26th Sunday of Ordinary Time

“I came into the world. Free by nature, in the image of God, I was nevertheless the prisoner of my own violence and my own selfishness, in the image of the world into which I was born. That world was the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God, and yet hating him; born to love him, living instead in fear of hopeless self-contradictory hungers”.

These words, from Father Thomas Merton’s autobiography, “The Seven Story Mountain” were quoted by the Holy Father in his address to Congress on Friday. If you’ve been paying attention for the last few years, you know that I’m a great fan of Father Merton. In fact, I’ll be going on retreat to Gesthemane Abbey, Merton’s home, in a couple of weeks. Naturally, I was pleased to hear Francis choose him as one of four Americans, along with Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and Dorothy Day, to cite in his talk.

I know you’ve been following the Pope’s visit to the United States, along with millions of other Americans, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. Wherever the Pope goes, especially this Pope, there’s a tremendous interest in what he has to say.

Thursday night I was talking to my brother-in-law and we were discussing what a huge impact this man has on everyone, regardless of their faith. I suppose it’s because he’s not just OUR Pope, he’s THE Pope. No other faith tradition has a single leader like we do. Even non-Catholics recognize the man’s holiness and his authority to speak on matters of faith and morals.

In his talk to Congress, he hit on just about all the hot-button issues of our day. Naturally liberals disagree with him on many issues and think he’s too conservative. On the other hand, conservatives find him too liberal. But, both sides of the aisle applauded his comments, sometimes reluctantly. But, they all recognize his authority and his spirituality.

We live in a divided nation and a divided world. Yet no one can dispute this man’s leadership. Like most of his predecessors he’s not afraid to tackle the tough issues, and that’s what he does and has been doing in his visit to our country.

Obviously many people in Jesus’ day violently opposed things that the Lord said. Some were so opposed that they had Him tortured and killed. Many of His teachings went against the leaders of the day, and they still rub many of our current leaders the wrong way as well. But they all listened!

One reason that so many opposed Jesus is that His teachings threatened their power and authority. But that didn’t stop Him from speaking the truth.

Merton said that he was born into a world that was “the picture of Hell, full of men like myself, loving God, and yet hating him; born to love him, living instead in fear of hopeless self-contradictory hungers”. Today’s world is no different from Merton’s; in fact it’s worse. Those “self-contradictory hungers” are running rampant. We’re still born to love God, but our hunger for self-gratification often blinds us to the truth.

Great Americans, like Lincoln, King, Day, and Merton suffered for their beliefs. Lincoln and King were assassinated. Day was scorned by many. And Merton, who deserves to be declared a saint, hasn’t been and possibly never will be because his views were often unpopular.

So, what’s all this mean to us? It means that we must all stand up for the truth, even if it makes us unpopular and uncomfortable. It’s ironic that our Catholic faith disturbs people on both sides of the political spectrum. I think most people agree that we should respect life. But we often disagree when it comes to particular lives. The same people who argue that abortion is wrong have no problem with capital punishment. Jesus taught murder is always wrong. “Thou shalt not kill” is one of the Ten Commandments. It doesn’t say “except when the new life is inconvenient” or “except when someone has committed a terrible crime.” We don’t get to make that choice. Yet people of faith will argue forcefully on both sides of this argument. How ironic is it that our local daily newspaper is so accepting of the killing of an innocent child but is diametrically opposed to capital punishment?

Even as the Holy Father was speaking to Congress, they were in the process of killing legislation that would have taken our tax dollars away from Planned Parenthood. Their desire to gain political points is more important to them than doing what is right. It’s one of those “hopeless self-contradictory hungers” Merton spoke of.

The Pope spoke about the importance of the family, yet same-sex marriage is now the law of the land. But even he must wrestle with contradiction. His past words show that he’s no fan of capitalism, yet he recognizes that the great wealth of the United States is important in so many ways.

He ended his message by saying, “In these remarks I have sought to present some of the richness of your cultural heritage, of the spirit of the American people. It is my desire that this spirit continue to develop and grow, so that as many young people as possible can inherit and dwell in a land which has inspired so many people to dream.

God bless America!

 

And God bless Pope Francis for telling it like it is.

I do want to take just a minute to mention that next weekend there will be a second collection for the formation of Permanent Deacons.

It’s no secret that the Church is suffering from a vocation crisis. We desperately need more priests to serve the people of God. Here at Saint John Nepomuk we are more aware than most that the Church is looking to ease the shortage by using deacons and lay people to do the things that priests have always done in the past.

Right now the Archdiocese is taking a hard look at every parish to find better ways to use our limited resources, both physical and human. We’re going to see more cases where parishes are administered by non-priests, freeing priests up to do the things that only they can do. But we need more deacons almost as desperately as we need more priests. The formation of deacons is a long and expensive process and the men in training for the diaconate pay many of their own expenses.

Your generosity to this collection will make it possible for more men to answer the call to serve. Let me be clear. This collection does not benefit those of us currently ordained. The administration of the office of the Permanent Diaconate is funded through the Annual Catholic Appeal. This collection is for the educational expenses of our upcoming deacons. It would be a shame if future deacons had to be turned away because of the lack of funds. It would be an even greater shame if small communities like this one had to be closed because of the lack of deacons.

Please be as generous as possible to this important collection.

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24th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s Gospel is the famous story of Jesus and the disciples on the way to Cessarea Philippi according to Mark. Jesus asks the disciples “who do people say that I am?” They others give give Him a variety of answers but Peter says “You are the Christ.”

The story goes on that Jesus tells them He must be killed and rise again on the third day. There’s a line here that I love. “Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him.” Good old Peter, he’s my hero. He always manages to say and do the wrong things. Who the heck rebukes Jesus? Peter has just said that Jesus is the Christ, now he has the nerve to rebuke Him? He’s calling the Son of God a liar?

Of course Peter pays for his foolishness, just like he always does. Jesus calls him Satan. “Get behind me!” He says. I imagine that Peter knew he’d made a mistake as soon as the words left his mouth. If he was Homer Simpson he would have said “Doh!” But it was too late. I think we can all relate. How often do we say things and right away we realize we’ve made a mistake. But once the words are out there, the damage has been done.

On the other hand, Jesus tells him that he’s thinking like a man and not God. But, what did Jesus expect? Peter was a man. Jesus was God. It seems reasonable that Peter would think the way he did.

If we look at Matthew’s Gospel we find the almost identical story with one difference. In Matthew’s telling of the story Jesus also calls Peter Satan. He also tells him that he’s thinking like a human being. Everything is almost exactly the same. Almost.

In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says to Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.”

Jesus acknowledges the fact that Peter has been blessed with knowledge that he couldn’t have gotten anywhere else. Isn’t the same thing true for us? We can read all the Scripture we want. We can listen to all the learned Christian speakers of this time and all the time before. But the idea that this man, this Jesus of Nazareth, is the Messiah, the Son of God, doesn’t make sense. It’s not logical. Nothing like this ever happened before or since. Peter’s understanding comes from faith, just like our understanding comes from faith.

Jesus has built His Church on the Rock, Peter. He built it on faith. Peter wasn’t a smart man. We see throughout the Gospels that he was always messing up, saying the wrong thing. That gives you and me hope. Because, in the end, after Peter cut off the Centurian’s ear; after he denied he even knew Jesus, not once, but three times, after the resurrection He told Jesus, not once, but three times that he loved Him. And each time Peter told Jesus he loved Him, Jesus told Peter to feed His sheep. In other words, “Lead my Church.”

Week after week you and I come to church. We hear the readings and the homily. The message doesn’t change. Jesus was the Son of God. He performed miracles. He told us to love one another. But when it’s all said and done, there is no proof that He was who He said He was. We have to have faith. Like Peter, these truths are revealed to us by Jesus’ heavenly Father.

The Holy Spirit, the Advocate that Jesus left us has to move within us or the Bible is just a nice story book written thousands of years ago. If that Spirit isn’t working within us, then we might as well be reading from the Book of Mother Goose.

Sometimes you have to wonder why Jesus didn’t surround Himself with the best and the brightest. Why did He choose tax collectors and fishermen? Why did He pick the Apostle who seemed the least likely to be a leader to be the head of His Church? It’s simple. He did it to give hope to you and me. If these twelve guys could build a church that would grow into the millions of members, they had to have help. And while we aren’t called to judge anyone, we have to feel pretty good about our own chances when we look at the men Jesus chose.

Through baptism and confirmation, we receive that same Holy Spirit. Every one of us is able to spread the Gospel just as well as Peter and the others did. That’s what we’re called to do every single day. All these saints that we venerate in this beautiful church did it, even though most of them were far from perfect Christians. They inspire us to do the same.

So, when we read the Scriptures, when we look at all these men and women whom the Church has declared to be saints, we’re inspired by the words and deeds of these holy people. But we also realize that we have the same opportunity to share the Gospel as they did. And, when we realize that they had the same faults and failings that we do, we have the hope that we can do what they did. We can use the talents and gifts that God has given us and be examples of faith to others.

When we’re tempted to remain silent, maybe afraid that we’re going to look foolish if we speak up, we need to remember that, even in the beginning of the Church, God chose flawed human beings to deliver His message to other flawed human beings. That’s His plan for humanity. You and I are just as much a part of that plan as Peter, or the other Apostles, or any of these saints.

What an awesome God we have! And what an awesome opportunity we have to tell the world about Him through our words and our actions!

22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time

22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time

We have an interesting set of readings today. In the first reading Moses tells the people “Hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, that you may live, and may enter in and take possession of the land which the Lord, the God of your Fathers, is giving you.”

He goes on to tell them that if they observe the laws carefully, they will give evidence of their wisdom and intelligence to the other nations. This was a tall order. The halakhah, or Jewish law, contains 613 individual laws covering every aspect of life; what you do when you wake up in the morning, what you can and can’t eat, what you can and can’t wear, how to groom yourself, how to do business, who you can marry, how to observe the holidays and the Sabbath, and how to treat God, other people, and even animals.

The halakhah was a handbook for Jewish life and Jews were expected to observe it, as Moses tells them today. These laws are still in effect and many, but not all, Jews follow at least some of them. Whether a Jew eating a ham sandwich is destined for eternal damnation is a question that’s open to debate. But probably not, any more than you and I are going to hell for eating that same ham sandwich on a Friday during Lent.

As Christians, we believe in both Testaments, Old and New. Obviously we wouldn’t have an Old Testament reading as part of most masses if we didn’t believe it. But, look at today’s Gospel. Jesus contradicts Moses! He and His disciples didn’t follow Jewish dietary law. They were eating without purifying their hands, among other things that the scribes and Pharisees are more than anxious to point out.

Jesus responds by calling them “hypocrites”.

Jesus was a faithful Jew. He knew the Scriptures and the halakhah, all 613 laws of it. What’s the deal? What happened between Deuteronomy and Mark’s Gospel? What changed?

Maybe I can clear it up a little bit. When we were children we had to follow a lot of rules. We couldn’t cross the street without holding Mom or Dad’s hand. We didn’t have the experience or the maturity to make good decisions to keep from getting hurt or killed.

We had rules about when we got up and when we went to bed; when to clean our rooms and when to take a bath and brush our teeth. It’s a parent’s job to teach us how to live our lives. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I had more than 613 rules to follow as a kid.

But as we grow and mature, we have fewer rules. We learn to look both ways before we cross the street. We don’t have to hold Mom or Dad’s hand anymore. We learn that if we want to have friends, there are certain rules of hygiene that we have to follow.

Don’t get me wrong. If you leave here today and head up Lafayette Avenue and the light is red, you’d better stop. Not so much because it’s the law, but because there’s liable to be a car coming up Tucker that’s going to cream you if you don’t stop because he has the green light. Traffic laws are there for a reason and we should all follow them to protect ourselves and others.

So, what’s that got to do with today’s readings? The people of Moses’ time were spiritually immature. They needed a lot of rules. But after a few thousand years, God decided that we needed something else. We needed a Savior. He sent us His Son.

Rather than insisting that we wash our hands before meals, Jesus came to offer us something much simpler, and at the same time, much more difficult. He said that nothing that enters us from the outside can defile us. What defiles us is what comes from within. “Evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within.” Get rid of those things and you’ll be pure whether you wash your hands or not.

So, what happened between Deuteronomy and Mark? Jesus happened. He came to form a new covenant. Love God. Love your neighbor. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. What would Jesus do? “Greater love has no man than to lay down His life for his friends.”

Instead of a giant book of laws, we have wall hangings and bumper stickers. It’s all very simple. But in many ways it’s harder than the original Jewish law. Under the old covenant, you could look at the laws and know what you had to do. If you could follow instructions, you could be a loyal and faithful Jew.

You and I have to make decisions. What does “love your neighbor” mean. Does it mean I have to be his best friend? Or does it mean that I just have to tolerate him? When I see a beggar in the street, do I have to give him all my money, or just some of it? Or can I just pass him by, knowing that he’ll probably spend any money I give him on booze or drugs? Is it up to me to make that call? It’s just all so confusing.

But, if we’re going to have freedom, we have to make choices. Sometimes they’re easy choices. Sometimes they’re hard. But the New Covenant gives us free will. We can eat that ham sandwich without a guilty conscience, even though a salad might be a better choice.

Of course, we still have laws. We have those pesky traffic laws. But a speeding ticket isn’t going to send you to hell.

We have Jesus’ words in Sacred Scripture and that’s all we really need. There are thousands of books that have been written trying to tell us how to be good Christians. But one book is all we really need. Hopefully we all have one. It’s called the Bible. A friend of mine calls it B-I-B-L-E; Basic Information Before Leaving Earth.

Also, don’t forget that Moses told the people that they must follow the law to “take possession of the land”. Jesus wasn’t interested in land. He was interested in saving our eternal souls. He gave us a very simple code to follow. “Love God. Love thy neighbor.” That’s it.

He left us with one very important decision to make. Do we want to be Pharisees or do we want to be disciples? It’s up to us.

Saint Cyprian on the Lord’s Prayer

Today’s Liturgy of the Hours features a reading from Saint Cyprian on the subject of the Lord’s prayer.  He writes:

We do not say “My father who art in heaven” nor “Give me this day my daily bread.”  It is not for himself alone that each person asks to be forgiven, not to be led into temptation, or to be delivered from evil.  Rather, we pray in public as a community and not for one individual but for all.  For the people of God are all one.”

Cyprian lived in the 3rd century, so his words are nothing new.  But how many of us pray the “Our Father” in this spirit of community?  We often hear people, especially young people, who say “I don’t need to go to mass.  I can pray on my own.”  But that’s not what Jesus taught us.  He said, “Pray like this:  Our Father who art in heaven.”  The idea that God lives in heaven was nothing new.  But calling Him Our Father was.

While many of us include this prayer as part of our daily devotion, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s a communal prayer.  Even when we pray it in solitude, we’re calling on God in behalf of all people.

Mindless Sheep

Actual Irish sheep taken by yours truly in 2008.

It’s been my experience that when people discuss a controversial issue concerning the Catholic Church, sooner or later, someone in opposition to the Church will argue that Catholic are “mindless sheep”.  We’re not capable of independent thought and we follow whatever the Church teaches without thinking it through for ourselves.  I’ve personally been called a “mindless sheep” more times than I can count.

This pseudo-argument puzzles me.  Many of these same people who will vote to reelect the current occupant of the White House because they’re still waiting for “hope and change” think I’m a sheep because I choose to believe the Son of God and the Church He created.

I’m curious.  At what point does a faithful follower cross the line into “sheephood?   Surely my belief in the Ten Commandments isn’t it.  Even people who have no religious faith at all are against murder.  (Unless the victim hasn’t been born yet, but that’s a topic for another day.)

I believe that Jesus became one of us, died, and was crucified to save us from our sins.  Billions of people share that belief.  Are we all mindless sheep?  I think even our moth ruthless detractors would give us that one.

So, when does one become a sheep?  I think a lot of haters believe that agreeing with the Church and disagreeing  with them qualifies us for sheepdom.  To pro-abortionists, the fact that we believe in the sacredness of ALL human life is sheeplike.  Despite the fact that our support of all life comes directly from the before-mentioned Commandments, somehow extending the prohibition against murder to our future citizens puts us into some brainless caste.

Here’s the thing.  I (and I hope you) believe what the Church teaches.  I don’t fall thoughtlessly in line with every word that comes out of the Vatican (or from my local ordinary) but I’m committed to learning everything I can about an issue.  When I do, the truth invariable comes down on the side of the Church.  How can this be?  Maybe it has something to do with Jesus’ statement to Peter and the other Apostles, “whoever hears you, hears me.”  Could it be that He wasn’t kidding?  Did He really mean it?

I believe that He did.  Does that make me mindless?  I don’t think so.  Not anymore mindless than anyone who chooses to put their faith in something outside themselves.

 I don’t think that anti-Catholics are mindless.  I just think they’re wrong.