Sunday, January 15, 2017

It's not a quick sale, it's about relationships (Sunday homily)

One of the jobs I had, when I was in my 20s, 
was as a salesman in a men’s clothing store. 
I had that job for about a year or so. 
It was a good job, and I learned some valuable lessons.
The way it worked was that as customers came in, 
each sales person on the floor would be “up” – 
meaning, your turn to wait on a customer. 
And, if you made a sale, you got the commission on that sale.

Of course, not everybody walking in would buy something; 
But a smart salesman knew that Mr. “I’m just looking today” 
might well come back a week later, or an hour later, 
and make a purchase. And, if you took good care of him, 
you’d see him again, and again. 

So, one thing I learned 
was that it wasn’t just about making a quick sale, 
but rather, about creating a relationship.
Someone has a need and comes to me.
If I can help them find what they need – that’s valuable.
That’s not just a good day’s work, 
it’s a good way to live your life
And all that came to mind as I thought about our parish patron, 
Saint Remy, whose feast day we celebrate today. 

Saint Remigius, as he would have called himself,
was a Roman; he lived in northern part of the province of Gaul,
in an area near the present-day border between France and Belgium. 
As a boy, Remy was very bright and well read; 
he was renowned for his learning and his holiness. 
When he was 22, he was recommended to be bishop – 
and he wasn’t even a priest!

Remy was born in AD 437. 
This was a time when Roman society was falling apart. 
Foreign peoples were moving across the borders,
Public order was breaking down,
And when people sent for help from Rome, little help came.

This is how the Kingdom of the Franks – what later became France – 
was established, with Clovis as the first King.
And Remigius, as Bishop of Reims, was in the middle of it all.

Remy had a choice. He might have wanted to stay away 
from these barbarians, and just stick with his fellow Romans.
That would have been a lot easier and more comfortable.

Instead, Remy sought out Clovis and his wife, Clotilda. 
While Clovis was a pagan, Clotilda was a Catholic. 
Remy was eager to share the Gospel with Clovis, 
but the king wasn’t very interested.

Remy wasn’t after a quick sale; 
he and the king and queen formed a friendship, 
despite all that separated him from them.

He may well have been influenced 
by Saint Paul’s words in the second reading: 
“I have become all things to all, to save at least some.” 

Because Remy made himself available to the Lord, 
not only was King Clovis baptized, so were many of his advisors. 
That set the whole kingdom on the path to becoming Catholic; 
and thus the future nation of France.

Now, in case it’s not obvious, let’s notice how our situation is similar.
Our society is in the midst of dramatic change. 
I don’t mean technology, I mean in values.

Some of us can remember taking for granted 
that our society around us knew who Jesus Christ is. 
If that was ever really true, it’s not true now. 

Like the situation in St. Remy’s time, 
you and I can retreat into what’s comfortable and familiar – 
or we can seek out relationships that take us outside our usual circle.
Those are our opportunities to share our Faith, 
and to make a difference in people’s lives.

Just as a practical step, ask yourself:
Do you know all your neighbors – say, on all sides of your house?
How about the next house, in each direction?

What about the other students in your grade at school?
Are there students you don’t know very well?
Maybe they don’t go to St. Remy – or maybe they aren’t Catholic?

As I said a moment ago, the point is not making a quick sale, 
But about being able to help people.

The call that God placed on Isaiah’s heart, and later, 
his call to Peter and Andrew, James and John, 
was to make a difference in people’s lives 
by helping them know who Jesus is 
and the life and hope Jesus gives.

And who does God send? He sent St. Paul; he sent St. Remy; 
and he sends you, and me.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Maltese Straw that breaks the Church's back

Everyone knows about the debate over Pope Francis' Amoris Laetitia, and whether it is ambiguous in places, and whether it needs to be clarified. Many -- four prominent cardinals in particular -- have publicly asked for clarification, saying that without clarification, the ambiguities in the document will invite distortions or even implicit denial of constant Catholic teaching and practice. Others have responded by dismissing, and in some cases, ridiculing, this concern.

Well, it appears a document from the bishops of Malta may have gone exactly where Cardinal Burke and others' worst fears dreaded.

From the "Criteria for the Application of Chapter VIII of Amoris Laetitia,
just issued, we find this paragraph:
Paragraph 10: If, as a result of the process of discernment, undertaken with “humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it” (AL 300), a separated or divorced person who is living in a new relationship manages, with an informed and enlightened conscience, to acknowledge and believe that he or she are at peace with God, he or she cannot be precluded from participating in the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist (see AL, notes 336 and 351).

If so, then why shouldn’t the following likewise be true:

If, as a result of the process of discernment, undertaken with “humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it” (AL 300), a separated or divorced person who is living in a new relationship same-sex attracted person who is living in a ‘same sex marriage’ manages, with an informed and enlightened conscience, to acknowledge and believe that he or she are at peace with God, he or she cannot be precluded from participating in the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist (see AL, notes 336 and 351).

Or indeed, why not:

If, as a result of the process of discernment, undertaken with “humility, discretion and love for the Church and her teaching, in a sincere search for God’s will and a desire to make a more perfect response to it” (AL 300), a separated or divorced person who is living in a new relationship any person persisting in a state of mortal sin who manages, with an informed and enlightened conscience, to acknowledge and believe that he or she are at peace with God, he or she cannot be precluded from participating in the sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist (see AL, notes 336 and 351).

In short, doesn't this mean that all those who, in confession, says they are committing mortal sin of any sort, and because they believe they are "at peace with God" about it, they won't change that behavior, they are to receive absolution, and then can receive communion?

In other words, priests must grant absolution in such cases? What happens if a priest refuses to do so?

Are you telling me this isn’t a break from Catholic teaching?

Tell me what I'm missing here. Specifically, please explain how this is not in direct conflict with the Catechism, paragraph 1650, and the explicit teachings of Pope Benedict and Pope St. John Paul II.

(Note: I understand many people are upset about this, and are upset with Pope Francis over this. Injudicious comments will be deleted. Expressing unhappiness at the pope's decisions is one thing; calling the pope a heretic is something else. Be wise, be charitable, please.)

Update: I see my friend Father Zuhlsdorf has addressed this, and he links Canon Law expert Ed Peters.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

'The Next Chapter' (Epiphany homily)

This feast of Epiphany may be more important than you realize. 

In many places outside the United States, 
the celebration of Epiphany is as special, if not more special, 
than Christmas. 

That may seem odd to us; but then, to these other Christians, 
who really enjoy celebrating this day, 
it may seem odd that we in the U.S. don’t make much of Epiphany.

Why is Epiphany important? 
Because it’s the next chapter. 

A lot of folks think of Christmas as the goal – 
the place to arrive, sort of like Joseph and Mary, 
who make their journey, and then the Magi make their journey too. 
Christmas becomes a destination. 
Isn’t it sort of like that? 
We have this great build-up to December 25, and then what? 
We have a food coma for a week!
The day after Christmas, everything is half-off!

But because that totally misunderstands Christmas, 
it also means we misunderstands Epiphany. 
Christmas is much more a beginning than an ending-point. 
After all, Jesus wasn’t born just to receive visits and gifts;
He came to do something. 

That’s the next chapter. The meaning of the Magi 
is that the light of Jesus is now beginning to reach out, 
beyond the stable, beyond Bethlehem, 
and beyond God’s Chosen People of Israel. 

As the first reading talks about, 
the light goes out to the nations, to all the world. 
That is symbolized by the arrival of these seekers from the east. 
They do not belong to Israel. 
They probably worshipped false gods; 
but they were looking for the truth, 
and they followed the light of a star till it led them to the Light itself.

There are several ways we could go with this, 
but at the head of the year of our Lord 2017, 
I want to talk about what this means for us as a parish. 
Very simply, what star will we be following, and where will it lead us?

As you know, I’ve been talking frequently 
about the mission of this parish, 
to share Christ with the people of this community. 
The Prophet Isaiah described how God wanted his holy people 
to be a light to the nations, to draw them to himself; 
so that, as we prayed in the psalm, 
“every nation on earth will adore” Him. 

That was Israel’s mission; and it is the Catholic Church’s mission. 
It is St. Remy’s mission. It is Father Martin Fox’s mission. 
And it is your mission; I mean, each person listening to me, 
however young or old. We all share it.

But how? What are you and I supposed to do? Is there a plan?

That’s something I’ve been working on with our parish staff 
and with the Pastoral Council. 
In a couple of weeks, the Pastoral Council and I hope 
to fine-tune some pastoral priorities. 
Then, we’ll share with the parish some concrete goals and tasks 
that will get us up and moving. 

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we as a parish 
aren’t already “in motion.” A lot of good things are happening. 
There’s a lot of light in this parish, thank God.

But let me be very blunt. In recent decades, 
the Catholic Church in our country, 
throughout North and South America and in Europe, is in crisis. 
In so many places, the practice of the Faith has collapsed. 
Universities and high schools and hospitals, 
built over many generations with great love and sacrifice, 
have mostly or entirely lost their Catholic identity. 
And we all know people who have walked away from the Faith.

The natural question is, why did all this happen? 
I’ll save the longer answer for another time. 
But a partial but pretty good answer is that 
what worked 60 years ago isn’t working now.
The world has changed. So how you and I share the Faith – 
with our children and our community – likewise must change.

The good news is, that we are doing a lot of things right in Russia,
 thanks to the deep faith of our community 
and the leadership of others who have gone before us. 

My message isn’t meant to be negative but positive: 
We don’t have to watch and wait; 
you and I can do things to make a positive difference. 

This is what I’ve been discussing 
with our staff and our pastoral council, and now, in 2017, 
it’s time to start talking with you about it. 

You’ll hear more as the year goes along, 
but in one sense it’s really simple: 
how do you and I help each other deepen and grow in our Faith together? 
How do we invite others, and what might we do 
to ensure they feel welcome? 
And what do we do when they show up? 
And then, what do we do after that?

With God’s help, together, 
you and I are going to answer these questions, and more. 
There’s a star that is going to lead us, we can be sure of that. 
God will provide it. 
But with all that, there are two simple steps that must happen 
to make everything else happen: 
You and I have to look up and see the star, and then decide, 
“I think I’ll see where that will lead me.” 

In other words, as a parish, we can’t be content with where we are.
We’re in a good spot. 
But Jesus didn’t save us and call us and equip us
just to find a good spot; 
he called us to find souls and bring them in. 

As a parish, you and I have to want more; 
to be hungry and thirsty for it. 

God will send the star. It’s there already. 
Our decision is whether to get up, 
and follow it, wherever it may lead. 

Sunday, January 01, 2017

The importance of your name (Mother of God homily)

If I were to give this homily a title, it might be, "what's in a name?"*

There are three things we emphasize on this feast day: 
Mary’s title as Mother of God; Jesus’ circumcision as a baby; 
and his naming. Let’s focus on the last one.

According to the law of Moses, 
a boy was to be circumcised on the eighth day; 
and at that time, he receives his name publicly. 

When you think about it, isn’t it obvious 
that one of the most consequential decisions parents make, 
is the name they give their child?

(Here I added something about how the Archangel Gabriel took the trouble to tell both Mary and Joseph that the Messiah's name would be Jesus -- so obviously, this was important to heaven. And I also explained the first reading; namely, that it recalls when the High Priest would invoke the Divine Name over the people, once a year, otherwise, the Name was never spoken. However, we are privileged to speak the name of God: Jesus!)

If you go through the Scriptures, 
you see many examples of the importance of names; 
so much so, that many times, God will change someone’s name. 
Abram becomes Abraham; Jacob becomes Israel; 
Simon becomes Peter.

Our name goes a long way in defining who we are.
The giving of a name is a great responsibility.
So I want to encourage our parents to consider carefully 
the names you give your child.

A few weeks ago, I read a story about a priest 
who was asked to baptize a baby with the name of Lucifer. 
That’s right, Lucifer!

Meanwhile, I’ve also heard about children being named for pagan gods, 
such as Thor, Jupiter or Aphrodite. 
Don’t forget about the famous tennis player whose name is Venus.

There’s no requirement to name your child after a saint, 
but I would like to encourage parents to do so – 
at least to have one of the names you give your child be that of a saint. 

Indeed, even before you choose a name, 
may I suggest that you pray about what to name your child? 
Ask the Holy Spirit, ask your child’s guardian angel, 
to guide your decision. 

And when I say, pick a saint’s name, 
that includes names from the Bible – 
that is, those who were exemplary.
Pilate, or Herod, or Ahaz are not names to pick!

Another point: when you pick a saint’s name for your child, 
you are giving your child a patron saint. 

A priest I knew some years ago 
told me about being called to the hospital for an emergency; 
when he got there, he found a child had just been born, 
and the boy wasn’t going to survive. 
So he only had a few minutes to baptize the baby. 
The parents didn’t have any name in mind, 
so the priest named him for the saint of the day: Polycarp!

I know, that sounds like a kind of fish! 
It doesn’t sound like a name we’d want.

But if you remember to do it, when you get home, 
look up Saint Polycarp. 
It’s an inspiring story of a faithful witness to Christ.
And when that child breathed his last a few minutes later, 
and went to heaven, he had a patron saint, waiting to meet him!
It’s a wonderful thing to have a patron saint 
who you know is praying for you throughout your life. 
Your patron saint becomes a special, spiritual friend and companion. 
I am so looking forward to meeting my patron, Saint Martin de Porres, 
and I am grateful my parents gave me someone to watch over me.

So that leads to another suggestion which might seem obvious:
Know what patron saint you have in mind – 
and teach your child about that saint. 
I’ve talked to a lot of kids over the years 
who had no idea who their patron saint was. No one had ever told them! 

Now, if you are listening, and you’re thinking, 
I have no idea who my patron saint is, that’s no problem.

First, of course, you can ask your parents. 
But if that’s not possible, you can still look up your name 
and see which saints have the same name. 
And if, after all that, you can’t find any saint with your name, 
then I suggest you simply pick a saint for yourself. 

Speaking of names, let me make a point 
about the name which the Church gave to Mary, 
and that is “Mother of God.” 

The point of this title isn’t primarily about Mary, but about her son: 
He is truly God, and so she is truly the God-bearer. 
And this title is one of the ways we express our joy
at what God has given us in his Son, 
and our gratitude to Mary for saying yes to God’s plan.

How fitting then that the Church grants a plenary indulgence 
to encourage us to recite on Dec. 31 the Te Deum, 
and on January 1, the Veni Creator. 

The indulgence is granted 
when we also make a good confession and receive holy communion – 
within eight days is a good rule of thumb –
and say a Hail Mary and an Our Father 
for the intentions of the holy father. 

So at the end of Mass, instead of the Saint Michael Prayer, 
we’ll pray the Te Deum/Veni Creator together, 
plus an Our Father and a Hail Mary. 
The prayers are in the books in your pews, and are in English.

* Additions during Masses today.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Why is Oregon Catholic Press ruining Christmas songs?

We had a beautiful Christmas in Russia, thanks to many people, including our music director and many wonderful helpers in the choir loft, and our many readers, ushers, altar servers and others who each contributed.

I was especially moved at Midnight Mass -- my favorite Mass of the year; so much so, that the sad bowdlerization of the great hymn, "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" did not much dim my joy.

Here is what I'm talking about.

In verse two, we hear:

Christ, by highest heaven adored
Christ, the everlasting Lord,
Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of a Virgin's womb:
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel.

Well, that is what you ought to hear -- and sing. But increasingly, the second-last line is changed to:

Pleased as man with US to dwell...

Grr! This is poetry, and that change wrecks it. But that, at least, doesn't render it potentially heretical. That prize goes to the change wrought in verse three. Again, the more traditional version first:

Hail the Heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Risen with healing in His wings;
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth.

Here's how the last few lines are changed:

born that we no more may die, 
born to raise us from the earth, 
born to give us second birth. 

Before I explain just why these changes -- the last one in particular -- are terrible, can you figure out the reason for them?

No? Try again. Just look at the words that were excised. Can you see a theme?

It's all about feminism; to be precise, a very narrow, humorless, insecure subset of feminism, with -- I have no doubt -- extremely few adherents. But they do get the ear of editors of music, hence these changes.

The second change I highlighted is especially bad, because it turns this great hymn from stoutly orthodox to vaguely Gnostic. That is to say, instead of singing of Christ redeeming and divinizing our humanity ("born to raise the sons of earth"), we sing of Christ coming to deliver us out of our earthiness ("raise us from the earth"). This is Dan Brown stuff. Remember the Da Vinci Code? It walked the same path, feeding the insecure fantasies of the same narrow, humorless crowd with claims of a conspiracy to keep women down by suppressing something he called the "divine feminine" and other claptrap. And in doing so, Mr. Brown drew directly from ancient, discredited Gnostic texts.

The irony of it all? Gnosticism was anything but pro women. In addition to the Gnostics thinking matter and humanity being evils we should escape from, they especially thought femininity was something to abhor. Here's one choice gem from the Gospel of Thomas:

Simon Peter says to them: "Let Mary go out from our midst, for women are not worthy of life!" Jesus says: "See, I will draw her so as to make her male so that she also may become a living spirit like you males. For every woman who has become male will enter the Kingdom of heaven."

The dis-incarnated text I quoted from, and which we sang at Midnight Mass came from Oregon Catholic Press, but similar poetry wrecking appears in other widely published hymnals. I was going to say the editors of these hymnals are theological nincompoops, but I don't know that. What I do know is that this is theological nincompoopery, and I am going to do what I can to stop it.

So I intend to contact someone at OCP and register my displeasure. I suspect that won't do much good, but I will try. And then, next year, regardless of what OCP does, we will sing a proper version of "Hark the Herald"; we will provide handouts if necessary.

Perhaps you know of similar mischief? Feel free to share in the comments.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

'What is the point of Christmas?' (Christmas homily)

What is the point of Christmas? What does it really mean?

Something fascinating and bewildering has happened with Christmas,
down through the ages; it has spread throughout the world,
evolving and complexifying
and spawning endless knockoffs and variations throughout the world.

In Japan, Christmas has very little to do with Jesus,
but for whatever reason,
it has a great deal to do with Kentucky Fried Chicken!

In Thailand, elephants where Santa hats.
In Oman, there are very few Christians, but a lot of Christmas trees.
Maddening, and yet delightful, too,
as is the news that just days ago, Saudi Arabia –
which prohibits Christianity and confiscates Rosaries –
recently announced that it would begin using the Gregorian Calendar:
named for Pope Gregory,
and which marks time from the birth of…Jesus Christ.

There’s quite a lot of Christmas music, Christmas specials,
Christmas movies and Christmas shopping; but I ask again:
what does Christmas really mean? What is Christmas?

The answer starts with a child, born in a particular place and time.
But we need a clearer answer. Why a child? Why was that the plan?

Christmas only makes sense if we realize this is not just a child,
but God become a child. God become human, one of us. And why?
So that you and I could see God; know God; be friends with God.
“Friends with God” – that’s a challenging idea.
I’m a priest, I study theology, read Scripture,
and prayer is my profession; and even then,
the idea of being “friends with God” is daunting for me,
as maybe it is for you. How do I be friends with God?

But another human being? Someone who wakes and sleeps,
who works and gets tired, who has a family,
who has a people and a history,
who gets up each day and prays,
who goes to the synagogue each Sabbath –
I can be friends with that Man.

That’s why God became Man. That’s why, Christmas.

We call this a time of light in darkness, and its true:
the light that breaks into the darkness of man, closed in on himself.
Never has that been more needed.

You and I live in a time when many think God is a relic of simpler times,
when people needed a way to explain the movements of the stars
and the hidden structures of life on earth;
but now that we’ve travelled to the stars and mapped the genome,
we don’t really need “God.”

Except that in cracking all these other mysteries, one yet remains;
Indeed, it has grown ever more impenetrable;
And that is the mystery of our own selves,
Which is also the mystery of good and evil.

The Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn,
writing about his years as a prisoner in a communist gulag,
explained it perfectly:

“If only it were all so simple!
If only there were evil people somewhere
insidiously committing evil deeds,
and it were necessary only to separate them
from the rest of us and destroy them…”

[But] “the line separating good and evil passes not through states,
nor between classes, nor between political parties either –
but right through every human heart…”

“And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”*

Man can explore and build, and crack things open;
but we are no closer to solving this mystery within ourselves
than we have ever been.

Only God, who knows us better than we know ourselves,
can disclose man to himself.
This is what the Second Vatican Council said:
only in the mystery of God become human
“does the mystery of man take on light”;
only Christ, born this day,
“fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.”**

So the joy and peace we talk about so much this time of year?
It only has meaning if we can bring it to that divided, human heart;
for that is where all wars begin and end.

Until there is a death of greed and wrath and envy and hatred
in human hearts, in our hearts, will war end – and not an hour,
not a minute, before.
That is the peace that Jesus came to give,
and he freely gives it to all who ask.

This is the real meaning of the sacrament of confession.
It’s not primarily about a box, or a ritual,
or formulas or prayers;
all these things serve a greater purpose:
to invite the Prince of Peace to reign in our hearts.
That is the where all the struggles that really matter happen.

So if you want to give yourself the best Christmas present,
if you want that peace and joy of the season,
nothing beats walking out of confession,
with a soul where all is calm, all is bright, within!

So what is Christmas? God came to make friends.
God took a human face so we could see it, so we could see him.
Talk to him. Know him.

He knows the path that is dark to us.
He penetrates what we cannot fathom in ourselves,
because he created us.
Nothing about us will make him ashamed to call us “friend.”
There is no one so low to whom he did not stoop to meet;
and there is no secret we need hide or fear to share,
for he knows it already, and died on the Cross to wash it all away.

And there is nothing that will keep him from our company,
if we will have him with us.

God was born one of us today
so that we could find him and know him as a friend.
There is no other real point to Christmas without this.
There is nothing worth doing this day as much as this:
To find him. Talk to him. Know him. Let him love you.
Let him explain you, to you. Let him be with you in struggle and strife.
Let him forgive you. Let him be your Savior.

Come, let us adore him!

* This is actually two quotes from Gulag Archipelago.
** Gaudium et Spes 22.