Holiness Needs to Be Seen and Heard

Holiness Needs to Be Seen and Heard

My son Caleb insists on calling me “dad.” He used to call me “daddy,” but recently it’s just “dad.” I knew there would come a day when he was too cool to call me “daddy.” I had hoped it would come much later than 2 years old.

Don’t misunderstand me, being called “dad” is the greatest privilege of my life.

And the privilege goes beyond the title. This morning I was trimming my mustache over the sink. Caleb stood there and watched my every move. “Ow, dad. Hurts your face?” “No, Caleb, daddy’s not hurt.” Of course, I decided not to leave hair in the sink. My son was watching and I didn’t want him to think it was ok to leave a mess for someone else. He does the same with Mom. I’m constantly amazed at how much of her I see in him, both in appearance and manner. He watches everything we do, listens to everything we say, and copies it. By the way, I never realized how much we must say “no” and “mine.”

I only say this half joking. I know it’s natural for a toddler to claim everything as “mine” and reply to every request or command with “no.” But I also recognize that some of my own bad habits are already being passed to him. It puts pressure on me (in a good way) to better myself and be worthy of the title “dad.” If the universal call to holiness weren’t enough of a reason to be a better version of me, the fact that my son is watching and learning certainly is. I hope the Mom and Dad he sees love God with their whole being and love their neighbor as themselves. I hope he sees Dad and Mom loving and honoring each other in word and deed. I hope he sees us owning up to mistakes and seeking forgiveness when needed. Most especially, I pray that it could never be said of us, “Do what Mom and Dad say but not what they do.”

The readings this weekend talk about spiritual fatherhood and motherhood. There are many people who lead us to Jesus. Our mother and father may have been the first, but many others followed: grandparents, godparents, priests, deacons, religious, parents of friends, religious education teachers, peers etc. None of these people are perfect. The hope is that we see past imperfection to the truth being offered to us. But we shouldn’t count on that. Being a spiritual leader comes with responsibility.  I can’t expect Caleb to listen to my words when my actions don’t correspond. And I can’t expect anyone to whom I’m a spiritual father to heed my words and not my deeds.

The reality is that there will be times when I don’t follow my own advice. Jesus and Saint Paul give us a way to remedy this. To be true leaders we must be servants. Our actions must be guided by love, gentleness, and humility.

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Living a Life of Sacrificial Love for God and Others

Living a Life of Sacrificial Love for God and Others

There’s a revolution going on.

The revolution is called the Theology of the Body. It is a gift and legacy given to the Church and the world by Saint John Paul the Great. Centuries from now people will look back on it as a turning point in our understanding of what it means to be human, a unity of body and soul.  The Theology of the Body (TOB) is a large body of theology. As Pope, John Paul laid it out over the course of 129 lectures spanning five years. We use TOB as a framework to teach 6-12 graders about sexuality, chastity, vocation, what it means to be created male and female and, above all, what it means to be made in the image of God.

It’s more than a glorified “abstinence talk.” TOB is an anthropology that gives us keys to approaching some of life’s biggest questions. What is the meaning of life? Why are we made the way we are? What were we made for? Where do evil and suffering come from? What is the ultimate end of all this? The short answer is this: we are made in the image of God, which means we are made in the image of Love. We are made by Love, in the image of Love, and our purpose is to love and be loved. Jesus showed us what love is by His suffering and death. He showed us that love isn’t a cozy feeling. His heart wasn’t warmed by the thought of His passion, but filled with sorrow even to the point of death. His love for the Father meant obedience to His Will.

We were created to love—to make a gift of self. Saint Maximilian Kolbe has two incredible quotations on the nature of love. “Let us remember that love lives through sacrifice and is nourished by giving. Without sacrifice, there is no love.” The second is even simpler and sums up what it means to love quite plainly: “The cross is the school of love.”  Everything we need to know about how we are to love, we can find in contemplating the cross. On the cross, Jesus was poured out completely for the sake of the same people who put him there, including you and me (Philippians 2:5-8). His sacrifice was freely given and required nothing from us (John 10:17-18, Romans 5:8). The ultimate act of love is given for us and will not be withdrawn or canceled (Revelation 21:3). And the cross is more than an act to inspire us—it brought us salvation (1 Peter 2:24) and defeated death in the Resurrection (1 Corinthians 15).

Jesus gave us the Greatest Commandment in two parts. First, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” The second is, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And the example of what this love looks like is the cross. It is obedience to the will of God. It is sacrificial love given totally, freely, without condition or an expiration date, and desiring the good of the other for their own sake. It isn’t always emotionally rewarding and it is often the last thing we feel like doing. This kind of love isn’t hard; it’s impossible, without God.

That is why love is called a theological virtue. It comes from God. The unambiguous instruction to love God and love your neighbor is an opportunity to participate in the love of Christ. He shares with us His divine nature, which is love, and we return it by our love for Him and others. This cycle of self-gift, which begins for us here on Earth, is Heaven. It is the end for which we were made and it is nothing short of revolutionary.

Do I Give to God What Belongs to God?

Do I Give to God What Belongs to God?

 

“Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”

Hypocrite is one of those words that many people use and use incorrectly. Jesus was the first person to use it as a criticism. In modern use, it has come to describe a person whose actions don’t match their stated beliefs.  An obese cardiologist? Hypocrite! Someone who claims to love the environment but drives a gas guzzler? Hypocrite! Family values politicians who are unfaithful to their spouse? Hypocrites! When actions don’t match words we all get upset—and rightfully so. We all want a world where we can take people at face value. What we commonly call hypocrisy undermines trust. But I think we commonly misidentify this disparity between word and deed.

If we are honest, each of us is in some way guilty of what we say differing from what we do. We might tell our kids to put down the phone or tablet while engrossed in our own device. Or we urge others to drive more carefully while we drive with distractions. We know what is best for us and do something less. We opt for the extra donut over the apple (or butter coffee), the nap over the brisk walk, impatience over the kind word, or one more episode on Netflix over prayer and scripture. But this doesn’t make us hypocrites in the sense that Jesus used the word. These examples and many more are really instances of concupiscence and weakness as a result of the Fall.

In Jesus’ time, “hypocrite” was the Greek word for a stage actor who wore a mask. When Jesus called someone a hypocrite he was implying that they were playing a role, wearing a mask. Hypocrites were people more concerned with their image than anything else. Their aim was not to be righteous but to appear righteous and gain the praise of the world. In this Sunday’s Gospel, it is the idea of image that really stands out.

The hypocrites come to Jesus with a trick question. They approach him with false praise for his teaching and wisdom, even laying it on thick. Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not? Jesus disappoints them with a better answer than they could have expected. “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” “Caesar’s” “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” If the gold coins are Caesar’s because they bear his image, then how do I know what belongs to God? What bears His image? We learned what bears God’s image in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible. We do. We belong to God.

To repay to God what belongs to God we have to give Him our whole self. Repaying God means giving him glory and honor. It means giving Him our time, talent and treasure. The Pharisees and Herodians wanted a debate that would end in Jesus saying something they could use to condemn him. What they got instead was a simple and clear teaching—take off your masks. Stop pretending to be something you are not. Remember that the only image that matters is not the one you craft for public approval, but the Imago Dei—the image of God. We are commanded to shine like lights in a dark world. While our ideals and actions might not always agree, we can begin to shine by removing our masks and letting the world see Whose image and inscription we bear.

God Is Not Fair And Thank God For That

God Is Not Fair And Thank God For That

This Sunday’s Gospel reading challenges every one of us to come to a deeper appreciation of the generosity of our God. It seems like a universal reaction to complain when we have been deprived of something we think is owed to us. This sense of dissatisfaction with unfair circumstances can fuel the changes that make a more just world. But sometimes, this sense of dissatisfaction is misplaced and can even make the world less just, less merciful.

Imagine winning a million dollars in the lottery and griping that it’s not two million. Or receiving a miraculous cure of a terminal illness and complaining that it didn’t also cure a less serious condition. I remember going on pilgrimage to Rome for World Youth Day in 2000. It was hot the day we celebrated Mass with Pope John Paul II. A local beverage company handed out hundreds of thousands of bottles of water—for free. Someone in my group complained that it wasn’t cold water. Complaints like these fuel bitterness and envy.

Think about the complaint of the “early shift” laborers in the vineyard. They worked the whole day. I’m sure that working the whole day gave them the benefit of establishing a rhythm. Not only were they working longer, but they were likely more effective and efficient workers because of it.

Then come the “late shifters.” I bet they showed up, with an hour or two to go, and had no idea what they were doing. They likely caused more harm than good by messing up the efficient technique of the veterans. Some of them might have even voiced ideas on how to improve the system as if they knew what they were talking about! And in the end, they got the same pay. The injustice of it all.

We may have a tendency to view our fellow vineyard workers in the same light. “They’re not as committed as I am,” we might say. Or, “They don’t give as much time, talent and treasure.” Or even, “They’re not as morally good as I am!” Yet all are given the same work of evangelizing and offered the same reward of eternal life.

The reality is that none of us deserves the opportunity to labor, nor do we deserve the generous reward. In reading this parable, we shouldn’t get too caught up in trying to identify whether we are early or latecomers. That might lead to comparison. Love doesn’t compare, it doesn’t weigh benefits, and it doesn’t hold back. This parable is an opportunity to stand back and marvel at the generosity of our God, who desires that all be saved and gives us each a role to play in His Divine plan.

The response to Jesus’ love is to look within and ask, “Lord, how can I give more?”

Saint Paul talks about his dilemma in the second reading. He desires an end to his labor in the vineyard, that he might live with Christ forever. But he also has a strong yearning to continue his mission of evangelizing, sharing the love of Jesus and the message of salvation with anyone who will listen. Keep in mind that Saint Paul was in prison when he wrote to the Philippians. His mind was not focused on receiving fair treatment, but on Jesus. For him, and for us, every soul brought to the vineyard and given a reward is a reason to celebrate with joy the undeserved, unmerited, and unconditional love of Jesus Christ.

No, Jesus Wasn’t a Bigot

No, Jesus Wasn’t a Bigot

This Sunday we will hear one of those challenging passages that are hard to interpret at first. Jesus is in the region of Tyre and Sidon, Gentile territory. A Canaanite woman approaches the disciples and asks that her daughter be healed. The disciples want Jesus to get rid of her. He tells them, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The woman comes to Jesus, worships Him and asks for help. His reply is shocking, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” She accepts that she is a dog, and asks for scraps from the master’s table. It then appears that Jesus has a “come to Jesus” moment where he recognizes the greatness of her faith and heals her daughter.

Some Catholic commentaries explain that Jesus was a product of the time and place he inhabited. He held the tendencies that most people of his time held. As a woman, especially a Canaanite woman, this mother was on the bottom rung of society. They say her persistence helped Jesus “evolve” and see His saving mission in a broader sense. I reject this interpretation for a few reasons. First, if Jesus were so anti-gentile, what was he doing in Tyre and Sidon? Second, at this point there are already examples in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus heals both women and gentiles, so the interpretation doesn’t fit the context.

But the larger problem with this interpretation is this: it means that either bigotry and ethnic/racial prejudice aren’t sins, which they clearly are. Or, the alternative, which is even worse, it means Jesus wasn’t the spotless lamb, like us in all things but sin, and therefore died for his own sin, not ours. Our Catholic faith holds that Jesus was sinless, and affirms that racism is a sin so there has to be a better way of reading this passage. There is, fortunately, a third alternative. Jesus is being ironic. He’s using a specific irony called sarcasm.

Irony and sarcasm aren’t rare in the Bible. Elijah uses sarcasm in a confrontation with the priests of Baal. They are calling down fire from heaven on their sacrificial bull and it’s not going well. Elijah suggests they shout louder, as their lord Baal might be busy taking a dump.

Jesus uses irony throughout the Gospels. Every time he responds to the Pharisees starting with the words, “Have you not read…” he’s using subtle irony. Of course the Pharisees have read what Jesus is about to tell them. The Pharisees had poured over the scriptures countless times and could recite every word from memory. He also makes use of sarcastic forms of irony.

At that very hour some Pharisees came, and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you. And he said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. Nevertheless I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following; for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.’” (Lk 13:31-33)

Not only does he call Herod a fox (actually a vixen, Jesus uses the feminine form) but he then basically tells the Pharisees, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to die now and rob you of the chance to kill me in Jerusalem.”

The idea that Jesus used sarcasm at times might be unsettling to some. It’s a form of irony that is usually reserved to express contempt or scorn. And that is exactly how Jesus uses it in this story. He pours contempt and scorn on the ethnic and racial supremacy of His time, of all time. His target audience was not the Canaanite woman, but his disciples, then and now. I don’t think Jesus would have spoken this way if He didn’t see the woman’s heart and know that she could grasp the subtlety. Her wit and humility gave Jesus the space to teach a valuable lesson. But the lesson on bigotry isn’t the real gem here.

The Canaanite woman is the treasure buried in this reading. The worst part about wrongly interpreting this story is that you might miss out on her. For her, Jesus was a mere rumor, but she persisted in faith. He was a Jew, the enemy of her people, but she persisted in faith. The disciples, among them the Apostles who were the first bishops, told her to get away. She persisted in faith. Her faith was greater than the obstacles and in the end she was rewarded. Her reward was not to be exalted as an example while the disciples were humbled. The true reward wasn’t even the healing of her daughter. Her reward was the one we all should seek—Jesus Himself.

We All Need to Step Back, Open Our Eyes and See Jesus

We All Need to Step Back, Open Our Eyes and See Jesus

This weekend groups of teens and adults will be returning home from Beyond Sunday Missions in Mexico, ME and CAMPS (Christ as My Personal Savior) in Pittsfield, MA. Two weeks ago, another dozen teens and adults joined thousands at the Steubenville East Conference in Lowell, MA. Close to 30 members of our parish community joined in these experiences with thousands of other Catholics for one purpose: to encounter Jesus Christ.

For many years now experiences like these have been integral to the formation of teens and adults into disciples of Jesus Christ at our parish. It is important for every Catholic to step back from mundane life occasionally to reach out and be touched by the Living God. We call these conferences, retreats, bible camp, missions etc. But they are all really Transfiguration experiences.

In the Transfiguration, Jesus took Peter, John, and James up a mountain to reveal His glory to them. The events leading up to this are important. Six days before this, the twelve were gathered with Jesus and he asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” It was a question not only for them but for us too. Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” He didn’t grasp the full meaning of this declaration, confirmed immediately after by Peter’s attempt to convince Jesus to evade his arrest, passion, and death in Jerusalem. But Peter stepped out in faith anyway.

And so, six days later, Jesus called Peter, along with James and John, to journey up a mountain, because he had something to show them. There on Mount Tabor, Jesus revealed His Glory and left no doubt in the minds of the three disciples as to who He was and is.

To encounter Jesus and be left with no doubt about who He is.

That is why we invest so much time and money on experiences like Steubenville, Beyond Sunday Mission and CAMPS. That is why we urge so many young people to step out in faith and get on the bus, or get in the van and go. I wrote a few weeks ago on the Parable of the Sower. One of the types of soil was rocky soil, where crops spring up at once and wither because they have no root. I said that sometimes when people return home from a profound retreat experience they can be like that rocky soil—on fire for Christ for a while, but not when troubles come. I did not mean that as a criticism of powerful spiritual experiences. I think these experiences are critical to developing as a disciple, and they remain with someone for years. Saint Peter recalled the events of the Transfiguration decades later in this week’s second reading.

I don’t think it’s an either/or proposition. As a disciple of Jesus, I’m a product of the “small” acts that build faith. The informal catechesis of my parents tilled the soil of my heart. The mountain of little things served to amplify those huge Transfiguration moments. I’ve probably been to Mass a couple thousand times in my life, Reconciliation maybe a hundred times. Despite all that, I still remember the first time experiencing a God who was both bigger than I could possibly imagine and closer than I could ever dream. I was singing a song at CAMPS in 1995 called “Where Justice Rolls Down” surrounded by friends from my parish and a couple hundred other campers. In that moment, singing at the top of my lungs with arms raised heavenward, I had no doubt who Jesus Christ was and is. That sort of thing changes you like the first Transfiguration changed Peter, John, and James.

No, it’s not an either/or thing. Like so much of Catholicism, it’s both/and. That Transfiguration experience 22 years ago set a fire that still burns today, but it wouldn’t still be burning without all the little things that prepared me for it and sustained me afterward. Even when it looked like my faith would wither and die (and there were times when it did look that way) the roots had gone too deep for that to happen.

So, I’ll just ask you for two things. First, will you pray for deep roots for all those who have come home from a Transfiguration experience this summer? Pray that they now have the courage to persevere in doing the little things that sustain the fire they received. Second, if you’ve never had a Transfiguration experience, or if it has been a long time since you have, would you prayerfully consider setting aside time for one this year?

Prudence, Wheat, and Weeds

Prudence, Wheat, and Weeds

Patience is not necessarily tolerance. Tolerance is not necessarily love. I tolerate all sorts of things for different reasons. I tolerate snow because there’s nothing I can do about it (except maybe move to Arizona, but then I’d have a lot more tolerating to do). I tolerate traffic and long lines for the same reason. Because I’m powerless over those things. I tolerate uninformed opinions because I’ve learned that uninformed opinions aren’t uninformed by accident. We all have a tendency to start with conclusions and ignore evidence to the contrary. Besides that, who wants to argue constantly? I mean besides me. Tolerance is often necessary for the sake of peace and getting along. But tolerance is misguided when it is divorced from a much deeper and fuller virtue: Prudence.

Prudence is a virtue that gives us the ability to recognize what is to be pursued and what should be avoided. In the Catholic sense, prudence allows us to discern what is good and what is evil—we should pursue the good and be fiercely intolerant of evil. And there’s more to prudence than simply knowing what is good and what is evil. Prudence also advises the course we need to take in pursuit of good and avoidance of evil. We can’t do evil in pursuit of good, and we shouldn’t take actions which generate evil in pursuit of good. Even if the goal is good, we cannot cause suffering greater than the good to achieve the goal. It might be easier to see this in a concrete example.

It has been a lifelong dream of mine to own and operate an alpaca farm. And anyone who knows anything about alpaca husbandry understands that the greatest threat to a successful farm is alpaca thieves. My farm will come equipped with high voltage fences strong enough to kill any potential thief on the spot. Of course, the fence could also harm alpacas and innocent human beings, but it’s worth it because I have the good and noble goal of preventing alpaca pilfering.

It sounds goofy (I mean the defense system and not my lifelong dream), but it’s not so over-the-top. Consider actions like the War on Drugs. Think about how much suffering and violence came from the imprudent pursuit of a good and noble goal. We do it in our own lives too. Look at the absolute breakdown in civil discourse over issues of faith, morals, and politics. How many friendships have broken due to disagreement? How many families hold a grudging peace at best and, at worst, outright division over similar disagreements? But are we supposed to then simply say, “You have your opinion, I have mine. Let’s agree to disagree since there’s no way of knowing who’s right?” Well, no. There’s another way.

Jesus presents the other way in a parable. A farmer sowed wheat, but in the night his enemy came and sowed weeds. When both begin to grow the servants suggest pulling the weeds. But the farmer prudently tells them not to, because that would kill the wheat as well. Wait until the harvest and then have the harvesters pull the weeds to be burned and gather the wheat into the barn. Jesus goes on the explain the meaning, which He doesn’t always do. Whenever He explains the meaning I think the parable must be particularly important. The field is the world, this life. The wheat are the children of His Kingdom and the weeds are the children of the evil one—Satan. The harvesters are the angels, sent by Christ at the end of time to separate wheat from weed. What does this mean practically speaking? Separating people into two camps, good and evil, isn’t our job. Being children of the Kingdom is our job.

What does being children of the Kingdom mean in light of this Sunday’s readings? First, we have to understand that the weeds don’t represent evil people. There are no evil people. Thoughts, actions, attitudes, beliefs, biases, words—all of these can be evil. But a human person, made in the image of God, cannot. They can be under the influence of evil forces, but that makes them victims of the enemy, not the enemy themselves.

Second, make sure you are wheat. Be prudent. Before you decide whose actions are good and whose are evil, make sure you yourself know the difference and live it in your own life. I’ve been a weed at times, and I’ve been wheat at others. By grace, through prayer, scripture, and, above all, the Sacraments, I work with Christ to be wheat.

Third, we can’t make the mistake of thinking that patience and prudence (seen as tolerance) are a tacit acceptance of evil. If we love others as we should, we would be as intolerant of evil within them as we would cancer within them. We wouldn’t want a little cancer, but would want every trace of it eradicated. The same goes for evil. But it is unwise and imprudent to take an unmerciful approach and wield truth like a sledgehammer. This hinders love.

Finally, do we just sit around and disparage the weeds around us, waiting for the end of the age when we will finally be separated? No, that’s not loving, not prudent, and it’s very weed-like. We hope for conversion and show how to be children of the Kingdom by our joyful example. Above all, we pray. Nature cannot change weeds into wheat, but grace can. For nothing is impossible with God.

“Brothers and sisters:

The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness;

for we do not know how to pray as we ought,

but the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.

And the one who searches hearts

knows what is the intention of the Spirit,

because he intercedes for the holy ones

according to God’s will.”

                                    -Romans 8:26-27