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

07 December 2018

Pride: “I Will Not Serve”

The deadliest of the deadly sins requires the most vital remedy: Christ the humble King is the antidote to the Pride of the lion. “For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that for your sake He became poor although He was rich, so that by His poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). Of course, there is the desire to avoid the fall before which pride goeth (cf. Prov 16:18)—a desire motivated by a healthy enough dose of pride...and prudence. 


Unhealthy pride registers as a pronounced preoccupation with self that makes us alternately disappointed or fascinated. Superiority and inferiority have their respective dangers. “What are other people saying or thinking about me?” is a heavily-traveled road. In order to drive on that road, we find ourselves exaggerating, or desiring to impress. Our knowledge, our talents, our resources become a tool for shaping perceptions rather than serving for service’ sake.

Our fair land seems forever embroiled in a conflict of some sort. Remarkable, though, is the drama of the angelic conflict of Lucifer and Michael, which didn’t really involve a sword. Rather, while Lucifer declared he would not serve, effectively making himself out to be God, Michael responded, “Who is like God?“—the meaning of his name. The truth was spoken, the untruthful angels had a great fall, and the rest is salvation history.

Subtle is the soul’s campaign to become the sole arbiter of good and evil. Before the first human sin was the first angelic sin: Lucifer’s refusal to worship as God desires. “I will not serve!” was his anthem. Note that, while the angelic will and intellect are so supreme as to manifest in a single act of choosing and knowing, we humans thankfully move about from one act to another, giving us the very possibility of repentance.

The 1992 Supreme Court decision “Planned Parenthood v. Casey” astoundingly declared, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.“ Come again? 

How this decision disastrously unfurls: I recently read that 45% of all 2011 U.S. pregnancies were unintended. That information came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Human life, a disease! The Catholic Church still doggedly claims that reproductive “freedom” (aka contraception) is not the answer to the irresponsibility and violence that mostly men perpetuate: we have to dig deeper.

The preceding reflections on the capital sins did not observe the order that Bishop Barron rightly employed in his talks. Take the initials of my reverse movement, and you have the acronym PALE GAS: Pride, Anger, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Avarice, and Sloth. Like a pale gas, any of these sinful trends can begin to characterize our attitudes and behaviors, and finally suffocate us. Through the “breathing treatment” of repentance, however, a new air can inhabit our souls.

06 December 2018

Avarice: Private Exceptions, Common Good

Contrary to the antagonizing protagonist of the movie “Wall Street,” greed, also known as Avarice, is not good. Among the capital sins it may not be the worst, but the immoderate or unreasonable desire for riches hampers our pursuit of the kingdom of God.


The Catholic Church is no foe of private property or the entrepreneurial spirit. She is the BFF of the common good and those who care about it more than their wealth. Such persons value stewardship over ownership, holding over grasping. They ask what they can do with what they have for their God and neighbor.

Pope Leo XIII, considered the father of Catholic social teaching, said, “Once the demands of necessity and propriety have been satisfied, the rest belongs to the poor.“ That statement serves as a scathing examination of conscience upon what we own and how we dispose of it.

Bishop Barron channels Saint Thomas Aquinas when he affirms the doctrine of creation as the basis for the Church’s teaching on the use of material wealth. God made the world and everything in it. Everything we have comes from God and is best directed God-ward. Say what you will about Rush Limbaugh, but I’ve always admired his slogan, “Talent on loan from God“ because, whether or not you think he has any talent, if he does, it is. Likewise for the rest of us.

Avarice, therefore, definitely deals with nonmaterial entities; in such cases it is especially related to envy because it is motivated by the fear of inadequacy. Who says you’re not enough? Our fundamental insecurity is one not-to-be-overlooked aspect of original sin; it plays out in all of the deadly sins.

Francis Cardinal George, former Archbishop of Chicago, once spoke to a gathering of prominent donors in his archdiocese. He said to them, “The poor need you to draw them out of poverty; and you need the poor to keep you out of hell.“ Consider also the Lord Jesus’ famous dictum, “The poor you will always have with you” (Mt 26:11). The materially and spiritually poor, if you are open to them, will appear throughout your life in different disguises as aids to your salvation.

The poor in spirit seek out persons and situations that bring them closer to God and virtue. Saint Augustine described the sinful human condition as “curvatus in se” (bent in upon oneself). Nowhere is that condition more evident than in the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32): by demanding his father‘s inheritance, he effectively treated him as if he were already dead. Perhaps, when that son returned home, he began to look beyond himself, and find something of heaven.

God’s Gift

Ipse nos tibi perficiat munus æternum

May He [i.e., Christ] make of us an eternal offering to You[, Father] (Third Eucharistic Prayer)

 ⸁ὃ δέδωκάς μοι (John 17:24, NA28)

That which You have given Me [i.e., The disciples, to the Son by the Father]

Both phrases – the liturgical and the biblical – refer to human beings as gifts being given to God.

In both phrases, God is both the giver and the receiver of us: (1) The Son presents us to the Father by the Spirit’s power, and (2) the Father has presented us to the Son.

Sometimes we hear the disparaging assertion that someone believes he or she is “God’s gift to the world.“ The temptation to pride is so close to the human heart because this prideful declaration is so close to, yet so far from, the truth.

05 December 2018

Lust: The Destroyer of Community

Lust might often be considered the most deadly of the seven capital sins, but to Dante and Catholic theology, it is the least deadly perhaps because it involves the least amount of malice – that is to say, when employed in its “purest“ form without the urge for power.

Recall, Bishop Barron says, sexual pleasure is something that God wants human beings to enjoy; it is necessary for married couples to carry out their divine mission; for that reason perhaps it is so easy to twist. How we bandy about the term “love,” over-identifying it with elated feelings or physical states. What potential hides within sexuality and sexual expression – potential for good or evil!

Lust is the excessive craving of the pleasures of the body. It treats a human being (another, or self) not as a person worthy of her or his own regard, but as a tool for satisfying sexual urges. Lust uses people for what can be extracted from them, and sexual gratification is probably the easiest quality to separate from personhood.

The multi-billion dollar industry of pornography centers around the objectification of individuals by one another. The cult of celebrity, tabloid magazines (“scandal rags”), and certain kinds of “reality” television indirectly emerged from porn, I would say, because of their intense focus on glamour, drama, manipulation, and humiliation. Relationships with these characteristics might somehow, somewhere trace them to porn use.

It’s all a distancing from reality as it is. Life and our uncomfortable feelings around actual human relationships demand addressing, but like similarly charged magnets, we resist and repel. Fantasy is easier, and its avenues plentiful.

We are created in and for real communion. Marriage is the privileged path to sustained sharing in the prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of another. For the human race as a whole, sexual activity within a covenant bond is necessary. But marriage is no mere outlet for sexual interest, nor celibacy a refuge from it. Whether it flowers in marriage or intentional celibacy, the integration of sexuality is crucial for peace.

“For peace”? At the 1994 National Prayer Breakfast, Mother Teresa declared abortion the greatest threat to world peace. Abortion, that fruit of lust and power, reveals and fosters unrest in the lives of everyone involved. Though it may seem like a pardon from a sentence, abortion levies a sentence of its own. But for every lust-power offense there is always healing, the gradual work toward a new awareness of one’s dignity and the earnest pursuit of chastity.

Authentic, inspiring community helps provide that healing. Whether it is transparency in the marital relationship, in counseling, a twelve-step program or friendship, active participation purifies human hearts. God-at-work-in-community gives people power to sever from their lives whatever enslaves them and warps their regard for self and others.

04 December 2018

Envy: Fearing I Am Not Loved

We turn now to Envy, defined by St. Thomas as “sorrow at another person’s good”; or, captured exquisitely by author Gore Vidal, “When a friend of mine succeeds, something of me dies.” The other side of it is schadenfreude, pleasure taken in another person’s failure. It is the “closest daughter of pride,” Thomas would say. My take on that: like pride, envy tries to establish Who I Am To Judge others as worse or better than I.


From the vantage point of our Creator, we are equal recipients of love, fundamentally connected to each other as organs working for a body. God is Love, and that Love is not partial—not favoring one over another, never fragmentary. But we unfinished symphonies tend to look at ourselves in the incomplete moment, “as in a glass darkly” (1 Cor 13:12, now “dimly, as in a mirror”). Lacking the full story of ourselves and others, we see others’ projected selves through the prism of what we can barely tell of our insides. At the root of this and all sin is the fear that I am not loved into and through my existence.

The possible motives for envy include traits, status, abilities, achievements, situation or relationships. Maybe someone else has what we want; maybe we cannot or will not expend the necessary effort to obtain it. Envy leaves us diminished by others’ successes and pleased for their deprivation, even if it doesn’t result in our enrichment. It is hard in envious moments to realize that good is not divided by being multiplied.

There is a rampant sense of entitlement out there/in here. Life simply is not fair. Nobody owes us anything. Expectations do not automatically or necessarily match reality. This ends up being something to “grieve” like any loss, though not without also denying, bargaining, and hopefully accepting (other dimensions of grief).

Scapegoating is a product of envy. Undermining, blaming, isolating, gossiping about others, all follow from it. We can see how envy lies at the root of so much violence. Think of the bullets and bombs that men have discharged over the past couple of years.

The counter to envy is admiration. Look around at the traits, status, abilities, etc. of others (especially those you think you don’t have, or have “less” of) as one fellow member of Christ’s Body rejoicing in the other. Make a point of acknowledging those gifts to the person. Publicly note a good quality of a person being vilified, in the very midst of a gossip session you “happen to be” in. Revel in the differences around you and cherish your unique role in salvation history.

At the Wedding Feast of Cana, when the wine ran out, Mary was lovingly detached from whatever excitement an envious person might derive from that awkward situation. Instead, she did something about it: she took the matter to Jesus. There is always something we can do to improve our situation. Praise and service are good examples.

03 December 2018

Gluttony: Everybody’s Got a Hungry Heart

Editorial note: The ideas and packaging in this series about the seven deadly sins come from two sources: 1. Bishop Robert Barron’s series, “Seven Deadly Sins / Seven Lively Virtues” (wordonfire.org); 2. A talk I prepared several years ago for a theology presentation.

I just can’t get enough of talking about Gluttony. Alongside lust, it is considered among the “least” deadly of the deadly sins because it involves the domination of reason by the passions more than a twisting of ego; it is more a problem of weakness than malice.

Gluttony is immoderate or unreasonable pleasure in food and drink. Our nation’s tendency to obesity is definitely a physical and psychological problem, but at depth it is spiritual. By extension this vice applies to other practices and substances we consume, things that end up consuming us. Entertainment comes quickly to mind. The latest iOS update allows you to monitor the “screen time” you and your family spend. How would you and I feel if those amounts were published?

Out of a sense of entitlement and even plain old enjoyment, we might “treat ourselves,” and this is not evil; but we must honestly consider how much attention, time, and money we devote to particular agents in our lives. The lack of satisfaction tempts us to try more of what finally cannot satisfy the interior hunger for communion with God and others. When our usage of finite goods distracts us from serving the common good and the infinite good, we have a problem. Modern language might suggest we have an addiction.

For all this, we are not Puritans. Catholic writer Hilaire Belloc famously declared, “Wherever a Catholic sun doth shine / there’s music and laughter and good red wine / At least I have always found it so: / Benedicamus Domino! [Bless the Lord!]” Like Catholic liturgy, Catholic life-in-general enjoys a certain sober frivolity. Because we take life seriously, we can have fun with it: another paradox for you.

Asceticism is the discipline of our incessant juvenile desires. We want to develop a plan of eating, drinking, and exertion that provides us greater energy, strength, and endurance. Mature regulation of the lesser goods, Bishop Barron notes, will allow the greater goods (e.g., literature, friendship, science, the quest for God) to emerge. Rightly we’d chafe at whipping ourselves in the style of medieval monks, but an hour on an exercise apparatus or the skipping of one meal might seem nearly as torturous. Are we as willing to discipline ourselves for the service of spiritual values as we are for physical health and appearance?

Twenty years ago a retreat director suggested I give up coffee; whether permanently or temporarily, I cannot recall, as I was so traumatized by the thought. What did that say about coffee; about my attachment to coffee; about me? A good question to ask is, “What do we hold onto?” It applies to physical enjoyments and spiritual pursuits alike.

In Dante’s Purgatorio, the gluttonous are made to quote the 51st Psalm: “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare Your praise.” We open our lips to ingest, and to suggest (disciplining our speech applies here!)—but the praise of God is the best purpose for the mouth God gave us, and it’s always a good substitute for overindulgence.

02 December 2018

Anger: The Explosion, The Slow Boil

Anger is a normal human experience. It’s a function of hurt: scratch one, sniff the other. As we will see with all of these deadlies, the problem is taking them to excess, or to defect. That’s right: the extremes can go in either direction. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, sinful anger is an immoderate and irrational desire for revenge.

It’s funny in a tragic way that even Christians take the Old Testament “eye for an eye” prescription as normative for their own experience—or rather, they take their misreading, and take it long and deep. The original intent was that one should not exact any more than the harm one had incurred: in other words, not a life for an eye, an arm and a leg for an arm. Left to ourselves, Mark Shea writes, “the ancient Israelites were…barbarians just like us.”

Our anger can run hot with explosiveness, hostility, and fury, or it can run cold with denial, resentment, or depression (“anger turned inward”). Left untreated, I think it shows up as the headaches and stomachaches we often get without detectable cause. Anger comes out sideways as sarcasm, which registers very high in these troubled times, especially in the social media. Passive aggression retains the level exterior but thinly masks volatility, lending daggers to smiles.

Anger is very much tied up with unmet expectations, either regarding the past (resentment) or the future (fear). Parents know well the tantrums of childhood that can stop cold shopping, worshipping, or just about any other pursuit. No foe of calculated chaos, I threw my fair share, and repent of it to this day whenever I see one in action. As adults, our tantrums usually just get a bit more sophisticated. They can give quite a rush.

We have to admit the inadequacy of the lex talionis (law of like-for-like), the (un?)intended result of perpetuating the cycle of guilt, shame, and rage in our world. In place of sinful anger, we are invited to insert humility, courage, and forgiveness. In the face of human sin, Jesus responds with anger channeled into mercy. He allows mankind’s violent streak to strike Him, upon the holy and life-giving Cross, where alone it ends up accomplishing untold good.

To Jesus we can offer our own sadness, fear, and resentment—but not “just” to Jesus. What do I mean? We don’t want prayer to become a “holy” way of stuffing down what ends up coming out sideways and shamefully. For me, safe conversation, exercise, and creativity help me deal with life’s real or perceived inequalities. They can help you too.

19 November 2018

Sloth: Get Around To It!

For this series on the Seven Capital Sins, I figured I’d better start with Sloth, lest I never get around to it. I haven’t gotten around to reading more than the first couple cantos of the Purgatorio of Dante’s Divine Comedy, around which Bishop Barron and Mark Shea base their series, so I’ll have to take their word [“on fire”; wordonfire.org] for it.

Midway through Dante’s odyssey up the mountain of Purgatory he finds the domain of those whose hearts have become indifferent to divine realities. Sloth classically was called “the noonday devil” (cf. Ps 91:6) because it can be likened to the lassitude that lassos you at that point in the day, the dip in glucose that starts you nodding. 

Yet sloth is more than “Sluggishness, Unspecified” (what would be the medical billing code for that?), for the slothful person seems to marshal more than enough resources for earthly pursuits like internet surfing and other addictions. Another term is “acedia,” from the Greek a (privative form meaning “not” or “without”) + kedos, “care”): fitting because the slothful person simply cares not for spiritual matters. If he cared enough, he’d pay time and attention. (Starting to sound like a relationship, isn’t it? But that’s what God desires and deserves from us.)

One anonymous writer noted how sloth is usually disguised as a five-syllable word: procrastination. My favorite method of procrastinating is rearranging furniture. Over the years if I had a difficult task ahead of me, I’d suddenly start moving couches and books. I seemed to implement spatial plans with aplomb, but I couldn’t get in optional or even mandatory prayers. 

Swiftness in one area of life doesn’t make up for tardiness or inactivity in another. To borrow from a sage sacerdotal figure in my life, we can’t neglect mandatory things in favor of optional ones. True, the occasional “change-up pitch” can start good habits, but all change-ups and no fastballs gets you replaced in the top of the fifth. We may putz around waiting for an “ideal” time to do something, but it just ain’t gonna happen. Sloth often serves as a thin veil for guilt, anxiety, and the sense of failure that only gets stronger. “My delay will eventually become my decision.”

Spiritual disciplines need not become immense, but only consistent. Doing something every day with and for the Lord, however small, can become a channel of grace. One discipline has been undertaken for us by Father Austin Fleming of the Archdiocese of Boston. He hosts a blog called “A Concord Pastor Comments” (concordpastor.blogspot.com). Sign up for and read his daily richly prayerful and playful emails. Alternately, try praymorenovenas.com, where you can get signed up for numerous nine-day prayer exercises throughout the year. Just as one click can eventually get you down a terrible rabbit hole, it also can start you along sound habits of Catholic prayer and study.

Capital Offenses

For the next seven posts, patient reader, I shall wax on the seven “capital” or “deadly” sins. Mindful of the famous dictum of my Hebrew patron Qoheleth, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecc 1:9), I acknowledge most of this material is not original. For that matter, most sin is unoriginal, too—a dreadfully boring venture. My sources are a presentation I composed years ago for an eighth grade class, and a video/study guide by Bishop Robert Barron and Mark Shea. Someday the parish will air the series since they can express these realities better than I can.

Consideration of virtue must accompany any words about sin; we can’t eat the literal hole of the donut (not the Dunkin’ kind). In philosophy, sin is called a “privation”: a lack of good that ought to be present but is not. Evil parasitically resides within good entities. Recall I described illness in similar terms in my earlier column on Anointing of the Sick, as a deficit in health that nonetheless persists to varying degrees insofar as a person is living.

The Good News isn’t just a response to the Bad News; the two are not on equal footing (except for *the* [daily, “Breaking”] news, where it seems the bad holds sway). Rather, the Bad News comes from people who, at least at some point in their lives, and likely even at present, have contributed to the Good News. By “Good News” I obviously mean the Gospel par excellence, though it extends also to “favorable reports.”

The Good News in our regard is (drumroll, please): we exist! Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI fondly reminds people of the goodness of their existence, thanks to a wise and loving God. God doesn’t need us, yet He chooses to create and sustain human beings and everything else to further manifest His generous goodness, truth, and beauty. Saint John pithily reminds us that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8), so everything God does is an act, or as it were an “episode,” of love. 

The good of our existence is a given, but paradoxically not something we ought take for granted. Saint Thomas Aquinas described love as “willing the good of the other as other,” and acting accordingly. “As other” means we choose in ways that promote the good of the other for their own sake and not merely for whatever benefit we might get out of it; otherwise, deep down, we are really just loving ourselves in and through them, practicing veiled egotism.

Our existence is for our good, our flourishing. We can relax and breathe, and go out there and love actively, now that we know that! That’s how the saints operate. Fears can be boldly encountered and dispatched. No more self-justification and self-proving through power, pleasure, wealth, and honor.

15 November 2018

Marriage: Willing Mutual Submission

Thank you, kind reader, for accompanying me through this trek through the seven sacraments, signs (1) perceptible to the senses, (2) instituted by Christ and (3) entrusted to the Church, (4) that impart the divine life. 

This last one is first in terms of its establishment because it is the relationship by which the Creator got the proverbial ball rolling. Before there was a Church strictly speaking, there was a man and a woman, and there was Love, divine and human. 

This ends up telling us nearly everything about the Church, at least according to Saint Paul: Recall from a recent Sunday second reading (Eph 5:21-32) his meditation on the mutual submission of wife and husband. Jesus’ total Love-Investment took the form of His entire life, especially His passion and death, the paschal oblation from which the Church has grown by yielding to that supreme Gift. Human families grow from the same seed of willing submission of bride and bridegroom.

Marriage is not merely incidental to human society or Catholic life. “The Church passes by way of the family,” said Pope St. John Paul II. The family is the fundamental building block of society, of the Church at large and our parishes at small. The love of husband and wife, expressed and fortified by children, is both our “social security” and our “ecclesial security.” Jesus Himself is our security par excellence, but we can experience His security more…securely…within the context of a vibrant family—for which reason the family is often called “the domestic Church.”

Spouses unite body and soul in the act of conjugal love, expressing and nurturing the total gift of self, holding nothing back. Among the vast variety of life arrangements out there, sacramental marriage alone can sustain a total, faithful, permanent, exclusive union that is open to new life. The Catholic Church is among a shrinking (but no less bold) few who insist despite our own failures that man and woman alone express the total gift of self through conjugal acts that are not closed off to new life by intention, chemicals, or devices. 

Note the comprehensive nature of this affirmation: extending it to “intention” demonstrates the totality of the gift. A “fingers-crossed,” corrupted intention, pleads for a deeper commitment from the spouses. “The struggle is real,” we say nowadays, and this in truly trivial matters; but fidelity to that struggle yields blessings in this life and the next.


Here’s the rub: Do we honestly believe in the next life and its impact on our decisions in this life? As they say, “Click here to find out.” When the “link”—i.e. the marital covenant—seemed never to be truly made, that’s the stuff of declarations of marital nullity. We celebrate the proper functioning of the marital relationship, properly situated within the divine-human relationship of which it is an analogue.

Just as in medicine, we can learn more about the proper function of a tissue or organ by way of the improper function. Learn now, and do everything in your power with God’s grace and others’ help to move forward in the best direction. Learn from your mistakes and repent of your sins: that’s the human way along the Divine Way!

06 November 2018

Holy Orders: What are yours?

I recently came across business cards sponsored by the Vocations Committee and Knights of Columbus council of Holy Guardian Angels Parish, where I was Assistant Pastor from 01/2008 to 06/2014. I may consider reprinting them at my parish just as I print copies of my “Treasury of Prayer” for the hospitalized. 

Meanwhile, I share the content of the card. On one side, you have: Everyone has a vocation. What is yours? On the other side, a prayer: Father in heaven, bless our parish to be a nurturing faith community that encourages people to pursue their vocation. Amen. Since this post concerns the Sacrament of Holy Orders, it seemed appropriate to mention the card. 

Vocation starts at the baptismal font, with the “Universal Call to Holiness” that configures us to Jesus the Prophet (proclaimer of the Gospel), Priest (offerer of sacrifice), and King (caretaker of souls). We activate that call by making what St. John Paul II called “a sincere gift of self,” further specified in Holy Orders, Marriage, Religious Profession, or what I’ll call “Purposeful Celibacy” (as opposed to involuntary or default non-marriage). Religious Profession and Purposeful Celibacy are not sacramental expressions of vocation, but they are paths for lifelong consecration. Holy Orders, however, is a sacrament precisely because the Lord Jesus instituted it to generate and nourish the spiritual life of God’s people.

Priests and deacons often emerge from the “domestic Church” of the family, where habits of faithful Mass attendance, regular Confession, and personal prayer begin. They often receive support from fellow parishioners and (please God!) from clergy and religious. Or they may develop while in college or at work. We prayerfully consider and discuss our experiences to glean what about them pleases God and us. The signs generally aren’t cataclysmic, but rather simple: people’s suggestions, affirmation of talents, and our own areas of interest.

I believe it’s no coincidence that I originally wrote this column in the aftermath of the scandalous findings of the PA Grand Jury and a recent testimonial from a former Vatican representative to the United States who claims that numerous bishops and priests, and even the Pope himself, knew but acted improperly about the activities of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, DC. These events have shaken the faith of many Catholics, and the respect of many non-Catholics, around the world. Would a young man or woman even want to give his or her life to the Church, to help row this boat in such torrential waters?


Out of curiosity I looked up the word “aftermath” found in the previous paragraph. In farming, it means, “new grass growing after mowing or harvest.” If the sickle of sin has taken away some prideful weeds (mindful that weeds and wheat grow together; cf. Mt 13:24-30), by Our Lord’s own promise a new crop will grow. But it will be all the more incumbent upon us to engage in those perennial spiritual disciplines (prayer and the self-sacrifice of fasting and generosity), so the soil can be rich and ready for new seeds.

27 October 2018

Anointing of the Sick: Send for Me

The experience of illness is that of a privation (lack) of a good that ought to be present but is not, viz., wellness, integrity of body and soul. In particular areas, or even in general, we know that ”something’s not right!” Every illness is a prelude to death, the total and final dissolution of the body (CCC 1500).

What happens in the body has its inevitable effects on the soul, and vice versa. An unusually high level of attention to bodily ailments can translate into self-absorption, despair, or revolt against God, or it can promote a more mature appreciation of life’s essentials (1501). Suffering can make us bitter, or better! 

At any point on life’s journey, while we still have our faculties, we can decide in what we call “redemptive suffering” to unite our physical, emotional, and spiritual hardships with Christ’s own—which included ours and everyone else’s anyhow. It is good to make a point of connecting those hardships repeatedly and prayerfully, even when tears and shouts accompany our prayers. We can pray that someone, somewhere, somehow might be assisted by our offering, though we may never get to learn of it on earth.

One of the most noteworthy developments since the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) occurred in the practice of the Anointing of the Sick. No longer is this sacrament intended solely for the deathbed: when a person is beset by serious illness or the frailty of old age, the time is ripe for anointing. It is also generally indicated before any serious surgery that requires general anesthesia.

Everyone used to call the Sacrament “Last Rites,” and many still do. The pedant in me sometimes gently corrects the misnomer, because I think of opportunities for instruction like a drunk drinks: never pass one up. I often hear talk of having people’s Last Rites “read to” them, as if we were police officers reading Miranda Rights to someone we’ve just arrested. It’s a curious confusion. Since the Sacrament can be repeated when illness returns or intensifies, I say it’s their “Last” Rites only when it’s the actual last time they’ve received it.

But then there’s CCC 1525, which makes a poignant comparison:

Thus, just as the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist form a unity called “the sacraments of Christian initiation,” so too it can be said that Penance, the Anointing of the Sick and the Eucharist as viaticum constitute at the end of Christian life “the sacraments that prepare for our heavenly homeland” or the sacraments that complete the earthly pilgrimage.

Since the Church’s coup de grace (literally, “blow of mercy,” used here in that gentle sense) is said here with convincing pedigree to include Anointing, the precedent for retaining the term “Last Rites” is not bad after all.

In the case of the terminally and gravely ill, Anointing of the Sick ideally takes place alongside Confession and Viaticum (the final reception of Holy Communion). The unfortunate trend has been to wait until the patient/family member is “actively dying,” at which point he or she is often unable to make even a general Confession or ingest the Eucharistic species. While I say the sooner, the better, there is no better time than the present.

I do very much appreciate that families, especially those personally opposed or indifferent to religion, respect the religious and spiritual practices of their elders enough to request Anointing for their loved ones. It’s a spiritual work of justice, and who knows what good it will effect.

As for the Anointing of the Actively Dying, we proceed with the faith that the God Who knows and loves us better than we ever could know or love ourselves can sort out their interior state. The Communion of Saints is on high alert whenever someone “sends for the priests of the Church” (Anointing ritual; cf. James 5:14); it’s like the airing of the bat symbol that moves the Caped Crusader to a dude or damsel in distress. Yes, even at 2:17 AM.

Although the topic of death can be difficult to broach with anyone, let alone a gravely ill person, it can lead to valuable self-reflection (presuming that hasn’t been going on already) and, when necessary, interpersonal healing and reconciliation. Don’t allow fear to unduly delay this graceful activity.

“Their sins will be forgiven” (James 5:15): Anointing of the Sick does forgive venial sins when the recipient is properly disposed to that forgiveness (i.e., sorry). In this life, the forgiveness of mortal sins is reserved to the Sacrament of Penance; amid the need of that forgiveness, Confession is an appropriate complement to Anointing. Be not afraid to do the work of self-examination and to be open to the grace of repentance that Confession requires!

22 October 2018

Confession: I'm Not A Good Person

How does one go to Confession in this day and age? Before ever entering the room or booth, it is necessary to take some time to examine one’s conscience—to reflect on the time since the last Confession, however long it has been, and consider the ways one has seriously violated the Commandments. 

Think of the actual words of the commandments, but think also of the deeper meaning behind them. Sure, you may not have killed anyone (#5), but you may have desired serious harm to another by thought or attempted that harm in direct or indirect conversation. You may not have committed literal adultery (#6), but maybe you have had sex with yourself or another in fantasy or reality. You may not have fashioned an idol out of your jewelry, but you may have given some good but lesser activity such importance in your life that you thereby made it “impossible” to give God due worship by attending Mass. These are some of the things to think about and mention in Confession.

In St. Michael’s and most other confessionals, you still have the opportunity to go to Confession anonymously or face-to-face. Our room has a kneeler with a screen, and a seat directly in front of Father. I’ve been a priest for 15 years and a human being for 42 years, so positively nothing you say will give me a bad impression of you. I won’t judgmentally “take it with me” into our regular interactions, except to say I will love and respect you more for your honesty and willingness to change. Plus, I am mindful enough of my own sins and weaknesses that I have no basis to condemn anyone for anything. If you dare to present yourself to the Lord’s priest, you are already showing tremendous cooperation with Grace. 

People often greet me by sheepishly saying, “I’m not sure how to do this,” but then they end up doing just fine! It remains appropriate to begin by making the Sign of the Cross and saying, “Bless/Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been [this long] since my last Confession. These are my sins.” Then you tell me your sins. Then (hopefully!) a little encouragement and/or challenge from the priest, maybe a little conversation, your Act of Contrition, the Church’s Prayer of Absolution, and then freedom!

Don’t sugarcoat yourself by saying, “I’m not a bad person” or “I try to be a good person.” For whatever reason, people might do that because they’re nervous, or ashamed. But could there be a little pride, too? Sit with yourself long enough and you will find evidence of badness. 

For all you used to hear about Catholics, we don’t enjoy guilt, but we do find it helpful because it shows us where we need to grow in love of God and neighbor. We use it only long enough to draw us to Confession and to try to do better in the future. Guilt isn’t meant to become a handy billy club for punishing ourselves or for walking around with a sense of continuous oppression. It never was meant for that!

The more often you go to Confession, the easier it will be. The more you will find to confess. The more the devil will try to convince you that either you are so awful that you’re not worth the space you occupy, or that Confession isn’t necessary because you’re such a saint and everyone else is so wretched. Truth is, we’re all in this life, in this Church, together.

20 October 2018

Confirmation: A Lump Sum and an Annuity

Following the Catechism’s treatment of the Sacraments, which itself mirrors the ancient order of receiving them, I speak now of Confirmation. The Western Church by and large has reversed the order of the Sacraments of Initiation for historical reasons, postponing Confirmation to a time when children are “more ready”—more ready to stop going to Mass, that is, if ever they did go with any regularity.

I spot a condemnatory sarcasm in my words and tone, through which I nevertheless shall proceed in writing. At least I am conscious of it; the Holy Spirit’s gifts of wisdom and counsel are prompting a gentle self-policing with the virtue of prudence. But exercising prudence doesn’t mean excusing the obligation to speak the truth in Jesus’ Name, whether it is the truths of Christ and the Church teaching, or the reasoned reflection on my own feelings and experience.

Through the Sacrament of Confirmation, the Holy Spirit completes and perfects the baptized Christian’s identification with Jesus and His Church. Whereas Baptism makes the down payment of the Spirit’s sevenfold gifts, Confirmation instills those gifts in fullness.

If a child profits from the care and direction of baptismal sponsors (Godparents) in the earliest years—even if "care and direction" are entrusted more concretely to the parents—all the more can a Confirmation sponsor’s efforts help the neophyte to live Jesus. Without necessarily hovering, the sponsor should initiate some degree of regular, Christ-centered communication. How the sponsor lives Jesus as a Catholic, publicly and “privately,” is just as important. 

I use quotation marks with "privately" because (1) nothing seems fully private in this technological time except for the seal of Confession and (2) Jesus ominously declared, “Whatever you have said in the darkness will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed on the housetops” (Lk 12:3).

In that section of Luke 12 Jesus is exhorting courage in the face of persecution from the Enemy of Salvation. Jesus reminds His followers that He “has our back,” we used to say fifteen minutes ago. “Do not be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows” (12:7). 

Now that's an understatement, because the human person is on a different plane from birds and puppies and every other creature. That difference entrusts to us a certain stewardship (care and direction) over the other creatures, but also invests a certain humble pride: “Wow: God thought enough of me to create me as a human person, for whose salvation God the Son Himself became man.” 

Now God thought no less of the sparrow to create it a sparrow (for each creation has its contributions to the Kingdom), but “to which of the sparrows did God ever say, ‘You are my Son; this day I have begotten you?” (Heb 1:5, except the original text reads “angels” in place of “sparrows”).

I just wish these thoughts might seize the heart of a person, sufficient to enflame him with love for the fullness of truth, goodness, and beauty found in the Catholic Church, so that the Confirmation administered sooner or later might “take.” It doesn’t have to happen according to my personal expectations, preoccupied with outcomes as I am; it just has to happen before the person dies.

07 September 2018

The Sign of Jonah: Baptism

“What sign can you do?” (Jn 6:30): is it the taunt of Messiah-chasers, or the hunger of the shepherd-less? As our ruthless self-sustenance proves insufficient, we simply must come to terms with having nowhere else to go. Meanwhile, however, the culture of skepticism produces the sign-seeking, angle-seeking generation (authors of “the fine print,” the “hidden agenda”)—which turns out to be every generation.

In another place, Jesus declared that the only sign given to such persons is “the sign of Jonah” (Mt 12:38-42): the “Son of Man” (Jesus’ most-used Self-description) would emerge from a three-days’-darkness lodging, in the same way the Prophet Jonah was preserved amid the deep waters by a large fish (commonly considered a whale).

We might consider this sign a “type,” or foreshadowing, of the sacrament of Baptism. The rebellious prophet tried to escape from God’s choice of him; he is cast into the waters; he is rescued from/through the waters into safety. Water is at once a sign of death and life: you can drown in water, yet you live only because of water. Incidentally, the big fish is a type of the Church, the “vessel” that preserves us amid the storm. As a bonus, the fish was an early symbol that Christians would use to mark their sacred assemblies, subjects of chronic persecution. The five letters of the Greek word for fish (ιχθυς) stood for “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.”

Baptism comes from the Greek word “to plunge.” The original method of immersion conveys the sign most vividly. The entire body makes contact with the water because the entire person—body and soul—needs redemption. Your Reverend Writer has not employed this method in his ministry, but has admired those who do.

If water is a reliable descriptor of Baptism, so is light. For every celebration of it we ignite the Paschal Candle that easterly proclaims the triumph of the risen Christ over sin, suffering, and death, precisely because each plunge makes that triumph clear in that subject’s life. The belly of the fish is darkness, but once evacuated, the child is, as it were, assaulted by brightness. It must be too much to bear at the outset, and indeed all life long.

If light is a reliable descriptor of Baptism, so is enclosure. The child’s white garment enfolds her even as her mother’s womb once did. The fearsome fish’s belly, known now as the Church, is the child’s safety net. Whoever sticks with us, has a chance in this crazy, mixed-up world. By “us” of course we mean “The Church,” but on the local, intensest level, we mean faithful parents and godparents who, by virtue of their familiarity with both the child and the Church, represent one to the other.


Reflect with me, often and gratefully, on God's most supreme gift by which He frees us from the original sin, makes us brothers and sisters of Jesus, temples of His Spirit, heirs of heaven, and franchises of grace and mercy (so long as we deal in them by obedience to the Commandments).

06 September 2018

Steven Wright and the Eucharist (A misleading title for the first of seven articles on the Sacraments)

One of the pastoral prerogatives is the direction of, and contribution to, the content of parish communication organs, whether it's the message board out front (which we don't have...yet), the various social media (for us, definitely a work in progress), or the reliable weekly bulletin. Since my first weekend at St. Michael the Archangel nearly two years ago, I have written a bulletin column called "To Inspire, To Inform,  To Entertain" (IIE) That's not the actual headline because I write too much to be able to fit the title, but those words do appear above a nearby quotation, which I take from sources as diverse as Steven Wright and Flannery O'Connor.


Fondly I tell of how I met Steven Wright. I flew to Boston to compete in the Marathon in 2017. While hanging out at Logan International Airport before my return flight, I saw a bearded man with a Red Sox cap wheeling his luggage in my direction while I was approaching (where else?) Dunkin' Donuts. From several dozen yards the man's identity seemed clear, although he was either trying to conceal it or just be a regular citizen. He seemed somewhat surprised I could spot him. I identified myself as a Catholic priest and a big fan. Wright, himself raised Catholic, seemed genuinely humbled by a priest's respect. I told him I feature diverse quotations in my weekly bulletin. "You mean that paper you get in church? Wow! That's neat." We gave a fist bump (WHY DIDN'T I REQUEST A SELFIE, COUTH BE DAMNED?) and he went on his way. I got in line for coffee, feeling a bit better for having competed earlier that week, even though my time was far slower than I'd desired.


IIE has featured series on the Spirituality of the Twelve Steps, Indulgenced Prayers (in honor of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation--"just to show 'em," God forgive me), and, more recently, the Seven Sacraments. For your penance, here is the first of the seven columns, largely unedited. You are always free to read past bulletins--nothing like "yesterday's news!"--archived under the relevant tab on our parish website.


. . . . . . . . . .

I was thinking about doing some sort of series on the Sacraments for the next seven weeks, because 1) there are seven of them; and b) for the next five weeks, the Gospel reading will be taken from the sixth chapter of Saint John’s Gospel. Permit me to do something unconventional by starting with the Eucharist. Think of Baptism as the egg and Eucharist as the chicken. In this series I declare that the chicken comes before the egg, in terms of both time and significance.

John 6 presents the famous “Bread of Life Discourse” in which Jesus declares the necessity of eating His flesh and drinking His blood in order to share in the Son’s eternal-life relationship with the Father. This chapter takes the place of “institution narratives” found in the other (“Synoptic”) Gospels, where Jesus offers His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity for our salvation in the forms of bread and wine, first in the Upper Room with His Apostles on Holy Thursday, then on the Cross on Good Friday.

The Church’s Code of Canon Law presents a theologically rich description to lead off its treatment of each of the seven Sacraments. For Holy Eucharist, the Code references the Second Vatican Council’s liturgical document when it says, “The Eucharistic sacrifice, the memorial of the death and resurrection of the Lord, in which the sacrifice of the cross is perpetuated through the ages is the summit and source of all worship and Christian life, which signifies and effects the unity of the people of God and brings about the building up of the Body of Christ. Indeed, the other sacraments and all the ecclesiastical works of the apostolate are closely connected with the Most Holy Eucharist and ordered to it.”

That’s right, Catholics: Mass makes Calvary as real for us today as it was for Jesus Himself, those who dared to stand with Him, those who fled in fear, and for those who neither knew nor cared about the event. Through the Eucharist we share in the Paschal Mystery in more than a merely spectatorial manner. When we are all together at Mass, even if we don’t spiritually “have it all together,” insofar as we are “all together,” at least we have a chance. Moreover, every good work of ours finds its force from the Best Work of the God-Man. We are well reminded that we don’t, can’t, save ourselves.


“We must consider how to rouse one another to love and good works. We should not stay away from our assembly, as is the custom of some, but encourage one another, and this all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Heb 10:24-25).

An Annual Labor of Love

It is hard for me to imagine that the former Saint Kieran Parish in Heckscherville actually had two auxiliary chapels in nearby patches: one in Buck Run and the other in Greenbury. The latter, dedicated to Saint John (the Baptist? the Evangelist/Teacher/Divine?), collapsed some years ago, leaving miraculously untouched a lovely grotto of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The territories of New Castle Township and the patch of Greenbury came together in the name "Castle Green Grotto." At this lovely edifice, locals still convene to pray the Rosary and otherwise enjoy a lovely slice of Paradise.

For about a decade, several dedicated folks have organized an annual Mass on Labor Day. About 100 citizens attend, many of them former St. Kieran parishioners. The local Ancient Order of Hibernians and Ladies' AOH form an honor guard. Several area clergy have been the celebrants of the Mass over the years. As the local pastor, it has been my honor to join them. This year I was privileged to preach the occasion. Storied reporter John E. Usalis of the Pottsville Republican-Herald aptly summarized my words, which, lacking a written text, I certainly could not have done:

"We’re grateful to God and so the greatest act of gratitude to almighty God that we can offer is this sacrifice of the Mass. We do it specifically on Labor Day mindful of how God has labored on our behalf and how we labor for God. [...]

"So this day is dedicated to the honor of working. And not just the burden of it, but the honor and privilege of expending ourselves for the glory of God and for the betterment of man,” Zelonis said. “What a day to be able to do that with the liturgy, which is Greek and means ‘our work for God’ or ‘God’s work for us.’ It actually can be translated either way. The sacred liturgy is God’s work on our behalf, which I would say primarily because God is always the first agent, but then it is our work for God, our return to him as we hear in the Psalms. "What can I do for the Lord for all that he has done for me. I will take up the cup of salvation" (Ps 116:12-13). The bread of life and the cup of salvation will be offered, the bread and wine will become the body and blood of Christ, and we join to the bread and wine our prayers, our works, our joys and our sufferings.

Read more.

25 August 2018

The Difficulties of an Indifferent Distance

 I'm not sure how to follow up from last week in light of more recent developments along similar lines. Fortunately, Providence gave us these readings.

 

Church, we’re hurting right now. There are the varied crosses that each of us has, things we join to the bread and wine that will become the Body and Blood of the Incarnate Son. But we don’t expect the Church herself—especially her ordained leadership—to be building crosses of suffering, confusion, and anger for her people.

 It threatens to sap the credibility and potency of our preaching. But always recall that the best space in which we speak is not merely human, not just our choice of words or opinion.

 For example, it’s definitely not my opinion but the sound word of Saint Paul that we be “subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The subjection of wife to husband may sound objectionable nowadays, except alongside the command that husbands “love [their] wives as Christ loved the Church [by handing] Himself over to sanctify her.”

 That seems the trouble: our failure as bishops and priests to love you sacrificially. St. Michael’s, the People of God everywhere, are my flesh and I am called to nourish and cherish you as my own, to present you to Christ in splendor, for holiness. That’s hard to do from an indifferent distance. 

 These failures to love make it harder for Christ’s Bride, the Church, to recognize Him as the Divine Bridegroom and to subject themselves to Him, just as inattentive, adulterous, addicted spouses devoid of sacrificial love might discourage loving subjection to them.

 Like any other climate, the current one challenges everyone who wants to be their best. This applies to the Church as well as the “outside world,” especially since it’s become harder to tell a Catholic from anyone else.

 Today’s Gospel opened with people walking away when Jesus said something difficult. What was the problem? Over the past few weeks Jesus was rolling out Eucharistic doctrine. To paraphrase: “Physical miracles won’t be enough to nourish your discipleship and lead you to eternal life. Instead, My heavenly Father gives you Me as the Bread that satisfies. Not just “Me” in some vague sense, but My flesh and blood. You will share in the eternal life I share with the Father if you gnaw on My flesh and slurp My blood.” 

 Pair that with St. Paul’s hard saying about mutual submission out of reverence. Consumption of the Eucharist corrects our consumption of each other as playthings, means to selfish ends. Membership in Christ’s Body, the Church, must change the way we think about and act towards each other. Decide, then, whom you will serve, and how you will sustain that service.

07 August 2018

The Scandal of the Cross; the Cross of the Scandal

“For He revealed His glory in the presence of chosen witnesses and filled with the greatest splendor that bodily form which He shares with all humanity, that the scandal of the Cross might be removed from the hearts of His disciples and that He might show how in the Body of the whole Church is to be fulfilled what so wonderfully shone forth first in its Head” (Preface, Feast of the Transfiguration).

“Rabbi, it is good that we are here!”

Hey, Catholics in 2018: You think so? Will a sight-and-sound-spectacular relieve the devastation of those affected by sexual abuse, especially at the hands of our own clergy who either committed it or allowed it to persist?

Then again, upon that mountain of the transfiguration and the hill of the cross, Jesus saw all this coming. No scandal has caught Him off guard. Somehow He has seen fit to respect human freedom to do such curseworthy things. It understandably remains the greater scandal that we allowed all this to happen, that leaders quietly continued the behavior by their further sinful actions against, and sinful failures to act for, abuse victims.

The feast of the Transfiguration showed up as if to signal the release of the grand jury report (presumed to be any day now). A day, like any other, that the Lord has made (Ps 118), though sinful human beings have lent these particulars of the grave misuse of power and sexuality.

Priests, bishops, and deacons initiated and/or enabled inappropriate relationships mostly with young males, yet also with men and women of majority age. These realities, recorded over several decades, came to the fore in 2002, but since then newer incidents have occurred, and other older incidents have been reported.

In their 2002 Dallas meeting, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops created "The Charter for the Protection of Young People." The recent news of abuse by former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick reveals the lack of oversight of the actions of bishops and the dangers of directing all accountability in these matters to bishops alone.

Under the hashtag #metoo, social media have been collecting countless stories of sexual abuse victims. While the movement began outside the Church, the Church unfortunately has added plenty of her* own stories.

The Collect for the Transfiguration proclaims that the Lord's splendid bodily form removed the scandal of the Cross from disciples' hearts. No doubt, a matter of faith, since the misuse of sexuality and power profoundly disfigures the person's innate bodily and spiritual dignity as a child of God--at least for many of the victims' own eyes.

Abuse often fosters abuse, of others or self, sexual and otherwise. One instance is abhorrent enough, but cycles and networks of it further obscure the "[fulfillment of] what so wonderfully shone first" in the Incarnate Son.

Christ's Body on earth, the Church, also bears the wounds of victims--yes, the ones that received abuse from her own leaders, but also the wounds of all victims and of their perpetrators.

The scandal of the Cross, the Cross of the scandal, is included among the poverty which Jesus once declared "you will always have with you" (Mt 26:11). That Catholic clergy and others entrusted with pastoral care have inflicted Christ's precious members with their own unchecked drives is an obstacle to faith in the Church and her Redeemer. And yet, we believe that Our Crucified and Risen Lord experienced victims' suffering upon the same Cross on which He bore the sins that caused the suffering.

I don't know if we will ever corporately "do better." That is part of my own crisis of faith in this regard. The corporate is only as good as the individual, so individually we can only do as better as the next choice before us, by refraining from all instances of exploitation and by focusing ourselves on holiness and virtue; and this too is beyond my limited power alone.

*In most of my discourse I have followed traditional use of feminine pronouns for the Church, reflecting the image of the Church as the spotless Bride of Christ. All members of the Church relate to Jesus as recipients and active respondents to His Total Gift of Self. Abuse can hinder the "spousal" receiving and giving of love in the hearts of victims, but God (may He be praised) can accomplish more than we know in anyone.