Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Rich Man, the Camel, and the Eye of the Needle

This week, the plight of the poor is in my thoughts.  Besides practicing humility (see last week’s MTT) it seems to me that helping the poor is a major biblical theme and something we should be doing especially during Lent.  With this in mind, consider the parable of Lazarus (see Luke 16: 19-31).  A rich man, who since medieval times has been given the name Dives (Latin for “rich”), is lazy and indulges in food to an extreme (“feasts sumptuously every day”).  One can picture him as an extremely overweight bloke sitting at his table consuming, with no manners, every unhealthy food (by today’s standards) under the sun within his reach.  Then there is Lazarus, a poor man, “full of sores, who desires to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table.”  He was so indigent that dogs came and licked his sores.  Quickly after this stage is set, the story moves to what happens after Lazarus dies and is “carried by angels to Abraham’s bosom” (i.e., heaven).  Dives also dies and moves on to Hades (hell).  Dives can see Lazarus in heaven, however, and he is remorseful.  He asked Abraham to have mercy and to send Lazarus to him with a drop of water so that he may have even the smallest amount of relief.  Abraham responds saying that that is impossible because of the great chasm between heaven and hell – no one may cross from either side to the other.

And then something of great significance …. Dives wants Abraham to send Lazarus to earth to warn his family members so that they don’t suffer the same fate as him.  Abraham’s response?  “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”  So Abraham’s answer is “no.”  The obvious message is that once you die and find yourself in hell, it is too late to repent or to warn others back on earth to repent.  Once you die and find yourself in hell, you can no longer do anything to help the poor.  Once you die and find yourself in hell, it is too late to deliver a message to the poor.  Once you die and find yourself in hell, you can no longer do good works to help your fellow man.  Once you die and find yourself in hell, it is not possible for someone in heaven to help you.

Jesus further addresses this elsewhere in Scripture (Matthew 19:24) saying that it is very difficult for a rich man to enter heaven.  He says that it is like trying to pass a camel through the eye of a needle.  But then he also said in the same breath:  “Nothing is impossible with God.”  It seems to me that the message is this:  We must give generously to help the poor and pray to God for those who refuse to do that so that they may get this message before they die.

Here is a photo of camel.  I don't know what a needle looked like back in the first century, but I don't think this camel would have been able to pass through the eye.  If the camel is a rich man and the passing through the eye of a needle is his entry into heaven, what do you think?  Impossible?  Let us, you and me, try praying!  Nothing is impossible for God.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Humility, Humility, Always Humility

Lent began yesterday, Ash Wednesday, February 18.  Lent is a time of intense humility.  Even a casual reading of Scripture should inform each of us how important this virtue is in for our salvation. 

Consider the liturgy for the Ash Wednesday Mass.  In the Gospel, Jesus reminds us of the right and wrong reasons for performing righteous deeds.  He says to perform them not to impress others or that we might win the praise of others.  In colorful language, He tells us not to “blow a trumpet” or stand and pray on street corners for the express purpose that others see us.  He says that when we fast, we should strive not to let others know that we are fasting.  If we try to make a show of our self-sacrifices, he says that we will have no recompense from our heavenly Father.  He says that we should give alms in secret, and when we pray, to go to our inner room, close the door and pray in secret.  He says that, despite the secrecy, our heavenly Father will see us and will repay us.

But more than such humility in prayer, almsgiving, and fasting, Scripture talks about this great virtue in our everyday lives as well.  For example, boasting about what good things we may have accomplished in our jobs, in our families, or in our finances is the opposite of humility and we should strive to avoid it.  I like the story of the tax collector and the Pharisee in Luke, Chapter 18.  The Pharisee was bragging to and thanking God that he was not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, and adulterous – while the tax collector prayed “O, God, be merciful to me a sinner.”  Jesus concluded the parable with the famous verse:  “… for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”  Apparently, it is those who live their earthly lives being mostly silent about their accomplishments who will be worthy of all praise in heaven, while those who fail to practice humility will ultimately be humbled and will not be justified.

Saint Pio of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio), had this to say:  “Humility, humility, always humility.  Satan fears and trembles before humble souls.  The Lord is willing to do great things, but on condition that we are truly humble.”  My prayer for today is this:  Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner, and enter into my heart and soul and make me truly humble so that I may be exalted on judgment day.  Amen.

The photo is of the statue of Padre Pio in the grounds of the Trinity Heights Center in Sioux City, Iowa.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Song of St. Bernadette

Yesterday, February 11, was the memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes in the Catholic Church.  This memorial celebrates one of the more famous apparitions of the Blessed Mother in history.  On February 11, 1858, the Blessed Mother appeared to one Bernadette Soubirous near Lourdes, France, in a hollow of a massive rock at a place known as Massabielle.  Bernadette was fourteen years old at the time.  She was from a poor family and was a weak child who suffered from asthma all her life.  She was also a poor student in school.  This apparition was the first of eighteen total, with the final appearance occurring on July 16 of that same year.  Details, in Bernadette’s own words, are found on pages 114-115 in a book titled “See How She Loves Us” by Joan Carroll Cruz (TAN, 2012). 

During the ninth visit, Bernadette was told to “drink from the fountain and bathe in it.”  In search of this “fountain,” she scratched the ground where she was until a small pool of water miraculously appeared.  She then willingly obeyed the Blessed Mother’s request.  This underground spring eventually became a flowing river and is the source of many miraculous healings to this day.  When asked about her identity during the sixteenth apparition, she responded and said “I am the Immaculate Conception.”  It was four years earlier, before the start of the apparitions, that Pope Pius IX had declared the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Mother to be an article of faith to be believed by all Catholics. 

Bernadette eventually became a Sister of Charity of Nevers.  The motherhouse is located in Nevers, France.  She suffered from tuberculosis and died of this disease on April 16, 1879.  Her body is incorrupt, and can be viewed today in a gold and glass case in the chapel of the motherhouse in Nevers, France.  A large basilica was constructed on the site of the apparitions, next to the flowing water from the spring.  It is a pilgrimage site today, and many lame and infirm Christians come to the basilica and to the water hoping for a miraculous cure.  Many such cures have been documented.  It is estimated that five million people visit the site each year.  One of my daughters visited this shrine some years ago and purchased a bottle of the water.  I now have this water in my house behind me on a shelf as I write this.  Bernadette was declared a saint of the Catholic Church in 1933.

A movie was made of this story.  It is entitled “The Song of Bernadette” and it hit the big screen in 1943, following the publication of an historical novel of the same title in 1941.  The movie won four academy awards, including Jennifer Jones for best actress in a leading role, and was nominated for eight others.  It also won the Golden Globe award for best picture that same year.

The photograph below is that of a replica of the site of the apparitions located on the grounds of Mount St. Mary Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland.  A statue of a kneeling St. Bernadette is on the left and a statue of the Blessed Mother in the hollow of the rock is on the right.  

Thursday, February 5, 2015

My Secret Saints

In the middle ages, there were serious excesses and corruptions surrounding the granting of indulgences in the Catholic Church and this is one of the things that led to the Protestant Reformation.  An indulgence is the remission, before God, of the temporal punishment due to unforgiven venial sins or the lingering effects of mortal sins that have been forgiven by the sacrament of Confession.  This temporal punishment is the purpose of Purgatory.  The Catholic Church teaches that Purgatory is the place or condition in which the souls of the just are purified (i.e., “purged” of these things) after death and before they can enter heaven.  In other words, a living person can use indulgences to lessen time spent in Purgatory after his/her death.  A “plenary” indulgence is one in which all of this temporal punishment is erased such that any purging is unnecessary and, upon his/her death, the person can enter heaven directly.  Plenary indulgences can be gained by a living person for himself or herself, but also for someone who has already died.

Protestants today object to the doctrine of indulgences and, in fact, do not believe in the existence of Purgatory or the practice of indulgences.  My purpose today is not to address this situation (much as I would like to), but rather to communicate how I have used the plenary indulgence in my life.

Indulgences are gained by participating in some appropriate religious activity that the Church has determined is worthy while at the same time, receiving the sacraments of Confession and Holy Eucharist and praying for the intentions of the Holy Father.  I believe I have gained plenary indulgences over the years by going on weekend religious retreats at the Our Lady of Good Counsel Retreat House near Waverly, Nebraska, and, while there, fulfilling the required actions.  In each case, I have, in my prayer, transferred the indulgence to some specific deceased person.  I have done this on an annual basis, for each of the last thirty years (approximately).  So I believe I have won the direct and immediate entrance into heaven of some thirty people.  Over the years, I have, in my mind, come to refer to these people as “my secret saints,” since I am assured that they are now in heaven and so, in fact, are saints.  Included in the list are my mother and father, aunts, uncles, other relatives, friends, relatives of friends, and others.  I feel I can call on these folks at any time for their intercession on my behalf, just like any other saint.  I feel this is one of the greatest accomplishments in my life.  After all, it involves the direct and immediate entrance into heaven of people I had the privilege to know during my life on Earth.

The photo is that of a statue of St. Francis of Assisi on the grounds of the Our Lady of Good Counsel Retreat House.  While St. Francis is obviously a declared saint, it is my great privilege to know that there are many undeclared saints, some of whom I have known personally.