Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

24 July 2016

Obstruction of Justice

Today is World Youth Day. Instituted by Pope Saint John Paul II, this has been an annual celebration of the youth of the world, who are not only the Church's future, but her present as well.  While WYD is observed every year, Pope Francis thought it would be a good idea to hold the current biennial en masse celebration in Krakow, JPII's hometown, especially because it is the Year of Mercy, and Mercy was perhaps the greatest cause in his pontificate. The theme for the celebration is always taken from scripture; this year's theme is Matthew 5:7, "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy." 

By giving us the prayer we have come to call The Lord's Prayer, it is true that Jesus wanted to give us the paradigm of prayer "after His own Heart." That's one important thing that people seek from their spiritual mentors. But he also wanted to remind us of how everyone stands before God as beggars, totally dependent upon Him for everything we have and are.

At the same time, Jesus wants his disciples to seek the fullness of life (cf. John 10:10--which was the theme of WYD 1993, which I was privileged to attend). The abundant life that Jesus promises is far more than a list of goods or services that we might demand from God as if they were terms of surrender or for returning a hostage. We're talking about nothing less than participation in the life of the Blessed Trinity.

Is it possible not to want that? More to the point, is it possible to live as if we didn't want it–is it possible to choose against it? Jesus himself insists so. 

While even the pagan philosopher Aristotle noted that everyone desires happiness and fulfillment by nature, it's just that everyone's vision of happiness doesn't line up appropriately with each other's vision–and quite often they fail to line up with God's vision. We can in fact have a scorpion in hand when our son asks for an egg. When Jesus suggests so, we may think it preposterous (and certainly He meant the question rhetorically), but He sneaked in a grain of truth. All of Jesus's parables and comparisons reflect His keen understanding of our fallen human nature.

In this respect he is consistent with the Hebrew Scriptures that He learned. Say what you will about the content of the Old Testament, its divine and human authors knew well our tendency toward selfish corruption. As we read from Genesis, God couldn't even find ten righteous people in the city of Sodom, so He followed through on the decision to cleanse it by fire. As a literal event it may be hard to understand, but in principle not at all. 

Perhaps you've seen this election sign. Given the contemporary state of politics, one might be tempted to cast such a vote.

The Church's Catechism (1867) picks up on a centuries-old teaching tool that lists sins that cry to heaven for vengeance. Not that any sin is acceptable, but these are so heinous in God's sight that He demands immediate and total redress. 

First is the blood of Abel. Recall how God told Killer Cain, "Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!" (Gen 4:10). The balance of the universe is thrown off by willful murder. Our dignity in the Heart of God ought to be our dignity in each other's hearts; when we treat each other otherwise, we are debasing our own dignity.

Then there is the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah alluded to in today's first reading from Gen 18. It has long been understood as sexual activity that physically contravenes human nature, involving persons of the same sex, or by extension persons of the opposite sex who have made a point of separating the two appropriate purposes of marital love: union and procreation.

More recent authors have demonstrated an amplified sense of their sin, to include a lack of concern for the needy. While this fits in with the other examples of vengeance-seeking sin, the most salient example is the one herein cited. Consult this article for more details.

The cry of the Israelites oppressed in Egypt (cf. Ex 3:7-10) also seeped out of the soil. Having heard it (of course God knew of it, but the Scriptures speak poetically), God decided at length to intervene through the initially unwilling agency of Moses. He may have been carrying around the guilt of his earlier Egyptian homicide, as if to object that he was in no place to advocate the cessation of oppression. That God deems otherwise attests to His mercy.

God's outrage at the cry of the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan is variously attested in the Hebrew Scriptures. These folks in particular were already disadvantaged, lacking their customary means of security. Israel of all nations should know better than to treat anyone as second-class citizens, because she herself had been so considered in her day.

Injustice to the wage earner is also reprehensible to the Lord. When people in power withhold the funds necessary to live a decent life, that is oppression along the lines of the offenses mentioned above.

These sins have one commonality: the intentional obstruction of human flourishing. We may wonder why God does not seem to punish these crimes immediately and unmistakably. Perhaps that will remain forever scandalous. But the consequences of these actions nonetheless proceed. The world is basking (basting?) in them right now.

Our heavenly Father invests us with understanding, freedom, and passions to respond gracefully to Him and to our fellow human beings. Again, we may wonder why God does not prevent people from failing to respond gracefully. But the perhaps central component to today's parable is a dual persistence: God's in allowing us to recognize our sins, repent of them, confess them, and to live forward with renewed attentiveness; and our persistence in doing those very things as often as we sin.

16 July 2016

Our Stewardship of Suffering and Love

It sometimes occurs as a point of meditation that the saints are human just like us, but at the same time we are called to the same holiness as they. We do a great job, don’t we, of putting different folks on a pedestal, whether it be the saints, or various political or religious leaders or inspirational people in our lives. We know we’ve put them on a pedestal when they inevitably give us reason not to keep them there, and as a result we become outraged; perhaps, in a quieter moment, we might become embarrassed at the thought that we invested the person with such esteem and paid so much attention to what they said—never mind that their words may have been true and valuable, but suddenly their own imperfection or hypocrisy prompts us to call everything into question. Please God, with a little perspective we learn to sift through everything to retain what is of value.

Anyhow, Saint Paul reminds us today of the exalted dignity that all the baptized share. He calls it a “stewardship” (οîκονομία), which refers to a plan for attending to the concerns of an individual or a household. It's where we get the word "economy": the aggregate of transactions (usually financial, but not exclusively so) by which a community of persons keeps going. Paul’s “stewardship” was the mission entrusted to him by God for the communities he’d founded (we’d call them parishes or dioceses). We might find the term more relevant if we considered our family, workplace, and even our own bodies and souls as a stewardship. Paul’s mission was to proclaim the Word of God in Jesus Christ through doctrinal and moral instruction, in order to form active, growing believers. Our responsibility as disciples isn’t really that different: by example and by words we want to show people who Jesus is and what He means for the world. We do this not as “lone rangers,” but as persons baptized into the visible Body of Christ on earth, found most fully in the Catholic Church that the Lord Jesus founded and has sustained for nearly 2,000 years with believers and leaders such as us.

As a result, we want to cultivate our relationship with the Lord in and through the Church, so that people are drawn not merely to us with our personal gifts and drawbacks, but to the Lord living and acting in the Church. We may need to brush up on our appreciation of our great Catholic heritage so as to become the best possible witness.

Now most of us don't have a pulpit from which to proclaim any sort of message, nor do we have any kind of script. In the absence of laborious research and skillful oratory, there is one element in most lives that can provide a compelling witness, and that is our suffering. Strange to hear, perhaps, but God’s honest truth. St. Paul said to the Colossians, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of His Body, which is the Church.” We’d be foolish to suppose that, because Jesus suffered for us, we shouldn’t have to suffer, we shouldn’t have to experience pain, inconvenience, humiliation, and all the rest. Jesus experienced upon the cross the suffering experienced by every person in every place and time, so that as we come to experience that suffering in our own time, it doesn't have to be purposeless: we are able to make it something of infinite value by offering it in union with the Lord for those in need of repentance and healing. Thus we can create a space in our lives for the "inconveniences" that visit us, like those three men who visited Abraham and Sarah, and they can become a channel of unexpected blessing.

And when we don’t necessarily have any suffering on our plate, the other legacy in which we always share is the Eucharist that unites us to the saints of every time and place. The very Body of Christ that suffered upon the Cross is sacramentally made present here and now and everywhere the ministerial priesthood is found. In our worthy reception of Holy Communion we share in the sufferings and joys of the whole Church across time and space. Why, therefore, waste an opportunity to suffer well? Why waste an opportunity to love well? Why waste a chance to learn from the Master where He is most concretely found—in the Host and in our neighbor?

03 July 2016

We Are Not Alone

When Jesus sent seventy-two of his disciples out to share their stories of living in His story, He sent them out in pairs, like the "buddy system" we experienced as children. It is always good to have a little reinforcement, some extra encouragement, or challenge, when you need it. This describes the "Communion of Saints," the Church in heaven and the Church awaiting heaven, our brothers and sisters throughout the world and throughout the ages. In addition, the angels who eternally attend to the throne of God also show His providential care--especially our guardians who protect and intercede for us.

One concrete way to remember that we are never alone is the fact that Jesus gave us the Lord’s Prayer in the first person plural: God is our Father, who gives us daily bread, forgives our trespasses as we forgive, leads us not into temptation, and delivers us from evil.

It is important to know that we are not alone because the Evil One is not alone. Satan is the enemy of God’s plan, the enemy of man’s salvation. In league with that enemy are a host of other angels—beings of superior intelligence and freedom, just like the holy angels, but with the difference that they decided to invest that superior intelligence and freedom in a manner contrary to the desire of God. While they cannot best God, they seem to have a way with us human beings.

They do that by capitalizing upon our weak spots, which are our memory and our imagination: the ways we reflect on the past and the future. Remember in Genesis 3 how Satan injected doubt into the minds of the first man and woman, leading them to question whether (in the past) God really said we would die if we ate the forbidden fruit. Satan further polished that fruit to make it look more attractive, leading his customers to wonder how great they’d become (in the future) with all the power, pleasure, wealth, and prestige they could eat. No matter that they would be contravening the will of God in the process, that we would keep turning against one another by using violence and sex as tools for our advantage, meanwhile exponentially increasing our sense of loneliness.

Here’s the Good News: The offspring of the woman—Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary—has crushed the head of the ancient serpent. He has delivered us from the eternal hold that sin, suffering, and death threaten to have over us. Our weaknesses need no longer define us. In the Genesis story, mercy showed itself in the fact that our first parents didn’t die as soon as they ate the fruit. That gave them, as it gives us whenever we sin, the chance to repent, to seek appropriate reconciliation, and to live again.

By God’s grace we can again appreciate what is beautiful, learn what is true, and choose what is good. That kind of activity contributes to the betterment of our world and the splendor of our God. People on the fence of faith can look at us when we’re striving to live that way and say, “This Jesus, this Catholic Church, is worth something. It might even be worth my life.”

12 June 2016

A Grate Experience

The following was a social media response of mine that really got out of hand--you might call it disorganized--but I don't apologize for it. I decided to say it "publicly" because it might apply to other people.

The mystery of all sacraments, but of Reconciliation in a particular way, is this: like Our Lord, it is fully divine and fully human. God empties Himself to make Himself fully available to humanity precisely in the emptiness of our sins. And we priests get to make both God and ourselves available in the sacrament: the fullness of Divine Mercy, but also the whole span--full to empty--of human skill and ill. 

When a priest might critique the quality of a person's Confession

This has become a principle for me, a hard one, a terrible one, a necessary one: I want to be open to whatever truth I can glean from even the harshest criticisms I receive, wherever they come from and whenever they come. I sometimes think of a bloke by the name of Shimei (2 Sam 16:5-13) who started cursing King David publicly and the King forbade his court to retaliate because he believed "the Lord told [Shimei] to [curse him]." I don't know whether any of the priest's criticism applies to you in truth or not, but if it does and you can learn from it, why not? 

Now, if the priest was "having a bad day," or maybe you reminded him of someone else in his recent or distant past or whatever and wasn't able to maintain the necessary distinction "in real time," that's on him and I hope he, like any other human person, can address that area of growth so he can be a better bridge to Christ and not an obstacle, as one Church document exhorted priests to be. 

The actual celebration of this sacrament needs Mercy (i.e. perspective, a new understanding), as whenever a priest has come across less than favorably in the ear of the beholder. Sometimes the moral truth offends or drives people away, and in such instances even Jesus wouldn't backpedal. But when it comes to "grate-side manner," the Church in her humanity becomes the needful recipient of people's forgiveness. 

Some have let one interaction forever preclude any future ones from any priest. There is likely a sort of victimization sometimes experienced, which unfortunately can't be addressed because of the seal, except in terms of a general outreach to return to Confession--the very sacrament that unwittingly might have dealt so much pain to a person. That it remains the privileged forum for mercy in their lives requires heroic strength and grace to accept. 

There are so many contextual layers and angles in any communication, and the divine/human one called Confession merits a seal so sacred and inviolable, that the discussion of particulars must not take place on social media. Priests can't speak about it in any way that would violate the seal. Penitents themselves have to be very careful about what they share with people because once it is said publicly, others wrongly can spread it further, which hurts the penitent and can come around to compromising the seal. 

Just on the merely human level, outsiders don't (and shouldn't) get the full picture, and perhaps neither does confessor or penitent. The fullest part of the full story is Divine Mercy.  He knows all, and says none.

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The person offered the obiter dictum that the priest with whom he had a difficult experience was hearing his confession in another diocese, or was a priest of another diocese, or both; this is no consolation to me, because we're all on the same team.

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Regarding remarks from another commenter, randomly written
Any validly ordained Catholic priest will do. I know it's hard to part with a helpful confessor as any relationship's end can go. Reopening traumatic experiences with a new confessor can be rough. But our spiritual health requires regularity. Simplicity never hurts, on the part of confessor or penitent, because on one hand it reminds us that not every Confession need become a full-on conversation (especially if there's a line). Plus, the less is said (not omitting anything that should be said, of course), the less there's a chance of adding unnecessary layers to the text. I know that Confession may be the only counseling a person ever seeks or receives in his life, and a relationship with give-and-take, with a body of mutual understanding, develops. At the same time, Christ's Church has persisted throughout the ages and throughout the world precisely because to a real extent her priests are "interchangeable parts." If one's sacramental practice departed with his "favorite priest," I might not be ministering among you today!