Tuesday, August 22, 2017

21st Sunday of Ordinary Time

Who’s in charge?  Whenever we find ourselves working in a group situation this is a very fundamental question.  While all the members of the group may have certain skills they can bring to the table, it takes a leader to effectively marshal those skills (and individuals) to their goal.  In fact, it’s built into our human nature.  Think about any crisis situation… without someone to step in and take charge, chaos reigns.  Yet when it comes time for someone to step up, many people also find comfort in letting someone else do it.

When it comes to Church, however… the People of God, the question of who’s in charge is both simple and complex… and is the core question considered in our readings for this 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time:

The Word for the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time
Isaiah 22:19-23
Psalm: 138:1-2, 2-3, 6, 8
Romans 11:33-36
Matthew 16:13-20

Our first reading comes from a rather obscure passage from the book of the prophet Isaiah.  In fact, this passage is so obscure it only appears in our lectionary this once throughout all the Sunday and Daily reading cycles.  Upon first reading, without recognizing the characters nor understanding the context of the situation, it is still clear that God is not happy with Shebna, and intends to replace him with Eliakim.  This situation is not new or unique in scripture… in fact, God has made use of his prophets on many occasions to condemn leadership and anoint another in their place.  In this passage (and the many others like it in scripture), our initial question (who’s in charge) is answered quite plainly… It is the Lord God who is in charge, and God will appoint whomever he feels is best suited to lead his people and carry out his command.  While I find the deeper context of this passage quite compelling, in this rare occasion I can say that having a deeper understanding the characters and the situation is not necessarily relevant.  The “key” point of the story for this Sunday is in the line, “I will place the key of the House of David on Eliakim’s shoulder.”  God has said that Eliakim is now in charge.  He is now master of the palace.  In doing so God shows his continued faith in the people of Israel, which is like an answer to the prayer we sing in our Psalm, “Lord, your love is eternal; do not forsake the work of your hands.”

These very same “Keys to the Kingdom” is what connects this passage with our Gospel from Matthew.  We continue our Summer-time journey traveling with Jesus and  his disciples.  This week we find ourselves in Caesarea Philippi, a coastal port some 60 miles West-Northwest of Jerusalem.  The name alone tells us this is primarily a Roman city, no doubt with a majority Gentile population.  Here Jesus is compelled to ask his disciples “who do people say that the Son of Man is?”  After getting some of their answers, he then asks the disciples directly, “But who do you say that I am?”  Simon, without hesitation, answers that he is the Christ, Son of the living God.  At hearing this Jesus is pleased that God has revealed this to him and gives him the name Peter (meaning Rock), making him the foundation of his church and giving him those same “Keys to the Kingdom.”  Following in the same tradition of the other great prophets, Jesus has put Simon Peter in charge.  Jesus knows his days are numbered, so he is taking this moment to establish how his Church will continue and grow once he is gone.

It is for this reason, by tradition, that we Catholics consider Peter to be the first Pope (though this isn’t a title that Peter himself would not have recognized).  It was understood by Jesus’ followers that Peter had been placed in a special position of leadership, a leadership we see blossom in the Acts of the Apostles through the power of the Holy Spirit.  His position among the Apostles was so notable that upon his martyrdom in Rome the early Church fathers felt the need to appoint Linus to take his place, and so began a long line of succession which we honor today with our current Pope Francis.

But how is it that they know who God is calling to be the next Bishop of Rome?  The next Pope?  I think our second reading holds the key.  In our continuing study of Paul’s letter to the Romans, we learn that we need to trust in “the depth of riches and wisdom and Knowledge of God!”  This wisdom survives in our scriptures, from Moses, to Isaiah and the other prophets, to Jesus himself.  The beauty is that not only does God provide us with the love to know what is right, but he also shrouds us with his mercy when we fail and seek his redemption.  So while Peter and his successors my hold the “keys to the kingdom,”  they are also eager to share and give us a copy.  For as Jesus himself taught us, if we love God and love our neighbor, we too can unlock the gates of Heaven.

Final thoughts:

The Petrine ministry – the Papacy – is one of the traditions that make the Catholic Church unique among the world’s religions, yet its purpose and authority can easily be misunderstood.  Everyone knows that the Pope is elected by the College of Cardinals.  But if you ask those same Cardinal electors that same question, their answer will likely be that it is “the Holy Spirit”  who gives us the next Pope.  Following the same prophetic tradition of the scriptures, our modern-day prophets gather to discern who is being called to lead the Church.  Who does the Lord feel is best suited to continue Peter’s mission of spreading the Gospel to the people of this age?  Today, it’s our Pope Francis.  But what of tomorrow?  We leave that up to the Spirit.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Is Religion the Answer for Teens in Crisis?

Posted from today's daily Angelus News email:

Some interesting ideas but I think they miss the mark...
For those who weren't with us last night for Bishop Barron's video on G. K. Chesterton, we learned that Chesterton was equally at home on both the right and the left of the political spectrum, and while he may not have always agreed, he did always listen, and didn't let a person's views get in the way of friendship and civility. A lesson we could all use in these times... but I digress...

This article comes from the National Register, founded by William F. Buckley Jr. You can't get much more conservative than that! So even if your leanings are more toward the left, there's some good nuggets in this article.

As a life-long catechist, clearly I believe that being the member of a religious community is beneficial in many ways, and the article does point out the Pew studies that show how those who actively participate in a religious community are happier, healthier, and live longer. The article also goes to great lengths to point out what seems to be an increase in teen suicide, depression, and other mental illnesses. And their answer to this problem is getting them some religion.

While I can't disagree with the overall premise, I do question some of their research and conclusions. First, they go to great lengths to show us what seems to be a dramatic increase in the instances of teen suicide, depression and mental illness. While this seems to be anecdotally true, I still have to question the validity of their data. A lot of these increases could be attributed to better reporting and increased populations. It would have been nice to know where the are getting their information. But for the sake of argument, let's accept the premise that teen depression is on the rise.

Their response is to get these kids some religion. Again, agree and believe this is beneficial (otherwise why am I paying all that Catholic school tuition!). But according to the article, "They no longer value themselves for their inherent worth and dignity as created by God." So, they're saying self worth is the problem? The article continues to say that, "they no longer find self-worth in their efforts to lead lives based on truth and love. Instead, many of our young people look outside themselves for validation."

This makes sense, but I think they're putting too much emphasis on the self-worth part, and not enough on the "action" part... the part that teaches us that religious practice is reaching out to one another, and putting others before ourselves. Is that the opposite of self-worth? Or is it the mechanism by which self-worth is gained?

The article does go on to say, "Having faith in God and attributing a religious meaning to life anchors people, directs their efforts to things beyond the material world, protects them against setbacks, and provides supportive community." This is all true, but it's not just the self-worth gained by a relationship with God and a loving, supportive community. Those are all important, but they don't go into any of the "religious meaning to life," and what that entails. Religious meaning isn't born out of a sense of self-worth, it's born out of selfless action. A recognition that we are called to recognize the dignity of others over ourselves, and physically reach out to help them. The purpose religious life gives us is through the action of spreading the Gospel. Sometimes with words, but all the time with our actions.

Put another way, it gives them a job. Something to do. And this is where I personally think we're failing our young people. We're not teaching them to reach out to others. We're not giving them the skills to take care of themselves. We're not giving them a true sense of things greater than themselves. Religion doesn't just give us a caring community, it gives us a mission... to reach out and bring God's love to others. It gives us a purpose... a higher purpose. That helps us put our self-worth in perspective. And that's the key I think this article misses.

There's a lot of other stuff the article goes into about the role of government and such. Some of these points are valid.  But overall I think their argument is overly simplistic.  There are many dynamics at play here, and a lot of the context of these situations is missing.  And again, I think all that steers us away from the real issue... putting words into action, and putting others above oneself.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

20th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Who is God for?  EVERYONE!  The answer should be automatic for modern day Catholics… one barely even needs to think about it to know this is true, yet our scriptures for this 20th week of Ordinary Time remind us that this understanding was not always so obvious nor accepted.

Isaiah 56:1, 6-7
Psalm: 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8
Romans 11:13-15, 29-32
Matthew 15:21-28

We open with a reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah… Trito-Isaiah or 3rd Isaiah to be more precise, authored during the post-Exile period.  This week’s passage has the prophet telling us that God will accept the sacrifices of all peoples… that is, people who are not of Israel.  The God of Israel is telling his people that he’s not just the God for them, but for all others who follow his commands.  The foreigner, the Gentile, also have an open invitation to join in the Covenant.  There are two ways to look at this passage.  On one side we see this a generous offering by a generous God… A God who wants to extend himself to all his creation.  The other side of this coin, however, is one of betrayal.  In the eyes of many Israelites, this could almost be seen as God reneging on his covenant… a covenant he made with Israel… not anyone else. 

The idea wasn’t a new one… having been revealed not only to Isaiah but earlier prophets as well… but that didn’t make the idea any less controversial with the people of Israel.  One can almost hear them crying out, “he’s our God… not yours… you can’t have him.”  Yet in a post-Exile world… and to our own modern ears, this sounds much like the ravings of a toddler.  In a world in which a Gentile King,  Cyrus, is called “great” by the people of Israel for his defeat of the Babylonians and repatriating them back to the land of Israel, the world is becoming a much smaller, inclusive, and spread-out kind of place.  As the Assyrian and Greek empires spread, so do the people, including the people of Israel.  The God of Israel is becoming known, but Israel herself isn’t always ready or willing to share, and not without good cause.  Yet scripture is very clear on this issue, as our Psalm sings “O God, let all the nations praise you.”  God may have chosen the Israelites as his people, but it’s clear that invitation is open to everyone who believes.

Our Gospel from Matthew reminds us of this same conflict among Jesus himself and his disciples.  While traveling in the region of Tyre and Sidon (along the coast of modern day Lebanon), a Canaanite woman cries “have pity on my, Lord, Son of David,” looking to Jesus to drive out the demon from her daughter.  At first, Jesus is reluctant, claiming that he was sent only to save the children of Israel, not anyone else.  The woman, however, is both persistent and persuasive.  Jesus sees her faith and heals her daughter.  At first reading, Jesus sounds like a bigot… all but calling the Canaanite woman a “dog” and being dismissive of her.  Upon deeper reflection, however, it’s easy to see (as is so much the case) that Jesus’ actions speak louder than his words.  First, we need to look at where Jesus is… As the gospel states, he’s traveling through Tyre and Sidon… areas much farther North than even Samaria…. well past the Judean border.  Yet this is where Jesus has chosen to spread his gospel message.  Jesus, a noted Jewish prophet, is preaching in an area populated mostly by Gentiles.  The encounter with the Canaanite woman wasn’t a surprise… one could even say it was expected.  Matthew is using this encounter to show his audience (a primarily Jewish audience) that if Jesus’ heart can be changed, so can theirs (and ours).

Our second reading continues our journey through Paul’s Letter to the Romans.  This week’s passage reflects the same sentiments as our other readings: that God’s mercy is for all.  Paul is addressing a largely Gentile audience, calling himself the apostle to the Gentiles, while at the same time admitting that he has taken on this mission to “make my race jealous.”  Paul, that devout Jew and former persecutor of Christians has become the voice that rallies the cause of Christ for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike.  It is Paul’s teaching, supported by the teachings of Isaiah and many more prophets that have us singing God’s mercy and praise to all the nations.  Let us all join the chorus!

Final thoughts:
I can think of no more fitting readings than these as a response to so much of the segregation our society faces today.  Racism, sexism, and economic disparity remain serious social problems, but now we can add extremist ideology to the mix of things that divide us.  It is not in our nature to embrace differences and change.  But it is the teachings of the patriarchs and the prophets that help us to learn that diversity is a strength, reinforced by the fact that we all share one thing in common:  We are all Children of God.

We are all called to spread the Gospel.  What does that mean?  It means that we live and we share the message of salvation.  Jesus died for our sins.  He reconciled us back to God the Father.  His death was expiation for generations of sin, and he taught us how to love our neighbors as ourselves as a way of building this new kingdom of God.  But we have fallen, bothers and sisters, and some days the news makes me feel we’re going backward instead of forward when it comes to loving one another.  So I urge you, if you feel the urge to step into the abys of ideological extremism, pause… take a breath… say a short prayer, and re-read our readings for this Sunday and remember that the God we love, the God who loves us, loves everyone else just as much, no matter their differences.

Freedom of Choice and a Nation of Converts

A very interesting article from The Atlantic magazine posted by our daily Angelus News email.

Convert Nation:  More than one-third of Americans identify with a religion different than the one they grew up with.

Being involved in the RCIA, you could say that I'm in the "conversion" business, and I often like to quote a study I read where that found that nearly 24% of Catholics come to the Church as adults. At the same time, our Catholic faith looses many of it's members, sometimes only temporarily, sometimes permanently. And that's not taking into consideration the many "holiday" Catholics who come back for Christmas and Easter. But I digress...

This issue of choosing one's religion has always been something of a mystery and a fascination for me. Being of Irish and Italian heritage, who's relatives emigrated to the US in the late 19th century, my family has very deep roots in Catholicism. And I would be a fool not to recognize that being Catholic is as much a cultural identity as it is a religious identity. I often joke that with my parents being Irish-Italians from Brooklyn, I didn't have a choice not to be Catholic, especially when you consider that I spent my formative years in Catholic schools. This is the "enclave" that Lincoln Mullen is talking about in this article. And even though my family emigrated from New Jersey to California when I was a baby, we managed to maintain our connection to the Church.

So even though my enclave was a strong influence on my being a Catholic, I also recognized that staying with the Church was a personal choice... a conscious choice I think every adult Catholic needs to make. To do something out of intent and desire instead of through habit and superstition. And this gets to, I think, some of the issues around this freedom to choose when it comes to religion.

As Americans it seems in our nature to eschew tradition and enclave norms in favor of those we choose to make for ourselves. And while I may see leaving the Church akin to divorcing my family, others see these boundaries as much more porous, especially for those who can't see past the institution of a Church as an avenue toward God, or consider the institution itself as a barrier to a healthy relationship with God.

The reality is that there are a lot of reasons why this religious roulette (and I consider non-religious secularism or non-affiliated people as a "religion" in this arena) is part of our history and continues to be a topic of discussion. I find this Atlantic article an interesting deeper dive into a topic that's regularly on my mind, and I'm glad it's getting some attention.

You might even want to look at some of my blog postings where I touch on these ideas...