Thursday, January 18, 2018

Reflections on Race Relations

This past Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Day, a national holiday in the United States.  The photograph accompanying this post is one that I took several years ago of the MLK Memorial in Washington, D.C.  The celebration caused me to reflect on my personal experience with race relations throughout my life.   

I grew up on a small farm in western Iowa and attended a Catholic parochial school, grades 1-12, in a nearby small town, graduating from high school in 1966.  The only race I experienced first-hand in this community was Caucasian, mostly the offspring of German immigrants.  There were no African-Americans or Hispanics and no one from any foreign country in the school, or in the four other nearby small towns and Catholic schools.  Sports teams were all white, both my teams and the opponents teams.  Teachers were all Caucasian, almost all of them nuns.  Priest likewise were all white.  I did encounter utterances of the N-word at times among my family members and peers, but these were minimal.

One might think that with these non-experiences I might have been influenced in a negative way toward other races when I entered college in the fall of 1966, Iowa State University.  But this was not the case.  Early on, I came to know two black students, one occupying a room next to mine upstairs in a boarding house near campus and the other in my chemistry classes (I was a chemistry major).  I remember that I was rather unconcerned about their being of a different race; I was more much more concerned about succeeding in my studies, which were quite challenging.  I rarely saw the student in the room next to me; he kept a very low profile.  However, the chemistry student was quite annoying.  I befriended him, and he came to my room periodically for help in his studies, but he seemed more interested in converting me to his religion, which was Mormonism.  This was not an issue for me, however.  There was no way he would pry me away from Catholicism.  I also had a graduate student from Nigeria as my calculus teacher.  The only thing that bothered me was that I couldn’t understand him!

During the summer between my sophomore and junior years, 1968, I had a job working in a lab in Chicago.  There were black lab technicians in the lab that I found very friendly and good-natured.  I remember my mother being fearful of my being in the big city of Chicago, especially since race riots and the infamous 1968 Republican National Convention were the news at that time.  Of course, Martin Luther King Jr., had been assassinated that April.  I was aware of the heightened tensions and had some fear myself.  One day, I took a little road trip and, by accident, wound up in Gary, Indiana.  I needed gas, and stopped at a filling station in Gary.  I was very frightened when I observed that I was the only white person around and felt that everyone was looking at me.  I was a fish-out-of-water and knew it!  But I calmly filled my car with gas and got back on the road.

Later in college and in graduate school at the University of Texas, I began to encounter many students and faculty of other races.  In the fraternity that I pledged at Iowa State, there were two foreign students, one from South Vietnam and one from Iran.  Both were congenial, pleasant people and we got along quite well.  I never thought of them as being different from me – only from another country.  In my undergraduate research program, I met a black man who was studying for a PhD.  In my graduate program at Texas, I joined a fairly large research group.  There were a number of foreign PhD candidates in this group, one from Japan, one from Turkey, etc.  Still not the slightest problem with friendship or prejudice.  Later, in the workplace, I met black men and foreign professionals who were PhDs … still no problems.  In my 37 professional career as a community college professor, I had black students and foreign students from Iraq, Vietnam, China, Japan, and other countries.  I had no problems relating to them in any way in my role as their teacher.

While my life experiences were perhaps unique, I think I understand the pressures and prejudices that are often experienced by black persons and foreigners.  I see it on TV and in the newspapers.  However, my story is one that proves that we can all get along and even establish good friendships.  My prayer for today:  Lord, in your kindness and goodness, bring all races together in this country and beyond and help us to settle our differences by peaceful means, knowing that we are all your children, all worthy of life with you in heaven.  Amen.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Modern Science and the Interpretation of Scripture

The idea that Sacred Scripture appears to be just a bunch of storybook fables and unscientific fictional narratives has pushed many people to conclude that God does not exist and that principles of faith are just things dreamed up by us well-meaning humans.  But with all that exists around us – the vastness of the cosmos, the complexity of the human body, and the beauty and intricacies of nature to name a few – I believe that this atheistic worldview is terribly shortsighted.  But to change minds and hearts on this subject will require an interpretation of Scripture that would answer all the objections.  What can we say in a space as small as this blog?

Primary in such a discussion would be a justification of the creation story in the Book of Genesis given the facts of modern science.  Of course, I don’t doubt the Theory of Evolution, so I won’t be trying debunk its principles.  What is necessary, then, is a “discrediting” of Sacred Scripture in terms of its being a literal description of how things got started.  Here is something to think about:  the Genesis account is the inspired word of God, and, as such, had to make sense to the Jewish people of 1000 BC, 500 BC, 33 AD, 500 AD, 1000 AD, 1500 AD, and 2018 AD.  That is over 3000 years of recorded history, from the uninformed of ancient tribes of Israel, to the illiterate people of the time of Christ, to the scientific theories put forward by early scientists, to the advances put forth by Galileo and many others, and finally to the modern advanced mathematical description of the heavens.  You can see the impossible task that God had when He was giving His inspiration to the authors of Genesis!  That means that today, in 2018, we must provide some interpretation of Scripture that doesn’t conflict with modern science.  On the surface, this would seem impossible.

There are those of us who believe that the Catholic Church is the entity on earth that provides the correct interpretations of Scripture for us.  So, what does the Church have to say?  First, the Church does not attempt to discredit modern science in any way, and so the correct interpretation must leave open any credible scientific discovery regarding the universe.  Many people point to the definition of the word “day.”  According to Scripture, God created light on the first day, but there was no sun or moon until the fourth day.  So immediately we see that a “day” in these ancient times cannot be the same as a “day” as we know it.  Even the people in ancient Israel must have recognized that.  Perhaps “day” is not a good translation of the original manuscripts!

And therein lies the most important solution of the problem.  With a “day” undefined, the possibility of a “day” being a very long period of time becomes credible and modern ideas like the Big Bang Theory and the Evolution Theory also become credible.  So, then, what is Scripture actually saying in Genesis?  The Catholic interpretation would be that all that it is trying to say is that God created everything that exists.  This is a huge statement for those who see our magnificent universe as having its beginning brought into being by the hand of God.  Can you imagine the inspired authors making reference to the Big Bang or the Theory of Evolution in their writing?  I cannot.  It would have meant immediate rejection of Sacred Scripture in those days of Genesis by its readers.  No, the authors had to write something believable by uneducated and illiterate people.

I love how the Catholic Church is open to interpret Sacred Scripture so that such interpretation is compatible with modern science.  It respects my basic belief as a scientist myself … that there can be no conflict between faith and proven scientific theories.  It places our future regarding these science/faith matters in total harmony.

There are many, many other statements and stories in Sacred Scripture that are difficult to even imagine being true, as any reader of Scripture can attest.  Currently, I’m reading a book by Catholic apologist Trent Horn titled Hard Sayings:  A Catholic Approach to Answering Bible Difficulties published by Catholic Answers.  I highly recommend it.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Organized Religion

Have you ever heard someone express the view, “I don’t care for “organized religion.”?  What they are saying is that they want to be free to be who they want to be faith-wise, and don’t want to be “confined” by what they might call a set of rules for their spiritual life.  Such a person may or may not be an atheist.  If he/she is an atheist, a reasonable response would require arguments in favor of the existence of God, which would be arguments more basic to the question.  Rather, today I’m thinking about what a reasonable response would be for someone who does believe in God but, for whatever reason, does not believe that an established religion is the way to go.

The question comes down to who God is and what He has revealed to us.  God is the Supreme Being who is responsible for all things in existence.  As such, we would know nothing about Him, except for what He has chosen to reveal to us.  Christian and Jewish religions believe that God has revealed Himself to us through the centuries from ancient times via the writings by inspired writers.  So we have what has been called “the word of God” given to us through the Sacred Scriptures, the Bible.  The Jewish faith is an organized religion.  God chose this religion in ancient times for His revelations.  To us who believe in organized religion, this truth is important to remember.  It is a fundamental truth that God has revealed Himself through an organized religion. 

We regard as truth, then, revelations seen in the Bible, that God created all things, that man committed a serious sin early on and that God then chose to send us a Savior for the purpose of redemption. So thus God’s Son, Jesus Christ, was born and came among us to right the ship.  The next question is specifically, how did He do this.  He established and organized a new religion – Christianity, or, as a devoted Catholic such as myself would say, the Catholic Church.  Starting with a band of twelve apostles from which He chose a leader, St. Peter, the rock upon whom he built this church (Matt 16:18), he organized a religion.  This is a fundamental truth carried out so that man could have a path to eternal salvation.  And, since the time of Christ and the apostles, the work was carried on via St. Peter’s successors, the popes, and the apostles’ successors, the Catholic bishops.

So if someone doesn’t care for or follow this “organized religion,” the Catholic Church founded by the Son of God, it would make sense that his/her eternal salvation would be in jeopardy.  True, there are rules to follow, but these are necessary and dictated by God Himself or via the Church that He established.  Beginning with the Ten Commandments from ancient times and continuing with commandments and rules dictated by Christ’s Church, we have important and fundamental “rules” that need to be followed.

And how can we be sure that the Catholic Church is the one true organized religion that has come down to us and that we should obey her rules?  After Christ told St. Peter that he would be the rock upon whom he would build His church, He said, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.  Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  (Matt 16:18-19). 

So while believing that an organized religion, the Catholic Church, is the way to go does require an acceptance of God’s word through Sacred Scripture, it makes sense.  It is obvious that we are surrounded by evidence of Man’s sinfulness and it make sense to me that God would takes these steps to rectify the problem.  

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Shepherds, Holy Innocents, Baptism, and Miracles

According to St. Luke, after the shepherds left the scene of the newborn Jesus, “they made known the message that had been told them about this child.  All who heard it were amazed … .”  This message was that of the angel:  “For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.”  This tells us that the shepherds let it be known to the people in the neighborhood, at least, that the savior, the Messiah, had been born that night in Bethlehem.  Matthew tells us what Herod did later, after the magi departed:  “He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under … .”  

These incidents tell me that people living in the area knew, or at least strongly suspected, that the promised Messiah was finally in their midst.  It’s my guess that they also knew, or at least speculated, that this Messiah somehow escaped the massacre and at some point in the near future would appear publicly among them and begin the mission of salvation.  So the anticipation and speculation that had been there for so long now greatly intensified. 

Now fast-forward thirty years to the time of John the Baptist.  After Jesus, now thirty years old, was baptized by John, the Spirit of God descended on Jesus like a dove and a voice came from the heavens, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.”  (Matt 3:16-17).  I can imagine that the mad anticipation and speculation grew even more.  The people, at least those witnessing this baptism, now realized that Jesus was the one.  I’m betting that the word spread far and wide at this point.  Of course, Jesus fled into the desert for forty days.  This probably meant that there was a cooling-off period.  People probably looked for Jesus but couldn’t find him.  What happened when he returned from the desert?  Matthew says that “Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’”  (Matt 4:17).  This might have included his appearance in the temple described by Luke where Jesus spoke to the congregation gathered to hear him.  After reading from Scripture, he said, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”  (Luke 4:21).  This was an admission by Jesus himself that he was the Messiah.  Following this, Luke tells of several cures and healings that occurred at the hand of Jesus.  (Luke 4:31-41).

These observations tell me that many people now believed that Jesus was the long-anticipated Messiah.  It was apparently a relatively easy matter now for Jesus to get people to follow him.  We see in Luke, Chapter 5, how easy it was for him to call Simon (Peter) and his partners, James and John, to follow him as his first apostles.  They were fishermen by trade and Jesus worked a fishing miracle in front of them.  They “left everything and followed him.”  (Luke 5:1-11).

As you probably know, I love to read between the lines.  Sometimes, things make so much sense.  How was it that Peter, James, and John were so willing?  Well, if I already knew a lot about Jesus, from birth to baptism to preaching, to cures and healings, and his admission that he was the Messiah, and now a fishing miracle .... that would be enough for me.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Good News of Great Joy

There is so much hate in the world today.  Liberal-minded people will remind all of us, for example, of the hate that is widespread among white supremacist groups and their supporters for those of other races and creeds.  And certainly they have a point.  What I have noticed lately, though, is that this hate extends from those who have a particular political affiliation to those who have an opposite affiliation.  Democrats in this country viciously verbally attack Republicans over the issues of the day and vice-versa. 

I’ve noticed, for example, that when a congressman or senator posts some remarks on Facebook about something he/she feels is a positive development regarding a particular issue, he/she is immediately verbally attacked, often for what is perceived to be his/her stance on a completely unrelated issue, eliciting often hundreds of similar responses from others.  The language used is one of hate, sometimes obscene, sometimes not, but usually malicious and cruel.  Hate is an awful quality to be entangling one’s mind and worldview.  I am disgusted that people can’t be more civil when discussing political viewpoints.  And the media contributes to it, letting their political biases take control of their reporting to the extent that an unsuspecting public takes such a story and runs with it as if represents the truth, which it often does not.

It is time for a reprieve.  It is Christmas.  Now I know that Christian belief is one of these contentious issues at times and is often dismissed straightaway by nonbelievers.  However, permit me to use a passage from Sacred Scripture here to make a point.  Here it is from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2.

“Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping night watch over their flock.  The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear.  The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is the Messiah and Lord.  And this will be a sign for you:  You will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.’  And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying:  ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.’  When the angels went away from them to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’  So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger.” 

“Do not be afraid … good news of great joy … a savior has been born … peace to those on whom his favor rests.”  These are words of joy, peace, love, understanding, and not hate.  Please take them to heart, regardless of your religious persuasion, and begin to promote qualities of respect, admiration, and reverence.  This is my prayer for you today. 

The photograph accompanying this post is of the almost life-size manger scene in my back yard.  I see it illuminated every night and early every morning as I look out my back window.  Peace and joy to all my readers this Christmas. 

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Our Lady of Guadalupe

During the recent celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, my thoughts drifted to other noteworthy events that occurred at about that time 500 years ago.  They are especially on my mind this week when the Catholic Church once again celebrated the apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe to a Native Mexican by the name of Juan Diego in what has become the Villa de Guadalupe near Mexico City.  Here is a listing of the year and the corresponding event:   

1474 – Juan Diego was born.
1483 – Martin Luther was born.
1492 – Columbus discovered America.
1517 – Luther’s wrote his 95 theses.
1524 – Catholic missionaries from Spain arrived in Mexico and Juan Diego was baptized.
1531 – The Virgin Mary (Our Lady of Guadalupe) appeared to Juan Diego.

So Juan Diego was a contemporary of Martin Luther, though living thousands of miles apart on different continents.  Some of my readers may not be familiar with the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Juan Diego.  So, I briefly summarize here. 

Juan had been a Catholic for about seven years.  He was very devoted to his new-found faith, walking daily several miles to attend Mass.  On the way, he would pass Tepeyac Hill.  On one occasion, December 9, 1531, the Blessed Mother appeared to him on this hill.  She gave him a message to be delivered to his bishop in Mexico City.  The message was that he was to have a church built on the site to serve the indigenous people living in the area and in all of North America.  He delivered the message, but the bishop didn’t believe him.  In subsequent apparitions, the Blessed Mother was insistent.  The bishop, however, was not believing.  He asked Juan to bring him some sort of sign or proof that the apparition was authentic. 

At the third apparition, on December 12, 1531, Our Lady asked Juan to climb the hill and collect a large bouquet of roses to be given to the bishop.  Roses in December?  He had been hurrying on his way to visit his gravely ill uncle and was reluctant at first, but Our Lady convinced him to collect the roses.  When Juan climbed the hill he found roses, just as Our Lady said he would.  He collected them in his tilma (cloak) and proceeded once again to the bishop to show them to him.  When he arrived, and in the presence of the bishop, he opened his cloak and the large bouquet spilled onto the floor.  Simultaneously, the bishop noticed that a clear image of Our Lady of Guadalupe had formed on the inside of the tilma … a true miracle.  At the same time, Juan’s uncle, who was gravely ill, miraculously recovered from his illness.

A magnificent church was subsequently built at the foot of Teyeyac Hill and dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe.  Today, Juan’s tilma is framed and on full display for all to see in this Basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe and has been for nearly 500 years.  It shows no sign of deterioration despite the passage of so many years.  The basilica has become a popular pilgrimage site.  My wife spent time in Mexico before we met and has viewed the miracle first-hand. 

So December 12, this past Tuesday this year, has become the date that the Catholic Church celebrates Our Lady of Guadalupe each year.  Here in Rochester, my wife and I attended Mass in the Chapel of St. Mary’s Hospital, part of the Mayo Clinic.  The sanctuary was decorated with a copy of the image (see accompanying photograph) and other colorful items.  Father Jose, a chaplain at the Mayo Clinic, was the celebrant.  A mariachi band supplied the music. 

Juan Diego is now a declared saint in the Catholic Church.  His feast day is celebrated on December 11 each year.  My prayer for today:  Our Lady of Guadalupe, pray of us.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

What Advent is All About

In today’s secularized society, I wonder how many Christians are fully aware of the significance of Sunday, December 3, and of this month of December up to Christmas Day, December 25.  I’m thinking of the Season of Advent and what it is all about.  Last Sunday, December 3, was the First Sunday of Advent.  It was the first day of the Church’s liturgical year … the Church’s New Year’s Day, if you will.  It began a four-week period of preparation for the celebration of the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Perhaps you are thinking about the secular world and what preparations are taking place there right now.  Yes, we are preparing for “the holidays,” buying gifts, setting up a Christmas tree, decorating inside and out, thinking about the menu for the Christmas meal, sending out Christmas cards, thinking about what relatives are coming to our house and when or about what relatives’ houses we will visit and when.  What else is there?  I think you probably see what I am getting at … the real meaning of Christmas and the preparations for that.

So, back to Advent.  I’m sure you understand this “real meaning.”  We celebrate birthdays nonstop throughout the year.  Facebook reminds us daily what friends have birthdays that day and gives us a convenient way to wish them a happy birthday.  But in this living, breathing, holy season in the Church, the birthday of the God-man takes center stage, so much so that we have a four-week period of preparation.  So what does the Catholic Church say that we should be doing during these four weeks?  We should be ramp up our psyche, our spiritual lives, our religious devotions, so that we see clearly what is really occurring on December 25.  We will celebrate the birth of this divine person that has saved mankind for all eternity from all the sinfulness since the beginning of the human race … a most momentous, major event in human history.

Some suggestions:  1) the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  As a Catholic, when was the last time you went to Confession?  If it has been years, or even just months, now would be an excellent time.  2) Attend Holy Mass.  If you’ve been missing Sunday Mass, please renew your faith and come to Mass.  If you’ve been attending Sunday Mass, you can ramp up your spiritual life by attending weekday Masses.  Attend Mass tomorrow, December 8.  It is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a Holyday.  The Church says you commit a mortal sin if you don’t attend Mass on this day.  Besides, the Eucharist awaits.  3) Increase your prayer life.  Pray the rosary a few times, daily would be good.  4) Pay attention to the poor in your community.  Increase your contributions to charitable causes.  Better yet, help them by physically going to the local food bank or to your local church to help with what is going on there in terms of the poor.  5) Place a nativity scene in your yard, or, at the very least, in your home, as a constant reminder of what is coming.  6) Read and meditate on Scripture passages relating to the holy birth.  I’m sure you can think of many other things.  You will feel much better about yourself on Christmas morning!

The best of luck with your preparations and have a blessed Advent Season!