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

28 December 2016

Year in Review: Celebrity Dying, Quotidian Living

I don't have a "Year in Review" media piece in front of me, but I can tick off the proverbial top of my head several celebrities who died in 2016. Starting from the most recent, but otherwise in no particular order: Carrie Fisher, Keith Emerson, Florence Henderson, George Michael, Prince...OK, that's all I could think of without help.

Found since the writing of the first paragraph, a rather partial list. Clockwise (from memory, starting from top left): Muhammad Ali; Alan Thicke; David Bowie; Nancy Reagan; John Glenn; Gene Wilder; Florence Henderson; Chyna; George Michael; Alan Rickman--not from memory (thanks, TLK!); Arnold Palmer; Prince; Carrie Fisher (center). Image credit: unknown and unsought.
The diversity of my Facebook friends shines forth in the varied reactions to these deaths. Nobody who posted on it was wholly indifferent (else, I suppose, they wouldn't have posted; I shared my selective share, as well).

Like much else, it moves me to wonder: maybe I care too little about people, or I just don't care about celebrities, or I consider myself "more sophisticated" (read conceited, even callous) for not caring so much about those particular people, their artistic prodigies or the fact of their deaths.

Except for the general sadness concerning death as a human institution, especially any death I consider "premature" or "before their time," my level of caring depends on my level of attentiveness and interest in their contributions to culture. It definitely is a reflection of me, for good or ill, or neither or both. For example, yesterday's death of Carrie Fisher registered lower than the death of Prince or George Michael, because I liked a few songs of the latter two persons and I care hardly at all for the Star Wars phenomenon. (Blasphemy, perhaps, but it's where I am. "Don't judge," but judge away.)

Nothing new here: Death is not going to stop. Celebrity deaths are not going to stop. The older we all get, the closer we all get to death. Pace Keith Richards, drug and alcohol abuse increase (but don't "guarantee") the likelihood of premature death. The cult of celebrity is not going to stop. The Internet is not going to stop, nor is the Internet-exacerbated tendency to react quickly and emotively to death, tragedy, and injustice.

In short: We need to renew our prescription for chill pills...and yet we must beware overdosing on chill pills, for we ought to take seriously many things, most of all our health, safety, and salvation. But we obsess over various uncontrollables to distract ourselves from the fundamental malady that includes "not being right unless we're not right" ("right" in the sense of "well"). The syndrome won't go away, though each day, please God, we can confront it--gently, yet head-on.

To retool a phrase: "The poor you always have with you" (Mt 26:11) meaning not only the material, but (here especially) the panoply of spiritual poverty that rock and roll our world. In the manner a friend once proposed a similar observation to me: we ought to keep in the front of the mind that in the back of our mind we are always seeking physical, emotional, moral, and spiritual self-destruction, aided, I now add, by the ancient enemy of genuine human fulfillment and the influence of that enemy in the culture.

One of my high school classmates, a fellow of intellectual bent and, if I recall, a fan of Jim Morrison, wrote this in his 1994 yearbook inscription to me: "Rem. [sic] your own death as often as possible." Upon first reading his esoteric entry, I concluded: whether or not I remembered my own death, I would remember him for having exhorted me thus.

One of my seminary professors, in his introductory ethics class of Fall 1997, told our class: "All philosophy is an attempt to address the problem of death." Implicit in that assertion, by virtue of their mutual service, is the inclusion of "all theology" with "all philosophy." The brevity and fragility and preciousness of life, besides being a proof for the existence of God, catalyzes the cranium for contemplation, especially that sort best supplemented by appropriate action.

I won't deny: 2016 was a difficult year for the entertainment industry and for many of its fans. Next year will be, too, I predict, if only because the celebrities of yesteryear, whose output was undeniably better than any of the drivel being released today, are dying off. (I mean, whenever, say, Tony Bennett or Betty White dies, the flag should be half-mast! When Sinatra died, I wore black all day! To explain: I was in the seminary, so I was wearing my cassock, specifically receiving my B.A. in Philosophy, which got me nowhere but wherever I am.)

"The beatings will continue until morale improves" [or, if you will, "until morals improve"--and even if they did improve, that wouldn't guarantee anything but greater disillusionment, and more grist for the atheist/anti-theist/hedonist mill]. 

But more than that: grist for the human mill. I grind with the best of 'em.

‘Some find me a sword; some
            The flange and the rail; flame,
        Fang, or flood’ goes Death on drum,
            And storms bugle his fame.
    But wé dream we are rooted in earth—Dust!        85
    Flesh falls within sight of us, we, though our flower the same,
        Wave with the meadow, forget that there must
The sour scythe cringe, and the blear share come.
(G.M. Hopkins, "Wreck of the Deutschland," Stanza 11)

The last spoonful of mirror-directed moralizing on the matter: Excessive luxury of all sorts does not go unaddressed, whether by living or by dying. That's my takeaway from 2016. I'd like to keep it in mind every day.

10 December 2016

Prayer and the Divine Perspective

The following is an upcoming column from my parish bulletin corner. I have published it with the same impatience that might undergird intercessory prayer or Christmas requests.

Youmay have heard of a prayer called “The Saint Andrew Christmas Novena,” which people pray from 30 November (the feast of St. Andrew) to Christmas Day, as often as five times a day. While a novena (from the Latin novem, “nine”) normally goes for nine days, it can refer more broadly to any prayer repeated over a span of time.

Youwanna hear it? Here it goes: Hail and blessed be the hour and moment in which the Son of God was born of the most pure Virgin Mary, at midnight, in Bethlehem, in piercing cold. In that hour, vouchsafe, O my God! to hear my prayer and grant my desires (mention your intentions here), through the merits of Our Savior Jesus Christ, and of His Blessed Mother. Amen.

Prayers like this are a helpful mental and spiritual discipline. Prayer is classically defined as “the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God” (St. John Damascene; cf. CCC 2559). Here the “heart” is not merely the locus of our affections (as in the shorthand “<3”), but also of our thoughts and decisions. So prayer principally raises one’s will to God, following the pivotal petition of the Lord’s own prayer: Thy Will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

When we attentively recite a formulaic prayer in which we can offer a specific need, or when we flat-out ask for this or that in our own words, it is important to remember that we are seeking to conform our wills, if not our preferences, to God’s. And how does God reveal His will, or His preference? In the way things unfold.

Godcertainly does not prefer every human decision, but He does permit the sinful ones in particular because to forbid any and all sin might appear to make for a better world, but not a free world in which people either will or will not participate in the good through loving actions, words, and thoughts.

In our prayer(s), another author has said that our deepest desire, when we dig far enough, is to share in the divine perspective on our person and our needs, which includes the whole network of people and situations that contribute in any manner to our person and our needs. That’s a big perspective, a mysterious one that, finally, we will be treated to in heaven. When we happen to receive glimpses of it along the way, God be praised; but that’s His prerogative to grant when and how He might deem it beneficial for us.

Where is that divine perspective located? At once on the cross of Christ and in the unity of the Trinity, for God the Son embodies total suffering and total love. God has so designed it that love and suffering are “total” insofar as they include yours and mine.

Regarding Christian suffering, Saint Paul said, “In my flesh I make up for what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of His Body, which is the Church” (Col 1:24). Regarding Christian love, again Paul: “[God] encourages us in our every affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God” (2 Cor 1:4; it is appropriate to substitute the word “love” for “encourage/ment” passim).

If we want an answer to that pesky question “Why,” we’d better brace ourselves if we ever got an answer!

13 November 2016

Apocalyptic Pills

The last couple weeks of Ordinary Time and the first couple weeks of Advent feature what we call the “apocalyptic literature” of the Bible. The consummate example of this is the book once known as "The Apocalypse of St. John," more recently called “Revelation.” This style of writing employed an intense imagery and rhetoric to depict the battle going on between God and His celestial enemies. The immediate audience were Christians who were fighting their own battles with enemy nations, especially Rome, the granddaddy of oppressors. The voice of God rose clearly above the din to assure his besieged beloved that He was in charge, that victory would be theirs, and their current anguish would be alleviated.

Apocalyptic literature has been compared to painkillers like Vicodin or Percocet: in the prescribed doses they provide needed relief for seriously distressed people. For those who aren't really in that kind of pain–perhaps, in the spiritual realm, those who only imagine they’re being persecuted–the apocalyptic mindset usually ends up more harmful. It gets them loaded, and makes them lose touch with reality. It can even make them very hard to be around, a challenge to support.

Consider the events of the past week. I don't mean the death of Mrs. T's founder Ted Twardzik or of famed musician Leonard Cohen, as noteworthy as they are; I mean, as you might have guessed, the presidential election. Our nation, and a few others besides, have been holding their breath before and since. Either “holding their breath,” or “hyperventilating”– I'm not really sure. If there's ever been a moment where people of every political stripe have been popping apocalyptic pills, it's now. Popping more and more of them, to less and less good effect. Division and fear rule more than their constituencies care to admit. No wonder the campaign sign for “Giant Meteor” was so popular! I wonder it if got any write-in votes.

In most situations, we’re not advised just to take medicines without attending to what we are currently capable of doing. Pain relief is supposed to promote freedom of movement, but abusers often end up inert or ineffective. St. Paul told the Thessalonians, “If anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat.” Work, with a sense of purpose and direction. The Catholic principle of subsidiarity says that no person or force should do for another what they can do for themselves. More and more it seems that this is a tall order, and the culture of death makes hearts smaller. Forward movement today will require perseverance, by which, St. Paul says, we will secure our lives.

The Lord has not promised a placid and carefree existence, nor does He keep anyone from sowing willful division in their relationships. Jesus spoke His words today as a prediction, and we can see how they have played out. Either way, they are not pleasing to the ears. We must ask: is God God or not? Has Jesus conquered sin, suffering, and death or not? And what’s more, does He not offer us the grace to participate in that victory by, as He put it, “giving testimony”—courageously raising our voices or pens or typing fingers, or raising our hands in prayer or virtuous action, against injustice? By seeking to learn and spread the truth? By loving the unlovable in everyone, and even ourselves, enough to help them recognize the freedom to change?

04 November 2016

Priest, Prophet, and King: The Way of the Church

I promised, did I not, that my weekly parish bulletin columns would make their way onto this blog? I didn't forget; I just remembered later. The delay enables me to group together the last three weeks' reflections on the baptismal anointing into the Lord Jesus' threefold munera (L., "offices," "gifts") of Priest, Prophet, and King/shepherd, which spell out His identity and mission as "Messiah" (Heb, mashiach; Gk, Christos), and become for the Church the sacred tasks of sanctifying, teaching, and governing. 

23 October 2016 — 30th OT C

As Priest we are hard-wired for sacrifice. The priests of the First Covenant offered grain and animals to God in atonement for sin, in thanksgiving for God’s blessings. Our Church’s Catechism quotes an early Christian author who said, “Mankind is a beggar before God.” We cannot help but declare our dependence on God as “giver of breath and bread” (G. M.Hopkins, Wreck of the Deutschland).

According to the early understanding that persists into our day, God gives everything—good and evil. We will say with greater nuance that God permits evil, but we still experience many bad things as “happening to” us. Before the omnipotent Creator of all things we declare our need for repair and redress, our need to persevere in life amid our trials.

We offer the sacrifices of our private prayers of adoration, thanksgiving, contrition, and supplication (“ACTS”). But above all, we participate in the sacrifice of the Church’s common prayer: the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. If we [as individual Catholics, and as a parish; Ed.] are not doing that, we’re simply not firing on all cylinders. 

Our sacrifice of praise includes the confession, or acknowledgment, of our sins! That’s about the most original thing we can offer Him, for our good works come from His inspiration and direction, even though we may not perceive that inspiration and direction. But those works truly become ours. We cooperate with God in carrying them out. “Confession” means acknowledgment: acknowledgment above all of the goodness of our God, Whose love for us extends even unto the forgiveness of our sins and restoration to friendship with Him and our neighbor. If we’re not doing that [i.e. making a regular, conscientious Confession], we’re simply not firing on all cylinders.

30 October 2016 — 31st OT C

From the days of Moses and Elijah up to John the Baptist, God drafted the biblical prophets (Gk pro, "for, on behalf of" + phemi, "to speak"), to their own testimony, against their will– or at least it wasn't their idea to take up prophecy. They considered their call as something that predated the development of their own understanding and freedom: "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you” (Jer 1:5). The initiative is always God’s. But the Prophet always experienced the response as an option– perhaps "an offer he couldn't refuse," at least not without difficulty. Many of the prophets certainly tried to refuse, but the content and drive of prophecy had a certain inexorable urgency to them: God’s word needed to get out!

The Father sent the Son into the world as a continuation of that prophetic tradition, yet with the unique and unrepeatable newness that comes with being God. “Behold, I am doing something new” (Isa 43:19)—these words to Isaiah found in the Christ their definitive fulfillment.

One way the Old Covenant's prophetic continuity shone through with the end that Jesus met: like most of the Prophets before him, he was put to death. To retrofit a famous movie phrase, his listeners couldn't handle the truth. “Humankind cannot very much bear reality” (T.S. Eliot).

In the time of the Church, martyrs have met their Maker in much the same fashion, for much the same reason.

Does the Catholic Church have a “death wish”? On the contrary, we have a Life Wish, in communion with the Lord Jesus, who said, “I came that they may have life, and have it more abundantly” (Jn 10:10). Therefore we continue to proclaim the Gospel of Life and Love in the face of societal and interior forces that militate against life and love, against reality. Our adversaries claim we are the unrealistic ones– the very same claim they levied against Jesus. Whether we shall meet the same end, offering the witness of our lives, will depend on our fidelity to our calling. In any case, we pray that our witness will be the means to renewal in the Church and the world.

6 November 2016 – 32nd OT C

Recall God’s initial reluctance at Israel’s request for a king to rule over them (cf. 1 Sam 8). The dialogue takes place in an all-too-human manner, which I shall paraphrase:

God: “You don’t know what you’re getting into. A king would tax you in ways you might never have imagined. He’ll enlist your sons for his military and your daughters for his harem. Eventually you’ll want the bum out, but it won’t work that way.” Israel: “So what? Everyone else is doing it!” God: “OK—suture yourself!”

Despite Israel’s willful insistence on having a king, and despite those kings’ predictably lascivious, deceptive, and bellicose predilections [think the upcoming election? Ed.], the Lord’s active care never ceased. In the spirit of Moses and David (who acted as both prophets and rulers), the Father sent His Son as the foretold shepherd after God’s own heart (cf. Jer 3:15). The watchful eye of the “Good Shepherd” (Jn 10:11) extends beyond Israel’s borders, even unto the limits of time and space. And “His dominion is vast and forever peaceful” (Isa 9:6), rooted in the security of His relationship with the Father in the Holy Spirit.

Throughout His earthly ministry, Jesus exercised His kingly office “with authority,” but not so as to “lord it over” people with aggression (Mt 20:25). Instead, He embodied the very directive He issued His disciples: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant” (Mt 20:26). Nowhere was this concept of authority as service clearer than His farewell overture in the Upper Room, where He washed the disciples’ feet as an example for them to follow (Jn 13:1-20). Jesus’ activity of healing the sick, forgiving sins, and proclaiming truth derived its force from the Father, and became the substance of the Church’s pastoral care.

Our participation in that ministry has numerous forms; I couldn’t begin to exhaust them in this short space. We could start along the lines of the “Works of Mercy,” both corporal (e.g. giving food to the hungry, visiting the sick or imprisoned, burying the dead) and spiritual (e.g. forgiving all wrongs, instructing the ignorant, praying for living and dead). It also includes efforts to promote justice, as for safeguarding the lives of unborn children, working to improve social conditions that tempt parents to abortion, and assisting in the healing of parents who have chosen abortion.

One does not need to be a priest or sister, or belong to organizations like the St. Vincent de Paul Society or the Knights of Columbus, in order to cooperate in Christ’s ministry of shepherding. But Catholics have found access to shepherding opportunities by entering into a lifelong dedication to the Faith and joining parish associations. It comes down to trusting God and investigating possibilities with an open heart and mind.

21 October 2016


On 4 October I became the Administrator of Saint Michael the Archangel Parish in Minersville (Schuylkill County, Diocese of Allentown, PA). "Administrator" is a euphemism for"Probationary Pastor." Contrary to one friend's supposition, I do not wear an ankle bracelet, even though I'm on probation! With good behavior, eventually I will be named Pastor, though I know not the day nor the hour.

One of the perks of being the head of a Parish is the opportunity to have one's own bulletin column. Readers of "The Shipwrack-Harvest" have noticed my parsimonious posting in the past couple of years.  I am happy to say that my bulletin column and other writings will make their way here, starting with the first three weekly columns below (With slight modifications--Ed.).

+ + + + +

9 October 2016

Dear Family, 

At our Baptism, the priest or deacon smeared the crown of our heads with Sacred Chrism, one of three oils that the diocesan bishop annually blesses for use in the appropriate sacraments. Before the anointing he says, “As Christ was anointed priest, prophet, and king, so may you live always as a member of His Body, sharing everlasting life.” Thus each baptized person participates as priest, by offering the Lord’s saving sacrifice, as prophet, proclaiming His saving Word, and as king, extending care and direction to those in need. Our fidelity to this threefold calling enables us to cooperate in the salvation of others and ourselves. 

What Our Lord accomplishes among all the baptized, happens in a unique manner through the actions and words of His ordained priests. That mystical endeavor began in my life just over thirteen years ago, when Bishop Cullen ordained me a priest of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church in the Diocese of Allentown. Thankful for the confidence of Bishop Barres, on Tuesday I officially began my sixth priestly assignment as Administrator of Saint Michael the Archangel Parish. 

Having served most of my time in Berks County parishes, today I come to you from my hometown of Saint Clair, where I have lived for two years in service to the local hospital and nursing home population (which I will continue to do part-time), with weekend ministry to Saint Clare of Assisi and other county parishes as needed. In June, I assumed additional responsibilities as Assistant Pastor at Saint Clare of Assisi, with the hopes that Msgr. Glosser might help prepare me for eventual appointment to a parish. Let’s just say it came sooner than both of us expected! 

Our founding pastor, Father Adam Sedar, has helped to bring together three parishes of venerable history in Minersville and Heckscherville. My friendship with Father Adam dates back to our time at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, with three highlights: In 1998 I was privileged to play the organ for his first Mass. In 2004 I succeeded him as Chaplain of Reading Central Catholic High School. Now, in 2016, I shall endeavor to continue the good work he has begun among you. 

The Church’s Thursday Night Prayer contains a line that impressed me from my first recitation of it: “The lot marked out for me is my delight; welcome indeed the heritage that falls to me” (Ps 16:6). I want to carry that attitude into every offering of sacrifice, proclamation of the Gospel, and exercise of pastoral care. In turn, I will gain strength from your fidelity to worship and service, as members of Christ’s Mystical Body in union with their Head. We will provide each other many opportunities to grow in holiness, virtue, and joy. May Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom, and Michael, our fearless patron among the heavenly hosts, unceasingly come to our aid!

+ + + + +

16 October 2016

Dear Family,

Several trusted priest advisors have challenged me to devise a “vision” for the parish. What direction ought we go? Who and what are our most valued resources and how shall we harness them? What are our most crucial needs and how do they invite us to change and grow?

While I am not even fully unpacked, it seems vital for all of us together to unpack these and other very important concerns if I am to serve you as you deserve. My words from last week provide a sufficient foundation for any pastoral activity: the people of God, by virtue of our Baptism, are priests of common and personal sacrifice, prophets of faithful and enthusiastic witness, and kings (or ‘shepherds’, if you will) of just and merciful treatment. All worthy parochial endeavors will somehow fall under these categories.

I would like to meet all parishioners involved in the liturgical and temporal aspects of parish life (e.g. Advisory Council, Lectors, Catechists), to find out what is already going on, how I can “plug into” it, and what improvements may seem appropriate. Check this column for more information in the coming weeks.

One aspect of parish life—a very important one, from my vantage point and many others’ as well— merits immediate change in view of my personal health and wellness, also considering my diverse responsibilities to Lehigh Valley Medical Center-Schuylkill and various nursing facilities, assistance to the Federal Correctional Institute- Schuylkill, and the county’s Hispanic Apostolate. I wish to

change the Daily Liturgical Schedule to the following, effective the week of 30 October. Monday: Mass at 5:30pm, preceded by Confessions at 5pm Tuesday: Mass at 8:00am (except for any CCD Masses at 6pm) Wednesday: Mass at 8:00am Thursday: Mass at 8:00am, followed by Adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament until Benediction, Night Prayer, and Miraculous Medal Novena at 6:00pm
Friday: Mass at 5:30pm, preceded by Confessions at 5pm.

I hope that the earlier time of the evening Masses is helpful for those who don’t care to be out too late in the evening, even as those who don’t consider that a problem could make the time for the Lord’s Supper before dinner and other family concerns. I realize that team sports are one such concern, and perhaps even these changes will not be very helpful for families to participate. I thank you in advance for your patience and understanding, and realize that further consideration and modification of this schedule might be necessary.

You will notice that I have added an extra slot for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. If I could envision one concrete positive change for our parish “right out the gate,” it would be an increase in the conscientious celebration of the Sacrament of Penance. I want to make available to all of you, in print and virtual media, a helpful guide to making a good Confession. As a priest, I don’t like to let a few months go by without participating in the sacrament as a penitent, and I firmly believe (on good authority!) that every member of Christ’s Mystical Body should do likewise.

+ + + + +

23 October 2016

Dear Family,

In my inaugural column I specified the three “offices” of Prophet, Priest, and Shepherd-King that Our Lord fulfilled as the Anointed One (Heb, mashiach; Gk. Christos). How do we carry out those roles as they come to us through our baptismal anointing?

As Priest we are hard-wired for sacrifice. The priests of the First Covenant offered grain and animals to God in atonement for sin, in thanksgiving for God’s blessings. Our Church’s Catechism quotes an early Christian author who said, “Mankind is a beggar before God.” We cannot help but declare our dependence on God as “giver of breath and bread” (G. M.Hopkins, Wreck of the Deutschland).

According to the early understanding that persists into our day, God gives everything—good and evil. We will say with greater nuance that God permits evil, but we still experience many bad things as “happening to” us. Before the omnipotent Creator of all things we declare our need for repair and redress, our need to persevere in life amid our trials.

We offer the sacrifices of our private prayers of adoration, thanksgiving, contrition, and supplication (“ACTS”). But above all, we priests participate in the sacrifice of the Church’s commonest common prayer: the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. If we’re not doing that, we’re simply not firing on all cylinders.

Our sacrifice of praise includes the confession, or acknowledgment, of our sins! That’s about the most original thing we can offer Him, for our good works come from His inspiration and direction, even though we may not perceive it. But those works truly become ours. We cooperate with God in carrying them out. “Confession” means acknowledgment: acknowledgment above all of the goodness of our God, Whose love for us extends even unto the forgiveness of our sins and restoration to friendship with Him and our neighbor. If we’re not doing that, we’re simply not firing on all cylinders.

09 August 2016

Global Warning

One morning in fourth grade, I arrived at the bus stop to find that everybody in my year was carrying a social studies project that must have been due that day: balloons covered in papier-mâché and painted with the scene of a globe. Perhaps I had been in another world: either I stuffed the assignment into my subconscious because I didn't know how to make the globe, or I must have forgotten about it altogether.

We've all had the embarrassing experience of forgetting something or of showing up inadequately prepared. Such harrowing experiences moved us to pay more attention in the future, to become willing to ask for help when we needed it, or worst of all, to recoil from further action in fear of making another mistake.

The very last line from the recent weekend's Gospel was the most salient point to register in my mind from the Scripture readings: "Much will be demanded of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.” It sounds like the scenario diocesan priests are facing!

Jesus' words resonate with the Church's recent celebration of World Youth Day, in which Pope Francis challenged the young people of the world not to be "couch potatoes," a term that originated with an older generation that needs to hear that exhortation just as much. He said our God is a God of risk. If there is to be any goodness in the world, God has often orchestrated it to depend on our initiative and follow-through.

As the first reading from Wisdom richly recounted, the people of the First Covenant knew well what it was like to profit from the Lord's saving initiative on their behalf. Ten plagues convinced Pharaoh finally to liberate them from Egypt; "and if that wasn't enough," He parted the waters of the Red Sea so they could pass through safely.

Even though Israel would go through cycles of remembering and forgetting what God had done for them, one after another saving intervention and ungrateful amnesia, Israel still counted those interventions as mercies from the Lord, without which they would not continue it to exist. Even so, our interventions on others' behalf can be the very expressions of divine mercy they need.

We just can't rest on our laurels to expect those expressions of mercy as if we deserved them, yet we certainly can be grateful for them when they occur.

What do we need in order to initiate those acts of mercy? Trust. Jesus issues an astounding assignment: "Sell everything." Don't cling frenetically to your time, talent, or treasure, else it will elude your grasp and be of no good to anyone.

The ultimate due date for our life's assignment is the day of our death, and we cannot place it on our calendar ahead of time. Therefore it will behoove us to pay attention, ask for help, and not be afraid to extend ourselves in love--in a word, to die along the way to death. That way, it won't be such a cause for alarm and disappointment.

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.

+ + + + +

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.

+ + + + +

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!

23 April 2016

Let's Go Reasonably Crazy

2016 is becoming notorious for the barrage of celebrity deaths, especially musicians. Artists as diverse as Keith Emerson and Merle Haggard have arrived at the "double bar" that signals the end of their symphony. This past week, it was Prince Rogers Nelson, known alternately by his given name and his unique symbol.

I noticed by way of this weekend's readings a connection between Prince and the second-century bishop and martyr Irenaeus, who famously said, “The glory of God is man living.” I will do my best to illustrate, before you report me either to the Chancery or to the local Behavioral Health Unit.

The Holy Trinity abides in perfect and ever greater splendor. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit communicate to Each Other the fullness of Love. Such Love moved the divine Persons to create all things outside of themselves as diverse reflections of Their splendid goodness, truth, and beauty. Every created entity--mineral, vegetable, and animal--reflects God's glory by virtue of its existence and through its particular nature. 

Chief among earthly realities is the human person, whose passions, understanding, and freedom enable him to cooperate in creation and indeed love with the depth and breadth nearest to God’s love—that is, when we choose to do so. In such moments and spans we are fully alive, firing on all cylinders: physical, emotional, spiritual, and moral, and thus we radiate God's glory in the most marvelous manner.

Our optimal operation can never be a solitary pursuit of self-fulfillment, simply “becoming who we were meant to be” just for our own sake. Even our solo acts materialize only in communion with our fellow children of God. As we exercise our priestly dominion over other created entities, they thereby  follow our lead, though creation, by being what it is, does a fine job of glorifying God without our help. Yet it always it happens in communion. 

Upon the sudden death of the musician Prince, a line from his 1985 anthem “Let’s Go Crazy” has resurfaced with extra force: “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.” Now, as with any celebrity, if we dug deeper into Prince’s entire library of works and his life, we’d find enough reasons not to admire him--or for that matter, anybody. 

Isn't there a faint echo of the Apostles' admonition in the first reading: "It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God"? Trials of our own making, trials of others' making, trials that come from God-knows-where: all are unavoidable.

To “get through this thing called life,” our well-known artist clearly considers crucial both communion and craziness. There is the unhelpful sort of craziness that subjugates our human capacities, which of course we want to avoid. But if by “craziness” we mean intentional enthusiasm, he’s on to something.

Anyone who has ever attended a wedding reception knows how communion and craziness conspire. The Beloved Disciple, himself a kind of Crown Prince in the heavenly court, describes the eternal scene in terms of a nuptial banquet. In his grand vision he sees the “new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” Something to look forward to, but also to look around for.

Purified by this life’s trials, moved by repentance for our sins, and galvanized by our sacrificial obedience to Jesus’ twofold commandment of love as-He-has-loved-us, we are invited to “go crazy” with an all-consuming joy. The joy of heaven doesn't render this life meaningless, but rather floods it with value and purpose. As channels of the fullness of living, we become signposts of the Gospel, inspirations to change and growth, radiations of God’s glory.

02 April 2016

Divine Mercy: The Treatment For Spiritual Sclerosis

In the 1930s, a Polish nun by the name of Maria Faustina Kowalska experienced numerous revelations from Jesus, the most important of which stressed God’s mercy by two means: a special prayer called the “Chaplet of the Divine Mercy,” and the institution of the Sunday in the Easter Octave as “Divine Mercy Sunday.” 

The chaplet’s use began to take off stateside in the 80s, no doubt catalyzed by the efforts of the late Mother Angelica. In 2000, fellow Pole Saint John Paul II acknowledged Sister Faustina’s revelations by canonizing her—the first saint of the new millennium—and by instituting “Divine Mercy Sunday.”

Whatever one might believe concerning the particulars of the revelations, and whether or not one might pray the chaplet, one simply cannot dispute the centrality of divine mercy in the Christian faith. This is true even in the Hebrew Scriptures, which people traditionally, though wrongly, accuse of presenting a grim and ruthless God, as prone to pettiness as we humans are. Consider, among other places, this day’s responsorial psalm, where the sacred speaker praises the Lord’s saving action on his behalf: “I was hard pressed and was falling but the Lord helped me” (118:13). In another psalm, “His mercy endures forever” is the refrain that runs throughout. 

You may retort, “I thought the line was, ‘His love is everlasting’?” Well, what do the Dutch say: “Macht nichts" (Makes no difference)? Indeed, mercy and every other divine quality—even justice—is a reflection of the single, simple ray of Love, such that the only difference we make of it is but a reflection of our human complexity.

Mercy is the decision not to define us entirely according to our instances of unloving. As the second half of the Latin word misericordia suggests, mercy is a matter of the heart, which, according to Scripture, is not the place of feeling, but of identification and decision. It’s where we are. In our wretchedness and lack, God will be all. 

Contrary to classic Lutheran doctrine, we are not totally corrupt. Insofar as God created us, we are good; we can never lose that identification with God and goodness, even though grave sin may harden our arteries to the point where love has no apparent way to flow. In such a sad soul, hell has begun well before physical death. If we identify our need and our desire for love and present ourselves to the Divine Physician, God can put in a stent or even bypass our spiritual sclerosis.

What is both mysterious and consoling is the supreme trust God has placed in His holy Catholic Church to dispense Divine Mercy primarily through the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation, as well as Eucharist and Anointing of the Sick. From the time of Peter and the other Apostles, the Lord entrusted us fallible, human priests with the authority and command to forgive sins. The first reading from the Acts of the Apostles depicts the many physical healings that took place at the Apostles’ hands. Peter’s shadow continues to fall upon the penitent who approaches with faith and reverence to be renewed in Christ’s abundant life.

Mercy further flows through the actions and words of the disciple who knows that forgiveness personally. “As the Father has sent me,” Jesus says, “so I send you. And when he had said this,” Saint John tells us, “He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” to forgive and retain sins. And by the way, the only sins that are “retained” are those for which no forgiveness has been sought. In such a case, genuine forgetfulness to confess is not the issue; shameful pride is the real “silent killer.” 

Do not, then, define yourself or anyone else in terms of sin, as “drunkenness incarnate” or “spitefulness incarnate” or “unbelief incarnate” or “pornography incarnate” or “theft incarnate” or “abortion incarnate,” for that is not who you are. Always, always, trust that you remain “God’s beloved,” one whom God desires to forgive, heal, and restore to His love and life.

22 January 2016

I Beg Your Indulgence

Starting off a post or speech with a dictionary definition is considered a cliché, so I will operate somewhat differently with this treatment of indulgences. They are considered a controversial concern among Catholics and our separated brethren, so much so that one hardly hears of them anymore. But that hasn't stopped the Catholic Church from offering and promoting indulgences, so we would do well to reflect upon their nature and purpose. This is especially the case in view of Pope Francis' declaration of a special "Jubilee Year of Mercy" and the particular indulgences that one can gain "for a limited time only."

I shall offer piecemeal the definition that Pope Paul VI offered in his 1967 (post-Vatican II!) apostolic constitution Indulgentiarum Doctrina, cited in the second edition (2000) of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Washington: USCCB. §1471).

As you might expect, it starts, "An indulgence is..." My commentary follows each segment, as you also might expect.
Here is the entire definition, posted to minimize scrolling: "An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints." "An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin." The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead.
a remission before God
Before the definition proper, the CCC entry reminds us: "The doctrine and practice of indulgences in the Church are closely linked to the effects of the sacrament of penance." The sacrament of penance is, and forever shall be, the ordinary forum in which the Triune God imparts His mercy to Catholics. Here a duly-authorized priest declares,
God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son, has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace; and I absolve you of your sins (+) in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There'd be no reason for Jesus to declare to the apostles on the night of His resurrection, "Whose sins you forgive shall be forgiven them" (Jn 20:23), if He was not thereby entrusting them with the gift, mystery, and responsibility of mercy. As a hospital chaplain whose daily docket includes many marginal Catholics, I often find myself--I hate to use the word, "defending," but certainly presenting the rationale for sacramental reconciliation. It's a planting of seeds.

of the temporal punishment due to sins
Modern educational movements have moved away from the notion of punishment in favor of "consequences," suggesting that the teacher isn't being a meanie by taking away recess privileges for talking out of line or giving a zero grade for cheating. Rather, teacher and students mutually understand Y is what happens when you do X: it "follows" as a consequence of the disharmony and is not so much doled out as a punishment. Carrying the idea into the theological realm: God isn't displaying cruelty by sending an unrepentant sinner to hell; the descent into hell is the logical next and final step that such a person would take.

Cf. CCC 1472: "To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the "eternal punishment" of sin. On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the "temporal punishment" of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain." (emphasis mine)

"Temporal": this has not to do not merely with clock time (L tempus; or in Gk, kronos) but with any earthly effects of sin upon the sinner himself or those whom he has wronged. These consequences also can extend beyond the end of this life in "purgatory." When a harm is wrought, the virtue of justice (divine as well as human) demands satisfaction for that harm.

whose guilt has already been forgiven
The classic example is of the boy who breaks a window by throwing a baseball through it. His parents forgive him, but his parents rightly insist he pay for the window. The Sacrament of Penance (Reconciliation) forgives our sins, but we are granted the grace of cooperating with our restoration so we can "own" it. As with much else in life, we can't often take full or even partial credit for what we have, except that we were receptive to it. Forgiveness is, by God, "what we have."

There is another dimension of our past sins that may haunt us: in this life we cannot fully know the "ripple effects" of every sinful action or failure to act. Spiritual, emotional, and even physical consequences, extending around us and through generations, can serve to remind us of what we, or others, have done. When the past action is ours, we pray for mercy upon ourselves and for those we may have harmed; when the past action is another's, we pray for the person(s) and for all who have been affected or may yet be affected by them. Here, "it's the thought that counts," really does count for something, when it is united to the Divine Mind and Will.

The Devil is known to capitalize upon our realization of those temporal effects as they unravel, so that they become a source of torment and discouragement. Under the mantle of Our Lady and her Son, we need not be utterly confounded by the effects of our sins upon us and others, though we may shake our head and shed a tear at times. We must know this for certain and be assured of it: what we have confessed with sincere sorrow, God has forgiven and forgotten. When ripple effects unfold, we must persevere in the life of grace, doing the next right thing as promptly and quietly as possible, making interior declarations ("acts") of faith in the Lord's power and mercy toward us.

which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed
The "faithful Christian" does his or her best to observe the "precepts of the Catholic Church": attending Mass and receiving the Eucharist, observing the Church's disciplines regarding fasting and abstinence from meat, contributing to the temporal needs of the Church as generously as circumstances allow. To be "faithful" is not to be "perfect," but to be moving toward perfection by way of persistence, trust, and compassion. Due disposition to the reception of indulgences is nothing less than being "in the state of grace," to the best of one's awareness.

This last matter too can become an occasion of anxiety. Doubtless you've heard the story of Saint Joan of Arc: when her captors tried to torment her by asking whether she was in the state of grace, she famously and pithily replied, "If I am, may God keep me there; if I am not, may He put me there." If we are not aware of an unconfessed grave sin, we are likely in the state of grace.

Modern catechesis has eschewed that last phrase, perhaps objecting to a static understanding of spirituality as a "condition" or to sacraments as "things." Although the sacraments have a necessary, constitutive material dimension, they are expressions of our living relationship with the Triune God.

gains under certain prescribed conditions
These conditions traditionally include: being in the state of grace, going to Confession within a reasonable time period before or after the indulgenced prayer or action, and praying for the intentions of the Holy Father (see the website of the Apostleship of Prayer for details). Intentionally desiring the indulgence seems necessary, too; if I wanted to stretch the possibilities, I would say that a habitual interest in gaining indulgences, together with a regular reception of Confession, suffices. Here as elsewhere, the more mindful we are, the better.

through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority
Just as sacramental absolution occurs "through the ministry of the Church" (see above), so does the Church carry out the activity of indulgences by Our Lord's directive. If you were to ask, "By His explicit directive?" meaning, "Is that in the Bible? Huh?" I would have to answer, "There are many words not explicitly found in the Bible, but there are many concepts that the Church's Tradition and Magisterium have given flesh to through 2,000 years of experience and reflection." Purgation of our temporal attachment to and punishment for sin is one of these realities. Sure, we can mention "Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny" (Mt 5:26) as a reference to the thorough fulfillment of just sentences. And we can get into the atonement sacrifice offered in 2 Maccabees, but it wouldn't much matter if you don't admit that book as canonized Scripture. We might as well pack up our marbles and go home, because I've lost my chops for argumentation. I'm liable to just stick out my tongue at you and walk away, thereby meriting more purgation.

Who would dare to affirm that he or she is fully prepared to participate in the Life of the Trinity? If I were to die today, I wouldn't be so prepared; but (Thou knowest, O Lord!) I believe, hope, pray that I would be disposed to that Life. God knows how I need to be cleansed of my many and profound attachments to sin.

Much of the contention about indulgences centers on this phrase the Church...minister of redemption. "Do you affirm that Jesus formed, instituted, and authorized the Apostles, their successors, coworkers, and followers as the very Church that continues the saving work of His Kingdom in the world?" That is the crucial question; if it sounds legalese, that's how I write. An affirmative answer will render indulgences not merely palatable, but rather worthwhile and helpful in our personal participation in the redemptive endeavor.

the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.
This clause follows the "crucial question" posed just above. If "Jesus formed...the Church that continues the saving work of His Kingdom in the world," then how exactly does the Church do that? Each person's daily perseverance in holiness and mission is like a coin in the pot of "satisfactions of Christ and the saints." Head and members are all in on it. Naturally (Grace-fully) Jesus' contribution--His life, Passion and atoning Death--is primary. A close second is the life and com-passion of Our Lady. But the bond of Baptism unites all the baptized to the Head in such a way that our moral and sacramental lives, including our repentances, form the significant contribution of redeemed humanity.

We gain indulgences by offering works of prayer and/or charity that we intentionally unite to the work of Christ and the Saints in cooperation with the salvation of the world. Prayers and other good actions share in the eternal merit of God's action for us. All goodness comes from God. And yet, nobody forces us to do what we do. We experience our free will in the very exercise of it; we are not in fact being moved about like a marionette as we go about doing good (or evil!). Therefore our participation in the world's goodness is actual...and "satisfactual," precisely because God, the Source and Motive of all Goodness, is at work in us as we work.

While not every act of virtue is an indulgence per se, it is a participation in Christ's action that is of some use to the execution of His redemptive plan for humanity. Indulgences are what one might call the "blue-light specials" of the already-great savings offered by our commerce in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. They are specially offered opportunities to intentionally unite our prayers and sacrifices to Christ for the good of ourselves and others.

An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin.
Unresolved temporal punishment due to sin is the stuff that God purifies from the soul through our acceptance of the trials of this life and through the residual, mysterious work of Purgatory. The power of Confession is such that all sin is forgiven, except in the case where a person intentionally withholds a sin out of shame or pride, which invalidates the whole confession. We traditionally say that such an unworthy Confession is sacrilegious, because it defies the purpose of Confession and flouts the proper exercise of it (i.e. honest thoroughness).

It is a good practice to have in mind as a habitual intention the forgiveness of all forgotten sins. In this matter we simply ask God's help and do the best we can at the moment. It is unnecessary and unhelpful to re-confess particular sins, except in the context of discussion with a priest-spiritual director when you are unpacking the previously unrecognized crevices of the past. And even there, a good confessor will urge caution, because the line between conscientiousness and scrupulosity is wafer-thin.
Would that people become more conscientious without descending into scrupulosity! The latter is not a sin, but rather a mental wound, a species of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, which more than errs on the side of conscientiousness in favor of a debilitating level of attention. Our addiction-prone world might more quickly favor casualness or laxity in some matters--though this suggestion may itself reflect the "all-or-nothing" thinking so familiar to addicts. Most well-meaning people, I suppose, fall somewhere along the spectrum of laxity-to-scrupulosity. And even there you will find inconsistencies in how individuals demonstrate along the spectrum, depending on what interests them. Such is life.
The textbook (Enchiridion, Greek for "item in the hand") on Indulgences was revised a few decades ago, establishing two categories of indulgences. "Plenary," the full remission of temporal punishment, was already around. "Partial" was the umbrella term that took in previous values such as days, years, and "quarantines" (forty-day stints) that had been assigned to prayers and actions. Certain prayers (e.g., "My Jesus, Mercy!"), known as ejaculations (because you kinda just "threw them out there"--Latin e, out of + jacere, to throw), might have received "300 days, once a day," or "300 days, each time [said]", or "7 years and 7 quarantines," depending on how the Church had classified them.

Numeric values could lead to a legalistic notion of gaining indulgences akin to that national debt clock that just keeps on increasing. Of course we want to pray regularly and mindfully; St. Paul urged us to pray "without ceasing" (1Th 5:16). That exhortation provides the background for the Desert Dwellers' famous "Jesus Prayer," which people to this day are known to recite, sometimes with the aid of knotted prayer ropes not unlike rosaries.

But if you thought the numbers were supposed to be "time off Purgatory," as if praying 30 "My Jesus, Mercy"s would rack up 3,000 fewer days you or the intended recipient would spend in Purgatory, you're wrong.

In the early centuries of the Church, "they" say that sacramental reconciliation tended to be reserved for graver sins (e.g. adultery), and graver sinners celebrated it on relatively few occasions in comparison to the ideal current practice. Penances were assigned and conducted publicly. They were exercises in humility: you might have stood outside where the community gathered for worship and asked their prayers.

Numerical values previously assigned to indulgenced prayers had some connection to the sentence-penances levied in the early Church. As the sacrament developed into the "auricular" (by ear) form we use today, some person or committee or whoever--probably over the course of time--attached numerical values to prayers. I guess there was a relative increase in value according to the content of the prayer or the action. I don't believe Confessors or ecclesiastical tribunals wrote up any kind of "invoice" for sins with corresponding penances, but it would not surprise me if such were the case, somewhere.

Charitable contributions are numerical in nature, especially when they deal with "legal tender." Can you see, then, what might give rise to the practice of promoting charitable contribution on the basis that it would relieve one's post-mortem purgation? Can you see how Dominican friar Johannes Tetzel's infamous alleged line, "When a penny in the coffer rings, another soul from Purgatory springs" could be subject to diverse, usually unfavorable interpretations throughout the vagaries of history (not unlike modern-day soundbites)? [It was originally in German, so it must have sounded even more curious.] Now we can surmise that there was some grace-graft going on, perhaps a lot of it; but we affirm that it definitely was a corruption of a good thing.

The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead.
And so, we must keep in mind the big picture: every prayer, every self-denial, and every offering participates in the goodness and mercy of God. Baptized Christians are granted the special privilege (and isn't every privilege a responsibility and a summons?) of "participating in the goodness and mercy of God" by intentional, profound repentance and regular Confession, by faithful reception of the Eucharist, and by prayer/service for the Church/world to whom they belong--in other words, by being a Catholic.

We can intend that the merits of Christ and the saints be applied to ourselves. It sounds like "banking" against the day of the Lord. Be extremely careful of the legalism of which this smacks. God is not mocked. Conscious and free participation in vice doesn't just get wiped away by mouthing prayers and doing good things for show. Can people benefit from those prayers and works? Sure, but "the Lord sees into the heart" (1 Sam 16:7, cf. Mt 6:6), and He is well known for bringing good out of evil even as the perpetrator of evil deserves--and the evil itself demands--redress.

It would seem to me that every prayer, self-denial, and offering of ours benefits us in some fashion. "The measure with which you measure will in turn be measured out to you" (Mt 7:2, one of the closest articulations to karma we have). Or again, "Wisdom is vindicated by her works" (Mt 11:19). Wouldn't it be best to think of others in need first, even if it suffices to give to "Father's Discretionary Fund," for God to distribute to whom He wills? If we need it, we can trust that we'll get it. After all, it is God's own life and love--Grace--which is not a thing anyhow, but a love-relationship.

The dead in-process-of-purification are the primary intended recipients of indulgences. We who still have legitimate control over our actions and affections want to express unto the dead the solidarity that for thousands of years has galvanized the Communion of Saints to do that thing they do. If we had any say in it, we'd hope that the intensity and duration of their mysterious post-mortem purification be no more than necessary. Of course, we should figure that our just God would want it that way, too; but the unification of our desire with God's is, after all, the aim of all prayer and charity.

Post-mortem purification is, at depth, a mystery. Nevertheless it contains within itself the seed and promise of life with the Trinity. The Being-Purified are being purified for something--the something which turns out to be everything. The dogma of purgatory is a corollary to the reality and relevance of sin. It further speaks to the justice that God and sin demand of sin's practitioners. But it pertains most of all to the mercy of God, who "desires that no one perish, but that all be saved and come to the knowledge of truth" (1 Tim 2:4).

Here is a splendid reflection on this subject matter, to which is attached another helpful primer on indulgences.