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

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.