Tuesday, February 26, 2019

What does it mean when we have bad bishops and priests?

 I know a lot of Catholics are terribly discouraged with so much that we read concerning the failures of bishops and priests. Believe me, I know that feeling personally. There’s an insurance company commercial with a slogan, “we know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.” With the Church being around for 2,000 years, “we” the Church have seen everything. As Scripture says, “nothing new under the sun.”

That is not to minimize the present crisis; only to provide some reassuring perspective. It was in prior crises that the Church gained a vital insight: that the work of God and the power and effect of the sacraments does not depend on the holiness of the members of the Church; not even her clergy, not even the pope.

Yes, there is something special about the Church, about the pope in particular, about him and the other bishops acting together, and about the sacraments. Yes, in certain moments, God will ensure that the pope and bishops do not teach erroneous things; this is the nub of “infallibility.” But whatever is special, this depends, ultimately, not on us human beings, but on God.

So no matter how wicked a priest may be, if he celebrates the sacraments as the Church intends, the Mass is a true Mass; absolution is absolution; baptism is baptism, and so forth. It is important to reflect on why this is (and also, the “not-why.”) Let’s start with the “not-why.”

Sacraments are true and effective, even through the hands of depraved priests and bishops, NOT because of any special consideration for those wicked priests and bishops. It isn’t “for” them. Indeed, if they do not repent their wickedness, they will face all the more fearsome punishment. Tremble at the thought – because, as a priest, I certainly do.

No, the sole reason God works this way is precisely for the benefit of the faithful, for whom the sacraments exist. The Mass and the Eucharist do not exist for me as a priest; rather, they exist for the sake of each and all of us, as sinners in need of divine help to salvation. So important is it to God that the grace of the sacraments reaches as many as possible, and that you and I have assurance in this, that God will entrust them even to the filthiest of hands. 

Similarly, it is undeniably true that the Church’s bishops – including the pope, the Bishop of Rome – have been, let us say, an uneven lot. Anyone who wants to take a trip through history can find ample examples not only of wicked shepherds, but even more easily, maddeningly mediocre ones. And I have seen many people point to the moral failures, and cowardice, of bishops in the history of the Church as proof against the claims we make that the Catholic Church is founded by Christ, and will be safeguarded by him, until the end of time.

My response is to quote something from the great British author, G.K. Chesterton, in his book Orthodoxy. (“Orthodoxy” means true or right beliefs.) It’s a long quote, but I’ll provide it, because it’s so good. But if you find this is too long to read, the quick summary is this: if the Church were merely a human institution, with no divine reality, it ought to have failed long ago.

This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic. 

The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one's own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. 

To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom -- that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect – Chapter 6 of Orthodoxy.

I want to make another point on this, because I would be very sorry to give the impression of not taking these matters seriously. I do. All the emotions and feelings you feel, I feel, when I read about a bishop who showed no backbone, or who failed to act decisively to deal with a priest who committed crimes. And, like you, I pray and pray that we will have stronger, better bishops. I pray that God will help me to be a holier and wiser priest. Sometimes people get so discouraged, that their faith is weakened. I understand; but I look at it this way. The Catholic Church and the Catholic Faith aren’t the property of the pope or the bishops, or priests. They belong to ALL of us. Why should the behavior or bad choices of other people lead me to give up what belongs to me?

Our faith, our trust is truly in Jesus Christ himself. Remember, we call the Church the Body of…CHRIST. Not the Body of Peter, or Paul, or Gregory, or Leo, or Pius or Francis. It is not the Body of Dennis Schnurr or Martin Fox. It is the Body of CHRIST. The Body of our Lord has terrible wounds; it has happened before. You and I can pray for things; we can hope for things; we can speak up and have our limited influence. But the one thing over which each of us has the greatest control is ourselves. Do you want the Body of Christ to be holier and healthier? Of course you do! So do we all. Then increase spiritual health and holiness in yourself. As each of us seeks to grow in holiness, that helps the Body of Christ – far more than posting furious comments online, or in losing sleep, or in expressions of anger or cynicism.

(From my parish bulletin column.)

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Lent is coming: let's make it the best ever! (Sunday homily)

Lent begins in three weeks. 

For the next three Sundays, 
you and I will hear from Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, 
from chapter 15, where he talks about resurrection.
This is a great transition to Lent.

Let’s recall what we believe as Catholics.
At the moment our life in this world comes to an end, 
you and I will immediately face Christ as our judge.
We call this the “particular judgment.”

And in that moment, Christ will weigh our faith: 
did we respond to his grace? Did we obey his commands? 
Did we repent of our sins and turn to him for mercy?

And one of two things will happen.
If we die without God’s friendship, having rejected his grace; 
refusing to change, or, perhaps giving mere lip service, then what? 
Remember what he said: “Not everyone who cries, ‘Lord, Lord!’ 
will enter the Kingdom.” 

And they will say, “but look what we did in your name!” 
And Jesus will say, ‘Depart from me! I never knew you!’”
So if that’s where we are in that moment before Christ, 
then we will go to hell, precisely because we refused the grace 
and the conversion of our lives that would prepare us for heaven. 

On the other hand, if we “die in God’s grace and friendship” 
(Catechism of the Catholic Church 1030),
Then we enter into heaven. 

But at that point, you and I may need some further brushing-up, 
so that we are truly ready for heaven. 
This is purgatory.

That said, if we made this life a time of conversion, 
of breaking bad habits, of self-denial, 
purgatory will have little or even nothing to offer us.
Here’s a prayer that you may want to pray each day:
“Lord, send me here my purgatory.” 

The point Saint Paul wants to make is simple:
Do not make the mistake of thinking this life is all there is.
You and I are meant to live forever.
Moreover, our bodies are not just something 
we throw away or leave behind. 
We will have our bodies back in the resurrection.

And in the Gospel, Jesus warned us not to put too much confidence 
in the usual measures of success: 
Having lots of stuff, being comfortable, 
and having the praise of others.
None of these things will matter in the long run.

Someday, when Christ chooses to draw this phase of history to an end,
 this world will be remade: a new heavens and a new earth.
All people – redeemed or damned – will have their bodies back.
If we are among those who submitted to the Kingship of Jesus Christ, 
then it is a resurrection to life. Otherwise, it is a terrible fate.
Scripture refers to the fate of the damned as a “second death.”

We don’t talk about hell very often. But Jesus talked about it a lot! 
He wants us to take it seriously when he says, 
“Repent, and believe in the Gospel. The Kingdom of God is at hand.”

So Lent is coming, and we have three weeks to gear up.
Since I mentioned purgatory, that’s a good way to understand Lent: 
You and I are seeking our purgatory here and now.
Our sacrifices, penances and extra prayers are tools, 
in service of what Lent truly is about:
Conversion. Change of heart. Change of life. Getting ready for heaven.

The origin of Lent is that it was a time of intense preparation 
for those who were going to be baptized at Easter – 
and that is why they fasted, and prayed intensely, 
and examined their lives so closely.

And for those of us who have been baptized,
Lent is our time to re-embrace our baptism.
So notice: at Easter you will be asked to renew those vows.
It's not a mere ritual; it’s a very solemn moment we take weeks to prepare for.
Those of you who are married -- do you remember the day you made your vows?
Was that a powerful moment? Of course it was!
And I remember the day I was ordained, 
and especially the hour before as I prayed very intensely.
Well, our baptism is far more solemn and important than those events.
And that preparation for renewing our baptism 
parallels what our life on earth is about:
Preparing very seriously and intentionally for heaven.

So, Lent is near. It’s time to get ready.

I want to issue everyone in the parish a challenge:
Let’s make this the best Lent you’ve ever had.
I’m asking that we all unite in that desire – 
and help each other make it happen.

So I want to ask you – every single person here – 
to do two special things.

First: now is the time to think about what your plan for Lent will be.

And, second, I ask everyone to begin praying that this Lent 
will indeed be a powerful time of conversion for our parish. 
Pray for yourself, your family, and for each other. 
Let’s pray for our parish to experience conversion. 

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Speak -- or be silent -- but only out of love (Sunday homily)

Prophet Jeremiah in the cistern (Jeremiah 38). Picture links to where I got it.

Jeremiah had to do it; and so did Jesus.
That is, they had to say things that upset people.

Pretty obviously, of course – 
there is a difference between the “have to do” and the “want to do.” 
That’s where so many of us get messed up.

So let’s get this straight right off the bat:
What happened in the Gospel is not permission to be a jerk.
Let me say that again:
Don’t point to Jesus, or Jeremiah, 
or for that matter, any part of the Bible, as an excuse to be a jerk.

Because that is not what happened in the Gospel.
Yes, Jesus sure did provoke them. They wanted to kill him!
But why did he provoke them? What would justify it?

Jesus was trying to make them think – 
to see something they weren’t seeing, and weren’t going to see, 
unless someone really shocked them out of a kind of mental sleep-walk. 
To get them to say, “wait, what?!?”

A lot of us go online, and maybe we post comments here and there.
Or maybe we get into family discussions and maybe they get heated.

So maybe you’re thinking, 
“yeah, it’s good to stir things up.”
Someone was hurt? “Don’t be a snowflake!”

Well, here’s the test.
Before you say – or post – anything that is going to set people off, 
ask yourself this question: 
Where is the love?

How is what I am saying or doing grounded in love?

And maybe you’ll say, well, I’m saying this because I love God – 
or because I love the truth. So far, so good.

But then take it one more step:
How is what I want to say about loving this person, right here?
Can you answer that question, first?

And more than that, maybe make that the first thing you say?
Instead of leading off with, “Here’s why you’re wrong!”
Try, “Because I care about you, I want to say thus-and-so…” 
and explain why what you’re saying is really about love.

You may not have thought about it this way, 
but everything you and I stand for, as Catholics – 
everything we get beat up for believing – is about love.
Love for real, flesh-and-blood people.

So, for example, we take a stand about what marriage is. 
That, in turn, is directly related to what a man is, what a woman is.
There is a love properly shared between a husband and wife; 
another love, proper for two men, and for two women.
Likewise, yet another love proper being parents and children,
And between brothers and sisters. 

So what are we doing today? Mashing all that up, saying “love is love.”
No, that is a lie.
And encouraging people to live a lie is never the loving thing to do.

Yes, it’s true, Jesus would hit a subject pretty hard.
But never forget: at the very moment he said and did those things, 
he was planning to die on the Cross for those very people!

So that’s the test: how much is what we’re doing and saying 
really about love in a concrete way, for real, living human beings?
And if not, maybe hold our tongue?

Look: some people never speak up. 
So some people listening right now, the message you need to hear 
isn’t to hold back; because that’s what you always do.

The message for you is, speak up! 
Ask the Holy Spirit to give you the courage and the inspiration. 

But some of us – I include myself here – speak up ALL THE TIME.

Before I was in the seminary, there was this girl, and this date.
We were in Virginia, and our plan was an early breakfast, 
and then to drive down to Kings Dominion – like Kings Island here – 
and ride roller coasters all day.

When I woke up that morning I could not talk.
I felt fine otherwise; but no voice. Nothing.
So we went to the park, and for that whole day, 
she had 100% of the conversation. For about 15 hours.
If you knew my friend Mary, you’d know this did not intimidate her!

But here was the great revelation for me:
The world did not stop spinning because it was deprived of my opinions!

More important is to absorb what we hear St. Paul say:
If what you are saying and doing isn’t first and last about love – 
not abstract love, but concrete love of flesh-and-blood people – 
then what is it worth?
Nothing, says Saint Paul.

It’s not the greatest segue, but let’s recall the opportunity 
you and I have for practical, concrete acts of love, right here, 
in the form of the Catholic Ministries Appeal. 

Two weeks ago I talked about the good works this is making possible: 
assisting the poor with food and utilities;
Keeping faith alive for college students, people in prisons and hospitals;
Supporting more priestly vocations, and St. Rita School for the Deaf, 
and the retirement fund for our elderly priests.

Talk about showing love: this isn’t abstract; it isn’t pie-in-the-sky; 
it’s here and now, flesh and blood. 

I spent most of my time today talking about ways our words hurt;
Or we don’t speak at all, when there really is a need.
But let me give you an opportunity, right now, 
To use words in a loving way.
There are envelopes with pledge forms, and pencils, in your pews.
They look like this. If you want to do this now, 
someone will pass it down.

Your words – your name and contact information – 
on this form are an act of love. 
So are the numbers you write on there: 
the amount of financial support for this cause.
You can include a check right now; 
or you can write in your credit information.

I make my check payable to the seminary, 
so that I can direct my gift there.
Without saying how much, I will say my gift is a lot for me.
That doesn’t mean you have to do the same; 
But I want you to know I’m serious about this.

Saturday, February 02, 2019

Chicken report

Let's pick up the thread of my last post. In my account of the Pot Roast, I provided commercial interludes of my chicken preparation. I did not forget the advice given me by my readers after my last quest for chickeny excellence. (By the way, is "chickeny" really the best adjectival form of chicken? Suggestions?) And so, after letting the chicken dry itself in the fridge the past few days, I drew it out today for final preparations.

I ran my fingers carefully between the skin and the flesh, on both sides of the chicken, separating the skin. If you do this, be careful, especially on the breast side, or else you may tear the skin. Then I took some butter and some fresh rosemary, and mashed it all together. I kept some of the rosemary to insert in the cavity, along with a cut up lemon. The rosemary-butter combination I jammed up under the skin. I did tear the skin a bit, but a toothpick works well to hold it together:

After this, I sprinkled a bit of baking powder on both sides, but much less than before. Then I coated everything with generous amounts of olive oil; then generous amounts of coarse salt and freshly ground pepper:

You will notice the chicken is now breast-side down. My usual method is to cook it back up for most of the time, and then flip it breast-up for the last 30 minutes or so. I am going to try this one more time. My goal is to get reasonably good skin on all sides, and I want the breast side on the gravity side of the drippings. But what I don't know is whether I can achieve the excellent skin that I want. We'll see.

And, yes, it would look better if it were trussed, but I figure that the skin gets crispier in more places if it isn't. In the end, I care less about how it looks when it comes out, and more about how it looks and tastes on my plate -- and in my belly!

In a few minutes, I'm going to pop it in the oven at 450 degrees for about a half hour, then turn it way down, as low as possible, because I must leave it unattended while I hear confessions and offer Mass. I'll be back around 6 pm or so.

UPDATE, 8:06 PM...

Here is the chicken, right out of the oven...

And here is the spinach, being sauteed...

So, the chicken was really, really good. Very juicy, just right in every way, except...

The skin wasn't crispy enough. Really good! But, not quite there. The quest continues...