Tuesday, September 27, 2016

27th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Patience.  It’s a quality that many people have lost in our world of instant gratification.  Items can be purchased on Amazon and delivered the same day.  Not only have we eliminated that whole strolling through the mall way of shopping, but we’re even eliminating that bothersome next day delivery… because waiting even a day would be just too long.  Studies have shown that we even take for granted that knowledge itself can be instantaneous through our  mobile devices, so much so that our minds are no longer exercised enough to be able to store that knowledge in our long term memory.  Our readings this week, however, tell us a different story… that good things will come but not as soon as we would like:

Habakkuk 1:2-3; 2:2-4
Psalm 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9
2 Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14
Luke 17:5-10

Our first reading is from the book of the prophet Habakkuk.  A minor prophet from whom we only hear from this once in the full three year cycle of the Sunday Lectionary.  Still, his prophecy should give us pause.  Like Amos from 140 some years before, Habakkuk is preaching a warning of destruction that should not be ignored.  Why?  As it turns out, the “ruin of Joseph” we heard from Amos last week has came to pass.  The Northern Kingdom of Israel has fallen to the Assyrians, and now Habakkuk is warning about the pending destruction of Judah… and with good cause, because King Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian forces are on Judah’s doorstep.  But even though he can’t shake this vision of “violence,” he also sees that this vision too will pass, and that the Lord will not disappoint.  Our Psalm echoes Habakkuk’s feelings when we sing “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”  We may be despondent over the current situation, but with faith the Lord will see us through to better things.

Our second reading takes us to the beginning of Paul’s second letter to Timothy.  While the first letter to Timothy recognized him as “a man of God,” this second letter confirms his ordination to the priesthood when we read Paul’s exhortation to “stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.”  The imposition of hands being the Sacramental sign for Holy Orders.  While Paul is teaching Timothy that he can find strength from the Holy Spirit in this calling, it also reminds us that we too can turn to the Holy Spirit for the strength to follow Christ.

Our Gospel from Luke continues close to where we left off last week.  The Apostles are concerned that they don’t have what it takes to live up to their mission.  They ask Jesus to “Increase our faith,” as if that would make their work easier.  Jesus knows it would not, and gives us another story unique to Luke’s Gospel, the Parable of the Master and the Servant.  In other words, just because they were chosen by Jesus himself, they should not expect special treatment.  Their mission is to serve, not to be served, and it is a task they need to undertake with humility.  They have been called to serve, and like Habakkuk and Timothy, and even our new St. Theresa of Calcutta, they found strength through fulfilling their duty.

Final thoughts:
Take a look around the next time you’re standing in line for something.  What do you see… chances are most everyone is looking down at some mobile device… that is, if you’re not too busy looking down at your own.  We are addicted to the “now.”  Instant information, instant notification.  I can’t call it “communication” because that would imply a thought process that generally is not applied in these cases… no contemplation, no consideration, no filters… just blurting out what comes to mind so others can blurt out a response.  It’s social Armageddon!

We want what we want and we want it now.  In many ways our great society has regressed to the tantrums of a two-year-old.  But that’s not how great societies work.  That’s not how Church works.  Great societies know that it takes education, apprenticeship and hard work to build and maintain a life.  Church teaches that the prize of eternal life comes only after a life of service.  In both scenarios there is likely to be suffering and hardship, but the faith and love of others can pull us through.  We need to reconnect with the ancient wisdom that teaches that patience is a virtue.  It’s not always about the destination but the journey.  Moreover, reminding ourselves to not keep our heads buried in the sand of our mobile devices, but that we need to look up and experience the journey.

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Challenges of Translating the Word...

One of the gifts of our Archdiocese is our weekly news magazine the Angelus (formerly the Tidings).  In it you will find contributing columnist Fr. Ron Rolheiser weekly musings on an array of topics.  His column for this week, From Paranoia to Metanoia, is definitely worth taking a moment to read. 

Last week we spent some time talking about why there are so many different versions of the Bible, and why we are constantly revisiting our translations of these ancient texts.  As we discussed, language evolves, so if these ancient texts are to remain relevant, or even understandable, we need to occasionally revisit them to make sure they are staying true to the intent of their ancient authors.

One of the problems with translations from one language to another, however, is that there isn't always one word or phrase that easily matches the original.  A classic example, especially for scripture, is the word "love."  The ancient Greeks had at least five different words (philia, eros, agape, storge, and xenia) that we routinely translate into "love."  Not only do we need to recognize that our modern understanding of "love" can have multiple meanings, we also need to know which meaning best suits a particular scripture passage.  Thank God for footnotes!

I bring this up because Fr. Rolheiser's article focuses on the word "metanoia."  Now if you're like me, this is a word that doesn't likely fall into your daily vocabulary.  Thankfully, Fr. Rolheiser explains in his column.  In the synoptic gospels, we hear both John the Baptist and Jesus say "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."  Only they didn't use the word "repent."  The ancient Greek text uses the word "metanoia," which more accurately translates "being of higher mind,"  or more colloquially, "rising above it all."

Does that mean that the word "repent" is a bad translation?  Not exactly.  In fact, at worst, it's only an incomplete translation.  In order to "repent" one must be able to both seek and offer forgiveness:  "as we forgive those who trespass against us."  The idea that we need to let go of the baggage that holds us back.  To be the big man and know when to admit we made a mistake, or are ready to take action to be better. 

So take a moment to read this week's column from Fr. Rolheiser and find metanoia.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Marriage and Confirmation... so misunderstood!

It never fails... As Director of Adult Faith Formation and RCIA, every year I can count on getting at least several telephone calls, or have at least 2 or 3 interviews with couples who are looking to get married in the Church.  Why are that calling me?  Because one of them hasn't received their Confirmation or is not Catholic, and because the priest they're working with has told them that they needed to take care of this before they could get married

Pardon me, that's just bull!

There is a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation that couples have when it comes to this issue, and unfortunately much of that comes from some of our own priests.  Now don't get me wrong... I know quite a number of priests who do know how to address these situation (I've never had to deal with this problem with my pastor nor the other priests in my parish), but when a couple comes to me during an already anxious time to tell me their priest said they needed to do this, it tells me there's a severe lack of catechesis going on in our marriage preparation circles.  Further, it causes me great concern that some of our ordained ministers (of which I am not) are not better trained in these issues than I am.  Though to be fair to our priests and deacons, there are some couples who just assume this will be a problem before even talking with a priest (usually because they thought this was an issue, or someone in the family told them that this is what was needed).

I have two major problems:
First is a practical issue... that they are not being catechized as to the requirements for getting married in the Church.

Second is a pastoral issue... that by connecting Confirmation or Initiation with marriage, they are lessening the individual grace of these individual Sacraments.  Allow me to explain:

The practical issue:
First to the practical issue.  And let me be very clear on this.  Both parties do not need to be Confirmed Catholics to get married in the Church.  Let me say that again... both parties do NOT need to be fully  initiated in the Church in order to get married in the Church.  As long as one of them is a Confirmed Catholic, they can get married in the Church.  The wedding does not need to be cancelled because one of them hasn't been Confirmed or is hasn't yet completed the RCIA process.

So called "mixed marriages" (where one is Catholic and one is not) have been witnessed and approved by the Church for centuries.  And when the technically "non-Catholic" or "non-Confirmed Catholic" seeks to marry a fully initiated Catholic, there is some additional paperwork and permissions to deal with, but it doesn't stop the wedding.  In fact, if the non-Catholic/non-Confirmed party is in the process of formation or sacramental preparation, there are provisions where the presiding priest can allow them to participate more fully in the Mass.

Yes, it is a lot less hassle when both parties are fully Confirmed Catholics.  And yes, I believe it does make for a much stronger marriage when both parties can share in the same faith tradition, but the fact remains that a Church wedding isn't out of the question should one of them not be Confirmed or fully Initiated... and the priests who are counseling these couples need to set the record straight.

The pastoral issue:
And that takes me to the second issue... the pastoral problem with connecting Initiation or Confirmation with Marriage.  As I said, I do believe that a marriage can be made stronger when both parties share the same faith tradition.  But I have to be honest, I also believe that the decision to become Catholic, or to receive Confirmation, needs to be considered independently of their desire to be married in the Church.  By linking the two, they are blurring the lines between the unique journey of Confirmation and Initiation with the other unique journey of getting married.

The journey toward full Initiation in the Church, whether through the RCIA process, preparing for the Profession of Faith, or preparing for Confirmation, is a unique and personal one.  This individual has stood up and said "I want to be Catholic."  They have made a decision to join the Church (or fully embrace their faith through Confirmation).  That needs to be an individual experience, a personal choice that isn't burdened by any other external forces (like saying you need to do this in order to get married).  As we know, the first requirement for any Sacrament is that you are there of your own free will.  By insisting these Sacraments be administered as a requirement for marriage (without any other counseling and catechesis), I believe, calls that freedom into question.

I always council couples in this situation to recognize that regardless of what happens to this marriage, the non-Catholic/non-Confirmed party is still going to be Catholic.  It would be naive to ignore the fact that 45% of Catholic marriages in the US still fail.  Should something happen to that marriage (God forbid), that other party is still going to be a member of the Church.  I have to ask, is that what you want?  Outside of this pending marriage, is this what you want?  Remember, we need to be taking on this invitation to join the Church of our own free will.  How much free will is involved if your fiancee and their priest is telling you that you need to do this?

Similarly, the journey towards the Sacrament of Marriage needs to be seen as its own unique experience.  It's a special time in a couple's life, with much planning and consideration.  You want to make sure that they are being properly formed in the vocation of marriage, and that they can work through this formation and preparation process without the burden of having to deal with one of the parties making sure they get Confirmed or Initiated before the wedding.

Marriage is a tough enough business.  So is becoming Catholic.  Let's not diminish the importance of each of these journeys by making Confirmation or Initiation one more "check-box" on wedding preparation.  More often than not, I council couples to not worry about the date of Confirmation or Initiation... celebrate that Sacrament fully when you are ready.  And by the way, celebrate it fully.  To not do so diminishes all those others who seek to join the Church without the consideration of marriage.

Example to consider:
I'd like to share the story of one particular couple who came to me.  She was Catholic, he was not.  They were engaged and the wedding was a year away.  They hadn't yet talked to a priest (because most parishes say you need to see them at least 6 months ahead of time), but they were talking with me because they had believed he needed to become a Catholic before they could get married, and that this should only take about year to get done.

OK... two problems here:  First, just because most parishes say they need at least six months notice for weddings, doesn't mean you have to wait until the 6 month mark to talk with them.  In fact, most parishes and priests enjoy the opportunity to work with couples who are thinking a year ahead of time.  That much more time for preparation.  That much better opportunity that you can book the date you want.  If you know you want to get married in the Church, step number one should always be having a meeting with your parish priest even if the wedding is more than 6 months away.  Six months is a minimum... not a maximum.

The other problem was that they were assuming the RCIA process would take less than a year.  While that may have been a safe assumption years ago, that's not necessarily the case today, especially for those parishes (like ours) that have embraced the recommended "two year" process (with spending a full Liturgical year in the Catechuminate).  While there may be situations where we can shorten that process, especially for those who have been well catechized, that was not the case here.  We were starting at ground zero.

After talking with them they went and talked with their priest, who told them exactly what I had told them.  They could proceed with the wedding as planned, and in the meantime he could start the RCIA process.

So he began the process, and though he opted to have someone else be his sponsor, his fiancee still attended the sessions along side him.  After several months it was time to evaluate his progress (I like to have discernment interviews at least twice a year).  He was making progress, but it was pretty clear that it would be a disservice to have him go through initiation at the Easter Vigil before his wedding later that spring.  He had come a long way, but clearly he would benefit by spending the full year in the Catechuminate.  It's a decision that we work out together, and though he wasn't initially pleased with the idea that it would take another year, he was able to focus his efforts on his upcoming wedding, while continuing with his journey through the RCIA.

The wedding went off well, and after some time off for their honeymoon they came back to the RCIA, dare I say, somewhat more relaxed and invigorated.  The instructions in the RCIA tell us we need to look for "signs of conversion."  With the stress of the wedding behind him, I could genuinely see this young man embracing more fully the Christian life, and for the months leading up to the Easter Vigil, I could see him changing, embracing the Catholic life not necessarily because his wife wanted him to become a Catholic, but because he wanted to become a Catholic.

It was a joyous Easter Vigil that year, ahead of their first anniversary, they were able to celebrate fully his Baptism and full Initiation.  He later confided in me that he wasn't initially happy with the decision to wait on his Initiation, but now, after having been through the full process, he felt it was the right decision, and he did in fact appreciate taking the time through the extended process, making the moment of his Initiation that much more special.

So pastors... PLEASE take the time to council couples and your communities about the requirements for marriage in the Church.  Help us all address the misinformation that is out there so we can better serve each other.

And couples... PLEASE discuss with each other the state of your membership in the Church BEFORE you talk with a priest.  If one of you is not Confirmed, or not fully Initiated, talk about it.  Make sure that this is a path you want to seek, separate and outside of your desire to get married.  Don't do it, or get talked into it JUST because your getting married.  Yes, as couple, as we say in the Rite of Marriage, two become one.  Well, start practicing this by having the conversation.  And don't wait until the six-month mark to talk with a priest.  The sooner you do this the better!

All our sacraments are special and unique, each deserving of careful preparation.   Let's treat each of these Baptism/Confirmation/Marriage with equal dignity so that we don't diminish the importance of these very individual journeys.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Captain's Log, supplemental: Vanity of vanities...

Our daily readings for today (22 September, Thursday of the 25th Week of Ordinary Time) open with the famous opening to the book of Ecclesiastes: 

  Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,
  vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!

If this sounds familiar, it should... it was the opening passage for our readings back on July 31st (the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time).

I don't normally comment on the daily readings, but this morning my wife, who follows the daily meditations from Give Us This Day  thought I would be interested in their commentary for today's first reading.  In it, the author noted how we are more likely to scramble for money tossed on the ground than we are to scramble for the gift of eternal life.  Going to extraordinary effort to grab at the shiny thing in front of us, instead of looking to things that are more important.  Spending our time with Twitter and Facebook instead of reading a book.  Investing in Lotto tickets instead of a savings account.  Fighting over that item on sale on Black Friday instead of pausing to ask yourself if you even need it in the first place.  It was an excellent commentary, so relevant to our times... yet written in the 12th century CE.  It was a stinging indictment of a society obsessed with the here-and-now while being oblivious to the even greater riches that could be theirs in the Kingdom of Heaven.

When it comes to Bible, or as also in this case, Medieval commentaries on the Bible, I hear a lot of voices dismissing them because they don't find them relevant to our times.  Guess what... look again.  For all the advancement and knowledge that we've gained, not only since this commentary was written but since the book of Ecclesiastes was written, we still have much to learn.

We, as a people and a society, tend to get too distracted by what's being thrown in front of us.  We can spend copious amounts of time and effort on things, that at the end of the day, don't really mean anything.  Don't advance our lives.  Don't make our lives better for the long term.

When discussing this commentary this morning, I also likened it to a football game ('tis the season, after all).  Football, the connoisseurs will tell you, is a game of inches.  Just like life.  You tackle the problem that's right in front of you and move on to the next.  Good advice, and it made for a very inspiring speech in the film On Any Given Sunday, but here's the thing... this vision is incomplete.  What's the goal?  Yes, each play you make, each yard you gain, is important, but you also have to consider "the long game."  The bigger picture.  It doesn't matter what sport... Football, baseball, chess.  Sometimes a sacrifice is acceptable or even needed if it gives you an advantage later in the game.  In the business world we call it sacrificing short term profits for long term gains. 

Fighting for every inch is important, but if you don't stop and consider the bigger picture, the importance of the end result, you could find yourself marching down the field in the wrong direction.  And sometimes when the ground game isn't working,  you need to put the ball in the air.  Take a risk.  They don't call it a "hail Mary" pass for nothing.

Much of the book of Ecclesiastes is intent on reminding us not to get distracted with the mundane or pointless because it will lead us nowhere.  The word "vanity" is translated from the Hebrew hebel, which is defined as a sense of “emptiness, futility, absurdity.”  Are we spending our lives on hebel, or are we spending them advancing toward our goals?  Are we keeping our eyes on the prize of eternal life?  But even worse... are we even looking?

All too often we avoid looking at the big picture.  Eternal life.  That's so big.  That's so far away.  I'm so busy I can't even begin to think about that right now.  I hear it all the time... and not just about eternal life, but about life in general.  Unfortunately, that type of denial can also lead us astray, both spiritually and physically.  We need to find the strength, with the help of friends, family, and the Holy Spirit, to pause and look at the bigger picture.  Only then can we be sure that the steps of our daily lives are moving us to that eternal goal.  And all else is hebel.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

26th Sunday of Ordinary Time

What is Social Justice?  Our readings last week gave us a basic understanding, first with a warning about our fate based on how we treat others, especially the poor.  Not only will the Lord remember how we treat the poor, but in our Gospel he reminded us that we must be honest stewards, both of others and the message of the Gospel.  This week our readings give us a warning of what will become of us should we not heed the cry of those in need:

Amos 6:1a, 4-7
Psalm 146:7, 8-9, 9-10
1 Timothy 6:11-16
Luke 16:19-31

We open with another passage from Amos, our fiery Southern prophet giving a warning to those who have become complacent.  The imagery Amos uses speaks of excessive wealth, and while taking a jab at David, foretells of what will happen (and did happen) if they don’t change their ways.  It is a stinging indictment that is very much relevant today as we see an increasing disparity between rich and poor in our contemporary world.

Our second reading, continuing our study of the Pauline letters to Timothy.  From the closing passages of his first letter to Timothy, he urges him, and us, to “compete well for the faith.”.  Though not directly related to our readings on Justice, its core message of remaining vigilant to the cause of the Gospel serves as a reminder that we must never cease in our efforts to bring justice to the poor and those in need.  It also reminds us that we too must be prophets, and in the vein of Amos and Jesus, call out what we see as injustice in our society.

Our gospel continues from where we left off last week, and like last week, Jesus gives us another parable that is unique to Luke’s Gospel.  To better set the stage, first let’s remember where we are:  Jesus, still on his travels to Jerusalem, is seen by a group of Pharisees as he is conversing with a group of “tax collectors and sinners.”  The Pharisees complained about this, so Jesus, speaking to the Pharisees, gave us the parables we heard two weeks ago (the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Lost – prodigal – Son).  Then, continuing then from last week’s Gospel, Jesus turned to his disciples and gave us the parable of the Dishonest Steward, a story pointed squarely at the Pharisees who were listening.

Directly following last week’s Gospel passage the text continues,  saying, “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all these things and sneered at him.  And he said to them, ‘You justify yourselves in the sight of others, but God knows your hearts; for what is of human esteem is an abomination in the sight of God.’”  To reinforce his point, he gives us this week’s passage, the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.  This parable, unique in its personalization of the poor man, is both intimate in its telling and thick with meaning.  Using a familiar story telling devices (not unlike that used in A Christmas Carole and It’s A Wonderful Life) we are shown a future that can be avoided if we heed the moral of the story… that we need to follow what Moses, the Prophets, and Jesus have been telling us… “whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for Me.”

Final thoughts:
“Dogs even used to come and lick his sores.”  This line from our Gospel is very telling.  For anyone who owns a dog, or has had a dog, knows this to be true.  At their core their primary concern is for the members of their pack, especially those whom they see as higher in rank.  Here Jesus puts a dog in his parable to the Pharisees to serve as one more barb to skewer their lack of action on those things that should concern them the most.  The Pharisees, after all, set themselves apart as paragons of faith and virtue, so Jesus has no problem pointedly acknowledging that in this case, even a dog has more concern for Lazarus than they do.  But what of God’s mercy, you ask (especially in this Jubilee Year of Mercy).  Jesus is quite clear:  “You have Moses and the prophets.”  In other words.  You’ve been told – over and over again – what is expected of those who follow the Lord.  Further, you know better, yet you still ignore the needy around you.  Actions speak louder than words.  In this case, we should forget what the Pharisees have to say, and listen to the dog.

Blast from the past... but still all to relevant...

Three years ago, while preparing for our Adult Formation session on the 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time, I stumbled across this article that was published in the Long Beach Press-Telegram:  Long Beach Private Jet Firm Fields Strange Requests from High Flying Clients

Take a moment and read this article... then come back here...

After reading this article, the spirit of Amos so seized me that I was compelled to write the following supplemental commentary.  I wanted to share it with you here because I fear we're still not listening to the warnings of this important prophet:

Originally sent 24 Sep 2016:

Preparing people to become Catholic through the RCIA process is a challenging task.  Week after week we cover topics that the Church considers important to your formation in the faith, but the reality is that we could never possibly cover everything.  It's a classic case of, "the more you learn, the more you realize how much you don't know."  The best the RCIA can do is to give you a solid introduction while also giving you the tools you will need for life-long learning and spiritual growth.

Deciding which topics are "important" is always a challenging task, and as is the case with everything, context and situational awareness helps us to see what our readings are trying to teach us so we can apply those lessons to our daily lives.  In reading this morning's Long Beach PressTelegram, I found this article which I think you all need to read:

While this article was meant to be a light-hearted piece, part of a series of articles exposing readers to some of the more unusual jobs some people have,  all I could hear was the prophet Amos screaming in my ear from this week's readings:
...Woe to the complacent in Zion!
Lying upon beds of ivory,
stretched comfortably on their couches,...

Clearly the clientele of this small airline are somewhat particular... and why shouldn't they be, they're paying for it, right?  They just want what they want.  At the same time, however, I have to ask, at what point are they being totally unreasonable?  At what point do these people cease to be human beings contributing to the common good, and become as Amos would say, the complacent of Zion... those who anoint themselves with the best oils; yet they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph!

When discussing the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures it's all too easy to for us to dismiss what they're saying as not being relevant to our lives and times.  Yet we forget that the very reason these writings are still around some 3000 years later is because they remain completely relevant.  Amos wasn't thinking about 21st Century Long Beach when he was preaching... he was reacting to what he saw around him in 7th Century Judah.  As it turns out, however, Amos was proved right when Jerusalem was destroyed in 587 BCE and those same complacent ones were killed or sent into exile in Babylon.  Similarly, Amos was proved right again when the Babylonian Empire fell... when the Greek Empire fell... when the Roman Empire fell...

The voice of Amos is still crying out from the grave as we look at our society today.  Are we listening?

Please take a moment to review the readings for this week, as well as this article.  It should make for some interesting discussion during our session.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

25th Sunday of Ordinary Time

At the heart of the Mosaic Law is this idea that we, the people of God, need to protect those who are in need:  The poor.  Widows.  Orphans.  Foreigners.  Those individuals who traditionally have no rights under the Law because they have no property.  God not only taught that we needed to love our neighbor, but that we need to go out of our way to make sure even those who have the least are loved and protected.

Amos 8:4-7
Psalm 113:1-2, 4-6, 7-8
1 Timothy 2:1-8
Luke 16:1-13 (or 16:10-13)

We open with a reading from the prophet Amos… and if there ever were an example of fiery prophetic rage and divine justice, it’s Amos.  A Southern prophet during the height of the Jewish kingdoms (some 150 years before the Exile), Amos is a shepherd by trade but was called, somewhat reluctantly by God, to the life of a prophet to rail against the injustice and hypocrisy he saw all around him.  Our passage this week is thick with meaning, and if not read or proclaimed correctly, can cause us to misunderstand its meaning.  This is a classic rant he’s giving to the rich (“…you who trample upon the needy…”), warning them of their day of reckoning.  But this warning is only the frame of a complex passage.  In between his condemnations, at the heart of the passage, Amos isn’t prophesying, he’s quoting the minds of the rich men bent on oppressing the poor.  When we recognize this pattern it’s easier to understand the passage.  This is not contemplative reading, but rather a fiery sermon that needs to be read aloud.  Our Psalm serves as a battle cry to our reading from Amos when we sing, “Praise the Lord who lifts up the poor.”

Our second reading, continues our study of the Pauline letters to Timothy.  Though our passage wasn’t necessarily chosen to fit with our other readings, it’s not entirely out of place.  Here we are taught that we must pray for our leaders and everyone else, not just those in the community of believers.  It is easy for us to be sensitive to the needs of our own Christian communities, but if we’re not considerate of those in civil authority, or our neighbors who are not believers, it’s easy for us to fall into an “us” and “them” mentality.  Our passage reminds us that justice is for all, and we pray our secular leadership sees this need.

Our Gospel this week is another story unique to Luke, but like our first reading, can be difficult to follow if we don’t unpack it.  In the Parable of the Unjust Stewart, it would seem on the surface that Jesus is praising the steward for his guile in managing his final affairs, but like Amos, Jesus is actually condemning him.  Take a moment to read it through slowly.  Though the master in the story appears to admire the steward’s misdirected abilities, Jesus condemns him nonetheless.  And with that condemnation comes a warning… that we cannot serve both God and mammon (wealth).

But we need to be careful here if we are to understand the parable’s true meaning.  Understanding “mammon” as “wealth” or “money” could lead us to believe that money itself is bad, and that the wealthy are inherently evil.  That would be a misinterpretation.  We Catholics don’t believe that money itself is bad.  It’s a necessary tool that allows our economies to operate, and we as Church must deal with it and use it if we are to survive as an institution.  Similarly, we Catholics don’t necessarily see wealth as inherently bad, nor see the wealthy as inherently evil.  Instead the focus needs to be on the action, not the substance.  Follow:  If a person should become wealthy by cheating people out of their money, that would be bad.  If, on the other hand, a person becomes wealthy by providing a good or service that is genuinely desired for a fair price, how can we consider that bad?  It’s not the wealth itself that is bad, it’s how that wealth is gained and how it is used.

Most importantly, however, is the focus of our endeavor… that is the final lesson of the parable.  Is our focus on serving God or on the pursuit of wealth?  One is selfless, the other selfish.  Living one’s life in the service of the Lord is by its nature, selfless.  Looking to the needs of others before your own.  Living one’s life in the pursuit of wealth, however, is by its nature, selfish.  Looking to the needs of your own pursuits instead of looking out for the needs of others, because invariably, the needs of others fall secondary to the continued pursuit of wealth and profits.

Final thoughts:
When we Catholics talk about Social Justice, we have a tendency to think of it as someone else’s job.  “That needs to go to the parish social justice committee.”  “That’s the job of Catholic Relief Services or Catholic Charities.”  We have a habit of “pigeonholing” the various aspects of our Christian lives based on the directories listed in our church bulletins.  Social Justice?  “We have a committee for that.”  But what we fail to realize is that social justice is at the core of our faith. 

Jesus taught that we must love God and love our neighbor.  I think we do a pretty good job of “loving God,” especially through our prayer and our Liturgy.  But loving our neighbor?  That’s harder.  That’s dirtier.  Especially if they don’t look like us or talk like us.  But if we claim the title of “Christian,” we need to find a way to incorporate our understanding of social justice into our daily lives.  Do we treat everyone with dignity and respect?  Are we courteous to those who serve us?  And how do we treat those whom we feel may have wronged us, no matter how slight?  These are the daily challenges we face.  This isn’t the job of the social justice committee or some other organization.  It’s our job, and it all begins with how we treat others, everyday.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

24th Sunday of Ordinary Time

As we continue through this Jubilee Year of Mercy we must never underestimate the power and importance of forgiveness.  But forgiveness is a two-way street:  We must seek it for ourselves and offer it to others.  Our readings for this Sunday highlight some of the best examples of forgiveness that we are meant to emulate:

Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14
Psalm 51:3-4, 12-13, 17, 19
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-32 (or 15:1-10)

Our first reading from the book of Exodus has God is extremely angry at the Israelites, who have turned their back to him by worshiping a golden calf.  Moses, however, using God’s own words in his argument, is able to talk him down, revealing God’s ever-present offer of forgiveness.  God relents from destroying the Israelites, showing us that a God who can wield great power can also show great mercy.  This is the God who protects us, even though we may stray… all we need to do is ask, as we hear in our Psalm as we sing, “I will rise and go to my father.  Have mercy on me, O God.”

Our second reading begins our seven week study of Paul’s letters to Timothy.  While many of Paul’s letters are addressed to entire communities, the letters to Timothy are personal, like a mentor to his student.  In this week’s passage from the opening of the first letter, Paul holds up his own weaknesses as example of God’s forgiveness.  You may recall that Paul himself a devout Jew, fought vigorously against the Christian movement until he had an encounter with the risen Jesus… and if this encounter could change a man like him for the better, then how much easier it would be for others.

Continuing our theme of forgiveness, we turn to our Gospel from Luke, where we are given three parables.  In the opening verses we are given the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin.  Both of these show us the great length we take to find something that is lost, and the rejoicing that follows when it is found.  As it turns out, these were just the warm-up acts, and give added depth to the third parable, that of the prodigal son.  This is perhaps one of the most remembered and beloved parables, and is a unique gift from Luke’s Gospel.  One reason this particular sticks with us so strongly is because most of us can see ourselves in one or more of the characters in the story.  When we are younger, we often relate to the character of one of the sons, especially if we come from a family with siblings.  As a parent, we can begin to understand the character of the father.  But regardless of who you connect with, we are still awestruck the father’s willingness and desire to forgive his son.  This is the forgiveness God has to offer… a forgiveness and mercy we can all share if we but ask.

Final thoughts:
“And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  These lines from the Lord’s Prayer, for me, are some of the most profound in all of scripture.  They define not only the nature of God, but they establish for us the ethic which binds us to God.  It teaches us that God’s forgiveness is there for the asking… but as with everything, there is a price.  What is that price?  That we must do the same… to others.  Only through humility can we recognize and approach God for forgiveness.  But it is also that same humility that we must call on to be able to offer that same forgiveness to others.  One must follow the other.  We all make mistakes, some bigger than others.  It’s part of our human condition, and an integral part of the learning process.  But if we are to grow, we need to learn those failures and move on.  If we fail to practice forgiveness, we accumulate baggage that can only weigh us down, leading us further and further from the Father.  By practicing forgiveness, we let go that baggage and can grow ever closer to the Father.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Summer Leftovers... Life isn't black and white

On our Facebook page, one of my colleagues referenced an article they found from the Catholic News Service:

Life isn't black and white – teach priests to discern the gray, Pope says

Needless to say, I was thrilled to read this article.  I love it when the Pope listens to me!  Allow me to explain...

For the many years I've been involved in adult catechesis and the RCIA, one of the running themes through our process is this concept of "navigating the gray."  We have a good understanding of right and wrong, but the reality of our lives is that not everything is black and white.  My job as a catechist is to give you the tools to help you navigate the gray areas.

When it comes to issues of sin and morality, the Church teaches that we must have "an informed conscience."  In other words, we need to understand what's right or wrong so that we can make the right decision.  After all, the key elements of sin include "grave matter," that is, knowing that something is wrong, and "full consent," meaning that you know it's wrong and you do it anyway.  Without an informed conscience, both these conditions for sin fall suspect.

As Church we are fairly good at teaching what's "right" and what's "wrong."  They form an ethic that defines for us the boundaries in which we should live our lives.  The trouble is, as I have taught for years, and as the Holy Father states, our lives are not black and white.

Now I must also recognize that there are plenty of people who might disagree with this idea.  In fact, you can read some of those arguments in the comments section of the article.  These people who are criticizing the Holy Father follow a belief of "moral absolutism:" that there is in fact nothing in between.  Either something is right or something is wrong.  You can't have both.  Do these people have a point?  Yes.  In many ways they make a compelling argument.  But to those ideas I would also argue that such a philosophy fails to recognize the nuance or context of a situation.   Here's an example:

The church teaches that we should not kill.  It is not our right to take a life because we did not grant that life.  Further, to take someones life marginalizes that person's humanity and negates the fact that this person is a vessel for God's love.  To kill someone has us putting ourselves and our needs above that of the other, which is clearly not the Christian perspective.  On the other hand, the church also teaches that we must protect and respect our bodies as they are both a gift from, and a temple for, God.  So what do we do when someone wants to kill us?  Do I kill them to protect myself?

Now this is a fairly pedantic and overused example, but it does demonstrate two important points.  First is that sometimes what we teach can be contradictory.  In fact, the primary guide we follow, the Bible, is full of contradictions (which is why our belief structure necessitates a consideration for our learned tradition).  Second, and most importantly, is the trouble with this idea of moral absolutism.  That there can be only one right way or wrong way.  Another word for this would be "extremism."  And has been proven time and again, extremism leads to a lack of mercy.  Such absolutism or extremism completely negates our Christian understanding and practice of forgiveness.  And that alone makes practicing extreme ideologies a sin.

As Catholics, as adults, we face situations everyday that are not easy to see as right or wrong.  So how do we react?  How are we to respond?  The first necessary step is to have a good understanding of what is right and what is wrong.  And we as Church have a duty to clearly define these boundaries.  Only then do we have the tools necessary to forge an informed conscience... to have what we need to "navigate the gray" and chart a course to the light.  And guess what... sometimes we might get it wrong.  But that's OK, because in Christ we have an advocate.  Someone who through his humanity can understand, and through his divinity grant us forgiveness.  It's why we have the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

The moral absolutist would like us to think that our lives are like a roadway... one in which we must "stay to the right."  But even with the highway's dips and turns, the analogy fails to reflect the reality of our lives.  Instead I suggest that our lives are more like a wild river than a roadway.  Like the mighty Colorado making its way through the Grand Canyon.  Wide in parts, narrow in others.  Sometimes smooth and meandering, sometimes fast and rough.  Sometimes meeting up with other rivers, sometimes diverging, forcing us to decide which way, and sometimes forcing us in a particular direction.  Sometimes we get caught in the rapids.  And as with all rivers, it doesn't give us the option to go back.  To do so fights against the flow of the river.  The energy we expel by trying to go back only weakens us and turns us away from what's ahead.  We're always moving downstream... always going forward.  We can't go back.  We can only learn and continue on.

Teaching our seminarians about right and wrong is necessary.  But teaching them also to recognize that our lives are not black and white, helping them to see that we live in the gray, is also necessary.  Like so much in our faith tradition, it's not "one of the other", it's "both and..."  We need to know what's right and wrong, but we also must practice mercy and forgiveness.  Only then will they have the tools to teach us how to navigate the gray, ever shepherding us toward the Father.

I love it when the Pope agrees with me!

Summer Leftovers... Noah's Ark

Back in early July I stumbled across this article from AOL news:


It's a story about how a Creationist group in Kentucky built what they consider to be a replica of Noah's Ark.  A fascinating story, so much so that I was compelled to post some comments on our Facebook page.  In looking back at this story, I thought I should also share those thoughts here on our blog:

File this under "are you kidding me?"

Apparently a creationist group has built what they consider to be a replica of Noah's Ark in Williamstown Kentucky. They claim it was built according to Biblical dimensions (which can be found in Genesis 6:14-16).

While we do get some details as to the overall size of the ark, including that it should have 3 main decks, an upper deck, and a door on the side, we don't get much else. We're told it should be made of "gopher wood" (which scholars conclude was a poor Hebrew translation for "cypress") and that it should be covered in "pitch" inside and out... pitch of course, being a tar like substance to prevent the ark from leaking.

Aside from it's creationist roots, I have a few problems with this ark, beginning with it's modern nautical architecture. It looks like a cruise ship, with a curved bow and hydrodynamic stabilizers running along the keel. Keep in mind that during the time of Noah we have no reference whatsoever of boats or of sea-faring cultures. While there is some archeological evidence of people using rafts and canoes as far back as 8,000 BCE, we don't really see the genesis of boats as we know them today until 4,000 BCE with the ancient Egyptians.

When we hear the story of Noah's Ark (Genesis 6-9), we hear the story of the flood, and kind of jump to the conclusion that the "ark" was like a ship... a craft made to plow the waters of the flood. While the ark was intended to float above the rising waters, I don't think there was any nautical design involved. No bow, no stern, essentially a large floating box (not unlike the ark we see in the 2014 film "Noah" starring Russell Crowe). Again, this is a culture that knows nothing yet of building and using boats for transportation.

It's easy for our more modern culture to think of a boat when we think of Noah's Ark... but that perception is mistaken. When we think of a boat we're forgetting the ancient definition for the word "ark" which is a "sacred repository" or "sacred chest" meant to protect something holy. Think of "the Ark of the Covenant" holding the 10 Commandments. In this case, Noah's Ark is the sacred repository of God's creation, and is a symbol of God's covenant with man to never willfully destroy the earth again. It's not a boat, it's a sacred chest holding what God finds most dear... Noah, his family, the animals of the earth.

This "ark" in Kentucky is an interesting idea, but like so many creationist theories, there are any number of inaccuracies that can be found when tested against science and historical context. A faith based on the Bible does not preclude science or the theory of evolution.