gravity of abortion should be manifest; plus, it is a very clear-cut wrong, whereas the definition of "usury" hinges on very subjective or situational elements of "profit" and "excess."

So, you wanted a post on usury. Usury is bad. Don't do it, you may go to hell.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

20/25; 20/30

Many of you are not aware of a secret conspiracy, the origins and purposes of which are obscure -- but many of you are well aware, because you and I are its targets. You know: books that have sat on your shelves for years are replaced with lookalikes but with smaller print; labels on packages that you pick up are clearly printed differently from what everyone else has; the signs at church, that give the hymn numbers, clearly use fuzzy letters, but everyone pretends they're no different.

Well, I gave in, and went to Wal Mart to have my eyes checked. You may laugh, but I had my eyes checked for glaucoma and cataracts, by a real doctor of optometry. Plus, I was going to see an opthamologist, but that office said, no, don't come here, we do surgery--go to Dr. Bigley at Wal Mart in Troy! (And I invite everyone to go see Doctor Bigley--I met him, but his wife is also a doctor there; and he was very helpful and quick.)

I held out some hope he'd say, "Father, there's nothing wrong"--but not much. I knew I was seeing worse. My scores are the headline, I think I got the sequence right. So...I need bifocals.

Well, then the optician showed me the lenses, and talked me into "no-line" bifocals. It cost me more. Was that a bad buy? I went low-end on the frames, and got clip-on sunglasses. Every day, I turn more and more into my dad (although he wore the flip-up types; these don't flip up).

I was all pysched up to having to wear glasses, only I have to wait; they don't grind them there, which I should have expected.

What do you think I paid for all that? And guess what the answer was to my question: how often do I need to re-do my eyeglass prescription?

Practical benefits of confession

Last Thursday and today, the other two priests and I heard confessions for the schoolchildren; we do it every other month. It's not easy fitting into the schedule: it takes the three of us about six hours, over two weeks, to do it; longer if we arrange for a short penance service beforehand, which is helpful as a way to help the children learn to see this as (1) a communal experience as well as personal, (2) to situate this in the context of prayer, (3) to have an opportunity to give a homily with instruction on the sacrament and (4) to go through an examination of conscience.

Maybe someday we can do it every month, but as I say, it's not easy.

This is a pause in the day, after that, before a staff meeting in a few minutes.

Some thoughts on the sacrament of confession:

* It really matters that you specify your sins...aloud. Sometimes this feels awkward, and believe me, as a priest, I don't want to go digging. Many people are awfully general.

Here's the thing: every sacrament has "matter" and "form." The "matter" of the sacrament is an essential part of what is used, what is transformed, so that you receive God's grace. In baptism, water is the matter; in the Eucharist, bread and wine. See a pattern?

Now, do you realize what the "matter" of this sacrament is? It is the sins you confess!

God's purpose, it seems to me, is to take what is worthless to us, and even harmful, and transform it into something awesome. This is part of what's amazing about this sacrament. Every other sacrament, we bring something wholesome and good to be made better. But here, we bring something truly awful and ugly--and yet he is eager to take it all the same.

Also, our specificity is how we "connect" with God in allowing specific healing. We can either say, "I need healing (generally)" -- okay, and maybe you'll get it...generally. But how much more we need specific healing--and this is how we unlock the door for that. The act of specifying our sins is also an act of acknowledgment and consent regarding these specific areas.

The analogy I often use is with a doctor: you may be embarrassed to mention a specific ailment, but if so, you can hardly expect the doctor to do much with, "I don't feel good." When you uncover and say, "this is my wound," that opens new opportunities.

A final thought on this. Someone else made the point that frequent confession means there is never anything in our lives, that is sinful and dark, that we haven't confronted and dealt with--no rocks we haven't turned over; no dark recesses we are afraid to face. Sometimes someone will come to confession, and remember something from the past, and it will be a real burden. When we frankly confess, and do it frequently, there's nothing lurking to bother us, down the road.

* It's hard to improve on the "short and sweet" approach. A lot of folks dwell on their feelings in confession, or they talk about the context: "I did ___ because..." Now, to some extent, of course, circumstances change the nature of the sin. "I missed Sunday Mass because I had no way to get there."

But I'm talking about the tendency to move, rather quickly, from confessing ones own sins, to confessing the sins of others. "It was because of how rotten she was to me."

There is a real temptation to lapse into self-justification: "I wasn't that bad," or "I better than usual." Again, to some degree, it is good to arrive at a point where you can see yourself with some clarity, both for good and bad. God wants us to acknowledge our sins, but he also wants to know when things are getting better, too. But there is a fine line somewhere here, where we cross over into a place where we're looking at our merits, rather than giving thanks for what God has done for us.

My point is, one can avoid all this by keeping to a concrete, straightforward agenda. This is the wisdom of the "old fashioned" way of doing this:

"Bless me + Father for I have sinned. It has been ___ (how long?) since my last confession. These are my sins..." Then confess your sins specifically, by kind and number, with only enough detail to clarify what the sin is. End with, "for these all my sins, including all those I cannot now remember, I am truly sorry." Answer any questions simply, hear whatever counsel may be provided, accept your penance (This means you have a choice; if you can't do that penance, if it's something you can't easily do, simply say so. The priest should know to offer something else. If not, you can have another priest "commute" your penance to something else.), offer your act of contrition, then listen and receive the absolution the priest gives in the person of Christ, through the prayer of absolution.

It's not that you aren't welcome to be friendly and exchange pleasantries with the priest. That's fine, and since it often helps deal with tension or fear, that's good. This need not be grim or frightening. But at the same time, if too much is "added into" the celebration of the sacrament, the structure and meaning of the sacrament can be obscured. We can derail ourselves from our central purpose--which, if you realize it later, may be unsettling.

Finally, knowing the basic form of the sacrament, and being thoroughly familiar with it, gets rid of one of the reasons people avoid the sacrament: "I don't know how to do it." Going to confession can be a tense experience, and not knowing what to do doesn't make it any better. So often, it's how we start something that is stressful; once we're underway, it's easier. At the pool--how do I get in? Behind the wheel, learning to drive; a new priest, how do I start Mass?

This is the genius of Catholic spirituality, with our oft-criticized "rote prayers." Lots of times in life, we lack the energy or wherewithal to summon up prayers "off the cuff." In times of crisis, that's the last thing we may want to do. That's when the prayers and rituals we repeated so often come into play, and we know how to pray. The prayers, in a sense, "pray for us," and we are carried along. Let me tell you, when people are lying in a hospital bed, barely able to move, these prayers are a great comfort. And they help us know what to do, when otherwise we would be lost at sea.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Off-the-cuff commentary on Philemon

As I said in a prior post, I am not putting my homilies for this weekend online, as they pertain to parish finances, and good or bad (some of both in both cases), that's not really for everyone's ears or eyes.

Well, as I listened to the readings at all six Masses, I had time to reflect on the second reading, from St. Paul's letter to Philemon. I wonder--did anyone hear anything in the homily yesterday or today address this letter?

It concerns Onesimus, a slave who ran away from Philemon. Verse 18 -- "And if he has done you any injustice or owes you anything, charge it to me" -- may refer to a theft, although that's a guess.

Now, this raises a subject of interest to us: the institution of slavery, something that has been around for a very long time, and by the way, still happens, both under new guises and pretty much as it always did. One of the criticisms of Christianity, particularly at its inception, is that apparently, Christians didn't seem too bothered by slavery. This letter perhaps, but more, other passages in Scripture, referring to slaves being obedient to their masters "as to the Lord," are cited to buttress this point.

Well, a couple of things we might mention. While slavery is odious no matter what, we should realize the nature of its practice is varied widely over the millenia. We tend to think of the most cruel manifestations of it, particularly as was practiced in our own country, not realizing how differently it was practiced in other ages -- i.e., the ancients moderated it in ways moderns did not. Also, realize the great reason we are offended is that we have inherited a notion that all humanity have essential dignity and worth, and are most fundamentally equal in that regard, even if not equal in many others. We might ask, where did this notion come from? It came from the Bible, particularly from the New Testament, which nonetheless was not novel in this regard, but drew on the Old. More than that, it came from the Church--i.e., this message did not preach itself, it was spread as the Christian Faith spread.

It is worth noting that slavery faded as a social institution for many, many years, only to be brought back in the modern age--I mean, around the time of the great explorations by Europeans of Africa and the New World. One might wonder what changed--well, what changed at the waning of slavery was the gradual conversion of Europe. What changed again involved several things, but notable was this came in the wake of a Renaissance. "Renaissance" means rebirth--did you ever wonder what the coiners of that term thought was being born again in their midst? It wasn't Christianity, but the values and vision that preceded Christianity. It was about this time that individual nation-states began to come into their own. And, it was about this point that the shift of power between Church and state slid decisively -- and thus far irreversibly -- toward the state. It was the real beginning of the idea of the secular state.

Well, of course, most of us have been taught, in school, that the new "modern" ideas were great advances. And I am not suggesting there weren't great advances involved. Yet let's be clear, that it was in this context that the "great explorers" went out, decided to work together with slavers from Africa -- not Christian -- and create their own systems in the New World. The Church denounced them, and they--as well as their political patrons--said what politicians and their allies in the media, in academia, and in business (don't kid yourself, "embryonic stem-cell research" is big business!) say to this day: the Church should shut up and pray.

So, all this is to give context.

One more thing, of course, is that we wonder about why Paul and Peter and others did not call for abolition of slavery. We might recall that they did not have the great blessing we do, of the real ability to change our governments; or, for those in the world today who don't actually have the legal means to do so, still have the idea of doing so, because of the great spread of this idea. So we consider it very normal to talk about changing such things; where, in Paul's time, just how might someone make such changes? That was insurrection. They might be forgiven, I think, for not seeing that as particularly promising. In any case, our Lord did not establish the Church to be a political movement, yet its clear enough in the New Testament that it would, in time, have great political ramifications. The Sanhedrin and the Roman authority were able to see that; or else the Christians who presented the Gospels in that light, saw it.

So what's all this got to do with our text? Well, if you look at it closely, you can see this at work repeatedly.

Paul begins by making himself someone in bondage: "a prisoner," writing to Philemon, "our beloved co-worker." The tone of the letter suggests Philemon would view Paul with great deference--and here he makes himself a slave, like Onesimus! That might have been rather awkward for Philemon.

Then, Paul alludes to the authority he enjoys -- "to order" Philemon about -- an authority that can only be moral, it has no other teeth. So now who is the master? Paul repeats, he is a "prisoner." (NB: I am commenting on the entire letter, about half of which you heard at Mass.)

There are many clever turns of phrase throughout, so there is no question Paul is sending a clear message, but on the surface might seem rather meek. "I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that the good you do might not be forced but voluntary." At first blush, this might seem terribly deferential to a slave-holder; ah, but I can't believe it isn't a poke at the fact that Philemon uses force--on Onesimus!

So Paul says, have him back, "no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord."

Now, we might hear the reference to Onesimus as a man as the revolutionary part, but not so--it was the reference to him as a "brother." Actually, this is not even as strong as Paul has been elsewhere, when he says we are no longer "slave nor free," and so forth, because all are made new, and one, in Christ.

What we refer to as "Western Civilization" (now supposedly so secular that the European Union can't bring itself to acknowledge its debt to Christianity!) is so suffused with these ideas that while many congratulate themselves on casting off the shackles of religious influence, they really have no idea. No one does: can we really imagine what the world would be like if everything that was a result of the spread of the Gospel were somehow extracted from our language, our institutions, our laws, our mores, our customs, our categories of thought? The idea of "universal human rights" sounds, and is offered as, thoroughly secular. But again, where did this idea come from?

Well, we have nothing to tell us how Philemon responded, but we do know what became of this idea, which Paul presented so forcefully in his many letters -- of all barriers broken down or made insignificant in Christ -- it changed the entire world.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Happy Birthday Mother!

Very Busy

I'm too busy to write much of a post, but people like my little "day in a life" posts, and I don't know that I'll have much to post for the next few days.

For example, I'll be giving a financial report to both parishes this weekend, so that means (a) preaching at all six Masses and (b) not posting my homily here. I consider these matters the business of the two parishes, not the world's business.

Also, that means preparing two budgets, because each parish keeps separate accounts, and meeting with two different finance committees. Maybe other pastors with multiple parishes do it better, but this is a pain, because a number of expenses are shared, many are separate but impinge on each other, and so forth.

In a few minutes, I'll meet with a couple preparing for marriage; then I'll run to a campsite for the cub scouts, to eat a hotdog with the boys. I really think every boy should be a scout, at least for awhile. I say that as one who was not a scout, but I wish I had been; and I see how much good scouting does for many boys. In particular, I think scouting helps with their spiritual lives, because, in my experience in two parishes, the scout packs have integrated spirituality with scouting, and thus the boys are encouraged to see spirituality as something for them as boys. Boy Scouts, in my limited experience, reinforce personal morality and religious practice as masculine. (Question: do scouts offer a merit badge specifically for serving at Mass? I wonder how one would make that happen?)

Then, I have to be at 4 pm Mass to preach, then offer 5 pm Mass.

Oh, there's lots of other things -- school, fundraisers, meetings, staff, pastoral council, and so it goes.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Piqua's first (mostly) Latin Mass in 30 years

The sky was not rent, the earth did not split open, as we had a Latin Mass this morning for the first time, publicly, in I'm guessing 30 to 40 years.

In fact, it's very likely this is the very first time Mass was offered this way in Piqua, as I did not offer the former usage, which is what so many think of when they hear "Latin Mass." Rather, I offered the Mass according to the current Missal, "by the book."

The Mass was actually not all in Latin: in addition to the readings being in English, I also used the English orations, mainly because the people would not have had those texts available. I did, however, do the preface in Latin; I could have done it in English (I would have sung it better). But pretty much everything else was in Latin, including the Roman Canon.

I stumbled a bit on the pronunciation, and the prayers I have memorized, in English, I don't have memorized in Latin--so I had to refer to the book in ways I found awkward, such as for the "Per Ipsum." I am using the Solemnes' Ordo Missae in Cantu book, which is beautiful, but not well laid out--the page-breaks come at awkward points in the prayers; they might as well have made it a bit thicker, and then move text to the next page for more natural breaks in the text. Plus, they didn't include everything the priest needs, so I had to switch back between that and the Sacramentary. Next time, I'll copy and paste what I need in one book, but that's a pain.

We had 20-30 people, which is a normal size for a Wednesday morning; many of our regulars, some parishioners who don't always come to daily Mass, and some new faces. Some of our others I imagine chose to go to the evening Mass instead, which is fine--that's why I did this on Wednesday, to provide a choice.

I did a longer-than-usual daily homily, on why this is worth doing, which is below.

Why have Mass in Latin?

There are some who wonder why we are doing this—
why have Mass in Latin?

I’d like to offer these reasons.

First, because people have requested it.

Understanding not everyone cares for this,
it is important to point out many people want it.
For me, as your pastor, my approach has been
that if someone requests something legitimate,
on what basis would I refuse that request?

Now, some do not think Mass in Latin is legitimate.

Someone said: “I disagree with
the introduction of Latin to the Mass in any way.”
But there is a misunderstanding there:
Latin is not being “introduced to the Mass”—
the Mass is already in Latin!

So another reason to do this might simply be
to correct this misunderstanding.
Someone might think I’m doing something “naughty.”
Not at all!
If you went to a Cinco de Mayo festival,
would you be surprised to hear Spanish?
If you visited a synagogue, would you think it strange
to hear them pray in Hebrew?

A third reason to do this is
because this helps remind us who we are.

We are Roman Catholics—
we belong to the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church.

Many don’t realize that not all Catholics are Roman.
In Iraq, there are Chaldean Catholics;
in Lebanon, Maronite Catholics;
in Eastern Europe, Byzantine Rite Catholics.

This may surprise you, but it’s not that Latin is important.

What’s important is being connected
with our own heritage and identity.

I am not sure, but I wonder if some
of our fellow Catholics think of themselves
as “mere” Catholics—instead of particularly “Roman.”

In one respect, they are right: being Catholic—
that is, embracing the whole of the Faith
as the Apostles have handed it down—is the main thing.

But the Church, like our incarnate Lord himself,
has never existed in a generic fashion.
The Son of God, in coming to earth,
did not come as a generic everyman;
he became a particular man—
born into a particular nation, at a particular time.
We can only speculate about
all the reasons He chose this.
But it is part of what did happen, all the same.

In the same way, the Church—
in the century after Pentecost—
was conceived and formed in many particular cultures,
and these cultures are intricately woven into
the identity each particular Church.
Our Roman Church is but one of the many sister Churches
that make up the One, Catholic Church.

Of course, it might have been otherwise,
just as Our Lord might have chosen to be born,
not in Palestine as a Jew, but perhaps in Europe,
or Africa, or North America.
It could have happened that way, but it didn’t.

Another reason to do this is it opens the door
to experiencing some beauty that we would miss out on,
if we exclude everything involving Latin.

How can you sing Salve Regina unless you sing it in Latin?

There is a cadence, and a haunting beauty,
to the prayers of Mass that is only experienced in the Latin.
That’s not to say we must do it that way all the time,
but it is a reason to do it
some of the time.

Finally, this represents a different way of praying.

Now many people find it hard to pray
in an unfamiliar language.
I understand, because I am one of them.
When I first offered Mass in Latin, it felt strange to me.

I can’t say that I prefer it.
This is the first time I’ve done this,
so I apologize in advance
if I mispronounce anything, or stumble.

So why do it?

Because there is an experience here
that you discover once you get past the strangeness.

Many people find they pray better and more fruitfully,
precisely because they aren’t using their own, usual language.

Such folks have a contemplative part of themselves,
and they want and need to “sink down” into their prayer.
For them, prayers are offered in their own,
familiar language actually distract them from prayer, rather than helping.

It makes sense. Different things “speak” to us.
For some, it’s ideas, intellectual concepts;
for others, it’s art; others, music or movement.

This is the genius of Catholic spirituality,
something for everyone.

So, I understand this isn’t for everyone.
It is offered for those who will find it fruitful.
Until today, this option was not available,
anywhere around here, for some 40 years!

We provide Mass at nursing homes;
we provide Mass occasionally for
we have “low” and “high” Masses,
we have Mass for our Sisters of Charity,
school Masses, graduation Masses, and so it goes.
Surely there is room for one Mass, one time a month,
on a weekday, that meets this need?

I aim to do this for a year, to see how it goes.
If it meets a need, if it draws more people, that’s good isn’t it?

Sunday, September 02, 2007

True Humility (Sunday homily)

Our readings are a lesson in humility.

We all need it; we all get it in, well, humbling ways.

I had Mass one time, someone else gave the homily—
and after Mass, people shook my hand, saying,
“Great homily father!”

We’re all for it—especially in others!

What does it mean to be “humble”?

First, let’s be clear what it does not mean:
It’s not being a doormat.

If we don’t think we’re nothing,
It isn’t God who says that!
Wrestling with self-esteem is a hard battle.

My point is, God never tells us
to tear ourselves down.
Sometimes people take verbal or physical abuse.
This is not “humility”!

The second reading shows the City of God,
Angels gathered, celebrating, paying tribute:
Who are they honoring?
The “assembly of the firstborn”—that’s us!
Does that sound like God thinks we’re nothing?

If someone we know is facing abuse—
We need to tell them what God says:
“You are precious—and you don’t have to take it.”

If humility isn’t putting ourselves down,
What is it?

Humility is listening to God tell us who we are.

We think we’re big-stuff,
God knocks us down a peg;
If we think we’re nothing,
God tells us how precious we are:
In both cases, we need to listen!

We need to listen
When God calls us to change our lives;
We need to listen
When God says, “you can do it!”
We need to listen when God says, “I forgive you!”

If we listen to God tell us who we are,
We don’t need to “demand our props”—
We don’t need to go along with the crowd.

If we listen to God tell us how precious we are,
Our sins don’t destroy us, our limits don’t define us;
God determines human worth.

A day-old human embryo, a dirty beggar on the street,
An “alternate lifestyle” on parade, a terrorist on a plane.
Saint or sinner, wrong or right,
All are precious in his sight.

What is humility?

Humility says, “I know who I am in God’s eyes—
And that’s enough.”