Thursday, October 19, 2017

Lambs Among Wolves

Today, I’m thinking about the Scripture passages that discuss the commissioning of Jesus’ disciples to evangelize and the reference to them as “lambs among wolves” in this process.  (Luke 10:1-20 and Matt 10:5-33).  In Jesus’ time, it appears that the idea was to spread the faith far and wide by moving from house to house talking about the Good News of salvation, saying “the kingdom of God is at hand for you.”  (Luke 10:9).  Some would receive them in peace and some would not.  Jesus warned that those that would not receive them in peace (the “wolves”) may hand them over to the courts and scourge them (Matt 10:17-18) or turn them in to “governors and kings” for judgement (Matt 10:18).  Jesus also said this:  “Whoever listens to you, listens to me.  Whoever rejects you rejects me.  And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”  (Luke 10:16).  Through all of this, Jesus tells them repeatedly to not be afraid.  (Matt 10:26, 10:28, 10:31).

Today’s secular world is the same in many ways, but also different in many ways.  There are those who evangelize as the disciples were requested to do, but there are also those who are just trying to practice their faith as authentically and devotedly as they can.  Through all of this, we are lambs among wolves.  Who are the wolves in the modern world?  Just as in Jesus’ day, they are those who oppose Christ’s Church and her teachings.  But, they are also those who would kill.  They are those who would rape.  They are those who would physically abuse innocent people.  They are those who would sexually harass people.  They are those who would pass laws that go against what we believe.  They are those who reduce human dignity to nothingness.  They are those who support killing the unborn.  They are those who bully people.  On and on.

What should our response be?  We must know our faith.  We must remain true to the practice our faith against all odds.  We must not be afraid.  We must evangelize when given the opportunity.  We must lead by our example.  We must support our faithful Church leaders.  We must love our fellow man.  On and on!  Above all, we must pray. 

Here is my prayer.  Lord, help me to not be afraid.  Help me to remain true to you.  Help me to give good example to my friends and relatives.  Help me in my opposition to modern-day wolves.  Help me to love you above all things and my neighbor as myself.  Amen.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

This Welcoming Church

I’ve heard it said that the reason some people no longer attend Holy Mass on Sunday is that they don’t feel welcome in the Catholic Church and that a Catholic church is a cold, uncomfortable place.   Some parishes have tried to solve this “problem” by having faithful parishioners stand in the vestibule of the church on Sunday mornings and personally welcome the people to the church by opening the door of the church for them and by providing a warm, friendly greeting, such as “Good morning!”  I have no problem with that. 

However, some parishes have taken this one step further and made a very public statement, saying that they are “a welcoming Catholic community,” even apparently using this as a sort of “motto” for their parish.  This bothers me.  It implies that other Catholic parishes in general are somehow not welcoming.  Of course, that is not true.  The focus of any Catholic Church should be on the Eucharist … the Real Presence of the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ in the tabernacle.  Hence the atmosphere should be one of quiet reverence, love for God, and prayer.  People should always feel welcome in any Catholic church at any time because of this Real Presence.  I fear that it is more a faith issue than a “welcome” issue, and a sign of the secular times we live in.  It seems that some people think a Catholic church should be a place of social gathering rather than worship.

Perhaps in some people’s minds this perception (that of a Catholic church being unwelcoming) stems from the Catholic stance against divorced and re-married Catholics receiving Holy Communion.  Perhaps it stems from the Catholic stance against gay marriage, cohabitation before marriage, premarital sex, artificial means of birth control, etc., etc.  Of course, this bothers me too!  I believe that Christ instituted our beloved Catholic Church to assist us on our journey toward our eternal salvation.  This means that it must take a public stance against serious sin and provide the means of repentance instituted by Christ.  We must not think of the Church’s stance in these matters as a sign that we are somehow unwelcome or unwanted.  Quite the opposite!  We rather must think long and hard about how the Church’s stance protects us against sin and then take advantage of God’s mercy and love through his Church.  Our eternal salvation depends on this. The Church has your eternal welfare in mind!

So, if you feel you are at odds with the Catholic Church for whatever reason, please please, please … come into any Catholic Church near you and kneel and pray before the Real Presence.  The Church, this welcoming Church, and Christ himself, in his divine mercy, are there for you.  Amen.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

St. Francis of Assisi

Every October 4, the Catholic Church celebrates the life and holiness of St. Francis of Assisi.  I had the privilege of spending some time in Assisi last fall during a wonderful pilgrimage to Italy.  Except for modern day automobiles that line some of the streets during the day (see photograph), the city in general appears ancient, perhaps just as it was in the time of St. Francis.  Francis was born in 1182 and died in 1226, living a life of only 44 years.  The city sits on a hill.  On one end sits the huge basilica, the Basilica of St. Francis.  At night this basilica is lit up from one end to the other (see photograph), making it quite a sight to behold.  On the other end is the Basilica of St. Clare, who was one of Francis’ contemporaries and early followers.  In between are the ancient buildings and narrow streets (see photograph).

Most people are familiar with St. Francis because he was the founder of a religious order known as the Franciscans.  But there is so much more.  He was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant and, early in his life, was known for his love of parties and good times.  He was enamored by the glory of knighthood, but in his pursuit of such fame, was taken prisoner of war.  After his return from war and while praying in the small chapel of San Damiano (see lower right in photograph), he is said to have heard the voice of Christ asking him to rebuild his Church, which eventually Francis interpreted to mean living the simple gospel life of extreme poverty, in imitation of Christ himself.  In 1209, Francis sought and obtained the Pope’s approval of the “Rule of St. Francis” and thus began the early days of the Franciscan order.

Francis is known for his love for God’s creation, especially animals.  One could consider him the first environmentalist.  He invented the Christmas “crèche,” the modern day manger scene depicting the birth of Christ in the stable.  He is known to have had a special love of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, unlike many of the heretical groups of his day.  Two years before he died, God blessed him with the five crucifixion wounds of Jesus on his body, the “stigmata.”  He especially loved one particular depiction of the crucified Christ (see photograph).  He was canonized in 1228, only two years after his death.  Pope Francis honored him by taking his name at his papal installation.  Remarkably, he is memorialized by several Protestant denominations, also on October 4. 

I tried to take more photographs inside the basilica, but was rebuffed by a security guard, who didn’t believe me when I told him I did not see the signs stating that photographs were not allowed in the building.  I thought he was going to confiscate my camera!

Thursday, September 28, 2017

What is the "Communion of Saints?"

What exactly does a Catholic mean when he/she recites the Apostles Creed and says “I believe … in the Communion of Saints?”  What is this “Communion of Saints?”  Or, more simply, one might ask “What is a saint?”  Here are my (Thursday) thoughts on the subject.  Friends, please correct me if I say something wrong here.

Many people, I think, would respond by saying that a saint is someone who has been recognized by the Church as having attained eternal salvation and so has been given that title.  We can think of people who lived in the first century and demonstrated a special kind of holiness.  Examples are St. Paul, St. Peter, St. John, St. Thomas, etc.  We can also think of people who lived during the first and second millennia and founded religious orders and monasteries.  Examples include St. Francis, St. Benedict, St. Dominic, St. Ignatius, etc.  In addition, we have people famous for their special leadership and development in Church and religious affairs.  Examples here include St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Gregory, St. Catherine of Siena, and St. Theresa of Avila, among many others.  And there are many “modern” saints known for a special brand of holiness, including St. Teresa of Calcutta, St. Pope John Paul II, and St. Therese of Lisieux.  I could list literally hundreds and, with a little bit of study, thousands.

But is that all there is?  No.  I could repeat my definition of the word “saint” by repeating the first sentence of the last paragraph and leaving out most of it.  They don’t have to have been recognized by the Church nor given the title.  A saint is anyone who has attained eternal salvation.  Period.  Now, eternal salvation, Catholics believe, is something a person will not be known to have attained until death, at the moment of judgement by God.  As such, we cannot know with certainty whether a deceased person is in heaven.  However, if this person’s life and writings are especially relevant, and, if he/she has been linked to miracles after their death, then the Church may declare them saints through a process known as “canonization.”  The idea is that if miracles can, without doubt, be attributed to their intercession, then we can be sure of their attainment of salvation and they can be canonized.

And so back to my original question:  What is the “Communion of Saints?”  The Church believes that many people currently living on earth will one day attain salvation.  The Church also believes that many people who have died and not attained salvation are in a state where one day they will be given their heavenly reward.  These are those who are in a state we call Purgatory, where they are being purged of their venial sins and/or the lingering effects of their forgiven mortal sins.  So the fellowship that all of these people enjoy together, we on earth, those in Purgatory, and those in heaven, is known as the Communion of Saints.  And as part of this fellowship, we can call upon those who are already in the heavenly state to help us on our own journey.  They can intercede for us via their prayers.  That is why we ask them to pray for us.  That is also why we ourselves can pray for the souls in Purgatory.  Most people, I think, believe in prayer.  And what better use of prayer is there than prayer for someone’s eternal salvation. 

So, as we state in the Apostles’ Creed, we do indeed believe in this fellowship, this Communion of Saints.  Amen.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Faith, Works, and Repentance

Today, I’m thinking about three passages from Scripture that appear to describe how a person’s behavior will affect how he/she will be judged on Judgement Day.  The first is a line from Matthew’s gospel, Chapter 16, which reads as follows:  “For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay everyone according to his conduct.”  (Matt 16:27).    This appears to oppose the idea that all that is needed for salvation is faith.  It seems that how a person conducts himself in this life is also important. 

The second is the Parable of the Talents found in the gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25.  (Matt 25:14-30).  Here, Jesus tells about a man and his three servants, interpreted to mean God and three of his created human beings, each of whom was given gifts.  It is what these servants did with the gifts that is at issue.  Two of them used the gifts to produce more.  But the third, out of fear, did nothing except protect what he was given.  This third servant did not act according to God’s will.  While calling the first two servants “good and faithful,” the third he called a “wicked, lazy servant.”  This third servant was assigned to “the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and the grinding of teeth.”  It would seem from this that having faith but doing nothing with it is not what God has in mind for us and puts us in danger as far as salvation is concerned.

The third is from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, where Paul says that God’s judgement will be revealed based on our repentance, or the lack of it.  He says this “By your stubbornness and impenitent heart, you are storing up wrath for yourself for the day of wrath and revelation of the just judgement of God, who will repay everyone according of his works:  eternal life to those who seek glory, honor, and immortality through perseverance in good works, but wrath and fury to those selfishly disobey the truth and obey wickedness."  (Roma 2:5-8).  The point here seems to be that repentance, or sorrow and atonement of our sins, is very important for the attainment of eternal life.

So I would conclude that true faith, i.e. faith that leads to good works, and repentance are key to our salvation.  My prayer for today:  “Lord, please strengthen my faith.  Help me to act on my faith in ways pleasing to you and help me to always seek forgiveness of my sins.  Amen.”

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Centerpiece of the Catholic Church

Catholics believe that the bread and wine consecrated at Holy Mass are the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ.  That belief is based on the words of Jesus during the so-called Bread of Life discourse found in the Gospel of St. John, Chapter 6 (John 6:34-66), and also on the words of Jesus at the Last Supper found in all four gospels.  In addition, this belief is reinforced by St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians 1 Cor 11:23-29).  Today, I‘m thinking about what non-Catholics seem to think about this belief and what might be the Catholic response.

Protestant Christians believe that Jesus was speaking metaphorically in John 6 and in the gospel accounts of the Last Supper in the same way that he speaks metaphorically when he calls himself the light of the world (John 8:12), or the sheep gate (John 10:7-9), or the good shepherd (John 10:14).  Did he speak literally?  No, it is clear that he is not a light, or a gate, or a shepherd in the literal sense … he is only speaking metaphorically.  They believe that he is referring to the bread and wine in that same metaphorical sense.

The Catholic response?  Jesus says this in John 6:  “… the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”  (John 6: 51).  Jesus also says this in John 6:  “… unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.”  (John 6:53).  And he says this:  “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”  And this:  “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in my and I in him.”  (John 6:56).  After all this teaching, “many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.”  (John 6:66).  But did he stop them?  Did he explain that he was only speaking metaphorically?  No, they walked away and returned to their former way of life.

And St. Paul’s reinforcement?  St. Paul repeats the words of the last supper (without having had the benefit of reading those words in Scripture, since they had not yet been written down).  (1 Cor 11:24-25).  And then he says this:  “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgement on himself.”  (1 Cor 11:29).  St. Paul thus says that he believes that the bread and wine are the literal body and blood of Christ.  And this is how it was for 1500 years until the Protestant reformers came along and made a new interpretation, telling people that it was only a metaphor … something neither Christ nor St. Paul did.

So in the Catholic Church, the Eucharist is the centerpiece.  Not the sermon.  Not the singing.  Not the personality of the preacher.  The Eucharist.  In the words of Allen Hunt, a former Protestant mega-church minister who converted to Catholicism:  “The Eucharist binds us together.  Without the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, we merely have our own ideas rather than true unity.  In the Eucharist, Jesus fuels and empowers his church.  Everything rides on the Eucharist.”  Amen, Mr. Hunt!

Thursday, September 7, 2017

What Heaven is Like

People are known to wonder what it will be like in heaven.  "Will my dog be there?  Will I still be happy when I find out that my spouse didn’t make it?  What if my worst enemy is there?  Will there be pain and suffering in heaven?"  On and on.  I have some thoughts this morning about what the Scriptures say.  So let’s take a look at a few examples.

In his first letter, St. John says:  “Behold, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed.  What we do know is that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”  (1 John 3:2).  This implies to me that we will have glorified bodies and will behold the Beatific Vision, meaning the face of God.  This is heaven.

St. John writes this in his Gospel:  “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.  If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.”  (John 14:2).  In other words, we will be where Jesus himself is.  There will be lots of space there; space prepared by Jesus himself for our personal fulfillment and gratification.

My favorite Scripture passages about heaven, however, are those that present the parables, especially those parables that begin with the phrase “The kingdom of heaven is like …”.  What could be more descriptive of heaven than those illustrations that Christ himself gives us with that leading phrase?  See especially Matt 13:24-50.

Here is a grand example:  The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field (Matt 13: 24-30) and an enemy comes at night and sows weeds.  So we have good seed and weed seed growing together, righteous and sinful men together.  In the end, harvesters (angels) separate the righteous from the sinful, and the righteous will “shine like the sun in the kingdom of their father.”  (Matt 13:43).

Will your dog be there?  Jesus doesn’t mention dogs or a pet of any kind.  I believe we won’t have any desire to have a pet when we are in the presence of God.  Will you care if your spouse is not there?   I believe we will have no thought about him or her because we will be staring at the face of God.  Will you care that your worst enemy is there.  If this person is there, he/she is on equal footing with you in terms of glory and righteousness and you will have no thought of your enmity back on earth.  Will there be pain and suffering in heaven?  No.  It is impossible to have pain and suffering when living in a place prepared especially for you by God.  Rather, we will be in a place where we "shine like the sun!"

So where are the people who the angels separate out due to their wickedness?  They are in “the fiery furnace where there is wailing and grinding of teeth.”  (Matt 13:50).  A place of torment.  Where would you rather be for all eternity?  Lord, thank you so much for these parables.  Amen!