Monday, June 29, 2020

Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul

Readings: Acts 12:1-11; Ps 34:2-9; 2 Tim 4:6-8.17-18; Matt 16:13-19

In light of yesterday’s Gospel, in which Jesus tells anyone who follows him that they must love him more than they love anyone else and take up their cross, on today’s solemnity we can safely say that both Peter and Paul adhered to the conditions of discipleship set forth by the Lord.

Rather than white, the usual liturgical color for solemnities, today’s color is red because both Apostles met martyr’s deaths in Rome. Peter, tradition tells, literally took up his cross and was crucified. As it is handed on, he demanded to be crucified upside down because he did not feel he was worthy to die in the exact same manner as his Lord.

Being a Roman citizen, Paul was spared the ignominy of crucifixion and was beheaded after losing his appeal, which he began when he was brought before King Agrippa.1

“Martyr” is the Greek word for witness. In a real sense, every Christian is called to be a martyr, that is, bear witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The content of Christian faith can be extracted from this densely compacted statement: “Jesus is Lord.”

During Jesus’s passion and again after Pentecost, Peter experienced first-hand what following Jesus meant. His miraculous rescue from Herod’s prison enabled Peter not only to continue but really begin apostolic ministry. Eventually, he made his way to Antioch and then on to Rome. Tradition tells us that the Gospel According to Saint Mark is made up of Peter’s preaching in Rome.

Paul, who did not know the Lord during Jesus’s mortal life, first came on the scene instigating his fellow Jews to stone the deacon Stephen to death. As he was going to Damascus to continue persecuting Jesus’s followers, he had a life-changing encounter with the risen Christ. Eventually, Paul the strictest of the Pharisees, somewhat ironically, became the apostle to the Gentiles.

Saints Peter & Paul, by El Greco, 1587-1592

Without Paul’s letters, our Christian scriptures would differ “little from the [Jewish] apocalyptic literature of the day.”2 It has been argued, not without controversy, that without Paul “Christianity would have most likely remained one of many sects within Judaism.”3

“Apostle” refers to one who is sent. When, in the creed, we confess that the Church is “apostolic,” we not only refer to apostolic succession but to the fact that the Church, the people of God, is sent. We are sent to proclaim in word and deed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Or more succinctly: Jesus is Lord.

While Paul and Peter famously disagreed and even denigrated each other publicly, one thing they had in common is that they did not play it safe.4 Follow Jesus is not the easy path. Being Christ’s disciple is to enter through narrow gate.5

There is a tradition that has Peter leaving Rome just as Nero’s persecution was beginning. As he was feeling the burning city along the Appian Way, it is told that he encountered the risen Lord but Jesus was going in the opposite direction, toward the city. Upon encountering Christ, Peter asked him: Domine, quo vadis? (“Lord, where are you going?”) Following Christ, Peter turned around and went back. It is reckoned that he was crucified on Vatican Hill on 29 June 67.

Even after being taken captive to Rome and remaining in the city under house arrest for some time, Paul continued to share the Gospel. It seems Paul believed that he would win his appeal. Therefore, he planned to take the Gospel farther West toward Spain.

It seems pretty clear that over the centuries many Christians, especially those who live comfortably in affluent societies, have learned to play it safe. Pope Francis, who presides over the see of Saints Peter and Paul, thus giving him a universal and evangelical ministry, is urging and showing the Church how important it is to take risks for the Gospel, what it means to live lives that demonstrate Jesus is Lord.

We proclaim Jesus is Lord, not primarily by our moral rectitude but by taking the side of poor, the disenfranchised, the marginalized, those deemed expendable by the world. As benevolent as it sounds, when done persistently, this usually proves to unpopular and annoying. The most false of all Gospels is to stand pat on what you have and be unconcerned with those who have not. As the late Brazilian archbishop Hélder Câmara, whose cause for sainthood is finally underway, once quipped: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

When Jesus bids someone “Come follow me,” he leads them to the cross. As Peter, Paul, and a great cloud of witnesses down through ages show us, the only way beyond the cross is through it. Today on this solemnity each one of us should ask Domine, quo vadis? and follow where he leads

1 See Acts 26.
2 Tomáš Halik, Patience With God: The Story of Zacchaeus Continuing in Us, 122.
3 Ibid.
4 See Galatians 2:11-13 and 2 Peter 3:14-16.
5 Matthew 7:13-14.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Year A Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: 2 Kings 4:8-11.14-16a; Ps 89:2-3.16-19; Rom 6:3-4.8-11; Matt 10:37-42

Commenting on his teaching that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven, which is basically to assert that it is impossible, Jesus offers hope with these words: “…for God all things are possible.”1 Something similar is in play in our readings for today.

I don’t know about you, but I frequently shrink from carrying the cross. Many days I am more intent on finding my life than I am losing it for the sake of Christ in the service of God’s kingdom. Left to my own devices, this is what I instinctively do. In light of this, it’s easy to grow discouraged. But understanding that you cannot save yourself is foundational to being a Christian. I believe we call Jesus “Savior” for a reason. We can find encouragement today in both our first and our second readings.

Because the wealthy woman in our first reading showed such great kindness and generosity to the prophet Elisha, this childless woman was promised and, in due course, gave birth to a child, a healthy son.2 In her act of kindness towards Elisha, she was not thinking of herself. She did not seek to enter into a quid pro quo either directly with God or through the prophet along the lines of “I’ll do something nice for your itinerant servant if you give me a child.”

The woman's unbidden and gratuitous generosity not only shows how a wealthy person might enter but can actually make present God’s kingdom. We see the grace of God at work whenever one person is moved by the plight of another and endeavors to be a neighbor to the one in need.

Okay, you might say, that’s great but how do I overcome myself? If you’re anything like me, this is a perennially relevant question. I have to get through a lot of self before I worry about the devil. But there is good news.

Our response to the good news who is Jesus Christ is faith. Faith is a gift from God. Faith prompts baptism. According to Saint Paul, our rebirth through baptism follows the pattern of Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection. Paul’s point is eternal life begins now, not after you physically die. The "newness of life" in which the apostle bids the Roman Christians to live is nothing other than life eternal.3

This brings me to the second piece of encouragement: Christ “died to sin once for all.”4 It is because Christ conquered death and sin that by virtue of our baptism we can “think of [ourselves] as [being] dead to sin.”5 Thinking of yourself in this way is how you live “for God in Christ Jesus.”6 The good news in this is that because Christ’s victory is our victory our frequent failure to love is already overcome, not by force but by self-sacrificing love.

Because of what God has done for us in and through Christ, discouragement has no place in the life of a Christian. As we sometimes sing in the memorial acclamation:
Save us, Savior of the world,
for by your cross and resurrection
you have set us free7
Because it liberates us from death, the freedom enjoyed by those who are in Christ should be positively construed as freedom for. Jesus has freed us from what constrains us: death and the sin that results from it. In essence, sin shows that we still have what Catholic novelist Walker Percy identified in the title of one of his novels: The Thanatos Syndrome. Thanatos is the Greek word for death. Rather than an exhibition of freedom, as many suppose, sin is a sign that I am not yet free and so not living in newness of life. Again, don’t be discouraged, liberation is usually a slow process of conversion.

True freedom not only empowers you to do good but impels you to love. In a variation on the theme of our second reading, in his second letter to the Christians of ancient Corinth, asserted:
For the love of Christ impels us, once we have come to the conviction that one died for all; therefore, all have died. He indeed died for all, so that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised8
During the pandemic, the issue of freedom has become an urgent one. Those who insist that freedom lies in doing what you want with little or no regard for the common good misconstrue freedom by putting themselves first. Christ sets you free to love God with your whole being by being a neighbor to others. The sacrifice freedom requires consists of placing the good of the other before your own. This is how you heed Jesus’s summons to take up your cross and “follow after me.”9 Following Christ means grasping paradox: you add by subtracting, you win by losing, you live by dying.

1 Matthew 19:23-26.
2 2 Kings 4:17.
3 Romans 6:4.
4 Romans 6:10.
5 Romans 6:11.
6 Romans 6:11.
7 Roman Missal, Appendix to the Order of Mass, Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation, sec. 6.
8 2 Corinthians 5:14-15.
9 Matthew 10:38.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Year II Twelfth Monday in Ordinary Time

Readings: 2 Kings 17:5-8.13-15a.18; Ps 60:3-5.12-13; Matthew 7:1-5

If you’ve ever wondered how the Samaritans came to be different from the Jews, today’s first reading gives a reasonably accurate account of it. As a helpful reminder, Samaria is located between Galilee and Judea. In addition to deporting Israelites from Samaria, the Assyrians also sent non-Israelites to inhabit the region This is how Samaritans became a distinct people who worshiped differently from the Israelites. The most notable feature of Samarita tvn religion is that rather than the Temple in Jerusalem, their holy place is Mount Gerizim.

Why were the Samaritans exiled? According to the inspired author of 2 Kings, it was because they worshiped idols instead of the one God, living and true. The deportation described occurred in BC 722, nearly 800 years before Jesus’s time.

In light of today’s Gospel, what becomes clear is that judgment is reserved to God alone. What is often considered divine judgment is really just the natural consequences of deeply ingrained “bad” behavior. The statutes and decrees of the Law that were being violated were things like failing to care for the widow and orphan, treating non-Israelites unjustly, the wealthy taking advantage of the poor, etc.

Who might some of the prophets this passage refers to be? None other than several of the twelve so-called “Minor Prophets.” Perhaps foremost among these are Hosea and Amos, both of whom prophesied before the Assyrian invasion of the Northern Kingdom.

Speaking specifically to the elite women of the Northern Kingdom, Amos said:
Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, who live on the mount of Samaria:
Who oppress the destitute and abuse the needy;
Who say to your husbands, “Bring us a drink!”
The Lord GOD has sworn by his holiness:
Truly days are coming upon you when they shall drag you away with ropes, your children with fishhooks;
You shall go out through the breached walls one in front of the other, And you shall be exiled to Harmon1
Hosea was told by God to marry the prostitute Gomer. Each time Gomer was unfaithful to him, God told Hosea to remain faithful to her. The prophet’s relationship with his wayward wife serves as a symbol of God’s relationship with Israel.2 Today, we can understand it in reference to Christ’s relationship to his Bride, the Church, which the great Church Father, Ambrose, referred to as the casta meretrix (i.e., chaste whore).

The message conveyed by both Amos and Hosea is that God is faithful and merciful. God keeps his promises even when we fail to keep ours. God is not vengeful. God is kind and merciful. Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promises and proof positive that God is mercy.

For us mere mortals, Eve’s poor banished children, God’s wayward daughters and sons, we can only judge ourselves. When I take the time to judge myself by regularly examining my conscience and confessing my sins, I acknowledge God’s mercy, thus enabling me to receive forgiveness and, in turn, to extend it to others.

Nonetheless, there is a sense in which our impulse to judge is automatic. In-depth studies empirically demonstrate that our judgments are often rooted in biases of which we are unaware.3 This makes doing the work necessary of becoming aware of our biases and then striving to overcome them spiritual work. This is how repentance looks. Repentance requires the help of others and the aid of God’s grace.

Because it is necessary to love our neighbors, recognizing and working to eliminate our prejudicial biases is spiritual work. It is important to grasp the plight of those in our society who suffer the effects of our unexamined and implicit prejudices and preferences. Otherwise, we are liable to the same natural consequences and societal dissolution as ancient Israel.

To avoid judgments like the one Amos made against the elite women of the Northern Kingdom, who preferred maintaining their status and privilege to taking care of the least among them, the work identified is necessary. Because they hated “everyone who challenged injustice,” their sacrifices and offerings were unacceptable to God.4 This is why we need to heed Pope Francis’s call to create a culture of encounter.5 It is in the face of the other that we most immediately encounter Christ.

Judging myself and confessing my sins is not an admission of failure. It is how I seize hold of Christ’s victory. Because Christ’s Easter victory is our Easter victory, confession is where I go to claim Christ’s victory over death and sin. Therefore, never approach confession wondering whether God will forgive you. In and through Christ, you are always already forgiven. Going to confession makes this an experience, an encounter, something that really happens, and not just a pious thought.

Nevertheless, even Saint Paul wrote, “I do not pass even pass judgment on myself.”6 The apostle goes on to state, “the one who judges me is the Lord.”7 Typically, I am far harsher with myself than God is with me. This is why it is so vital for me to experience God’s tenderness.

Remembering Jesus’s words that you will be judged with the same judgment with which you judge endeavor to “be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.”8

1 Amos 4:1-3.
2 See New American Bible Revised Edition: Introduction to The Book of Hosea.
3 See the book Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People, Mahzarin R, Banali & Anthony G. Greenwald.
4 Amos 5:10.21-24.
5 Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, On the Proclamation of the Gospel in Today's World, sec. 220.
6 1 Corinthians 4:3.
7 1 Corinthians 4:4.
8 Ephesians 4:32.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Following Jesus require ruthless trust

Readings: Jer 20:10-13; Ps 69:8-; Rom 5:12-15; Matt 10:26-33

I am not preaching this week- a big sigh of relief. Nonetheless, with Trinity and Corpus Christi in the rearview mirror for this particular Year of Grace, we begin reading through the Gospel According to Saint Matthew in a semi-continuous way. Hopefully, Eucharistic communities take advantage of the opportunity to journey together through this Gospel on Sundays over the next several months. And through this endeavor deepening our walk with Jesus.

It bears noting that our New Testament reading, which comes from the fifth chapter of Saint Paul's Letter to the Romans, is one of those passages that are almost always gotten wrong. This is not merely an academic point. Because this passage is often mistranslated, it is then misinterpreted to ill-effect. I will try to capture this briefly, without belaboring the point.

The issue arises from the independent clause that constitutes verse twelve. In the New American Bible (Revised Edition- NT is not revised in this revision), this verse is translated: "Therefore, just as through one person sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all, inasmuch as all sinned." According to David Bentley Hart, the final four-word phrase of this verse "is not some kind of simple adverbial formula" (The New Testament: A Translation, footnote p, 296). Nonetheless, the "inasmuch" in the translation used for the Roman Catholic Lectionary serves as exactly the kind of adverbial formula that does not appear in the original Greek. So what, you might be asking?

Hart points out that when read with more precision, the final phrase of Romans 5:12, it becomes apparent that the masculine pronoun refers to the previous masculine noun (i.e., θάνατος, thanatos, death). What this does is effectively reverse how this verse is usually interpreted, which is that death is the result of sin. Rather, it means that death is the source of sin. Understood his way, sin is something like the Freud's thanatos, or death drive. If I were to belabor this it would lead to an examination of what bearing this might have on our Western understanding of original sin. Don't worry, I am sticking to my commitment not to belabor the point.

With that exegetical issue out of the way, it becomes possible to look are our reading from the Hebrew Bible, taken from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah. In this passage, the prophet is fearful yet faithful to his prophetic vocation, which was a very difficult one. Like any genuine prophet, God called Jeremiah to tell his people, the society, and their leaders things none of them wanted to hear. Jeremiah provides one more example from the scriptures that hope lies on the far side of despair. Jeremiah demonstrates what the late Brennan Manning would call Ruthless Trust.

Amid his complaint, Jeremiah says to God, "you test the just" (Jer 20:12). You are kidding yourself whenever you think doing, saying, standing up for the right thing is easy and painless. But despite the peril in which he finds himself, Jeremiah trusts God's mercy and justice to fulfill the difficult calling God gave him. For a brief overview of Jeremiah's life and prophetic ministry go to this link. Jesus challenges us in the same way Jeremiah challenged Israel. This is what led to the Lord's crucifixion.

It is the same "ruthless trust" that Jesus summons forth from his followers. Following Jesus is the same kind of difficult vocation Jeremiah received. It's the call we each received in baptism, for which we were further equipped in confirmation, and that is strengthened through each Eucharist. It's not easy to bear witness to Christ by insisting that his radical inclusivity includes everyone, especially the oppressed and those on the margins. In our present moment, this means standing up for black people and other people of color, who continue to be badly treated when they're not being neglected.

Being inclusive and caring for those on the margins after the manner of Jesus also means reaching out to gay, lesbian, transgender, and queer people. Just as we have implicit biases against people of color, we have deeply ingrained biases against LGBTQ people. Christians have the negative societal messages about LGBTQ people amplified in Church. For example, we tend to morally equate many gay people, particularly gay men, with the people Saint Paul denounced. Those whom Paul denounced were almost exclusively men. What he condemned them for was things like forcing non-consensual sex upon others such as catamites (i.e., pubescent young man kept for sexual purposes). Again, I won't belabor the point. I would urge you to read some recent (i.e., written in the last 25-30 years) by credible scripture scholars on this particular issue.

If you would like to listen to something informative on sex and gender, I refer you to the latest episode of Ologies "Neuroendocrinology (SEX & GENDER) with Daniel Pfau." I found a brief segment of this podcast both understandable and a bit heart-rending. This bit starts at 9:36 when the, host Alie Ward, responding to Daniel's description of growing up religious, says: " someone raised Catholic, who has plenty of years just de-tangling those tendrils from my own psyche, I was curious. Also, I was going to say 'de-tanging tentacles' of Catholic upbringing' just then but I had a moment where I earnestly like 'That's not fair to cephalopods.'" Far from being offended, I was challenged. So, instead of castigating or criticizing Alie, I am grateful to her for her honesty.

Instead of hiding behind the phrase "gender ideology," just like we need to be better educated in racial matters, in order to have credibility, we need to more knowledgeable about matters of sex, gender, and sexuality. When we're so quick to judge, condemn, and dismiss others can we surprised when others do that to us? Remember, the only people with whom Jesus was harsh were those who were harsh with others, especially those who were to harsh to those on the margins.

When the disconnect in the minds of young people between faith and science surfaces, it seems that many Catholics go right to some kind of cosmological-type apologetic, unmoved mover and all of that. In reality, when one considers the kinds of things we know about gender from the work of Daniel Pfau and others, it seems to me that their concerns hit closer to home.

Issues like sex, gender, and how they shape and form human sexuality are the kinds of scientific issues we need to address. Addressing them requires us to learn and unlearn, to be humble and open-hearted. In short, the question becomes, "Who needs to change and grow in the face of reality?" To do this biblical literalism has to be definitively overcome. Strangely, here in the United States, this persists even among many Catholics. This, too, requires ruthless trust and overcoming fear. I should go without saying that to follow Jesus requires a heart wide open to reality, to the mystery that unravels before you each day if you have the eyes to see. Conversely, plopping down in your chair, clenching your jaw, folding your arms, letting out a huff, intent and content to sit pat on your smug certainties demonstrates a distinct lack of trust.

Since I am making so many recommendations today, what's one more? If you want an accessible, well-written, well-reasoned exposition of New Testament sexuality and sexual morals, please read Robert Song's Covenant and Calling: Towards a Theology of Same-Sex Relationships.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ

Readings: Deut 8:2-3.14b-16; Ps 147:12-15.19-20; 1 Cor 10:16-17; John 6:51-58

There is a deep affinity between last week’s observance of Trinity Sunday and today’s Solemnity of the Body of Blood of Christ. Perhaps the most succinct way of describing the Most Holy Trinity is “one God in three divine persons.” The adjective “divine” is necessary to make it clear we are not talking about human personhood but something over and beyond our creatureliness. Just as the Blessed Trinity is a communion of persons, the Church, the Body of Christ, Corpus Christi, is a communion of persons, albeit human, often all too human, persons.

What is potentially confusing about this brief description is that three and one are both used to describe the same object. God, of course, is not an object. God is always a subject. But the question that arises is, How do the three persons of the Blessed Trinity relate in such a way as to be one God and not three? It will encourage you to know that the answer to this question consists of one word: agape.

In two verses of the fourth chapter of Saint John’s first letter, Sacred Scripture teaches “God is love.”1 In the original Greek, agape is the word in both verses and translated into English as “love.” It’s necessary to point out that this is not reversible. In other words, God is love but love is not God. Agape means something like selfless, self-sacrificing love, that is, Christlike love. Not to be narcissism, love requires and lover and a beloved. Because love, as Aquinas noted, is profuse, it is life-giving, it spills over one chalice, to use a Eucharistic metaphor, to fill another.

Because it is the very essence of divine life, love, agape, must also be the essence of Christian life. When Jesus teaches about the necessity of love: “love God with all your heart, might, mind, and strength,”2 “love your neighbor as you love yourself,”3 and even “love your enemies,”4 he isn’t simply making suggestions for your consideration. He is inviting you to experience the very heart of reality. He is inviting you into God's reign, which is reality itself.

The motto of the United States is E pluribus unum: “out of many, one.” Heraclitus, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, observed: “The one is made up of all things, and all things issue from the one.” What Heraclitus noticed has a serious theological implication: being itself is communion, albeit a fractured one. This goes from implicit to explicit with the revelation that God is a communion of divine persons. Without God's grace, the desired communion is impossible.

Because God is unity in diversity, creation, as Heraclitus grasped, is a similarly so. The unity of creation is brought to the fore when, after the gifts of bread and wine are placed on the altar, the priest says: “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you: fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life” and continues with giving thanks for the wine, “fruit of the vine and work of human hands” that, by the Holy Spirit’s power, becomes “our spiritual drink.”5

Like God, The Church, Christ’s Body, is also unity in diversity. In his great high priestly prayer in Saint John’s Gospel, Jesus, praying to the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit, asks that those who believe in him will be one as he is one with Father.6 He goes on to indicate just how this unity is achieved when he says that the Father is in him and in turn he comes to be in those who believe in him.7

How does Jesus come to be in us if not by the power of the Holy Spirit? What is the Holy Spirit but the love between the Father and the Son personified? There’s a reason we call the Eucharist the sacramentum caritatis- the sacrament of love. Love is the Church’s communion, not dogma or doctrine, not rules and regulations. “Because the loaf of bread is one,” Saint Paul wrote, “we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one [bread].”8

In his monumental study, Corpus Mysticum, the great twentieth-century theologian Henri DeLubac noted that over centuries the Church's understanding of verum corpus (i.e., "real," or "true body") and corpus mysticum (i.e., mystical body) was gradually reversed. We still suffer the effects of this debilitating reversal. Before this mix-up, the consecrated bread and wine were understood to be Christ's “mystical body,” while the Church, in the concreteness of all her members, was understood to be Christ's “true body” in and for the world.

While the correction necessitated by DeLubac’s work has yet to be fully realized, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) and its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) remain our blueprint and roadmap respectively for making this retrieval. To this end, it bears noting, “the Eucharist makes the Church and the Church makes the Eucharist.”

As our first reading makes clear, we do not live by bread alone “but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the LORD.”9 Without words, without God’s word, there is no Eucharist. Unless you understand what our participation in Christ’s body and blood mean, which is more than a repetitive ritual act, you cannot respond in the way Christ calls you to respond. This, too, requires words, which is why preaching is part of the Eucharist. The proclamation of the scriptures at Mass is one of the four ways Christ is really and truly present in the Eucharist.10

In today’s Gospel, Jesus shocks his listeners by using very literal language. In addition to Jews being shocked by the suggestion not only to drink blood but human blood, something Torah forbids, living in a world saturated by Greek culture, they probably thought about theophagy- literally “eating god.”11

In the ancient Mediterranean world, theophagy was “associated with Greco-Roman mystery cults such as those of Demeter and Dionysus.”12 So, to Jewish ears, Jesus’s words had something of a pagan ring. When the Eucharist is understood in terms of the reversal DeLubac noted, the paganism about which Jesus’s hearers were so suspicious reemerges.

It is a mysterious thing for the God of the universe to become small enough to hold in your hand. But as Christ demonstrated by going to the cross, he is not afraid to make himself vulnerable. God is nothing if not a great risk-taker. God takes the risk of creating and redeeming you because God is love. By participating in Christ’s body and blood, you accept God’s invitation to take the risk of loving God with your whole being by loving your neighbor, especially the one who has not experienced God’s all-embracing love, as you love yourself.

1 1 John 4:8.16.
2 Matthew 22:37.
3 Matthew 22:39.
4 Matthew 5:43-44.
5 Roman Missal, “The Order of Mass, The Liturgy of the Eucharist,” sec. 23-24.
6 John 17:20-21.
7 John 17:23.
8 1 Corinthians 10:17.
9 Deuteronomy 8:3.
10 Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy [Sacrosanctum Concilium], sec. 7.
11 The Jewish Annotated New Testament, footnote to John 6:52-71, 190.
12 Ibid.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Venerable Matt Talbot, pray for us

Ninety-five years ago today, on 7 June 1925, which was also Trinity Sunday (the Sunday after Pentecost), Matt Talbot, a laborer who worked in what we would call today a lumber yard, was walking to Mass at Saint Savior's Church in Dublin, Ireland. While traversing Granby Lane, he collapsed and died. Who was Matt Talbot?

Stated simply, Matt Talbot was a nobody. Born into a poor, working-class family in Dublin in 1856, his father and all his older brothers were fond of the drink. He left school at 12 and went to work for a wine merchant. By the age of 13, Matt was a full-fledged alcoholic. He would remain in the grips of alcohol for sixteen years.

Venerable Matt Talbot, by Terry Nelson, 2019

At age 28 he was jobless, penniless, friendless, and unable to open a tab at any of the pubs in the part of Dublin where he lived. He took to hanging around outside pubs hoping someone would invite him in and buy him a drink. One day, after several "friends" passed him by without so much as a greeting, Matt, realizing his hopelessness, went home and told his mother, who had more or less given up on him, that he was going to take the 90-day pledge not to drink.

To the surprise of his long-suffering mother, Matt went to Holy Cross College and took the pledge. After ninety days of living alcohol-free, Talbot pledged not to drink for six more months. At the end of those six months, having been sober for nine months, Matt Talbot swore off alcohol for the remaining forty years of his life. This was not easy for Matt. It seems that for the first seven years sober living was often a very difficult struggle for him. How did he stay sober through tough times?

Matt found the strength he needed in daily prayer, fasting, and attending Mass. Though not well-educated, he read as much as could get his hands on. A professor provided some tutoring and mentoring for Matt, who also sought spiritual direction from a few priests. Like most devout Roman Catholics in those days, Talbot went to confession frequently. He scrupulously sought to repay the debts he incurred over the years alcohol stole from him.

One incident that caused him shame for the rest of his life was during his days on the drink he stole the fiddle of a street musician. He sold the instrument and used the money to buy booze. After achieving sobriety, Matt tried to find the man from whom he stole the fiddle to pay him for the instrument. Unsuccessful in locating the victim of his thievery, Talbot donated the money to have a Mass said for the fiddler.

Venerable Matt Talbot Tomb and Shrine, Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Seán McDermott Street, Dublin, Ireland

As someone noted, Matt Talbot lived the 12 Steps of AA before they were invented.

After giving up alcohol, Talbot was able to find employment as a hod carrier and then, as he grew older, working in a timber yard. Attempts were made to discredit Talbot after his death by saying he was a strike-breaker. But as a dues-paying member of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, Talbot participated in the strike of 1913. Initially, he refused the strike pay offered by the union because he didn't feel he'd earned it. But later he accepted the strike pay but insisted that his pay be distributed to other striking workers. Matt could do this because he never married or had children. To say he lived modestly is an understatement. He was also known to give financial assistance to his fellow workers, especially the ones supporting families.

When not working, Talbot went to Mass or spent time in his sparsely furnished flat reading and praying. It is doubtful he ever left Dublin the entirety of his life. At the suggestion of professor who taught Matt and mentored him, at some point he began wearing a light chain around his waist, under his clothes, next to his skin. He wore this as a sign of his penance, marking himself as a a penitent. Nobody knew he did this until after he was taken to the hospital on the day he died. In fact, it was the notice of this chain that led to an investigation of Matt Talbot's very solitary, penitential, quiet, and holy life. This is the reason we know anything about him today.

On 3 October 1975, Pope Paul VI declared Matt Talbot "Venerable," which is the second of four steps ordinarily required for someone to be declared a saint. To attain the next step, "Blessed," a documented miracle attributed to Talbot's intercession needs to occur. This seems strange to me because through Matt Talbot's intercession thousands of men and women have overcome addiction to alcohol and drugs. I have personally benefited from Matt Talbot's intercession, as have a small group of people with whom I used to meet in my previous parish assignment. Matt is one of my handful of heavenly friends; holy women and men on whose intercession I know I can rely. He is a member of my community of the heart.

Given his penchant for cutting through ecclesiastical bureaucracy, I was hoping that during his visit to Ireland in August 2018, Pope Francis, recognizing the power of Matt's intercession in the lives of so many, would declare him "Blessed." He did not. However, the Holy Father did visit Matt Talbot's shrine at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Dublin.

Pope Francis venerating a crucifix that belonged to Matt Talbot in Dublin August 2018

For more on Venerable Matt Talbot, please visit the Venerable Matt Talbot Resource Center. You can also read To Slake a Thirst: The Matt Talbot Way to Sobriety, by Philip Maynard and Matt Talbot by Eddie Doherty.

Matt Talbot medals can also be obtained as can holy cards that feature the prayer for Matt Talbot's canonization, which has received a nihil obstat as well as an imprimatur. You can access the prayer online here: Prayer for the Canonisation of Venerable Matt Talbot.

Venerable Matt Talbot, pray for us.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Most Holy Trinity: the challenge of many being made one

Readings: Exo 34:4b-6.8-9; Deut 3:2-6; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; John 3:16-18

Given the current situation in the United States, I think it's perfectly fitting to begin my reflection on the readings for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity by pointing out that God himself is unity in diversity. While we can play God's diversity off against divine unity, it is important to be full-blown Trinitarians, as opposed to mere monotheists. Among the so-called Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) understanding God as Triune makes Christianity distinct. This is important because the Blessed Trinity provides a model for our relationships.

Rather than beginning from some abstraction, by explaining how "three" and "one" can be applied to the same object, namely a "thing" we call "God," any meaningful grasp of the Most Holy Trinity with Jesus Christ, in whom "dwells the whole fullness of the deity bodily" (Colossians 2:9). It is Jesus who fully reveals God as Father, who teaches his disciples to pray, "Our Father..." Coming fresh off Pentecost, we know that it is Christ who sends the Holy Spirit to be the mode of his resurrection presence among us, in us, and through us until his return. It is by the Holy Spirit that the bread and wine become Christ's Body & Blood, by our reception of which we become Christ's Body.

In one of the great works of twentieth-century Catholic theology, Corpus Mysticum, the great Jesuit theologian Henri DeLubac noted that over centuries the Church's understanding of verum corpus (i.e., "real," or "true body") and corpus mysticum (i.e., mystical body) were switched up. We still suffer the effects of this reversal. Formerly, the consecrated species (i.e., the bread and wine) were understood to be Christ's "mystical body," while the Church, in all her members, was reckoned to be Christ's "true body" in and for the world.

The idea of making many into one and that all things have a single origin and end pre-date Christianity. Heraclitus, one of the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers, observed in his Tenth Fragment: "The one is made up of all things, and all things issue from the one." The motto of the United States of America is E pluribus unum, which translates as "out of the many, one." We have seen these past few weeks, in the aftermath of George Floyd's death, how difficult this is to bring about.

Later in Saint John's Gospel than our reading for this Trinity Sunday, in his High Priestly Prayer, Jesus prays that all who come to faith in him may be one as he is one with Father (John 17:22-23). This oneness is brought about by the Holy Spirit in a dizzying array of way, but most explcitly through the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist.

Our reception of Holy Communion makes us together Christ's true body. This is why we insist "the Eucharist makes the Church and the Church makes the Eucharist." It is as members of Christ's Body we are sent forth in his name to make God's reign present wherever we are. This is our mission, this is what makes the Church apostolic. This is what the poem, usually erroneously attributed to Saint Teresa of Avila, points to:
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours
The Trinity, by Taddeo Crivilli, ca. 1460-1470, from an illustrated manuscript

As our Gospel for today indicates: God is love (1 John 4:8.16). God's love is not an abstraction. God's love became very real when, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Son, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, became incarnate in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. God's love became manifest when Jesus was lifted up on the cross. By enduring the cross, the Lord sought to break the cycle of violence, so prevalent in the world. By his cross, Jesus Christ put an end to the enmity, the hate, that so often characterizes human relations in our fallen world. This is clearly explained in the Letter to the Ephesians:
For he is our peace, he who made both one and broke down the dividing wall of enmity, through his flesh, abolishing the law with its commandments and legal claims, that he might create in himself one new person in place of the two, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile both with God, in one body, through the cross, putting that enmity to death by it. He came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father (Ephesians 2:14-18)
In our second reading, Saint Paul provides a very practical look at what living in communion means. But he begins with by calling the Christians of ancient Corinth to repent by writing, "Mend your ways" (2 Corinthians 13:11).

When it comes to living in harmony together, to bearing witness to Christ by our common life, do we need to mend our ways? When I consider how much acrimony exists in the Church at present, I have you say "Yes, we need to mend our ways." I know I need to mend mine. We need to help one another by forgiving, by exercising forbearance and doing the hard things Jesus calls on us to do. Like Moses prayed on behalf of ancient Israel, we pray: "This is indeed a stiff-necked people; yet pardon our wickedness and sins, and claim us as your own" (Exodus 34:9).

As Christians, rather than master abstractions like the players in Herman Hesse's The Glass Bead Game, let us seek to model all our relationships after that of the Most Holy Trinity. This means seeking to relate to others by means of selfless and self-giving love. It means giving up your worship of the false trinity of me, myself, and I. "Let us ask God to make us true in our love," wrote Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity, "to make us sacrificial beings... sacrifice is only love put into action." This is what it means when Scripture tells us "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son."

Friday, June 5, 2020

It's past time to do the right thing

Depending on who I listen to, as a white, male clergy member, now is either the time for me to speak up or to shut-up. This does not bother me. I understand why people of color would have these very different responses to what to what is going on here in the United States right now. For the most part, I am simply trying to listen. I'll be honest, I don't like everything I hear. That's okay.

Listening is difficult and requires effort. Some of the things I hear that I don't like I need to hear. But there are some things that I think are wrong and untenable. I think I understand why some people want to go to extremes. In any case, I am prone to err on the side of believing silence is complicity.

While hatred is an ever-present reality, I mustn't mistake understandable anger and resentment for hatred. I am not new to anti-racism. While I am open to new and constructive ways to engage, I am neither looking askance at what to do nor expecting kudos for doing what my humanity and Christianity require of me at this moment. What I see right now is an opportunity for change, for genuine reform, and forming a more perfect union.

As U.S. history demonstrates, especially when it comes to race and racism (the United States of America's original sin), this change only comes about through struggle. However, the struggle that brings about change, while revolutionary, is not a violent overthrow: one bloody civil war is enough. Now, some might read that as a hidden way of defending an unjust system. No human system is perfectly just. I think the United States, constitutionally, has the resources to remedy the injustices that people are rightly protesting.

Movements for positive change require moral leadership and sound principles. While in the eyes of some I might be overstepping my bounds, as a Christian, I think non-violence, which is not passivity, works best when dealing with brutal, violent structures. One reason is obvious: non-violence brings into bold relief the brutality and violence of oppressive structures. Non-violence requires commitment, discipline, and willingness to sacrifice. Non-violent protest is not, as some on the right insist, virtue signaling. Non-violent protest is also inclusive of anyone who wants to participate.

While effective movements for change require moral leadership, it requires moral leadership on the other side, too, for change to happen. What I fear right now is that the lack of moral leadership at the national level will only add fuel to fire of resistance, thus enabling advocates of violence to prevail. After three-and-a-half years of race-baiting and racist dog-whistling, it's easy to see why many people are not hopeful about positive change.

I will admit that earlier this year, before any of the events of the past several months, I flirted with the idea of not voting. While I will not publicly make partisan endorsements, my political commitments are not hidden or vague. Given the politics of the state in which I live, I also toyed with the idea of voting for a third-party candidate. I did this in 2016.

Given that hindsight is 20/20, I still go back and forth over my 2016 voting decision. At this point, I am forced to admit that if I could go back and vote with foresight, I would vote differently. It is important for me to state unequivocally that I will vote this November. I urge everyone who reads this to do the same. Rather, than vote to show my disdain for what our two-party system has become and/or to keep a pristine conscience, I will vote to ensure that our country can return to some kind of normalcy. Nonetheless, I still firmly believe that how our nation came to be where it's at now is by consistently being forced by our two major parties to choose the lesser of two evils. Both sides are committed to a common baseline of things that need to change.

I want to be clear for those who are confused but who might be able to make important distinctions: I am not a socialist, democratic or otherwise. I am a social democrat. If you need to learn the difference between the two, it's an easy enough thing to do online. By the way, Bernie Sanders, if his two presidential campaigns are anything to go by,is more of a social democrat than a socialist. While presently so many people are used to the increasing rightist tilt of all politics in the U.S. since 1980, the United States has a healthy legacy of social democrats.

Getting back to this November, I think the U.S. needs to normalcy to regain our balance and build some national unity. Right now the country is so polarized that I fear what's happening now in the streets of our cities will go and on. I hope the presumptive Democratic nominee is wise enough to choose someone like Stacey Abrams as his running mate.

The nation is being divided on purpose. It is a political strategy. This strategy is not aimed at building a majority. Rather, as in 2016, maintaining a ruling minority. To this end, our president is intent to rouse the demons in our souls instead of summoning what President Lincoln termed, in his First Inaugural Address, "the better angels of our nature."

In terms of George Floyd's death, in addition to my Pentecost homily, I feel I need to state that all lives can't matter until Black Lives Matter. It's the same the world over. Take Israel, where those formerly oppressed (and currently oppressed; antisemitism, even in the U.S., is real) have become the oppressors. In that context, all lives can't matter until Palestinian Lives Matter.

True, when it comes to life, liberty, and human flourishing, no group of people ought to matter more than any other group. It's a contradiction, some might say, to insist that no group of people ought to matter more than another only to turn around and assert Black Lives Matter. In reality, right now, white people in the U.S. matter more than black people. We need to do the very hard and painstaking work of making black lives matter. Until we do this all lives don't matter.

Making Black Lives Matter is not simply a function of time. It requires focus and persistent effort at every level of government. When it comes to the lasting legacy of chattel slavery in the United States, time clearly has not healed the wound. Lately, the scar has been torn from the wound and dirt has been thrown in it.

The 8 minutes and 46 seconds that white officer Derek Chauvin had his full body weight on the neck of George Floyd stands both as evidence for and a powerful symbol of this sad, sick state-of-affairs. To paraphrase Orwell from 1984: I shudder to envision a future in which a white police officer forever kneels on a black man's neck while the black man says, "I can't breathe."

Monday, June 1, 2020

Memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church

Readings: Acts: 1:12-14; Ps 87:1-3.5-7; John 19:25-34

Two years ago, in 2018, Pope Francis officially added today’s memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church, to the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar. It seems most fitting that we honor our Blessed Mother as Mater Ecclesiae- Mother of the Church- the day after we celebrate the Church’s birthday: Pentecost. Of course, May is a month devoted to Mother Mary. So, at least this year, by observing this lovely memorial on the first day of June, which is typically the memorial of Saint Justin Martyr, we are extending our month-long devotion to our Blessed Mother.

It’s easy to miss Mary’s centrality in the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles. In our reading from Acts today, we learn that after Jesus’s Ascension into heaven, along with the remaining eleven apostles, Mary and some of Jesus’s other close relatives returned to the place they were staying in Jerusalem.

Because our first reading is from the first chapter of Acts, Pentecost has not yet happened. As Mary, the apostles, and others of Jesus’s followers await the fulfillment of Jesus’s promise to send the Holy Spirit, the inspired author of Acts, who also wrote Luke, tells us that they “devoted themselves with one accord to prayer.” (Acts 1:14).

Just as important as their devotion to prayer is that they prayed “with one accord.” As we gather for Mass today, that is what we’re meant to do: pray together with one accord. Right now our world, our country, and our community are in need of our prayers. Each day seems to bring some new crisis or catastrophe.

Over the past five months, we’ve suffered through earthquakes, a pandemic, and now rioting in the streets prompted by the injustice that makes many people feel powerless. The fact that the racial divide in our country has become more pronounced over the past several years has been brought into bold relief over the past week. Our nation needs healing. And let's not forget the on-going troubles the Church faces due largely due to her past failures, which have greatly compromised her witness and moral authority. Prayer for justice and for healing is an act of hope. As Christians, we are hopeful people.

Too often, we dismiss the power of prayer. Prayer is powerful and necessary. Given how many means we have at our disposal for prayer, we should all come to know firsthand the efficacy of prayer. One of the most powerful means of prayer we possess is the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Beyond that, we also have the Angelus, which, as we return to Ordinary Time, by centuries’ long custom, we are urged to pray morning, noon, and evening. We also have the Regina Caeli, which takes the place of the Angelus during Eastertime, as well as the Memorare, suitable for praying whenever anyone asks us to pray for a particular intention.

We can trust in the intercession of Mary because she is the Mother of the Church. Our Gospel reading this evening is precisely where Mary is made Mother of the Church. The disciple whom Jesus loved stands in place of the Church. Through our rebirth in Baptism, we become children of God the Father as well as daughters and sons of Mary.

Given that our Blessed Mother is in every way the model Christian disciple, we can be assured of her maternal care for us. In my homily for New Year’s Day this year, which day is the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God and the World Day of Peace, I challenged everyone in our parish to commit to praying a Rosary every day of this year. Because 2020 is a Leap Year that worked out to 366 Rosaries. I tried to be clear that by praying the Rosary I meant praying one set of mysteries each day- five decades.

As I was thinking about 2020 being a Leap Year, I thought, “The last thing this year needs is an extra day.” Given that we can’t take away the extra day and award it to 2021, let’s make the most of it by devoting ourselves to praying the Rosary each day for the remaining 214 days of this year with one accord. Don't worry about whether or not you feel like praying. Be honest. If you left prayer to when you felt like it, how often would you pray?

Along with fasting and alms-giving, prayer is one of the fundamental spiritual disciplines of Christian life. For the Christian praying is as necessary as breathing (Romano Guardini, The Art of Praying, 6). In addition to the Rosary, I urge you to undertake the discipline of praying the Angelus three-times daily- morning, noon, and night. Heaven knows there are plenty of petitions we can entrust to the intercession of our Blessed Mother.

Holy Mary, Mother of the Church, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.

Sunday, May 31, 2020


Readings: Acts 2:1-11; Ps 104:1.24.29-30.31.34; 1 Cor 12:3b-7.12-13; John 20:19-23

After Easter, Pentecost is the most important observance of the liturgical year. Since it brings people from different places, languages, and cultures together, Pentecost has traditionally been viewed as the Holy Spirit’s undoing the confounding of languages and the resultant separation of peoples at Babel. If you remember, this was the result of their attempt to build a tower reaching to heaven.1

As with the Incarnation, at Pentecost God comes down. In the end, we will not “go up” to some imaginary heaven. Rather, as the Book of Revelation dramatically shows, the City of God will come down from heaven and the reign of God will be established on the earth forever.2

Because Pentecost marks bringing people together in the Church, the Body of Christ, made up of people of different languages, races, genders, and cultures, it seems fitting to bring up the subject of race and racism, which seems to plague our nation these days. Racism manifests in a multitude of ways. Among these ways are Antisemitism, White Supremacy, the animus shown toward Hispanic people that very often isn’t too far below the surface of most anti-immigrant rhetoric. Institutional racism is a reality but one that is invisible to most of us not directly affected by it.

Cutting to the chase, we watched in horror as a policeman, employing unapproved methods, killed yet another black man before our eyes. The name of the man who was killed is George Floyd. Because we are Christians, George Floyd is our brother by virtue of our common Baptism. George Floyd was affectionately known by many as “Big Floyd.”3

Before moving to Minneapolis for a job through a Christian work program, Floyd labored to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Gospel of peace, to the hard-pressed third ward of Houston, his hometown. He heeded Jesus’s Great Commission, which we heard in last Sunday’s Gospel, by seeking to make disciples. He worked to bring the Gospel to young men in the Cuney Homes housing project, known popularly as “the Bricks.” A focus of Floyd’s ministry, in his own words, was “breaking the cycle of violence.”4

Now, I am not seeking to automatically canonize George Floyd. He certainly had his troubles. What I am saying is that he was a Christian. By the witness of his life, we know he was not Christian in some nominal sense. He was a disciple of Jesus. Discipleship can never be incidental or accidental. Christian discipleship is always intentional.

In the wake of George Floyd’s death, Minneapolis and several other cities, including Salt Lake City, which is currently under curfew, erupted into protests that turned into riots. As Christians, we know that violence only breeds violence. As Bishop Shelton Fabre, one of the few black Catholic bishops in the United States insisted in the wake of George Floyd’s death: racism is a life issue because people are losing their lives because of it.5 In another statement, seven U.S. bishops insisted: “We cannot turn a blind eye to these atrocities and yet still try to profess to respect every human life.”6 While, as Christians, we are committed to non-violence, we can’t be passive in the face of injustice. As Martin Luther King, Jr. and others showed us, non-violence is not pacifism.

But what to make of all this? I suppose each one of us has our own opinion. But as followers of Jesus Christ, we should all have in common the desire to break the world’s cycle of violence. We do that by committing ourselves to work for justice. One way to work for justice is seeking racial reconciliation. This begins with doing the hard work of confronting ourselves, becoming aware of certain attitudes, oftentimes deeply ingrained. It also involves listening to people different from ourselves, whose experiences in our culture and society differ from our own. As Pope Saint Paul VI insisted: “If you want Peace, work for justice.”7

Pope Francis calls on Catholics to create a “culture of encounter” in the societies in which we live.8 It was just such an encounter that is at the heart of Pentecost. Jews traveled from nations all over the known world to observe Shavuot. Shavuot in Greek is “Pentecost.” It is called Pentecost because this festival occurs fifty days after Passover, just as Christian Pentecost falls fifty days after Easter. On Shavuot to this day Jews celebrate God giving the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. The people say in response to hearing the Gospel in their own languages:
We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs…9
More than a digression, reflecting on the sin of racism and how the Gospel helps us overcome it is most fitting for this celebration. What we need to realize today as we celebrate Pentecost is founding the Church by the power of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost is reckoned to be the Church’s “birthday”), the risen Christ seeks to unite all peoples in and through the Church, making her “the universal sacrament of salvation.”10 In the Book of Revelation, John sees
a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation comes from* our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb”11
It is this new reality that Saint Paul pointed to when he wrote to the Christians in ancient Corinth: “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.”12

It is faith in Christ, which prompts Baptism. Baptism and Eucharist constitute our Christian DNA. Faith gives birth to hope. What is it we hope for? We hope for the reign of God to be fully established. When our hope turns into love, then God’s reign breaks through into the here and now, the future appears in the present. This is precisely why God gives us the great gift of faith, not for some individualized, singular salvation. Following Christ requires you to love your neighbor, to forgive those who trespass against you, to pray for and do good to your enemies, and work for justice. You cannot love God and hate your neighbor.13 You cannot be a racist and a Christian.

Because of Jesus Christ, membership in God’s people is not a matter of race, gender, sexual orientation, social class, or location. Membership, which is the work of the Spirit, is determined by faith in Christ alone. Inherent to this faith is a commitment to follow Jesus. This means not merely “preaching” the Good News but being good news by the way you live your life. And so, with great hope let us pray: “Come Holy Spirit and renew the face of the earth!”

1 Genesis 11:1-9.
2 Revelation 21:1-2.
3 Christianity Today, “George Floyd Left a Gospel Legacy in Houston.”
4 Ibid.
5 Catholic News Service, “Louisiana bishop: ‘People are losing their lives because of racism.’”
6 America, “Bishops call racism a ‘real and present danger’ in aftermath of death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.”
7 Pope Paul VI, Message for V World Day of Peace, 1 January 1972.
8 Pope Francis, Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, sec. 220.
9 Acts 2:9-11.
10 Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church [Lumen Gentium], sec. 48.
11 Revelation 7:9-10.
12 1 Corinthians 12:13.
13 1 John 4:20.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

The Ascension of the Lord

In many dioceses of the Western United States, including my own- the Diocese of Salt Lake City, Ascension has been transferred from Thursday in the Sixth Week of Easter to what would normally be the Seventh Sunday of Easter. I'll tell you upfront, this is not a post lamenting that transfer. Heaven knows I have weighed-in several times on that issue.

As I mentioned in my homily last Sunday concerning Pentecost, the fruit of the third of the Glorious Mysteries of our Blessed Mother's Rosary- the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost- is God's love for us. In Saint John's Last Supper Discourse, from whence comes the bulk of our Sunday Gospel readings during this Easter season (Year A of the three-year Sunday lectionary), Jesus tells his closest disciples: "But I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go. For if I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you" (John 16:7).

Especially in light of the reality that the Holy Spirit has never been absent, why does Jesus say it is necessary to depart for the Spirit to come? It seems prudent to note that in the first instance it is a mystery. This means that any and all attempts to answer this question fall short of the mystery. But this doesn't mean we must pass over this singular aspect of the multi-dimensional Paschal Mystery in silence. One way I have come to think about this takes as necessary premises that after his resurrection, the Holy Spirit becomes the mode of Christ's resurrection presence in and for the world, which means that the Church, the ekklesia, the assembly of God in Christ, animated- empowered- by the Holy Spirit, becomes the sacrament of salvation in and for the world.

Getting to the point, by becoming present through the Holy Spirit, the risen Lord can be closer to us than if he were "here" and standing "over there," as it were. At least in the context of the Gospel according to John, again, during the Last Supper Discourse, Jesus uses a lot of 'in" language: "I am in the Father." "The Father is in me." "If you have seen me you have seen the Father." Perhaps looking forward to Pentecost- but maybe not from a historical-critical perspective- Jesus tells his close followers that after they have received "the Spirit of truth" they "will realize that I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you" (John 14:17.20).

My reason for drawing attention to Jesus's in language in the Last Supper Discourse is to make the point that how the risen Lord comes to be in us is by the power of the Holy Spirit. This, of course, brings us almost reflexively to sacraments and to the Eucharist, the sacrament of sacraments, the Most Blessed Sacrament, in particular. In the Eucharist, Jesus comes to be "in" us by the proclamation of the word, which happens aurally. The word of God is very important. So important, in fact, that without it the Eucharist is incomprehensible. This is a major theme in the Emmaus episode from Saint Luke's Gospel (see Luke 24:13-35). Then comes our reception of Holy Communion, which happens orally. Ultimately, sacraments, even when properly understood as symbolic signs (sacraments are signs and symbols or they are nothing at all), are pretty concrete.

The Ascension, by Benjamin West, 1801

One advantage, especially in these times, is that the vast majority of us- certainly anyone reading this- has access to God's word- the Sacred Scriptures. We need to remember, especially now, we do not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from God's mouth. As no less than a Doctor of the Church, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, averred: "No doubt it is a great grace to receive the sacraments; but when God does not permit it, it is good nonetheless, everything is a grace." Perhaps consider learning how to "do" a Liturgy of the Word with your family during these times. The Church's lectionary is a great treasure, one too little cherished.

It is by the Holy Spirit's illumination that the word of God comes not only to inform us but to shape and form us. From the opening verses of sacred writ, we come to see that God's word is creative. He spoke everything into existence. We need to let God "make" us through the power of his divine word. This is why there is no reason for us to stand around gazing up at the sky (see Acts 1:11).

By his ascending to the Father, the Son, our Lord and Savior, can be nearer to us, not farther away. To receive the Holy Spirit, then, is to level your gaze. By leveling your gaze, you live as a Spirit-filled disciple of Jesus Christ. Inherent to being a disciple of Jesus Christ being a missionary, one who evangelizes, a person who seeks to spread the good news. Is this not the gist of our Gospel reading today? In today's Gospel we hear again the so-called "Great Commission," in which our risen Lord bids us to "make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19). The good news is spread primarily by loving your neighbor as you love yourself. This requires diakonia, serving others in selfless and often inconvenient ways.

Whether Saint Francis of Assisi said it or not (probably not), it is important to preach the Gospel by using words only when we must. As someone noted on "Catholic" Twitter this week: "the positive apologetic is the christian life of loving one's neighbor, and that's insanely hard." The Spirit is given us to make it, not easy, but possible, even to the point of forgiving us when we fail. After all, "everything is a grace."

Because in and through Christ everything is a grace we can have hope. By accepting everything as a grace we come to realize that hope is not optimism. Rather, we learn through experience, even if sometimes painfully, that hope lies beyond optimism. Hope is the fruit of the second of the Glorious Mysteries of the Virgin Mary's Holy Rosary, which invites us to reflect on the Ascension of the Lord; an unfathomable mystery.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Monday Sixth Week of Easter

Readings: Acts 16:11-15; Ps 149:1b-6.9b; John 15:26-16:4a

It is important to make yourself a dwelling place for God. How you do this is quite simple: through prayer. You extend hospitality to God, like Lydia, extended it to Paul and his companion, by daily inviting God in.

When praying, you need to spend at least as much time in silence and you spend talking, if not more. Silence is God’s first language. As in any conversation, how can you listen if you’re constantly talking? Especially for people in advanced societies today, silence is difficult and uncomfortable. But like any spiritual practice, you have to stick with it until it becomes easier and more comfortable. Persistence is the path of fruitfulness.

Not only is the Holy Spirit the mode of God’s communication with us but because “we do not know how to pray as we ought,” Paul notes in his Letter to the Romans, the Spirit “intercedes [for us] with inexpressible groanings.”1

Only those who make themselves a dwelling place for God can convincingly testify to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. It is the Holy Spirit who strengthens us when the inevitable trials start so “that you may not fall away.”2 Then as now, falling away is a real danger.

I am convinced that one of the biggest dangers for Christians today is not the usually facile “new atheism" or simply going from belief to unbelief in single bound. Because it is not certain knowledge, faith implies, or least easily accommodates, doubt. A great danger is getting caught up in bad religion, then realizing it for what it is, projecting that onto everything else, rejecting it, and walking away.

What do I mean by “bad religion”? I am referring specifically referring to the phenomenon of “internet Catholicism.” This phenomenon presents not only a false magisterium but many false teachers, whose sole claim to authority, be they priests or lay people, is their internet audience. They operate on the premise, even if unspoken (though many are increasingly bold), that their authority supersedes that of bishops and even the Pope. This is what Saint John Henry Newman called “the Protestant principle.”3 Oddly, many Protestants today show more respect for and receptivity to Catholic (catholic) teaching than the purveyors of "internet Catholicism." Being sectarians, these purveyors are the antithesis of what it means to be Catholic.

St Paul Meeting Lydia of Thyatira, by Edward Irvine Halliday

These self-anointed authorities presume to teach universally on all matters of faith and morals. They set themselves up as alternatives to authentic teaching authority in the Church, not just that of the Pope, but of bishops and duly appointed pastors. They expatiate on everything from the proper way to receive Holy Communion to whether bishops in this time of pandemic can and should restrict participation in Mass for the safety of their flocks. The activities of such people are analogous to those of the Judaizers with whom Paul was frequently forced to contend.

If you’re following the teaching of someone on the internet that is at odds with the teaching of your bishop, who is a Successor of the Apostles, a member of the College of Bishops in communion with the Pope, then you can be quite sure you’ve wandered from the path. In doing so, you are putting yourself at the mercy of wolves.

One thing that seems to unite these self-appointed pontiffs is their dislike of Pope Francis, especially his determination to tackle Pharisaical legalism within the Church. Rather than liberate, such legalism seeks to enslave and labors under the delusion that a person saves himself by his own righteous deeds. Eventually, many people who labor under these heavy burdens come to think “God is asking too much of me. I just can’t do it.” Here’s good news: Jesus did what God expects! Only he is capable of doing it. Jesus is our Savior.

After being burned by the flames of misplaced zealotry, a lot of people find it difficult to believe and continue practicing the faith. Jesus said: “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”4 Given the nearly overwhelming noise to signal ratio in our and age, it takes prayer and discernment to hear and follow the Master’s voice. It's safe to say, that the voice of authentic shepherds is gentler, less severe, not as dictatorial as those who seek to usurp authority.

If through prayer, you make yourself a dwelling place for God, it becomes easier to discern the voice of the Good Shepherd, which resonates in the voices of those duly appointed to guide his flock safely along the pilgrim path of this life.

The inspired author of Acts does not tell us what Lydia and the other women were doing on the banks of the river when Paul and his companion, who left the city of Philippi to find a place to pray on the Sabbath, encountered them. It is noted that Lydia was “a worshiper of God.”5 This likely means she was a Jewish proselyte, meaning one who was in the process of converting to Judaism, or perhaps a God-fearer, meaning a Gentile who, while not seeking to convert, recognized the God of Israel as the one true God and worshiped accordingly.

Therefore, it is probable that Lydia could receive the good news of Jesus Christ because she understood his Jewish context and recognized him, through Paul’s preaching, as the anticipated Messiah. This can be nothing other than the work of the Holy Spirit.

1 Romans 8:26.
2 John 16:1.
3 Mark E. Powell, Papal Infallibility: A Protestant Evaluation of an Ecumenical Issue, 87.
4 John 10:27.
5 Acts 16:14.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Year A Sixth Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 8:5-8.14-17; Ps 66:1-7.16.20; 1 Peter 3:15-18; John 14:15-21

Believe it or not, dear friends, in this oddest of years we are already celebrating the Sixth Sunday of Easter. This means that we are preparing for that major feast, which comes second only to Easter: Pentecost. Indeed, the Holy Spirit, sent by Christ after he ascended to the Father’s right hand is a major focus of today’s readings.

The fruit of the Third Glorious Mystery of the Blessed Virgin’s Rosary, which bids us to meditate on the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, is God’s love for us. In today’s Gospel reading, taken from Saint John’s Last Supper Discourse, Jesus assures his worried disciples that he will not abandon them. He tells them, “I will come to you.”1 Of course, the Spirit comes fifty days after Jesus’s resurrection on what became the first Christian Pentecost.

It cannot be emphasized enough that the Holy Spirit is the mode of Christ’s resurrection presence among us, in us, and through us. In other words, the Holy Spirit, as Jesus indicates later in the same chapter from which our Gospel today is taken, “will teach you everything and remind you of all that [I] told you.”2 Just as the Son speaks the will of the Father, the Holy Spirit, in turn, speaks the will of the Father and the Son.

We have to tread lightly whenever we speak of commandment-keeping. We must do so because in talking about keeping the commandments it easily turns into long lists of prescriptions and proscriptions, that is, dos and donts. The Pharisees, to whom Jesus had a thing or two to say, were great at making lists of rules and, at least in their own minds, even better at keeping those rules. When we start to make such lists, we begin to speak and act as if our salvation depends on our own relative goodness, our own righteousness. Thanks be to God, it does not. If it did, there would be absolutely no reason for us to celebrate this morning.

During Saint John’s Last Supper Discourse, Jesus gives his disciples only one commandment: love one another as I have loved you.3 To keep Jesus’s commandments is to do what love requires in every situation. This requires constant prayerful discernment. To love another means to seek her/his good, even at a cost to yourself. Agape requires diakonia. Love requires selfless service. This is how you “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts.”4

It has been noted that no good deed goes unpunished. Our epistle reading today bids us persist in love even when doing that means suffering for doing what is good. Never forget that the most loving and good deed in the universe was when the Lord of the universe “humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.”5

When we speak in our overheated times and in our hothouse American culture about the Holy Spirit, our words and minds turn to almost crazy things: speaking in tongues, writhing on the floor, laughing hysterically, staged healings, shouting, etc. Therefore, it is important to bear in mind what the inspired word of God enumerates as the gifts of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”6

This is not to dismiss belief in the miraculous, it is just to bring our expectations more in line with Sacred Scripture and Christian experience. Jesus, who seems to me to have been quite ambivalent about the miracles he performed, said that it is “An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign.”7

In our first reading, Philip, reckoned by the Church to be one of the first seven deacons, demonstrates the power of the good news. By proclaiming Jesus’s resurrection and his Lordship and Messiahship, the power of the Gospel began to be made manifest as people were cured of various ailments and liberated from oppression by the enemy.

Peter and John went to Samaria to confirm the baptism of those who responded in faith to Philip’s preaching. They conferred on them, by the laying on of hands, the same Spirit by which Philip, who, like Stephen and the other five men set apart, was filled. This brought “great joy” to their city.8

Philip, who fled Jerusalem to avoid persecution, was able to give the people of the city of Samaria “an explanation” for his hope.9 Presumably, as with his encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch, he did so with gentleness and reverence, as one would expect of a person filled with the Holy Spirit.10

During this season of Easter, perhaps more this year than ever, “We are,” in the words of Saint Augustine from a discourse on the Psalms,
all urging one another to praise the Lord, and all thereby doing what each of us urges the other to do. But see that your praise comes from your whole being; in other words, see that you praise God not with your lips and voices alone, but with your minds, your lives and all your actions11
We are made from love in order to love. In reality, our lives have no other purpose. Our words and actions, therefore, should flow from loving God by loving one another. When people consider the community of Saint Olaf Parish, they should come away marveling: “See… how they love one another.”12

1 John 14:18.
2 John 14:26.
3 John 13:34.
4 1 Peter 3:15.
5 Philippians 2:8.
6 Galatians 5:22-23.
7 Matthew 16:4.
8 Acts 6:3; Acts 8:8.
9 1 Peter 3:15.
10 See Acts 8:26-40; 1 Peter 3:16.
11 Liturgy of the Hours, Volume II, Office of Readings, Saturday, Fifth Week of Easter, Second Reading, 757-758.
12 Tertullian, Apology, chap. 39.

Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul

Readings: Acts 12:1-11; Ps 34:2-9; 2 Tim 4:6-8.17-18; Matt 16:13-19 In light of yesterday’s Gospel, in which Jesus tells anyone who follo...