Sunday, July 19, 2020

Jesus wants no weeds, only the best of wheat (Sunday homily)

Our daily choices are how we sow either good or bad seed,
so that either the field of our soul is full of virtue, 
or it is crowded with the weeds of vice and sin.

I was reading a book by Father Basil Maturin, 
an Irish priest from a century ago, who talks about this parable. 
It was he who saw the field as our own lives. 

Father Maturin asked, “How often, as we look into our souls, 
and wonder at the evil we find there, do we not ask ourselves” 
where do these weeds come from? 
Where do laziness, wrath, lust and greed, 
and the trials that go with them, come from? 

And the answer is, “An enemy has done this.”

Now, to be clear: the devil certainly does not “make me” do it.
The enemy makes suggestions, often very seductive and appealing ones, 
but the choice is mine. 

So the point is, you and I cannot be too careful about what evil 
we allow the enemy to sow in our lives. 

There’s a famous saying, attributed to many people:
“Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; 
Sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.”

It doesn’t take much time given to the Internet, 
going to dark places, to allow a foul habit to take deep root. 

There are folks who think this isn’t any big deal. 
Let me tell you: there is a growing number of people 
who are finding it difficult to have a healthy relationship 
with the opposite sex because of pornography. 
It is poisoning marriages, even before they begin,
And it is contributing to marital breakups. 

So it’s vital to guard our eyes from what is degrading; 
our ears from gossip and toxic words of anger and hate;
our heart from envy; our stomach from gluttony.

Of course, a lot of us can say, too late! 
These weeds are already in my life! 
We are frustrated to face these same weeds, 
week after week throughout our lives. 
Why doesn’t the Lord simply tear them out, when we beg him to do so?

Sometimes it happens: we have a moment of conversion 
and we receive the grace to completely overcome that bad habit; 
the weeds are, indeed, ripped out. 
But do you know what often happens next?
Someone who received a great gift of deliverance slowly slides back.

As much as we hate it, for virtue to grow in our lives, 
we’re better off if it comes hard rather than easy;
just as it takes hard, physical labor to build our lungs and muscles.

At the conference I attended last week, 
in one of the talks the priest said, 
it is in our darkest and lowest places where we so quickly meet Jesus.
That is where we experience him most powerfully.
There’s no place for pride when we’re flat on our face.

So, when you find it discouraging to go to confession, again, and again,
with the same sin – realize, that is exactly the medicine you need. 
It is the enemy who says, you can’t fight the weeds, 
just let them grow. 

There’s something the Gospel doesn’t say, yet we know it’s true:
Jesus has the power to turn weeds into wheat.
I know this is true because I’ve seen it in my own life,
And there are people in this parish who will say the same.

At this and every Mass, Jesus takes wheat – that is, bread – 
and turns it into himself.
What happened once on the Cross, for us, 
Jesus extends through time, through the Mass.
Every day, we bring new bread and wine, and through the priest,
Jesus himself says, “This is my Body.”

Yet there’s another wheat, another bread, 
Jesus wants above all to take in hand and say, “This is my Body.”
Do you know what that wheat is?

You and me! All of us are called to belong to his Mystical Body.
But no weeds – only the best of wheat, 
which he himself purifies and gathers and prepares. 
That’s what it means to be a Catholic;
Daily we turn our lives over to him. Patiently we return to confession. 
Jesus makes of us the best of wheat, to become part of Him.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

How you can frustrate God, and how you can help (Sunday homily)

One of the things every farmer here certainly knows 
is that this land can be tremendously fruitful. 
Of course that assumes good preparation, good seed, and –
this is on all our minds right now – enough rain. 
Please God, give us the rain we need (and no more!)

In a word, these readings are about fruitfulness. 

God himself is always fruitful. His word, his will, cannot fail.
God creates because he loves; God loves all that he creates.
When a child delights in building sand castles, 
this is a shadow of how much God revels in his Creation.

The Divine Farmer who strews galaxies across space with abandon [is]
the Heavenly Artist [who] makes a Mona Lisa in the tiniest creature;
No detail of your existence escapes the care of God;
No matter how many he may create, only you are uniquely you.

But here is a great mystery: If God’s will always bears fruit,
Then what goes wrong? 
If God himself farmed these fields, 
why wouldn’t he always have a bumper crop?

The answer is that God chooses to involve us, 
and we are the wild-card.
You and I can frustrate his creative work;
Or we can make his work more fruitful.

How do we do these things?

You’ve already figured out the next part:
Our sins and neglect obviously get in God’s way.

Throughout the Bible and on the lips of so many saints, 
God begs us to pray.
So many times heaven has sent the Mother of God to us –
Guadalupe, Lourdes, Knock, Akita, Fatima and more –
And more than anything else, Mary begs us to pray.

The most astounding detail of the Fatima visions in 1917, 
was not forecasting the coming of more wars throughout the century.
No, it was that Mary said those wars could be prevented,
if only people high and low would respond to her message.

And her message was both to popes and bishops, but equally to ordinary Catholics, 
everyone who could pray the Rosary 
and make other acts of repentance and reparation. 
That’s everyone, including you and me.

It’s funny how much we focus on the curious or obscure aspects 
of Mary’s message at Fatima, but ignore the clearest message: PRAY!

You might wonder, why should my sins have any effect on God’s plan?

Each of us makes up a part of the whole Body of Christ.
The Body works better when every part is letting life flow,
And following the signals coming from the head – that is, Christ.
When you and I commit mortal sin, we block the flow of grace.
You may think a finger or toe or patch of skin isn’t important:
Until it decides not to work. Then you’re knocked off your game.

The good news is, we can also help God’s plan; 
and the power of grace far exceeds the power of sin; 
the strength of God is far greater than the weakness of men.

For one, you and I can heal the deadness 
we bring to the Body of Christ by a good confession.
God is always ready to revive us and make us powerful with his grace.
We may think our little part doesn’t matter, but God says otherwise.

And to go back to the farm imagery of the Gospel, consider this:
What is it the farmer spreads over the fields, to make them fruitful?
“Fertilizer” – but mostly, that’s manure!
Stuff we don’t want, we don’t like, that is offensive:
Look how God puts it to use to make a difference!

So for anyone who says, “I’m worthless as…” fill in the blank,
God says, “Fine! Have I got a job for you!”

Sunday, July 05, 2020

As Americans and Catholics, 'We hold these truths' (Sunday homily)

This weekend, we celebrate our nation’s independence. 

When we have large numbers of our fellow citizens 
who are ignorant of our nation’s history and what we stand for, 
or worse, actually despise our nation – their own nation! –
then it seems like a good time to make some points about our nation
and the virtue of patriotism. 
But after that, I will circle back to the Scriptures in a moment.

Everyone knows what happened on July 4th:  
the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. 
The actual vote to be “free and independent” took place on July 2.

Do you know that until that moment, no one had ever done such a thing?
I don’t mean the part about forming a new nation; 
that has happened lots of times. I mean the Declaration. 
No one had ever written anything like it before. 
No nation had ever been conceived with such audacious claims as these:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, 
that all men are created equal, 
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, 
that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, 
deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Every word and idea I just quoted finds precedent in prior writings, 
including those of saints, such as Thomas Aquinas, 
and ultimately the Word of God; and yet, until that day, 
no one in history had ever distilled these ideas with such soaring prose.
There are a lot more reasons to be proud as an American, 
but those ideas, let loose into the world 244 years ago today, 
are more than sufficient reason to be patriotic. 
And that Thomas Jefferson helped make this happen, 
despite his sins, is more than enough reason to honor him.

I bring this up to make another point: 
Too many people know too little about our nation’s history.
Many here remember these things being taught to us,
And we assume this continues for younger generations.
But outside Russia School district, this is just not so.

With so many filled with rage as they smash history,
Someone – that is, you and I! – must help our fellow citizens remember.
Our history is not perfect, but those words: “endowed by our Creator” 
and “all men are created equal” have propelled us 
toward ever greater human dignity, not only for us, but all mankind.

America at her best really has been a beacon to the world – 
and that, too, is something to be proud of, and to defend.
Because this isn’t just about the past; 
the past isn’t worth remembering 
if you and I aren’t concerned about the future.

What sort of nation will we be? Will we let others decide for us?
There’s a political process, and each of us has a right – 
and also a duty – to take part.
More than that, we have the power of prayer and witness.

As citizens of this country who are also citizens of heaven, 
It belongs to us to see that “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” 
happen for all God’s children, of every race and condition, 
including those unborn, and those on the margins of life;
including those who suffer prejudice 
and maybe don’t see themselves sharing in our nation’s promise.

Now let me turn to the Scriptures.
The first reading foresees a king who will resurrect God’s People,  
and he will conquer, not with a sword, but with justice, bringing peace.
Of course this is Jesus Christ!
But the point is, if this is how our Lord and King chooses to come,
then it is the pattern for us to approach our fellow citizens.

How unthinkable to hear the Lord all-powerful, all-knowing,
say of himself, “I am meek and lowly of heart”?

Have you ever heard a politician say that?
Or an actor or athlete – or a parish priest – say that?
“I am meek and lowly of heart.”
And if they did, would anyone believe them?

If you and I say these words, will we be taken seriously?

Fifty years ago, when Dr. Martin Luther King and many others – 
including many Catholics – took brave and necessary steps 
to fulfill the founding promise of liberty for ALL;
in imitation of Jesus, they came “meek and lowly.”
The whole nation watched them be beaten for simply demonstrating, 
or sitting to eat lunch at a segregated restaurant.

Their courageous meekness changed our nation for the better.

Not only should you and I have our say in this moment.
Even more, we must do it in a Christ-like way.
This ugliness is likely, any day, to beget more ugliness.
Who will be led by the Holy Spirit, and do the works of the Savior?
That’s your task and mine:
“We hold these truths.”

Saturday, July 04, 2020

Patriotism is a virtue (Independence Day homily)

Immaculate Conception, by Peter Paul Rubens, 1649-50,
Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain. 

This particular 4th of July seems like a good time 
to talk about the virtue of patriotism.

Our catechism links patriotism to the fourth commandment: 
“Honor your father and mother.” 
It goes on to say that this commandment 
“requires honor, affection, and gratitude toward elders and ancestors” 
and “it extends to the duties of citizens to their country, 
and to those who administer or govern it.”

The great Thomas Aquinas talked about patriotism in a different way – 
in relation to the virtue of piety, or pietas in Latin. 
For the ancient Romans, piety was a debt of honor, 
owed to my parents, my family, and my patria, or country. 
That’s where we get the term “patriot.”  
And so, St. Thomas teaches, “man is debtor 
chiefly to his parents and his country, after God.”

So one of the first aspects of patriotism is to recognize: I owe a debt.
From the first moment of my existence, 
someone else was feeding and protecting me: 
first in my mother’s womb, then in the house of my parents. 
They clothed and educated me, 
turned me from a barbarian into a halfway decent person, 
all at great expense, for the first 20 or so years of my life.

And it was the same for you, too.

Our parents taught us something else: they had help.
Whether you grew up in the city like me, or here in farm country,
All of us were sheltered under the protective wings of our country:

Enjoying astonishing prosperity, the most expansive liberty, 
and a blanket of peace and security 
that most people past and present, have never known. 
The peace we enjoyed came at great cost: vigilance, courage and blood.

Every one of us owes a debt, and it is right to pay that debt:
not only gratitude, but love. We owe love to our country.

Now, here is something else that most people have not enjoyed:
Our country gives us the right to criticize and to demand change.
So, if you and I are properly grateful for this right in particular, 
how shall we show that gratitude?

Many of our fellow citizens are responding with violence and hate.
There is no excuse. No, none whatsoever.
You do not remedy injustice by adding injustice.

Do not let others’ ugliness make you respond in kind.

That said, there is such a thing as patriotic protest.
It was bought for us at extravagant cost.
Therefore, it is not only a right, but a duty.
But what makes protest patriotic is that it acts out of love.

Consider the prophet Amos, who gave us the first reading.
Why did go up and down the land, crying out?
He, inspired by God, was acting in love: to save his people.
He could not bear to see his homeland so disfigured by sin and cruelty.

To be a citizen means we have a share in shaping our country.
Again: a privilege won for us by blood, 
And which most people past and present, do not enjoy.
So if you are a patriot – and St. Thomas says, we must be –
Then part of that patriotism is to take part in shaping our nation.

If you do not exercise the vote, if you do not become informed, 
how can you defend that? 
If the people of Israel could have voted for a new king, 
what do you think Amos would have done? Just change the channel?

In the Gospel, Jesus reminds us that there are times 
when his friends – that’s you and me – are called to fast and pray.

When our country is in trouble – and we are in trouble now! – 
Then that is such a time.

So, before this Mass, a group prayed a “patriotic” Rosary.
Remember, the bishops designated our Lady as the patroness – 
the patron saint – of our country.

Look at very old artwork of Mary: red, white and blue 
were her colors, long before our nation ever existed!
So go to Mary: ask her to pray for America, and you pray with her.

It is not unpatriotic to admit that we still need to change.
Those who say we need less racism and more justice: they’re not wrong!
You and I might add: justice means defending human life, 
from its very beginning, to its very end. 

And defending human life from being twisted and corrupted,
Which is why we defend the family as it truly is: man-woman-child, 
and therefore, we refuse to accept counterfeits. 

This is why we cannot be passive about the filth on the Internet, 
Which is every bit as toxic in its own way 
as all those poisons we worked all these years 
to remove from our air and water.

You and I pray for these things, speak out and vote for these things,
because we are patriotic; because we love our country.

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

There is no reason to apologize for Serra or St. Louis

Click on the picture to go to its source.

Mobs of the best-credentialed illiterates in history (having graduated from once-prestigious universities with degrees that don't turn into paying jobs) are running wild in the streets of too many American cities, wreaking vengeance bravely against hunks of rock and molten metal. Little None of it is rational; a lot of it is atavistic rage, fueled by hatred of what America is, what the West is (not was; this isn't about history, not really). The iconoclasts have moved from Confederates to Founding Fathers and now to Catholic saints, including Saints Junipero Serra and Louis IX, King of France. Images of Jesus are on deck.

Why these saints?

Louis's sins are two-fold. First, that in his time, Jews were treated badly, and he went along with it, at least to some degree (many popes and princes of the age pushed back on anti-Jewish measures; I don't know if Louis did).

This is true, although it must be remembered, history (like people, because, people) is complicated. The idea of requiring Jews (or anyone else) to wear special clothing, or even some sort of badge, makes us shudder, as it should. That is because we know (alarm bell: too many people do not know) that in the 20th century, Jews (and others) were compelled to wear badges on the way to being degraded in every possible way, before being murdered. Nothing can adequately convey the horror of it; before this fact, we can only fall silent.

So it is quite right that we recoil; but not only is King Louis not Hitler, there is no way you get from A to B without waging total war against A. There are lots of things to fault the Middle Ages for, including misunderstanding the time value of money, and worse, being nasty to the Jews; but they did not talk about exterminating people. Make of it what you will, but what the Christians of the 12th century wanted from Jews (and everyone else) was that they become Christians and live as such, so as to have maximum chances of heaven. That is not hate.

Louis' second "sin" is no sin at all: that is, he joined in the defense of Christians who were being brutalized in the Levant by invading Muslims. In other words, he went on Crusade. Oh, I know that is supposed to be a terrible thing! No doubt you also opposed the Crusade* launched by the Allies in 1944, led by Eisenhower, to come to the relief of Europe? You think that justice demanded leaving the Germans alone, to continue their benevolent rule? Oh, you think that is an unfair comparison? Tell me why.

Junipero's real sin is that he was European and a Christian; that is, he came to the New World in the wake of others, who explored and, unfortunately, also exploited. Junipero came, however, to bring salvation. In doing so, he was an advocate for the natives of California, and his missions were places both of faith and dignity for them. This coincidence is no coincidence: it was precisely from Junipero's Christianity that his solicitude and respect for the natives -- as imago Dei and brothers -- flowed.

No, the only real sin Junipero's critics care about is that he came in the first place. If only Christopher Columbus had never sailed the ocean blue. If only those wicked Europeans had left the Paradise of the New World alone. And it is indeed a tragedy that European explorers also brought disease and, too often, greed and lust and bigotry. But therein lies the problem: original sin.

But I'm not sure that the thugs who bravely assault statues believe in original sin, which is a frightening thought: just where do they think the impulse to steal and plunder and enslave comes from?

To the extent these sad-sacks think at all, I must conclude they suppose sin is a product of external forces; that if only society and thought can be reorganized somehow -- revolutionized -- then sin will be extirpated. You want to know what that looks like? Examine the record of the iconoclasts' saints: Lenin, Mao and Pol Pot. Although I almost certainly give most of them too much credit. No doubt some minority of the mob knowingly embraces communism, the majority are simply too stupid. Yes, I know that is harsh, but let's get real: there is a kind of education that opens the mind, and there is a kind that closes it. These folks have received the latter, and it is terribly sad, for them and for us.

At any rate, let's be candid: all through human history, migration is a constant. All the people's who live on the islands of the Pacific surely did not originate there, neither did the natives who first saw the sails of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria rising on the horizon. Everyone is from somewhere else; and almost everyone is descended of someone who took it from someone else. I am not justifying conquest; I am simply pointing out that the Europeans did what everybody did. What's more, if you want to evaluate this morally (of which I am in favor), I ask you: where does your morality come from? How do you know what is really right and wrong? How do you justify it?

The Christianity that made Junipero and Louis the people they became does give a basis for right and wrong; what else? If you say, oh, I have nothing to do with that, then where does your morality come from? If you point to the Enlightenment, I have news for you: that was a product of Christianity. And I have further news, which is sobering: as the roots of the Enlightenment in Christianity are forgotten, so now a new generation, that knew not Descartes and Locke and Kierkegaard, have pretty much forgotten the Enlightenment, or worse, are cheerfully consigning it to the flames. So I ask you again: the moral code that assures you of the wrongness of, well, pretty much anything, where does it come from? What secures it?

Here's another thing. Many people do not realize what it means when someone is deemed a "saint."

Let me explain: it does not mean they were perfect. To be a Christian is to believe that such perfection is impossible, without the constant assistance of God's grace. I think our Protestant and Evangelical brethren get mixed up on this -- they firmly believe in grace, yet they seem to miss the point that if grace is real, then doesn't it, at some point, work? In other words: saints. But in any case, too many people, who aren't as familiar with Christianity as they may realize, simply do not know that the heart of the Christian faith is this: we human beings are so damaged, that only God intervening can save us. That's what it's ALL about.

So if you look for flaws in any saint (out of courtesy to Jesus, we will not do so regarding his mother), you will find them. What's more, of course saints were people of their time, meaning they reflected, to some degree, the attitudes and blindspots of their time.

That King Louis was insufficiently aware of, and resistant to, the prejudices and atmospheric sins of his age (note I said "insufficiently"; he was certainly aware -- read his writings) does not alarm me. But the perfectionism of his critics -- and their unawareness of that -- is positively terrifying.

* Yes, Ike actually called the Normandy landings a "crusade." He also used the term as the title of his memoirs.