Monday, February 29, 2016

Extra: Reflections from the 2016 RE Congress

One of the gifts of being part of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is the annual Religious Education Congress. 

For those who don't know, the RE Congress began 60 years ago as a series of workshops for those involved in what we used to call "CCD" (Confraternity of Catholic Doctrine), what we more commonly refer to as "Religious Education," or perhaps more appropriately today as "Faith Formation."  What was born out of a desire for local CCD teachers to gather and share ideas on faith formation has grown into an international gathering of more than 40,000 catechists and ministers of all flavors to be re-ignited by the Holy Spirit to the service of their parish.  I've been blessed to have attended this event regularly since the early 1980's, and I have yet to be disappointed.  I believe that for anyone involved in Catholic education, catechesis, or church ministry, on any level... this is a must-attend event.

The Congress is, among other things, a living example of the universal nature of the Church.  That our community extends beyond the four walls of our parish, and that we should be looking to each other for ideas, inspiration, and support.  To the Archdiocese, to the US, to the world.  Those Catholics who never venture beyond their parish walls are living in a bubble that can keep the Holy Spirit from enlightening their lives and their ministry.

The Congress, being such a large and visible gathering of Catholics is also, for better or worse, is a magnet for protesters.  "Protesters," I hear you cry?  What could they possibly be protesting about?  For those who have never attended a Congress (or Youth Day) this can be a bit of a shock.  It is, however, a fact of life in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, and if we believe in the First Amendment, we need to respect their right to say what they want as we gather on the "public" property that is the Anaheim Convention Center.

Having gone to Congress for some 30 years or more, I'm well familiar with these protesters.  They generally fall within two categories:  Catholic and non-Catholic.  The Catholic protesters are those who feel the need to express their opinions on various aspects of our Catholic lives, from going back to the Latin Mass to the ordination of women.  Most of these folks are non-confrontational, and while in some cases they can be a little misinformed, or misguided, on a certain level they do raise some questions we should be addressing as Church.  Contrary to popular opinion, there is a healthy history of debate within the Church, and it is a tradition we should continue to foster... to as St. Pope John XXIII suggested for the Second Vatican council, we need to "open the windows and let in some fresh air."  If their ideas have merit, they will work their way through the Magisterium.  We have to trust that the Holy Spirit will guide us.

The non-Catholic protesters are another thing.  Usually with large signs and bullhorns telling us, in short, that we Catholics are misguided and are going to hell.  While engaging them is a mistake (which I will get into in a moment), I was intrigued by one exchange I overheard while passing by.  The non-catholic protester was commenting about how Pope such-and-such (from the middle ages) had said such-and-such, which our protester considered to be heresy, explaining to their Catholic listener, that we Catholics needed to believe this heresy "because the pope said this, and the pope is always right."  I have to say... it took a group of angels to keep me from stopping from stepping in to make this a "catechetical moment."

Let's unpack this little encounter a bit.  First, by the protester saying that "the pope is always right," he was using "code" to refer to the Doctrine of Papal Infallibility... something any Protestant might take issue with.  Unfortunately not only are many Protestants misinformed about this doctrine, so are too many Catholics.  So let me be clear... not everything a pope has said is to be considered infallible.  Let me explain:

To fully understand the Doctrine of Papal Infallibility one only needs to do a little research.  While this doctrine followed on the tradition of the pope speaking ex cathedra (from the seat in Rome) for centuries, it wasn't formally defined until 1870 in one of the few documents promulgated from the First Vatican Council before it was forced to suspend activity due to the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War.

To be clear... not everything a pope says or has said is considered infallible.  This is important point, so let me repeat it... not everything a pope says or has said is considered infallible.   Many people, Catholic and non-catholic, being aware of this doctrine all too readily jump to the assumption that this is the case with everything a pope says and does.  This is not, and has never been the case.  If it were we would still believe that the Earth is the center of the solar system.  When the pope speaks infallibly, he has to first say so (the doctrine needs to be invoked) ... and he can only do so under certain circumstances.  These are all serious issues, and no pope want's to get this wrong, so when a pope does use this authority, he want's to make sure he's getting it right.  Please, do a little research to better understand this:

Which leads me to another very important point... never trust anyone who says "you Catholics believe (fill in the blank)..."  especially when that source is non-catholic.  Many in the media as well as most non-Catholics are all too quick to tell us what we Catholics "believe" or what is Catholic "dogma" or "doctrine" (there is a difference in these two, by the way...).   At best you're only getting a half-truth, and at worst you're getting utter hogwash.  Again... do your own research.  For clarification, talk with clergy, religious, or catechists.   While tools like Wikipedia are fairly reliable, make sure to seek legitimate Catholic resources for further study.

Which takes me to the issue of how to deal with these non-Catholic protesters.  The guys (and they're always guys) with the bullhorns and over-sized signs.  Whenever I see this (starting back in my college days at Cal Poly Pomona), I cannot help but to think of Matthew 6:5-8:

“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. 

But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you. 

In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words.

Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 

These protesters with their bullhorns... "they have already received their reward."  They have but one agenda... to hear themselves.  They are not interested in hearing your side of the story.  They are not interested in reason or logic, and are not open to alternative views.  They fail to follow Jesus' command of ephetha (that is, to be open) which we celebrate in the RCIA.  These people are trained to confront with the aim of conversion, or at best, to create confused discord.  Their literal interpretation of scripture leads to inconsistent half-truths that later require convoluted justifications that fit their own narrow understanding.  Not all of us are scripture scholars or theologians and they play on our insecurities and inexperience to bully us with their well-practiced script of opinion meant to push our buttons and make us feel stupid.  Is that how Jesus taught?  Of course not.

Engaging these types of protesters is a lose-lose proposition.  You will not win.  Their goal is to recruit you to their cause.  Their view, in their minds, is the only correct view and they're not open to any alternative viewpoint.  They're not interested in dialog.  They're not interested in debate.  Bottom line:  They're not worth your time.  Just keep walking.

Instead, we need to fully engage with the activities of the Congress.  Not just the workshops, but the Masses, the sacred space, the opportunities for prayer and confession.  To see the best our Catholic brothers and sisters have to offer us.  To celebrate our faith and to reflect the theme of Unbounded Mercy inspired by our Holy Father Pope Francis.  To ever grow in the Spirit and love.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

3rd Sunday of Lent - Cycle C

Repent and prepare the way of the Lord!  While we may recall these words as the cry of  John the Baptist announcing the coming of the Christ, we should not forget that these words have followed us since the dawn of creation all the way down to this very day.  God’s mercy is there waiting for all, but have we answered the call?

Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15
Psalm 103:1-2, 3-4, 6-7, 8, 9
1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12
Luke 13:1-9

Our readings during this Lent have reminded us of our Covenant relationship with God… answering God’s call to be his people.  Last week we heard the story of Abram, and this week we witness God’s call to the next great patriarch… Moses.  At this point in our narrative Moses has fled Egypt, and has been living in the land of Midian.  While tending the flock, Moses is drawn up the mountain of God by the burning bush.  There God makes himself known to Moses, and directs him to go to the Israelites held captive in Egypt.  This not only is a story of calling, but it is the defining act of mercy (freeing his people from slavery in Egypt) that demonstrates God’s love and commitment to those who follow him.  This is echoed in our Psalm as we sing, “the Lord is kind and merciful.”

Our second reading is from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  Using the Exodus story as an example, Paul is reminding the people of Corinth (and us) that we must remain diligent in our quest to follow Christ.  The journey of the Israelites in the Exodus was not without its troubles… times when the people didn’t trust in God, and the resulting chaos that resulted from that lack of trust.  Paul tells us that these events were written down as an example for us.  When our faith waivers, when we grumble against God, we face death and destruction.  We must take care not to fall.

This takes us to our Gospel from Luke.  Here some people have been telling Jesus about a group of Galileans who were slaughtered on the order of Pontius Pilate.  Their death was considered very dishonorable.  With this tragedy, and that of another recent tragedy (the collapse of a tower in Siloam), the people are upset.  When bad things happen, they think, it must be because they (or their family) had sinned against God.  First, Jesus puts them in their place by asking if the sin of those who were killed were any worse than anyone else (the implied answer, of course, is “no”).  Jesus then continues… while their sins were not any worse than anyone else’s, we all need to repent, least we all perish.  Jesus then gives us the Parable of the Fig Tree.  A person who had a fig tree complained to his gardener about how his tree has not produced any fruit for the past three years.  He orders the gardener to cut it down, because it’s clearly a wasting precious resources.  The gardener asks him to give it one more year.  He will cultivate it and care for it in the hopes his efforts will bear fruit, and if after that he is not successful, he will cut it down.  The parable is a reminder that God is always willing to give us a second chance… but it is also a reminder that we can’t take his mercy for granted.  We must also bear fruit.  The salvation of our very souls is dependent on our continued diligence to repent and bear fruit.

Final thoughts:
You may have heard that God’s love for us is “unconditional.”  I think we need to be careful with a phrase like that, because it can lead us into the false sense of entitlement.  We have to choose to be in relationship with God.  We have to want it.  God had a covenant with Abram.  God had a covenant with Moses.  Jesus gave us the new covenant.  A covenant relationship reminds me of my first business law class where we learned the basic elements of a contract:  Offer and Acceptance.  God offers his love to us, regardless of who we are or what we have done.  But how do we accept that love?  This is where the “performance clause” of our contract comes into play.  By our choosing to love God in return, we choose to form our actions in a similar manner.  As Jesus taught us:  Love God, and love your neighbor.  To “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  While God’s offer of love is unconditional, our response does have conditions.  And every now and then, as with our readings today, we need to review our own performance.  To repent.  To do better.  We are blessed with a God who believes in second chances, but as Jesus warns in our Gospel, we can’t be complacent..  That’s what Lent is all about… a chance to cultivate our fig tree so that it will bear fruit.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

2nd Sunday of Lent

Revelation and covenant.  These are two core elements of our faith.  Revelation in that God has “revealed” himself to us.  Covenant in that God seeks a continuing relationship with us.  Both these elements play an role in understanding our readings on this 2nd Sunday of Lent:

Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18
Psalm 27:1, 7-8, 8-9, 13-14
Philippians 3:17-4:1
Luke 9:28b-36

Our first reading is from the book of Genesis.  Here we witness the second covenant with Abram.  In the story of Abram (who is later named Abraham), there are three “covenant” moments.  The first, when God promises Abram that he will make from him a “great nation” with many decedents.  Our passage for Sunday reminds us of that moment in it’s opening lines.  From there we witness God’s second great promise to Abram… the gift of the land (what Moses would refer to as “the promised land).  To commemorate this moment, Abram prepares a sacrifice.  He spends the day protecting the sacrifice from scavengers but when night falls, he sees a faming torch pass between the carcasses… a sign that God has accepted his sacrifice, and in essence, “signed” the covenant.  Abram was able to make this covenant because of the trust he had developed in the Lord… a trust that is echoed in our Psalm when we sing “The Lord is my light and my salvation.”

Our second reading comes from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  How does one live as a Christian?  This is the question Paul is addressing with the community in Philippi.  As a basic premise, he tells them to follow the example of himself and the other Apostles.  He continues by telling them not to focus on earthly desires, but instead on higher ideals.  This revelation forms the basis of their salvation, to stay true to their faith, their covenant in Christ.

Our Gospel for this Sunday gives us Luke’s version of the Transfiguration.  Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain to pray, and during their prayer they witness Jesus transfigured… his face changed and his clothes a dazzling white.  During this time they see him conversing with Moses and Elijah.  The Apostles are amazed… dumb-struck.  They see this as a good thing, but don’t quite know what to make of it.  A cloud comes to surround them and they hear a Heavenly voice, “This is my chosen Son;  listen to him.”  This moment of the Transfiguration is considered by Christian scholars to be the establishment of the “new covenant,” linking the old  (Moses and Elijah) with the new (Jesus), with the affirmation of the Father. 

Final thoughts:
How do we see God?  In our humanity, we might find him distant, ethereal, even perhaps just theoretical construct to explain the unexplainable.  Our readings for this week, however, remind us that God not only has revealed himself to us, but actively seeks to be in relationship with us.  And not with just his prophets, not just with Jesus and the Apostles, but with all of us.  The beauty of our Gospel this Sunday is not so much the Transfiguration of Jesus, but that through Peter, James, and John, we were witness to it.  And through their witness, we continue to realize that transfiguration, that call to covenant, each time we gather to celebrate the Mass, each time we pray, each time we reach out with the love and trust that the Lord is our light and salvation.  Today and every day.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

1st Sunday of Lent

With Ash Wednesday we begin our 40-day journey through the Season of Lent.  While this is an important time for all Catholics, it is particularly important for those adults preparing to receive their Sacraments.  During this time we focus on our final preparations to receive those Sacraments.  Like Jesus in the desert, we use this time to deepen our faith through prayer, fasting, and alms-giving… a faith that reminds us that even with our flaws, we are chosen by God.

Deuteronomy 26:4-10
Psalm 91:1-2, 10-11, 12-13, 14-15
Romans 10:8-13
Luke 4:1-13

Our first reading is from the book of Deuteronomy.  Here we see Moses preparing the people of Israel to enter the promised land.  He tells them to prepare a sacrifice, and as they are presenting it, remind themselves of where they came from… the ancestors of Abraham (My father was a wandering Aramean), the rescued slaves of Egypt, brought out by the God who has given them everything.  Our Psalm reinforces our covenant relationship with God as we sing, “Be with me, Lord, when I am in trouble.”  We can be assured of God’s protection.

When we step away from Ordinary Time, our second reading is intended to be complementary to our first reading and our Gospel.  This week our second reading comes to us from Paul’s letter to the Romans.  While our first readings reminded us of the covenants made with Abraham and Moses, Paul is giving us an understanding of the New Covenant.  He starts by reminding us what Scripture says, and that this is the word of faith that we preach.  Further, it is our faith in Jesus that will save us, regardless of our origin (Jew or Greek).  “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Our Gospel from Luke also uses Scripture to make it’s point.  Here we have the story of Jesus being tempted by the devil.  After his Baptism, Scripture tells us Jesus went into the desert for 40 days, and during this time, he was challenged by the devil on three different occasions.  During the first two encounters, Jesus uses Scripture as a way to deflect the devil’s challenge.  On their third encounter, the devil sees this trend and uses Scripture himself against Jesus, only to have that challenge deflected yet again by Scripture.

Final Thoughts:
The use of these three readings gives us some powerful support as we begin our Lenten journey.  Our first reading reminds us who we are… the chosen people of God.  Our Psalm reminds us who our protector is… the God who is our refuge.  Our second reading reminds us how we can be saved… through our faith in God.  And our Gospel reminds us that it is this very faith in God that protects us from any challenge the devil may put before us.  Lent is a time where we explore our relationship with God.  His love and protection have been promised and is freely given.  But all relationships are a two-way street.  God also gave us free will.  Are we going to answer God’s call or are we going to just let it go to voicemail?  Or are we going to just refuse the call.  How will you respond?

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

5th Sunday of Ordinary Time

During these past few weeks of Ordinary Time our readings have given us various stories of a “call to mission.”  Our readings for this last Sunday before Lent continues that theme…

Isaiah 6:1-2a, 3-8
Psalm 138:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 7-8
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Luke 5:1-11

Our first reading is from the book of the prophet Isaiah.  Most of the stories of the prophets begin, quite logically, with the story of their calling.  The book on Isaiah, however, follows a slightly different construct.  It opens with his great oracle of indictment against the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah.  This continues for the first 5 chapters.  Then when we get to Chapter 6, we go from oratory to narrative history.  This is where we begin our first reading, with the story of Isaiah’s calling.  That story is presented as a vision where Isaiah sees the Lord sitting on a great throne in the Temple.  Isaiah feels he is unworthy, but one of the seraphim (a class of angels) sees this and purifies his lips, purging his sins.  Then he hears the Lord calling for someone to send to his people, Isaiah replies, “Send me!”  Our Psalm mirrors this vision when we sing “In the sight of angels I will sing your praises, Lord.”  The power of the Lord has cleansed his sins, and like a baptism, is like a new creation ready to speak the word of the Lord.

Our Gospel from Luke picks up shortly after our story from last week (where Jesus is rejected in Nazareth).  He’s back on the road, heading back to Capernaum, where he meets up with Simon, along with his fishing partners James and John.  Jesus has attracted a crowd, so he asks Simon to take him out in the boat a short distance from shore.  When he finishes teaching, he then tells Simon to pull out to the deep water and cast his nets.  Simon is reluctant, having already spent the day fishing only to get nothing, but he signals his partners and together they haul in two boatloads of fish.  Simon and the others are amazed, and Jesus invites them to join him and become “fishers of men.”

Our second reading concludes our study of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, appropriately with the beginning of his closing narrative.  As is typical of his letters, he begins his conclusion with a recap of what he has taught and shown them.  By restating what he has taught them, we are reminded of the basic tenants of our faith… establishing our faith tradition, if you will, by reminding us that Christ died for our sins, was buried, rose again, a evidenced by those who saw him.  This is our tradition.  This is our story, passed from the Apostles and the evangelists, through countless generations, to us here today.  We all have the opportunity for salvation through Christ.  If this passage sounds familiar, it should… because we profess these same words in our Creed at most every Mass.  This is what we’ve been told.  This is what we believe.  This is what we pass on.

Final Thoughts:
As we listen to these stories of prophets, apostles, and even Jesus himself being called to serve the Lord, we sometimes walk away thinking that these were all extraordinary people, and that we could never live up to that calling.  If that’s what we feel, however, we’ve misinterpreted the message.  All these people, from Isaiah, to Paul, to even Jesus himself, felt unworthy at the start.  We are all called by God.  Sometimes in extraordinary ways, and sometimes in just ordinary ways.  But never doubt that what brings you to formation, what brings you to know God better, is his voice calling to you.  My advice… answer the call.