Monday, July 13, 2009

'Equipping your children with spiritual armor'

(We began with a reading from Ephesians 6:11-20.)

I am glad to be with you—I’ve never taken part in a conference for home-school families, although I have gotten to know several families who have their schooling at home, and I am on your side, you have my admiration!

I had a bunch more great things I was going to say about how wonderful homeschooling is, but the Archbishop stole all my good comments!

Now, let’s get to the topic at hand: equipping your children with spiritual armor.

That sounds like something they really need, doesn’t it?

This comes from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, a part of which we just heard. And it should be reassuring to us to remember that children needed spiritual armor just as much in his day, if not more, than they do today. We are sorely tempted to believe our times are terrible, things are as bad as ever, and still getting worse.

Remember the world St. Paul lived in:

Ø Slavery was a routine, normal state of affairs.
Ø Children were the property of the father, who could leave them to die.
Ø Watching real people really kill one another was a normal form of entertainment.
Ø Worship of false gods was everywhere—and a lot of it included sexual indecency, which was bound up with that false worship.
Ø The Emperors of Rome were known for having people murdered, for visiting brothels, orgies, pornography, and incest.
Ø This was a world without most medical treatment we take for granted, including two in particular: painkillers and antibiotics.

Worth thinking about when we complain about our bad times.

Also remember that in St. Paul’s time, only a few people were either Christians or Jews, and that few were at odds with each other.

My point is, while we may find the parallels between Paul’s world, and ours, alarming—we can also find them comforting. Not only did Christianity survive that world—that was the world in which the Church was born! We thrived in that environment!

So let’s talk about spiritual armor.

Notice the passage we heard begins with "finally"—this is the conclusion of Paul’s Letter to the Church in Ephesus. He has written about the nature of the Church, one Body, united to the Head, as the central actor in a cosmic drama; and then it’s about our dignity in Christ; and then, about how each of our roles is different because of this. So he gives guidance to couples, to parents and children, even to masters and slaves. All that, before he says, "finally…"

Facing the might of Rome—facing our world situation…
Facing a tide of immorality and cynicism and faithlessness…
Paul says, "draw your strength from…the mighty power" of the Lord!

Paul is talking about the Holy Spirit.

Remember, you made sure your children received the Holy Spirit in baptism; in confirmation, you make sure they are fully equipped! In confession and in the Eucharist, they have their spiritual strength renewed. Remember the power of confession particularly, because that’s the hospital where wounded soldiers are healed—and even those with mortal wounds are brought back to life!

This advice of Paul’s is addressed to everyone—including the young. He tells them, you can stand fast against the evil one—you can "hold your ground."

Paul first tells us to gird our loins—wrapping our limbs—with the protection of truth.

One of our advantages is that we know there is no conflict between reason and faith; no conflict between science and faith.

Now, I’ll go ahead and be controversial here; I imagine there are different views on the question of evolution in this group. But there can be no conflict between our Faith and what science genuinely discovers. We don’t have any problem with them digging up bones and figuring out how they fit together. Be patient.

Of course some draw conclusions that we don’t accept. But this whole subject isn’t something to avoid; actually, this and other areas are great ways to teach your children the rigorous process of thinking. If you teach your children how to sift the actual facts from the conclusions, that would be a great skill to have.

Also, I know from homeschooling families that it’s when you start teaching your kids that you finally get the subject down for yourself.

The ability of thinking critically and embracing the intellect is something we Catholics can take a little ownership of. The university? That was our idea. The scientific method? We came up with that.

We can’t—and shouldn’t try to—shield our children from the truth.

Early in my priesthood, when I’d touch on a delicate subject in a homily, some parents would squirm at words like, "homosexuality," "abortion," "contraception" and "sex." One comment was, "I don’t want to have to explain what those are to my children."

I certainly respect that parents should be in the driver’s seat, so I found other ways to make the same point. But it also seems to me parents have no real choice but to explain these things to their children, sooner or later. I am confident you can do it the right way.

This may seem so obvious, but—be honest with your children.

I don’t mean you can’t have secrets; but don’t lie or shade the truth. If they figure out you made some bad choices when you were younger, it seems legit to say, "we didn’t tell you because it was our private business," and—"why would our making a mistake that we regret be a reason we should go along with you doing the same thing?"

And you know better than I do that kids will figure things out.

They will figure out when there’s trouble or stress. If there’s an elephant in the room, it is especially hard on children to see the adults pretend it’s not there and to say, "what elephant? Go to your room!" Level with them.

What a treasure it will be for your children to know that, whatever else, they can trust their parents always to be truthful with them.

Next, Paul says put on "righteousness as a breastplate."

I mentioned frequently receiving the sacraments of penance and the Holy Eucharist.

Remember that the sacrament of penance is necessary when we’re guilty of a mortal sin; but it’s good for us in any case. Remember that mortal sins "kill" or rupture the life of grace in us, while venial sins only damage it—but we’re still spiritually alive. Going to confession, then, either revives us from "death" or gives our life an added boost. Good for us either way!

Remember also that if we are not guilty of a mortal sin, our venial sins do not prevent us from receiving holy communion. On the contrary, that is all the more reason to receive the Eucharist.

Sunday Mass goes without saying—vacations too! Your children will learn a valuable lesson from how you make this a priority. Daily Mass is great if you can. Confession once a month is a good rule, weekly is not necessary, but what a great habit!

But the key is, don’t send them; go together as a family.

The other tool is prayer; and I’m sure you try to teach your children all the various ways of praying. That’s another gift we Catholics have—we have a lot more ways to pray than most of our fellow Christians, who don’t pray to the saints, don’t have the Rosary, don’t have adoration or litanies.

But I especially invite you to take them before the Blessed Sacrament. Even a brief visit. Scripture tells us that Moses had a kind of glow from his time in the Lord’s presence.

How about this? If you live anywhere near a church or chapel open all hours—my parish in Piqua, St. Albert used to have a 24 hour chapel, and other churches do too—why not make it a new custom that before you go on a trip as a family, or an outing, you pay a visit to the Blessed Sacrament? Even a brief one.

I guess the obvious point here is praying as a family. And while sometimes prayer requires real work and perseverance, it doesn’t have to be; weaving lots of small prayers and customs and sacramentals and rituals into our lives, a lot of which are fun, and add some color and variety to life, is also something we Catholics get to do! May crowning, "Tony, Tony, turn around!" and Eucharistic processions, and the seasons of the church year, all add some variety don’t they?

I might add the same for the liturgy—and make a pitch here for the liturgy to be celebrated, certainly faithfully—but also with a view to its fuller and best form.

I mean not that every Mass should be a "high" Mass; but some Masses should—and I think more than what most parishes experience.

Now, I owe it to your pastors to explain a couple of things. First, that it’s harder to do that than people realize. It takes time and energy to get there. A lot of priests sing badly or they are self-conscious about it. A lot of priests were taught a "low Mass" approach in the seminary. And what’s more, a priest will get very few complaints if he takes that approach, but if he starts singing the Mass, or gets out the incense, or takes "too long" or spends too much money on the liturgy—he will hear about it.

And—some of you may be among those who want the Mass "businesslike" and not too long. You may not be with me on this point.

When I was a seminarian, helping out in a parish one year, I was given the task of doing lessons for each of the grades, week in, week out. And when I was asked to give a talk to the younger grades—I don’t recall what topic, but it was in church. And that’s when I became a complete convert to all the artwork that fills our churches! Young children don’t grasp abstract ideas so well! But images? That works.

The imagery that has filled our churches for at least 1,600 years serves a huge role—and it was a mistake, totally contrary to what Vatican II really said—to rip it out or leave it out.
The liturgy is a mirror of the same insight; and the same mistake was made in the liturgy. That is not what Vatican II intended; much more the opposite, but that’s a secret that is only now beginning to leak out!

And notice, the situation is unstable. If you have a bare church, it isn’t long before someone starts bringing in ferns or banners or pots filled with dead sticks. If the liturgy is too sparse, Father or the liturgy committee will want to "liven it up."

My advice to you is to be a voice in your parish, for the authentic liturgy, celebrated not in a minimalistic but in its fullest form. I’ll tell you a secret: that’s actually what Vatican II called for.

I’m not sending you to give your pastor fits, but to support him and help him.

And if you aren’t experiencing the liturgy celebrated both faithfully and fully, then I would really encourage you to find a parish where it is. Not necessarily to quit your parish, but at least so your family can regularly experience the Sacred Liturgy both faithfully, and with the dignity it deserves.

I know that isn’t always easy.

Some will say, that’s just not that big a deal. But I can tell you, even small changes in what people are accustomed to, at Mass, generate bigger reactions than you would ever guess.

This proves just how important the liturgy is in penetrating us and forming our approach to the Faith. So of course it matters that we get it just right. And why wouldn’t you want your children to experience it to the fullest?

Let’s keep putting on our armor. Paul says we need feet "shod in readiness for the Gospel of peace."

All this armor only makes sense if we’re advancing, if not "standing our ground." Not hiding or retreating.

You and I, and our children, are enlisted in Christ’s army to advance the Gospel. Our feet need to be ready to go anywhere to bring the Gospel to others.

A lot of our parishes are facing stagnation or even decline in numbers. A lot of the time, we get into a negative mindset, taking decline for granted.

Think a moment: we’re Christians; think of our history…

Isn’t that the craziest thing—to plan for decline?

What did General Patton say—did you see that movie? In his famous speech at the beginning, he said, "I don't want to get any messages saying that we are holding our position. We're not holding anything, we'll let the Hun do that. We are advancing constantly, and we're not interested in holding onto anything except the enemy. We're going to hold onto him by the nose, and we're going to kick him in"—

You get the idea!

I encourage you to foster in your children a sense of being missionaries, evangelists. And here again, don’t just tell them—let them see you doing it.

We don’t have to be experts. Often times the best witness is to tell our story. "I am a Catholic because…" "I go to Mass because…" "I put Jesus first in my life because…"

Now, maybe all that sounds too Protestant, and maybe that is intimidating. I understand. Some of you loved all that, some slunk down in your seats—I saw it!
Here are some easy ways for anyone to evangelize:

Ø Invite friends over.
Ø Don’t be shy about saying grace—ever.
Ø Don’t be pushy; be welcoming. Never be apologetic.
Ø The stations of the cross in Lent, penance services in Lent or Advent, and other things apart from Mass, are great things to invite people to take part in, Catholic or not. In Advent and Lent, especially, many folks want to get back to Faith but don’t always know how. Bring them along.
Ø We have a Eucharistic adoration chapel in Piqua; and some of the folks who come aren’t Catholic. There’s nothing that says you have to be Catholic to visit the Eucharist.
Ø Nothing wrong with bringing your children’s non-Catholic friends to Mass, but explain and help them, especially about communion. That’s just good hospitality. If your son brings his buddy, maybe that should be his job, as the host? Then maybe over breakfast afterwards, you can answer the questions that will come up.

I bet you can think of even more ways.

My point is, that in our spiritual warfare, being passive and retreating is more dangerous than being alert and going forward. All our armor is designed for that.

Paul tells us our Faith is a shield.

There are a lot of things to say about Faith, but let me highlight three aspects.

Faith is about knowledge—it matters that we know our Faith;
Faith is about obedience to what Christ teaches—it matters that we live our Faith;

And above all…

Faith is a choice of the will—which is why the habits of faith matter, because they’ll help us stand our ground and keep our choice strong when it’s not easy.

Notice Faith is a shield—not the sword. Our Faith is not mainly an offensive weapon, but a means of defense—against the attacks of the enemy.

"Flaming arrows" sound pretty scary, but St. Paul assures us our shield of Faith will do the job.

Remember, our Faith is not just ours—when we speak of our Faith, we mean our personal, individual choice of faith, but we also speak of the Faith of the Church. Remember that from the Ritual of Baptism?

Right before the child or the adult is baptized, the deacon or priest asks that person—or others to speak for her—to renounce the devil, and profess faith in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Everyone joins in, and then the priest says, "This is our Faith. This is the Faith of the Church. We are proud to profess it in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen!"

When we recall that people die for that profession, even at this hour, those words take on new meaning, don’t they?

My point is, we have as our shield not only our personal faith, but the Faith of the Church, the whole Church. But it has to be personal, too; we have to be used to holding it, with a familiar grip—or we’ll fumble and drop it at the first sign of trouble.

Our helmet is salvation. I had some trouble on this point, and I have some seminarians staying with me this summer and I asked their thoughts. One of them pointed out sometimes a helmet doesn't just sit on your head, but it comes down and frames your view. We might want to make sure our view of things is always framed by salvation. Father Jim Manning was my first pastor as a priest at St. Albert in Kettering; and in the evenings, we'd often sit and talk, and he'd often ask the question--in Latin, but I can't recall it now--that translated, "what does that mean for eternity?" We want to see all events and all our actions and have a concern for others, based on eternity--getting there ourselves and bringing others with us.

And our one weapon is "the Sword of the Spirit"—which is "the Word of God." The key is the Spirit; everything here only makes sense when we're empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Remember, in Paul's time, they wouldn't have all had bibles; so they carried the Word of God in themselves; they heard it, and reflected on it, so it became part of them. We do this certainly by studying Scripture, but also by praying Scripture; maybe pray the psalms? (Here is actually where I made my points about the liturgy, rather than earlier--I did it out of order.)

(I didn't have this part written--I ran out of time!--so I ended extemporaneously and took questions.)


mrsdarwin said...

This is wonderful stuff, Father. I'd never thought of the connection between the shield and faith as our defense, not our offense.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting talk, Father. I just found your blog and look forward to returning. Best, AM