CEO and NGO Catholics

Faithful Catholics have long derided what are known as CEO Catholics: Christmas and Easter Only. It is easy to conclude one is not really a Catholic if one only comes to Mass twice a year, when everybody goes to whatever church they belong to, if only to be seen going to church or because it is a nice thing to do as a family. There is another acronym-ic Catholic that is just as false: the NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) Catholic.

In the season of Lent, we are asked to commit to greater depth in our prayers, our fasting, and our almsgiving. Prayers and fasting are interior practices, but almsgiving rapidly shifts our focus to the recipients of our monetary gifts. That external focus may lead us away from the purpose of almsgiving: the reason the Church asks us to engage in almsgiving is to bless us, the givers. The recipient is also blessed, but that is not the primary reason to give money during Lent.

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Responding to Reality

In the Old Testament reading today, we have the famous scene known throughout the rest of the Scriptures as the waters of contradiction. The Israelites are faced with troubles: they are thirsty and they are in the desert. This reading resonates with us today because we are faced with the corona virus phenomenon, and we are concerned. When something bad happens, the question we often ask is, “why?”

The Israelites ask themselves, “Why are we here thirsty in the desert?” And they quickly come up with an answer: “Moses did it to us!” From the comfortable distance of history, we can see that they came up with the wrong answer. Moses was their savior, the man who led them out of slavery in Egypt. Moses was a prophet, who conversed with God and conveyed God’s power through the entire Exodus story. It was Moses acting as God’s agent who brought plagues and pestilence upon the Egyptians and spared the Israelites so everyone knew clearly that God loved his people and would save them from their earthly tribulations. Continue reading

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Virtuous Relationships

I’m here tonight to talk to you about how to develop and maintain holy and virtuous relationships with your beloved. The formation process for the permanent diaconate involves a fair amount of intellectual learning, but I’m also going to share with you some of the insights I have gained just through normal – maybe a bit abnormal – life lessons. I am married. I did date. I did not always approach women the way I now understand I should. I did a lot because I am a sinner. I did some because I didn’t know any better. I hope I give you some knowledge and some tools tonight so you are not doomed to repeat my mistakes.

Ignorance is a big problem for us Catholics in the world today. If you were in your school years at any point after 1960, then you were put through an educational system that was very busy rejecting the accumulated wisdom of the previous 2,000 years. So many of those concepts that the modern society rejected had to do with the relationship between men and women. Part of why we have so much trouble in this area is that our toolbox is full of the wrong tools. It’s very hard to hang a picture on a wall if you don’t have a hook, a little hammer, and a level. How much harder it is to live the vocation to holy matrimony if you don’t know how men and women are made by their Creator. That’s what I want to talk to you about tonight. Continue reading

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Be perfect

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Ad Limina

Our Lord’s instruction to choose the way of perfection is an important reminder for all of us who call ourselves Christian. “Be perfect,” he tells us. Some of you might respond as I do to these words: I’m a sinner, Lord, conceived a sinner in my mother’s womb, and thanks to the concupiscence I inherited from Adam and Eve, I never have been and never can be perfect. So why are you telling me to do the impossible?

The command Jesus gives he offers in contrast to the ethics of the pagans. The pagans are practical when it comes to ethics. It is impractical to love those who will not love us back. A practical ethic asks why make an investment in something or someone who will not reciprocate the effort? The practical ethics are about balance: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

Our pagan world functions on a practical ethics, one in which if you cross the line, they bring the hammer down on you, but if you don’t, they leave you alone. Consider how we travel on I-75 where the posted speed limit is 65 or 70 mph. If a trooper pulled me over for going 75 on the highway I’d be outraged, since everybody seems to be going 80 or 90. But it is impractical to give everyone who is technically speeding a speeding ticket, so the system tickets only those who have really crossed the line. We ticket super-speeders now.

Here’s a five-dollar word for you to remember: the pagan ethics Jesus opposes is a liminal system of ethics. Limina is the Latin word for threshold or boundary. The threshold is that piece of wood across a doorway on the floor that marks you’re inside the house or outside the house. Our system of ethics and laws is liminal: as long as you don’t do something beyond the threshold, the authorities will leave you alone. Students ask how low a grade can you get and still get an A? And from time to time, we move the threshold. Sometimes it is speeding enforcement or grading on a curve, but we have seen it be moved in critical subjects like the beginning of life and the end of marriage.

Jesus – and the law of his Church – is not liminal. It is what we might call aspirational. As Christians, we aspire to be like Jesus. Where our secular system of ethics says, “what’s the limit beyond which we have to act?” our religious laws ask, “what does perfection look like?” When Jesus says, “Be perfect,” he’s telling us the standard. We are Christians. We are sojourners here, residents of the City of God currently living in the City of Man. Our laws are not the laws of men but those of God. We may not meet the standard of perfection, but we should never abandon it. We should never redefine it, as the pagans do.

In the readings today, we get multiple examples of how to live these radical ethics:

  • Turn the other cheek when you are hit in the face.
  • Give your coat when somebody demands the shirt off your back.
  • Go two miles when asked for one.

When we are operating on a pagan liminal system, this is just crazy talk. When we are operating on a Christian aspirational system, these are reminders of what we should strive for.

The love of Jesus is not conditional. He loves us no matter what we do or do not do. He knows we cannot be perfect because he knows that only God can repair the breach caused by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. This is why he came to live with us and to die for us on the Cross on Good Friday. He offers us the gift of perfection – the gift of eternal life with him on his throne in Heaven – if we will acknowledge him as King and strive to serve him as he instructs. Fortified by the graces we receive in the Mass, let us go out and be merciful. Let’s be gracious, slow to anger and abounding in kindness. Let’s shoot for perfection. And when we stumble, let’s go to confession and then try again. For he does not deal with us according to our sins, but he loves us with the love that flows from the Cross.

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Our common ordinary priesthood

p1000276Last Sunday we wrapped up the season of Christmas and Epiphany with the Baptism of the Lord, and now we have entered the Sundays in Ordinary Time. Father reminded us last Sunday that all of us participate in the common priesthood and the three-fold office of Priest, Prophet, and King by virtue of our Baptism.

In the season of Epiphany, we were shown the reality of Jesus as God when the angels sang from Heaven to the shepherds at Christmas, when the pagan men of learning from the east were shown the king by following the star, and when the nation of Israel was shown the Holy Spirit descending like a dove as Jesus came up from the waters of baptism.

Now, as we enter Ordinary Time, we have a role to play in the epiphany, the revelation or manifestation – for that is the meaning of the word epiphany – the epiphany of God active in the world. Ordinary time doesn’t have the sizzle of the other seasons of the Church year. Ordinary sounds not interesting, plain, just a lot of gray when we have been so used to the colors of Christmas. Even the weather seems to cooperate with this. In late January, the skies are rainy and cloudy, and the trees do not have leaves on them, so the bare limbs look kind of bleak against the washed out winter sky.

We are baptized into the common priesthood, but consecrated priests, Father Neil and Father Valery, have their particular priestly duties they must perform every day of the year. They offer the sacrifice of the Holy Mass for us, and they pray for us in the Divine Office. They bring God’s healing grace to us in the sacraments of spiritual and physical healing.

While we do not do precisely the same things our consecrated priest do, we should be doing those sorts of things. We, in our common priesthood, are to offer our own personal sacrifices, to pray, and to bring God’s grace to a world that really needs it. And we have to do it even when the skies are gray, and the days are still short, and the the Lights of Joy have been turned off.

The scriptures today all speak to this theme. Isaiah, the prophet in the Old Testament reading today, is told by God he was “formed as his servant in the womb that Jacob (or Israel) may be brought back to him, and he will be light to the nations that his salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” A prophet is one who must show the wayward people the true path of justice, and teach the people about the saving power of the one true God. All of us are called to manifest God’s justice and his mercy to an unbelieving world, which means we need to do it outside of the walls of this building. That is part of our mission, of what we are sent at the end of Mass to do.

St. Paul tells the church in Corinth why they were called out. (The greek word for church is ecclesia, which means “ones who are called.”) He identifies them as “you who have been called to be holy.” Our holy priests had nearly a decade of formation before they were ordained, but their holiness comes from the same place ours should. It comes from us saying “yes” to God’s invitation to live better lives. He loves us where he finds us, and he does not judge us. But he always offers us something better. That better life he invites us to is a life lived in an intimate relationship with him, and if we commit to being priest, prophet and king in our particular way, we will become more holy. Holiness is the outcome of a life of prayer, sacrifice, learning, and discernment. It is the outcome of the life of priest, prophet and king during the ordinary times of our lives.

John the Baptist explains that the reason he came baptising was that Jesus might be made known. God rarely visits his creation directly. He mostly uses intermediaries as he used John the Baptist. He sends prophets much more often than he rests upon a mountaintop as he did at the Transfiguration. He sent this community these consecrated men to serve us as priests, and he sends all of us out to the world to consecrate it through our priestly, prophetic, and kingly actions.

Ordinary Time gives us a chance to practice the virtues that lead to the Holiness we are called to, the Holiness for which we were made. As Dr. Paul Thigpen noted in his pulpit announcement two weeks ago, we have weekly times when we can learn about the scriptures on Sunday mornings and we can learn more about prayer on Wednesday evenings. We will be better prophets and teachers if we know more about our faith, and we will be better priests and prayers if we know more about how to pray. If we make a habit of regular confession, we may find we are better kings and judges in our families and workplaces because we are spiritually closer to the true King and the God of true justice.

Ordinary Time is a time for us to develop our common priesthood, to equip ourselves so we can be a light to the nations, so we can answer that call to be holy. Let us offer our sacrifices and prayers as Father offers the sacrifice of the Eucharist at the altar. Fortified by the grace of God we receive through the Mass, let us go out and make ordinary Time a holy time.

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17 out of 100

p1000783.jpgWhen I was a freshman in college, I took Calculus II because in high school I had earned college credit for the first part of Calculus. And I was doing great in that class until we got to something called Taylor series. And for some reason, my brain hit a brick wall and I could not understand the what or the why of Taylor series. The professor gave us a test and gave us every advantage: it was an open-book, take-home, test that wasn’t due for a whole week. And I got a 17 out of 100 on that test. I just couldn’t do it on my own.

Our lives are in some ways an open-book, take-home, test. Our lives are a test for our eternal destiny. The test isn’t done until we receive our particular judgement at our death, and the grade is eternal life with God or eternal death without God. And the grim picture painted in the Old Testament seems to be that we will probably get no more than 17 out of 100 on our life-long test if we rely exclusively on our own talents and abilities. We simply are not good enough to earn Heaven on our own merits. Continue reading

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Justice and Death

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The Old Testament reading today from Malachi is short – it’s only two verses – but it really packs a punch, doesn’t it?

Lo, the day is coming when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble. But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.

And we cannot look to the Gospel for a message of sweetness and mercy, for from the mouth of Our Lord comes the promise of destruction, earthquakes, famine, false prophets, and persecution even unto death.

So, what should we think about having read these words of warning? I want us to think about what justice means and what death means. When we have the right understanding of justice and death, then we can better understand how to respond to the Scripture we read today. Continue reading

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