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 Following 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 fleeing 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 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 Samaritan 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 requires 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.

At present, 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.

Monday Second Week of Advent, Year II

Readings: Isa 35:1-10; Ps 85:9ab-14; Luke 5:17-26 According to Jesus, it is harder to forgive sins than it is to heal the lame. The main ...