The Racial Divide

Bishop Edward Braxton

Bishop Edward Braxton

I was speaking today with my friend, Franciscan Friar Ed Mundwiller and he called my attention to a document written by Bishop Edward Braxton of Belleville, Illinois, called The Racial Divide in the United States: A Reflection for the World Day of Peace 2015.  

First, let me say that I think Bishop Braxton is a brilliant man.  If you’re not from the midwest you may not be familiar with him, but I first met him when he was Auxiliary Bishop of Saint Louis.  The good Bishop is a rarity in the U S Catholic Church.  He’s one of just a handful of black Bishops.  He has his share of detractors, most likely because he is an African American and because he is extremely intelligent, a combination that’s not necessarily popular in our lily white Church.

Let’s be honest, racial prejudice is not unknown in our Church in spite of Jesus’ teachings against it.  His current assignment in Southern Illinois puts him in the heart of “white country”.  He points out in his letter that there is only one African American Catholic church in the whole diocese.

Given his background, this pastoral letter, dealing with the subject of race, is extremely even-handed.  He details the recent history of young Black men being killed by white members of law enforcement, but he does it in a way that doesn’t place blame or call for vengeance.  He outlines steps that we can all take to work toward a solution to our racial problems.

I’m not going to attempt to dissect the document, mostly because I know when someone is smarter than I am and there is no reason to think that I can add anything to what he’s said.   What I am going to do is urge you to read the document and draw your own conclusions.

He begins by asking his White readers to imagine ourselves in a Catholic church where all the statues are depicted as African Americans and most of the parishioners are African American as well.  Would we feel welcome in such a church?  I know I wouldn’t.

Infant of Prague

Statue of the Infant Jesus of Prague

Having said that, we have historical evidence that Jesus wasn’t Black.  On the other hand, He wasn’t European with light brown hair and blue eyes as He is most often depicted in our churches either.  We don’t know exactly what He looked like, but we know He was a Jew, as were Mary and Joseph.  He may have looked more like George Castanza.  We just don’t know.  In my church we have a great devotion to the Infant of Prague.  One look at the image of the Infant should cause all of us to say, “Wait a minute!  Is that what the Infant Jesus really looked like?”  I don’t think so.

Like I said, I’m not going to attempt to analyze the good Bishop’s letter or to point out the one or two minor points where I don’t agree with it.  Again, I urge you to take a look at the document.  It’s kind of long, about 25 pages.  It is very readable.    But it’s well worth your time, especially during Lent.  Read it.  Think about it.  Pray about it.  Then ask yourself what you might do in your corner of the world to effect change.  I think you’ll be glad you did.

Here’s the link again:  The Racial Divide in the United States: A Reflection for the World Day of Peace 2015.

 

A Proactive Lent

In today’s 1st reading (Isaiah 58:1-9) , the prophet Isaiah describes a proper fast.  He points out that lying in sack cloth and ashes is not the way to go.  Instead, he calls us to be proactive.  “Release those bound unjustly!  Set free the oppressed, breaking every yoke!  Share your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless!  Clothe the naked!”  In other words, “don’t just sit there, do something!

Giving up your favorite food (or drink) or fasting from too much television are good things, especially if they make you a better version of yourself (thank you Matthew Kelly).  But what we’re really called to do is to be active, not passive.  Share your faith with others through your words, and your actions.  If you’ve decided to give up candy for Lent, then take the money you would have spent and give it to a worthy cause.

Spend the time you normally spend in front of the television and volunteer at a local food pantry or homeless shelter.  If your circumstances don’t allow you to make such an active time commitment, then spend the time in prayer.  Pray for those less fortunate than you, or pray for someone you know who’s fallen away from the faith.  Better yet, invite that person to come to mass with you this weekend.  Imagine the potential good you can do if you invite a different person to mass each week of Lent.  That’s six potential disciples you could create!  What an exciting possibility!

The point Isaiah is making is that, while our faith is a private matter, it’s meant to be shared.  Jesus told the Apostles, “Go and make disciples of all lands, baptizing in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”  He calls us to do the same.

Have a blessed and proactive Lent!

4th Sunday of Ordinary Time

In today’s Gospel we learn something very important about Jesus. It’s important to all Christians, but especially to us Catholics. He’s teaching in the Synagogue. But the people who’ve gathered to listen to Him will learn that this isn’t just some ordinary teacher, some ordinary Rabbi. Teachers in Jesus’ time, just like today, taught based on someone else’s authority. Father Paul and I don’t just make this stuff up. We rely on someone else’s teachings. We have the Scriptures, we have the words of religious scholars, we have the teaching of the Magisterium of the Church, and we have the Holy Spirit. If Father, or I, or anyone else who assumes the role of teacher stands up here and makes stuff up, you have every right to complain.

If any of us comes up with some new, radical teaching of our own invention, you should get on the phone to the Archbishop and tell him that we’re preaching heresy. Then the Archbishop will call us in and demand to know what’s going on. It won’t be pretty. We may even lose our faculties to preach or worse. We’re not allowed to preach anything that isn’t the truth, as it’s been passed down over the centuries.

In Jesus’ time, Rabbis taught from the Torah. That was the Word of God and that’s what the people wanted, and deserved to hear. But, here’s this Jesus teaching something new. His message was extremely radical for the first century. And, as Mark says, ”the people were astonished at His teaching.” They said, “What is this?”

One man even speaks up and says, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” But to get an idea of what’s going on, we have to look back at Moses’ words in the first reading from the Book of Deuteronomy. “A prophet like me will the Lord, your God, raise up for you from among your own kin; to him you shall listen.” Jesus is that prophet, but the people don’t realize it yet. God promised Moses that He would put His words into His, this new prophet’s mouth. God goes on, “Whoever will not listen to my words which He speaks in my name, I myself will make him answer for it.”

 

Jesus is that new prophet. This man who challenges Jesus is possessed by an unclean spirit. Here’s the evil one, Satan, challenging Jesus in the Synagogue, the very house of God. Jesus rebukes the man and says to the unclean spirit, “Quiet! Come out of him?” And the spirit, with a loud cry, comes out of him.

Naturally, the people are amazed. “They asked one another, “What is this? A new teaching with authority.” Satan has made a huge mistake. His attempt to discredit Jesus backfires and the people understand. Jesus is teaching with authority, not human authority, but with the authority of God the Father. For the first time in history, someone other than God the Father, has the authority to speak on His behalf. Up to this time, every teacher has taught strictly from the Torah. As Mark says, “His fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee.”

 

Today, Christians rely on both the Old Testament word of God, and the New Testament teachings of Jesus Christ. But, why is this more important to Catholics than it is to other Christians? To find the answer we have to turn to Luke’s Gospel where Jesus tell the disciples that whoever hears them, hears Him and whoever rejects them, rejects Him. And whoever rejects Him, rejects the One who sent Him. This is the beginning of the teaching authority of the Church.

This begs the question, “Do we always like what the Church teaches?” Not necessarily. Do we have to believe it? We do unless we want to reject God, and that’s dangerous territory. As faithful Catholics, it’s up to us to learn what the Church teaches and to know the difference between Church doctrine and discipline.

The Eucharist is a perfect example. In a few minutes, Father will take the bread and wine, which will be presented to him by members of the congregation representing all of us. The bread and wine are your gifts to God. Then he’ll turn that bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. That’s God’s gift to you. It’s scriptural and has been taught by the Church since the very beginning. If you don’t believe it, then you’re not a Catholic. It’s a core belief and it’s non-negotiable. In fact, according to Saint Paul, if you partake in communion without believing it is what it is, then you’re guilty of the Body and Blood of Christ.

On the other hand, the Church calls us to fast for an hour before we receive His Body and Blood. If you forgot and ate a donut 59 minutes before communion, are you committing a sin? No, that’s a discipline. It’s something we should do, not something we have to do. It can change and it did change after Vatican II. Remember, you used to have to fast for twelve hours. Under certain circumstances, for example, if you’re a patient in the hospital, you can receive the Eucharist at any time.

Disciplines can change, doctrine can’t. Remember when you couldn’t eat meat on Friday? It wasn’t that long ago.

Recently our former Archbishop, Cardinal Burke, has been in the news for things he’s said that aren’t in agreement with Pope Francis. You may wonder, how can this be? Who are we supposed to believe? If you study what both men have said, they don’t disagree on Church doctrine. The disagree on disciplines. Male alter servers aren’t Church doctrine. If the good Cardinal thinks servers should all be altar boys, that’s his opinion. Again, it’s something that has changed over the years. Given the power of the feminist movement, it’s not likely to change back, but it could. In fact, there are still some dioceses where they don’t allow female servers. But, remember that here in Saint Louis he did allow girl servers when he was Archbishop. Frankly, it’s not that big a deal.

To wrap this up, today’s readings remind us that Jesus has a special kind of authority and He shared that authority with His Apostles and their successors, the Pope and the Bishops. It was unique. It was radical. It was outrageous! It’s no wonder that the Jewish authorities didn’t want Him around. His authority was a challenge to their authority.

Make no mistake, there are people alive today who hate Jesus and His Church. Why? For the same reason. Jesus’ authority, and by extension the authority of His Church, is a challenge to them. If I’m in the business of selling sin, our course I’m going to hate the Church. If the Church challenges my political authority, I’m going to hate the Church. If I represent a religious denomination that doesn’t accept the Church’s teachings, I’m going to hate the Church. If I suddenly decide to divorce Jan and marry another guy, I’m probably going to hate the Church. Any time the Church challenges anyone on anything, there’s going to be a backlash. Remember that there were enough people who hated Jesus that they tortured Him and killed Him.

As Catholic Christians, we have a responsibility to know what the Church teaches, to accept those teachings, and to share those teachings with others.

If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts.

2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time

Our readings today are about being called. In the Old Testament reading, Samuel is being called by the Lord. But what’s Samuel doing? He’s asleep…in the temple. God has to call him three times before he understands what’s going on and then only because Eli explains it to him. It begs the question, “How many times have you and I been called but we’ve been sleeping? Or maybe we just weren’t paying attention. Either way, we’ve missed the call.

We hear so much today about a shortage of priests in the Church. I don’t believe God’s calling fewer men to the priesthood. I believe that we’re just not listening. The same can be said for any vocation. Take parenthood for example. God calls married couples to be parents. In the marriage vows the priest or deacon asks the couple if they will accept children willingly from God. They respond, “Oh, we will. We will.” knowing that the bride is already on the pill. Obviously they’re not listening. They’re asleep in the church just as much as Samuel was asleep in the temple.

God calls all of us to be disciples and to make disciples of others.   The word “disciple” means “student”. How many of us are actually students of God’s word? This weekend we’re being asked to renew our subscriptions to the Saint Louis Review. Reading the review is critical if we’re going to be disciples. If our only source of Catholic news is the secular media, we’re in real trouble.

There was a letter to the editor in the paper this week. The writer said that the Church should stop worrying about collections and worry about taking care of the poor. Huh! How do we take care of the poor if we don’t have collections? This is the kind of stupid statement that we have to watch out for. We have to be ready to defend the faith.

We’re constantly being called by God to do something. Unfortunately, we’re being pulled in so many different ways, God’s message can get lost. We’re being bombarded by television, the internet, cell phones, iPods, and so many other things God can’t get through. So many people can’t stand even a moment of silence in their lives. Most of us carry cell phones so we won’t miss a message from our friends or our family. We have answering machines at home so that we won’t miss an important call, but do we ever set aside time to listen to God?

The great thing about God is that He’s very patient. If we’re busy, He’ll wait until we have some quiet time before He talks to us. The trouble is, if we never have any quiet time, He can’t get through. If all we can spare is 45 minutes once a week to come to mass, we may never get God’s message, especially if we spend our time at mass thinking about other things.

Notice what Eli told Samuel to say to God, “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.” We Catholics are known for our rote prayers; The Our Father, The Hail Mary, our Prayer to the Infant of Prague. These are all great prayers, but maybe Eli’s words should be part of our prayer ritual too. “Speak Lord. Your servant is listening.” Then LISTEN! Don’t tell God what you want. Don’t tell Him how to be God. He already knows! He knows everything. You and I, not so much. But He’ll fill us in if we give Him a chance.

If you or I had a chance to sit down with an expert in a field where we have a lot of interest and we had a limited amount of time to be with that person, would we want to dominate the conversation, or would we take advantage of the opportunity to learn something? I think we all know the answer. Why do we act so differently when we talk with God? Notice I said “talk with”, not “talk to.” There’s a big difference.

The reading ends, “he grew up, and the Lord was with him, not permitting any word of his to be without effect.” If you get a chance, read the Book of Samuel right before and right after this reading. The temple was a mess. Eli was not a good leader. God will punish him for his failure, but Samuel will become a great leader. Why? Because He listened to God.

 

David wrote in Psalm 40, “Here I am, Lord; I come to do your will.” We just repeated that line five times. Did we mean it? Is it part of our lives? “Sacrifice or offering you wished not, but ears open to obedience you gave me.” Do we have open ears? Are we listening for God’s call? Or when He calls will He get a busy signal?

When the two disciples of John the Baptist followed Jesus, how did they answer when He questioned them? They called Him teacher. They wanted to learn from Him. They wanted to be disciples. They had no idea what that meant, but they knew what they wanted. They didn’t know how following this Rabbi, this teacher Jesus would end, but they knew that they had to answer the call. And so they did.

Can we do any less?

Baptism

When John baptized Jesus the Father said, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”  The same thing He said when you were baptized.

Merry Christmas

You’d think that it would be easy to preach on Christmas. After all, the Church does a lot of things very well, but we don’t do anything better than we do Christmas. On this day we do all the things that people expect from the Church. We have bells, and incense, and lots of candles. We have special music and larger crowds than on any other day of the year. If a stranger would walk in here today he or she would know that something pretty special is going on. The homily should be a piece of cake.

But one thing you have to realize is that we really have three different groups of people here today. One, we have our “regulars”. You’re the people who come to Saint John’s week after week. You know me. Hopefully you know where I stand on things. You’re the ones that are easy to talk to.

Second, we have family and friends who normally attend mass at another church but you come here on Christmas because of your family tradition, because you consider this a special, holy place. For you my task is to make you glad you came and maybe to convince you to come back more often. That’s a little bit more of a challenge.

Then there’s the third group, the 600 pound gorilla that no one wants to talk about. You’re the ones who only come to mass once or twice a year. Hopefully I can give you a message that makes you want to kick your Catholicism up a notch; to become more active in your faith.

So, what should I talk about? I thought about it and prayed about it, then the Holy Spirit said to me, “Hey dummy, why not ask someone who’s coming what they want to hear.” That’s what I did. The answer I got was eye opening. She said, “Talk to us about our lives. Tell us what all this means to us.”

You know, when you live in “church world” like I do, it’s very easy to get caught up in theology. It’s also tempting to show off what I know about the technical parts of the faith.   But on this day, when we celebrate the birth of our Savior, you don’t want to hear that stuff. After all, God didn’t send us a scholar, or a theologian, or a liturgist, He sent us His Son. He sent Jesus to be born as an ordinary human infant in the poorest of circumstances. When He began His public ministry, Jesus’ message was simplicity itself. “Love God. Love your neighbor. Do what I tell you and you will be saved.” He left the details up to us. He didn’t tell us to follow Him one day a year. He calls us to share the joy of Christmas every single day.

At Christmas time we’re bombarded with requests for help. It seems like the phone at home never stops ringing. The local paper reminds us every day of the “100 neediest cases.” There are bell ringers everywhere. That’s because charitable organizations know that we’re more generous this time of year. But Jesus doesn’t call us to love our neighbor every December. He calls us to love our neighbor every single day of the year.

It’s not easy. We live in a very secular world and frankly, that world is a mess. Here in Saint Louis, we’ve just had another officer-involved shooting and more protests, even on Christmas eve. In just a few short months, the tiny town of Ferguson has become a household word, not just locally, but around the world. Other words in the news, North Korea, Cuba, Afghanistan all remind us of how unstable our world really is. Yet here we are, in this church in South Saint Louis, joining with millions of Christians around the world, celebrating the birth on one little child, more than 2,000 years ago. That says a lot about us.

In the midst of the greed-fest that the secular world has attached to this day, we’re taking time to remember the one who can save us from our sins. If there is ever going to be peace on earth, it begins here. As the prayer of Saint Francis says, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” Our challenge is to take the feelings we associate with Christmas and keep them going every day. That’s what Christmas means to each of us. That’s how it should affect our lives.

There has been a Catholic church on this corner of 11th and Lafayette for 160 years. Generations of people have sat where you’re sitting, coming together to worship and to praise God, not just on Christmas, but throughout the year. In it’s heyday, this church was the largest parish in the Archdiocese. But times have changed. Our lives are full of distractions and temptations. Many former parishioners have moved away. Today just one in three Catholics attend mass regularly. If you only attend Saint John’s on Christmas, and maybe Easter, you may think that the chapel is full like this every week. Sadly, if you come back in a few weeks, you’ll find that there are maybe 30 to 40 people at a mass.

In this troubled world, it’s almost impossible to continue this “feeling of Christmas” without attending mass regularly. One of Christ’s greatest gifts to us is the gift of His Body and Blood. Many of us take great care of our bodies, some better than others. We visit the doctor. We take vitamins. We exercise. We try to watch what we eat. Most of us get annual flu shots. That’s just common sense.

But how well do we care for our spiritual selves? The Eucharist is our spiritual vitamin. By ingesting the very Body and Blood of Jesus, we recharge our souls giving us the strength to resist temptation. You might say it’s a spiritual flu shot. Another way to strengthen our spiritual selves is through prayer. Catholics are known to be praying people. We learned the main Catholic prayers, the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and others when we were children. Here at Saint John’s we have a special devotion to the Infant of Prague. We pray to Him after every mass, as we will today. I’m convinced that these prayers to the Infant whose birth we celebrate today have sustained this community through many trials and tribulations.

Blessed Father Cyril heard the Infant say that “if you pray to me, I’ll take care of you.”   There are cards in the pews containing Father Cyril’s prayer. Normally we ask you to leave them, but today I’m inviting you to take one home with you and get into the habit of saying the prayer daily. I promise you won’t be disappointed in the results.

To close, I’d like to go back to the original question, “How does the birth of Christ impact our daily lives?” God loves us so much that He sent His only Son to save us from ourselves. The Son left us with very simple instructions. “Love God. Love your neighbor.” How you demonstrate that love is up to you. It sounds simple, but in practice it can be very difficult. Face it, some of us aren’t very loveable. It’s easy to love those who love us. The hard part, the real challenge is to love those who don’t love us or maybe even hate us. That’s what Jesus did. If we love Him, can we do any less; not just today, but every day of the year?

4th Sunday of Advent

In our first reading today, the Lord gives Nathan a fairly long message to deliver to David.  He makes David a series of promises ending with “your throne shall stand firm forever.”  Remember, this is the same David who had one of his men killed so he could have the man’s wife for himself.  David’s closet was full of skeletons.  But here’s God telling him that he’s going to be a mighty king and that his kingdom will last forever.

 

Even in David’s time, everybody knew that no kingdom could last forever.  It’s still true today.  But the Lord wasn’t talking about an earthly kingdom.

 

Fast forward to today’s Gospel, Luke’s famous telling of the Annunciation.  It’s a beautiful story and one we’ve all heard many times.  Right in the middle of the story the angel tells Mary “the Lord God will give him (meaning Mary’s unborn Son) the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

 

There it is again; “The promise of a never-ending kingdom”.  We know today that the angel is talking about a heavenly kingdom, not an earthly one.  Poor Mary doesn’t know what to think.  Her response is, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”

 

I want to stop here for just a minute.  When I was first in formation for the diaconate, about fifteen years ago, I went to a two-day workshop on the Gospel of Luke.  The speaker was Father Eugene La Verdier, an expert of Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, which was also written by Luke.  He spent the entire first morning talking to us about this Gospel passage.

 

Obviously I can’t tell you everything he said, but the gist of it was this.  Everything about Mary was small.  She lived in a very small town, Nazareth which was part of a very small province called Galilee.  To the people of Jesus’ time, Nazareth was kind of a back-water place, definitely not the kind of place that would give birth to the Messiah.

 

Then there’s Mary herself.  She’s a young girl from a small town.  She’s still a virgin.  In Mary’s society women were definitely second class citizens.  But married women at least had the prestige of their husbands.  Unmarried women were the lowest rung on the social ladder.  Aside from the biology of the thing, the idea of a young, single woman, a nobody in the Jewish society of that time, giving birth to such a mighty king was unprecedented.  “How can this be since I’m no more important than a good donkey or camel?”

 

Remember that Mary was engaged to Joseph.  Surely she intended to have children.  The idea that one of them might become a king was far-fetched but not impossible.  Her response only makes sense if we look at it as a sign of humility. “How can someone as lowly as me give birth to a king?”

What I’m suggesting to you is this.  The Son of God was born of a woman; an unmarried woman from a small, insignificant place.  The idea that she would give birth to Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God was outrageous.   But Mary was chosen by God.  Jesus was the only person in history to have chosen His own mother.  He didn’t choose someone wealthy.  He didn’t choose someone powerful.  He didn’t choose a queen.  Any of those choices would have made it much easier for Him to perform His ministry.

 

He chose Mary.  He chose Mary to show you and me that with God anything is possible.  He chose her to give us encouragement.  If this lowly girl could be His mother, then you and I shouldn’t be afraid to tackle anything.  He chose her to show us how we should respond to God’s call just as he chose David to be a mighty king in spite of his past sins.

 

You and I may think we can never change the world. We’re just not important enough. Or maybe we think we’re too sinful. But the stories of David and Mary prove that we’re wrong. In just a few days we’ll celebrate the birth of our Savior. It’s not just a day revolving around gifts and food. It’s a day to remember that Jesus was born for us; to save us from our sins. It’s a day to ponder our part in salvation history. What can I do to repay such a remarkable gift? What does God have in mind for me. It’s a day for us, just like Mary, to say, “Let it be done to me according to your will.”

 

Time and again you have shown your generosity to others. Your response to our Christmas gift drive was outstanding. As you celebrate your own Christmas, take a moment to remember that some poor child is having a merrier Christmas because of your donated gifts.

 

After mass today (tomorrow) we’ll decorate the church for Christmas. We’ll have more poinsettias than ever before thanks to the generosity of our members who donated to our flower fund. Our Christmas visitors will be very impressed.

 

During the year you’ve helped with other collections for those less fortunate than we are. We may be a small community, but together we get things done. That’s what discipleship is all about. In the coming year, I hope that we can all work together to spread the Gospel to more people. There are plans in the works to build our attendance and to increase our revenue. Saint John Nepomuk Chapel has a special place in the hearts of people all over Saint Louis and throughout the nation and the world. We recently received a check from a lady from Florida, a non-Catholic lady by the way, who heard about our broken window and wanted to help.

 

There’s a Czech organization in Cleveland that sends us a check every year for Christmas. We regularly have visitors from other cities who attend mass here. You may not be aware that we often give tours to out-of-town groups visiting Saint Louis.

You and I are part of God’s plan. He has something He wants each of us to do. It’s up to us to respond, like Mary. In a few minutes we’ll all say together, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

 

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 715 other followers