Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God

Normally on the First Sunday of Christmas we celebrate the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, but since this Sunday is New Years Day, we defer to the celebration that is traditional to the 1st of January, which is the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God.

Numbers 6:22-27
Psalm 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 2:16-21

Our first reading comes from the book of Numbers.  The book of Numbers, a second re-telling of the Exodus story (after Leviticus), takes its name from the census that was taken of the Hebrew people, one at the beginning of the Exodus, and one at the end.  This passage, from the early part of the book, is the priestly blessing given to the people of Israel, and remains a popular blessing to this day.  On the occasion of celebrating the Blessed Virgin Mary, it reminds us that Mary was beloved of God for being willing to take on the task of bearing and raising his son.  While our Psalm reflects this same blessing, the refrain, “My God bless us in his mercy,” reminds us of the mercy God has for his people.

Our second reading is from Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  In this passage Paul is summarizing the Christmas story… how God sent his son to redeem us.  Not only that, but through our relationship with Christ, we also become sons and daughters of God, our Father, and heirs to the Kingdom.  This was the promise of the savior, a promise that could only be fulfilled through Mary’s “yes” to God.

Our Gospel from Luke continues the Nativity narrative from where we left off at Christmas (from the Mass at Midnight and then at Dawn).  As we enter the passage the shepherd arrive to see the child in the manger, and we are reminded how Mary kept all these events in her heart.  Then, at the appointed time, according to the Jewish customs of the day, the child is circumcised and given his name… the name the angels gave him before he was conceived: Emmanuel, Yehoshua, Jesus, all of which translate to “God Saves.” 

Final thoughts:

During the Christmas Season we normally celebrate the Holy Family on the 1st Sunday of Christmas, the Epiphany on the 2nd Sunday of Christmas, and the Baptism of the Lord on the 3rd Sunday as the final day of the Christmas season.  But since Christmas fell on a Sunday this year, with New Years Day the following week, our usual celebrations have been moved to other dates.  This year we celebrate the Holy Family Friday, December 30th.  The Epiphany, a major feast, follows as usual on the 2nd Sunday, January 8th, but then The Baptism of the Lord follows the next day on Monday, January 9th.

So why all the changes this year?  Simply put, certain Liturgical celebrations take precedence over others.  This is not as unusual as you might think, since a number of Liturgical celebrations follow particular dates (like Christmas falling on December 25th) whereas other celebrations always fall on a particular Sunday (like Easter).  Believe it or not, there are actually certain rules for what is celebrated when, and why.  Not only that, Bishop’s councils and even local bishops have some latitude on what and when to celebrate certain solemnities and to designate which are Holy Days of Obligation. 

While this can be confusing for a lot of the people in the pews, and aggravating for some Liturgy Coordinators, there is some method to this calendaring madness.  But rather than stressing over what we celebrate when, I think it’s best to follow the advice of Jesus:  Just roll with it.  Or perhaps more accurately:  Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. (Matthew 6:34)

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Nativity of the Lord

It is fairly well known that the word “Christmas” is derived from the Middle English “Christ’s Mass.”  While this name for the holiday still resonates with most people today, this name, along with many of its modern traditions are derived from England and English speaking countries.  But even though the name is fairly modern, the purpose of the celebration, giving recognition to the birth of Jesus, or the Nativity, goes back to the early 4th century.  In pagan Rome, it was not unusual to celebrate the birthdays of their gods.  The early Christians, therefore, in an ironic twist, took this opportunity to celebrate the day when our God was born into this world as a man.  To this day the celebration of the birth of Our Lord remains a major feast day, but the Church has begun to abandon the old Middle English name for the holiday in favor of a more accurate translation of the old Latin name for the feast:  The Nativity of the Lord.

Isaiah 62:1-5
Psalm 89:4-5, 16-17, 27, 29
Acts 13:16-17, 22-25
Matthew 1:1-25 or Matthew 1:18-25

Isaiah 9:1-6
Psalm 96:1-2, 2-3, 11-12, 13
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14

Isaiah 62:11-12
Psalm 97:1, 6, 11-12
Titus 3:4-7
Luke 2:15-20

Isaiah 52:7-10
Psalm 98:1, 2-3, 3-4, 5-6
Hebrews 1:1-6
John 1:1-18 or John 1:1-5, 9-14

As you can see, our readings for the Nativity of the Lord will vary depending on which Mass you attend, an though the overarching theme still has its focus on the birth of Christ, each set of readings has its own unique theme.

If you attend the Vigil Mass, our readings remain reminiscent of those we heard during Advent with the theme of prophesy being fulfilled.  In fact, our Gospel is from the same passage in Matthew which we read this last Sunday on the 4th Sunday of Advent, only in its long form where we hear the genealogy of Jesus (if the priest of deacon reads this optional text).  Our first reading from third Isaiah takes on an urgency that cannot be ignored when he says, “For Zion’s sake I will not be silent…”  In our second reading Paul is so filled with the Spirit he walks into the synagogue and proclaims Jesus as the heir to David.  Our theme lets us know that the signs are obvious, God has promised a savior and this savior is Emmanuel… Jesus.

If you attend Midnight Mass, our readings focus on the moment of Christ’s birth.  Our Gospel from Luke gives us his well known narrative as we hear how Mary gave birth, “wrapped him in swaddling cloghes and laid him in a manger.”  This is the Nativity… the spirit of Christmas, and our other readings share in the joy.  Our first reading going back to first Isaiah proclaiming that “the people in darkness have seen a great light.”  Our second reading from Paul’s letter to Titus reminding us that “the grace of God has appeared,”  Jesus, in the flesh, to save us all.

If you attend Mass at Dawn, our readings pickup the story from where we left off at Midnight Mass.  From Luke’s Gospel, the angels have just left the shepherds who were in the field.  Inspired by the angel’s message, they say to one another, “let us go to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place.”  They are moved with amazement and must seek out this child.  Our first reading, bouncing back over to third Isaiah proclaims with excitement, “your savior comes!” while our second reading from Paul’s letter to Titus proclaims “When the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared, not because of an righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy.”  Our readings take on a simple humility that makes the birth of Christ an intimate and personal experience.

If you attend Mass during the day of the Nativity, our readings take on a much loftier tone (if not somewhat esoteric for the average listener attending Mass on Christmas Day).  Here our Gospel consists of the poetic and deeply theological opening stanzas from John’s Gospel.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  As is typical for most major feasts, the high Christology of John’s Gospel helps us to see the majesty in these events.  Similarly our first reading from second Isaiah takes on a majestic tone as he proclaims “Your God is King!  Hark!  Your sentinels raise a cry, together they should for joy.”  In our second reading from the letter to the Hebrews, the tone settles down a bit by reminding us all the ancient prophecy has become clear… that this savior is more than just an angel, but is above the angels taking his seat at God’s side.

Final thoughts:
Regardless of whichever Mass you attend to celebrate the Nativity of the Lord, one message is clear:  Jesus is the Christ, the fulfillment of prophecy, come to us in the most humble of ways.  But it is a bittersweet holiday as the destiny of this little infant is to die on a cross for our sins.  This is love.  The love of a God seeking to understand his children.  The love of his Son willing to lay down his life to save us.  The love of the Holy Spirit that carries through each one of us as we share the joy of that moment of Jesus’ birth.  God’s love incarnate.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Need for Religious Literacy... For Everyone

Jesuit Father James Martin posted this article on his Facebook page yesterday:

Academics and Journalists Unite Against Fake News

This article from America magazine (the Jesuit news magazine for which Fr. Martin is an editor and contributor) focused primarily on this latest craze of "fake news."  No, not the type of "fake news" that Jon Stewart raised to high art on The Daily Show, but rather how people are now digesting "news" from outlets of questionable repute, and how even major news outlets are using these same questionable sources without the necessary fact-checking and analysis which was a hallmark of journalism for decades.  What this discussion on "fake news" also revealed is how many journalists, and journalism itself, is so poorly informed on religion and the key elements of different religious faith traditions.

This isn't just a problem for journalism, its a problem for our whole society.

To be fair, misinformation about religious traditions other than one's own is as old as human society.  In most cases, this wasn't much of an issue because the vast majority of communities shared (or at least participated in) the same religious traditions.  And because these communities were relatively small and closely knit, catechesis (for lack of a better word) was successfully accomplished among families in these communities.  But when one of these communities came into conflict with a neighboring community, most likely with different religious practices, this would play into the conflict.

Now at this point many historians will tell you that "religion" has played into many a bloody conflict.  But we need to be careful how we understand this.  Yes, differences in religious tradition have played into many wars, but as any good junior high or high school history class will teach you, wars and conflicts are created for a variety of reasons of which religion is only one catalyst.  Very few conflicts are solely due to religious differences.  Even the Crusades, which could mistakenly be seen as purely religious, had any number of other issues including control of the economy, land, resources, and politics of the disputed regions.  In these cases "religion" serves more as a communal battle cry and recruitment tool for each side.  But I digress...

Even as the world has grown and populations migrated, religious traditions and catechesis remained community based.  Even in the great migrations of the 19th and 20th centuries we saw these immigrants gathering in communities of similar geographic and religious experience, and for the most part, keeping to themselves.  Mind you, that didn't eliminate suspicions between these different communities, particularly between American Protestants and (largely immigrant) Catholics.  But even in those days of mistrust and misunderstanding (again, not entirely motivated by religious differences), these individual ethnic and religious communities managed to keep their own enclaves well catechized as to what they themselves believed.

But then the world changed.

It started after World War II, with massive reallocation of resources and the people who went with them.  Economic prosperity and opportunity broke apart these once tight knit communities and families.  The "neighborhood" became the suburbs, with an increasingly diverse population moving in all around.  Church, in large part, retreated from the "neighborhood," with their large tracts of suburban housing and their designated plots for new churches, and into the home.  It became rare for your next door neighbor to also be one of your fellow parishioners.

This kind of diversity wasn't all bad.  In fact, it can be an opportunity to learn from each other, and grow in some knowledge and appreciation of each other's religious traditions.  But at the same time, with catechesis moving from the neighborhood into the home, individual families were now more dependent on each other for that catechesis.  And in a world that continued to grow more complex and diversified, more of the burden was placed on families that were not as sufficiently prepared to bring in and maintain Church in the home.  Where in past generations the grandparents, extended family, and other neighbors would supply much of the needed catechesis, the new "nuclear family" was left without those resources it needed to keep Church alive in the home.  Catechesis was outsourced... left in the lap of "CCD" and "religious education" classes at the same time the changing economics of Catholic Education pushed more families to public schools.  What was left was a large number of Catholics that were less catechized and less invested in the parish community.

If that were not enough, now add in the social revolution that started in the late 20th century (and is still unfolding today) where many people and families don't even associate themselves with a particular religious tradition.  And worse those that do align themselves religiously, not only lack a fundamental understanding of their own faith, but are completely ignorant when it comes to other faith traditions and religions.

Now add in the Internet.  Here's a tool that allows instant access to knowledge and information, including about the world's religions.  You would think this should serve as a great library or university for everyone to learn about these other religions, and for some, it does.  Unfortunately, for the vast majority of others, it has devolved into a community of individual "clubhouses" where only those of like mind (informed or not) tend to gather.  Not only is this increasing isolation, but it spreads and breeds misinformation.  This is where we find ourselves today.  Divided and ill-informed.  Need proof?  Have a look at the PBS Newshour report on a 2010 Pew Research survey (What Americans Do and Don't Know about Religion). 

When I was in high school, an all boys Catholic high school run by Capuchin Franciscans, I had the absolute pleasure of taking a comparative religions course.  It was a required class for all juniors.  After 10 years of teaching us the Catholic faith, the school felt is it was time to broaden our knowledge.  And contrary to some pre-Vatican II thinking, being exposed to other faiths did not serve as a recruiting tool for those faiths.  Rather, as I have seen over and over again, the more we learn about other faith traditions the stronger we become in our own Catholic faith.  While this class was only able to give us the very basics of Hinduism, Buddhism, Protestantism, and Islam, it did open us to a wider world of understanding, not only better preparing us for college, but for living in a world that was becoming more diverse.  It is but one of the many things for which I am eternally grateful for my Franciscan education (even if it took me years to acknowledge my inner Jesuit).

So what are we to do?  There was a time when main stream journalists and journalism were able to provide readers with informed, non-biased reporting on religion with an accurate understanding of certain religious beliefs.  Sadly, however, the state of journalism has devolved as journalists themselves have grown increasingly ignorant of religion and religious traditions.  In a certain way this whole situation makes sense... writers must lean heavily on their own knowledge and experience.  In days past when newsrooms were filled with men (and a too few women) of various religious faiths, they could serve as informed and accurate sources of information.  Today, as newsrooms have gotten a lot smaller, and reporters less educated and experienced in religion, reporting has become, well, an intellectual embarrassment.  Nothing stirs the wrath of my pen more than when some article purports to tell me what Catholics believe when they have absolutely no idea what they're talking about, not only because they're not Catholic themselves, but they are relying on sources that are less reputable than others to "learn" what they need in order to prepare their reports.  It's one of the reasons I remind our catechumens and adult learners regularly to be wary of what the secular media reports when it comes to Catholicism.  There are any number of good Catholic news outlets available, in print and online, to get a more accurate, more nuanced report of current events in the Catholic realm.

Besides making use of Catholic media to better educate ourselves about our Catholic faith, we also need to broaden our knowledge and understanding of other faiths.  That starts by understanding how our Catholic tradition is unique among the worlds religions.  We Catholics take for granted that we have an established leadership and hierarchy.  No other major faith tradition in the world can point to one person and say this is our leader.  We take for granted the nature and the structure of the Magisterium and we tend to project that understanding onto other religious traditions when in reality no such continuity exists.  Religion is sectarian... with all variety of flavors and leaders all professing to be Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, etc.  Many would argue that Christianity is the same, with its many Protestant sects, but our Catholic experience tends to gloss over that fact.

The sectarian nature of religion isn't anything new.  In fact, it's as old as religion itself.  The Gospels themselves are rife with the conflicts between the various sects that make up the Sanhedrin.  Once we acknowledge this sectarian nature, we go back to the basic truths... those elements of the faith they all agree upon.  It's how we Christians approach all ecumenical discussions... start with what we share, and then work our way closer to those issues where we have disagreements.

Use credible sources.  Believe it or not, Wikipedia is probably one of the best places to start.  There are also any number of Catholic publishers that have material on comparative religion and other religious traditions.  St Mary's Press offers some good selections.  Our own offers a guide for Catholic educators on "understanding Islam."  In the secular press there's also a lot of reputable resources like the Idiot's Guide... series to help you learn more (the Idiot's Guide to Catholicism is a masterpiece).

So after all this, what is my point.  It's this:  We all need to be better informed.  Not only do we need to become more literate about our own Catholic faith, but we need to gain some understanding of world's other major faith traditions.  We need to leverage the many legitimate sources of information to become better acquainted with the world around us.  We need to find the courage to step outside of our personal comfort zones and be willing to learn something new.

Only when we open our minds can we truly open our hearts.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

4th Sunday of Advent

Throughout this season of advent we have been focused on the ancient prophecy of the coming of a messiah, and how in Jesus we have the fulfillment of that prophecy.  This Fourth Sunday of Advent is no different as we read more about what to expect with the coming of this savior:

Isaiah 7:10-14
Psalm 24:1-2, 3-4, 5-6
Romans 1:1-7
Mathew 1:18-24

Our first reading is again from the book of the prophet Isaiah.  This week we go back to an earlier time where King Ahaz is in trouble.  The Assyrian Empire is on the move.  The Northern Kingdom of Israel is under threat and King Ahaz of Judah is concerned that Jerusalem and his kingdom are next.  Rival forces are converging on Jerusalem so Isaiah is called by the Lord to go and meet with Ahaz and begs him to stand firm in his faith in the Lord.  Ahaz, on the other hand, is more comfortable putting his trust in the might of the Assyrians.  Our passage this Sunday picks up the story.  The Lord is upset with Ahaz, and is trying to give him one last chance to repent… to “ask for a sign from the Lord your God.”  While God sees this as an opportunity for reconciliation, Ahaz doesn’t take the bait, which causes God to get angry (…is it not enough for you to weary people…”), and in a show of power, tells Ahaz that “as a sign” a virgin will give birth, bear a son, and name him Emmanuel, which means “God Saves” (which is “Yehoshua” in ancient Hebrew, or “Jesus” from the Ancient Greek).  This is a power play between Ahaz and God… with God saying, “If you can’t trust me, I will send someone who does.”  Our Psalm follows through on that sentiment as we sing, “Let the Lord enter; he is king of glory.”  If we put our trust and faith in the Lord above all others, we can’t lose.

Our second reading from the opening of Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Here Paul states unequivocally that in Christ Jesus we have this long promised messiah… a descendant of King David, but a king that belongs to everyone, including the Gentiles and the beloved people of God in Rome.  Perhaps equally important is how Paul describes himself to this Roman Church… as “a slave of Christ Jesus,” a sentiment that many of these early Roman Christians understood well.  By Paul placing himself as a slave to the Gospel, he also clearly establishes understanding that no one of us is above another, except for the Lord.

Our  Gospel from Matthew then goes on to explain the birth of Jesus, using those very same words prophesied by Isaiah in our first reading.  It’s no coincidence that Matthew made this connection to the original prophecy.  We need to remember that Matthew’s original audience was Jewish.  As such, a Jewish audience would know and remember these words from Isaiah, and Matthew is quick to make the connection from that older prophecy to that of Jesus.  This is typical of Matthew, drawing on the words of the prophets to reinforce his evangelization, to show his Jewish followers that Jesus is indeed the one who was foretold would come.

For us Christians, it is a reminder for us both of Jesus’ immaculate conception, and Joseph’s willingness to accept this calling.  It needs to be noted that Joseph, by Mosaic Law, did not have to accept Mary after learning of her pregnancy, and was well within the Law to have her stoned to death.  Not only was he willing to spare her shame, he willingly accepted God’s messenger and took her into his care.  This act of compassion is a sign of the Kingdom of God that is to come, and reminds us that our duty is to serve one another.

Final thoughts:
The length of the season of Advent is a function of the calendar.  Depending on which day of the week December 25th falls determines how long the final week of advent will be.  Because Christmas falls on a Sunday this year we get to experience a full fourth week of Advent (as opposed to when Christmas falls on a Monday, as it will next year, where we go from the Fourth Sunday of Advent straight into Christmas the next day).  This extra-long Advent gives us a chance to slow down and ponder what it means to have this ancient prophecy fulfilled, and how this child Jesus was a King in the most unexpected of ways, coming into the world in the most humblest of ways.

Looking around the neighborhood I can see signs of this extra-long Advent.  What a difference a week can make!  Everyone seems a little less rushed.  Where houses are normally brilliantly lighted and decorated right after Thanksgiving, many didn’t get their lights up until this past weekend.  Stores are busy, but they don’t seem to have the level of panic that I’ve seen in years past.  Whatever the reason, I’m grateful for this opportunity to experience Advent a little while longer… and taking advantage of this extra full week to ease into the bustle of the Christmas season and the new year that is to come!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

It's About Time: Marriage Formation

File this under "It's About Time!"

I was reading through the daily email I get from the Angelus, our updated Archdiocesan newspaper and multi-media platform.  In today's email there was a link to an article entitled, "Why Does Catholic Marriage Prep Fail?"

This article, discussing how our current process of Marriage preparation falls far short of forming young couples for the vocation of a Sacramental marriage, referenced another very good article entitled, "Synod Fathers Call for Ending Pre-Cana in Favor of More Intensive Marriage Preparation."

Finally!  Our Church leaders are speaking out about the sorry state of marriage preparation!

If you follow this blog, you no doubt came across my posting from this past September:

In the months since, however, I've come to realize that the problem is even worse than I thought.  By way of example, let me walk you through a recent experience:  A young couple came to me one evening during one of our regular Adult Faith Formation sessions.  "Joe" was a Baptized Catholic who wanted to get Confirmed.  His fiance "Beth" was already fully initiated in the Church.  Let's forget for the moment that they just dropped in without calling ahead or making an appointment (file this under "these kids today...").  Beth wanted to make sure Joe could receive Confirmation before their wedding.  "OK," I ask, "so when is the wedding?"  I figured it was likely a date in the Spring that likely was before the Bishop was due to come, but Beth tells me that they didn't yet have a date.  I think to myself, "how refreshing... no worry about perceived deadlines" (see my previous blog post on Marriage and Confirmation).

Since they didn't yet have a date, I asked them where they were going to get married.  Beth (who did most of the talking) said they didn't know.  "So," I ask, "you haven't talked with a priest yet?"  Beth said, "No," but that they weren't in any rush to do the Church wedding."  Not in a rush... how refreshing, I'm thinking.  But then she continues telling me that they weren't in any rush because they've "already scheduled the civil ceremony."  Wait... what?  Then out loud I said, "Wait... what?" Beth then explained to me how (they thought) they needed to do a civil marriage ceremony before doing the church ceremony.

Now let me pause for a moment.  Is this true?  NO.  At least, not any more.  Today all you need to get is a civil marriage LICENSE (typically from the County or the State offices), but you do not need to have a civil marriage ceremony.  But that wasn't always the case.  I remember my mother telling me about how she and my dad needed to do their civil wedding just before their Marriage in the Church.  In the State of New York, in the year 1960, in order to be considered a valid marriage, it needed to take place in the presence of a judge.  Apparently a church minister did not have the authority at that time to preside over a licensed marriage ceremony.  It's not something my parents ever talked about regularly... just one of those things my mom would mention when we were young kids looking through their wedding album.  So on the face of it, Beth's statement wasn't a complete shocker.  On the other hand, ordained ministers have had the authority to perform marriages in the State of New York and just about anywhere else in the United States for the past 40-50 years. 

So back to Beth and Joe.  Apparently the plans for this civil marriage have all been made and was going to happen in three weeks.  OK... forget about Confirmation for Joe, now we've got an even bigger issue...

This young couple, Beth, a Confirmed Catholic, and Joe, a Baptized Catholic, planned to get married, but had not thought to talk with a priest before making any other plans.  The thought never even crossed their minds.  This isn't just a matter of a young couple's ignorance, or of the ignorance of these two families, this is a failure on the part of the entire Church! Here a young couple has decided to get married in the Church, but neither they nor anyone around them was knowledgeable enough about the marriage process to know what needed to be done.  After all, on the cover of just about every Church bulletin I've ever read says that anyone looking for Marriage needs to contact a priest at least 6 months before hand and before anything else is planned.  Clearly there are a lot of people here who haven't been to Church in a while.  They knew enough that Joe should be Confirmed (preferred, but not required... again, see my previous post), but they didn't know that the first thing they should do before making any marriage plans was to talk with a priest.

I was stunned.  Literally stunned.  I didn't know what to tell them other than they needed to talk with a priest, any priest, as soon as possible. Not only was this couple misinformed about how marriage works within the Church, but their plans for Joe's Confirmation are also at risk.

As someone who has been working with the RCIA for almost 20 years, I'm well aware of the issues that can present themselves when people who are already married, or have a previous marriage, seek to receive the Sacraments.  It is complication that needs special attention.  Sometimes it's just a matter of bringing their existing marriage into the Church.  Sometimes, however, they need to go through an annulment process, which in the best of cases can take a year or more.

So here's the problem we have with Joe wanting to get Confirmed.  If he goes through with the civil wedding, that act creates a "sacramental impediment."  A Catholic getting married outside the Church becomes a "grave matter."  In essence, a mortal sin.  While the Church, technically, does not recognize the civil marriage, the fact that Joe entered into this civil marriage prevents him from being in a "state of grace" sufficient to receive Confirmation (or any other Sacrament).  How does Joe fix this?  He needs to bring his civil marriage into the Church before he can receive Confirmation.  It's ironic... Beth and Joe came to me thinking that Joe had to be Confirmed before they could get married in the Church.  But now, if they proceed with a civil wedding, Joe won't be able to be Confirmed until their marriage is brought into the Church.

But that's not the saddest part of this whole story.  The saddest part is that this is a story at all.  We as Church have done a very poor job of catechizing the world about what Marriage in the Church really means.  This isn't a lesson just for Catholics, but a lesson for everyone.  The whole world needs to understand that Marriage in the Church is a life-long vocation, just like Holy Orders, and needs the same level of discernment and a more comprehensive formation process.  At the very least, both Catholics and non-Catholics need to learn that anyone who intends to get married in the Church MUST talk first with their parish priest... or any priest or deacon, BEFORE making any other plans.

Young Catholics today don't understand the medieval structure of the body Church.  Our highly mobile and connected society lets them think that they can just go to any Catholic Church to address Sacramental issues.  The idea of the "cafeteria Catholic" has now morphed into a false understanding of a "cafeteria Church."  That they can go to any parish and receive whatever Sacrament they want.  What they don't understand is the communal nature of our faith and how the parish plays in integral role.

A parish is first and foremost a community of believers, and it is the Pastor's duty to serve and form that community.  The pastor owes the community his service, and in turn the community owes him their fealty (in true medieval fashion).  There is no such thing as a "lone Catholic."  As I am fond to point out during our Adult Formation sessions, there is a dual nature to our faith.  It is both personal and communal.  You cannot be Catholic without having a personal relationship with God, nor can you be a Catholic without celebrating that relationship in community with others.  This dual nature lives in the Mass itself, where we gather as community to give thanks and praise to God, but wherein also we individually receive the grace of the Eucharist.  The Mass requires both the priest and the assembly to be valid.

This communal aspect of our faith goes all the way back to Abraham.  Like tribal Israel, we belong to group of believers.  Our parish is our Christian family.  And like a family, our Pastor is our chief shepherd.  In days past people were born, raised, and lived their lives in the same parish.  In some communities that's still the case.  And all our Sacramental needs were taken care of by that community and that pastor.  But here in the United States and other parts of the developed world, our modern society tends to value individualism over community, and our highly mobile and migratory population lessens our connection to a particular parish community.  Be that as it may, in our spirit of community, it remains the duty of our pastors to make sure his community's members are all properly catechized, prepared, and formed to receive the Sacraments... any Sacrament.  Even though it is the Bishop who is the ordinary minister for Confirmation, the pastor still must attest to their preparation and readiness.  This isn't unusual... even candidates for the seminary must have a recommendation from their pastor.

When we live our lives outside of community, outside of the parish, we miss the opportunity to be formed by that community.  Even important lessons that we should be learning from our immediate family can be supplemented through the larger parish community.  It really does take a village.  But that's not happening.  With tools like the internet, people have developed not only a false sense of community, but very often a false sense of informed knowledge.  Social graces and facts have given way to raves and unverified assertions.  But I digress...

I'm relieved that our Church fathers have seen fit to reexamine how we are forming young people for marriage in the Church.  And we the Church need to make our voices heard as to how best to accomplish this in our communities.  At the very least people need to recognize that a Sacramental Marriage in the Church is something that needs serious discernment.  Coupling and marriage in our secular society has become something that is selfish and convenient.  We Catholics see it as something much more and much greater.  And we need to make sure everyone understands what that means.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

3rd Sunday of Advent

Patience.  Good things are coming, and are almost here, so Rejoice!  This is Gaudete Sunday (from the Latin “to rejoice”), the Third Sunday of Advent.  We celebrate that we are now past the halfway point of the Advent season.  For this one day we put away the violet color of Advent and bring out the Rose colored vestments and d├ęcor.  We light the rose colored candle in our Advent wreaths as we joyfully count the remaining days to Christmas.  Our readings remind us of the good things to come, but good things only come to those who wait…

Isaiah 35:1-6a, 10
Psalm 146, 6-7, 8-9, 9-10
James 5:7-10
Mathew 11:2-11

Our first reading, again, is from Isaiah.  Here the prophet sings of the great things to come, and the land itself will rejoice and bloom.  Isaiah goes to great lengths to paint us this glorious picture of Zion, but we must also recognize that this picture of salvation comes as destruction stands waiting at the gate.  King Hezekiah has the Assyrian forces knocking on his door, so in desperation he turns to the Isaiah to ask for the Lord’s help.  While the Lord rebukes Hezekiah, he also shows mercy to his people, reminding them of the glory that comes with the Lord.  Our Psalm reflects that glory, with the promise of food, health, and protection as we sing “Lord, come and save us”

Our second reading is from the letter of James.  James, who is leader of the Christian community in Jerusalem is addressing his letter to “the twelve tribes in the dispersion,” in other words, to those early Jewish Christians who have communities beyond Jerusalem.  Many of these early Christians are getting concerned that Jesus hasn’t yet returned as was promised, so James feels the need to give them some reassurance.  He tells them that just like a farmer must be patient for the rain, we too must be patient for the coming of the Lord.

Our gospel from Matthew We continues with the story of John the Baptist.  Now much later in Matthew’s narrative, John is in prison.  Perhaps sensing his own death to be coming soon, sends his followers to see if Jesus is indeed the one of whom he foretold.  Jesus tells John’s followers to report back what they have seen and heard, then turns to the crowd to speak of John as the one who was foretold, reminding them that John’s was that voice in the wilderness to announce the coming of the savior.  Not only does this message give John the comfort he seeks shortly before his execution, but it helps the people to see the legitimacy of Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy, the Messiah promised by God.

Final thoughts:

On this Gaudete Sunday we are joyful that our patient, vigilant waiting for the Lord will be fulfilled.  We know this because the prophets have told us.  Prophets like those we heard from in our readings for this Sunday:  Isaiah, James, John the Baptist, and Jesus himself.  We too are also called to be prophets.  By virtue of our baptism we too are anointed priests, prophets, and kings.  It is our duty as Christians to speak out for what we know to be true… if not by our words, then certainly by our actions.  We are joyful this Sunday because we’ve heard the promise of the Lord, and our trust in the Lord tells us that these promises will be fulfilled.  Just be patient.