Thoughts of Hope

The path of society today has shown itself as moving farther and farther from the Judeo-Christian values that built it – both here and in Europe.  This week’s tragic decision on Marriage is just the latest in clarion examples that prove this.  It is now painfully obvious that Christianity needs to come to terms with a new paradigm which an op-ed in Time Magazine proclaims ‘Orthodox Christians Must Now Learn To Live as Exiles in Our Own Country’[1]

But should this worry us? Yes and No.

Yes

Our efforts to proffer the Gospel message as the best path for mankind to take is seriously ignored and ridiculed. We have been relegated to the sidelines as an annoyance – to some a threat.  Through our own inactions as apostolic descendants we have placed our message in limbo.  We don’t act as we speak and, truth be told, we rarely speak our faith anyways.  And through our actions we have shown that we don’t really live our faith.  The misguided belief that if our society doesn’t agree with the Gospel then we should just allow society’s ideas to be our own (as seen in numerous attempts to bend ideas to fit our faith) just howls of hypocrisy – and people see and understand it as such. We have led ourselves into some uncertain waters that could lead to persecution.

No

Our journey since the Lord ascended home has shown great periods of persecution, laxity, desertion and confusion.  During these times our Holy Mother Church has been purified, re-tooled and continued in a stronger fashion.  The Roman persecution saw savagery against our Church only to see great growth afterwards. The 13th century saw Holy Mother Church wallowing in self-indulgence and from this we saw the great mendicant orders started by St. Dominic and St. Francis re-energize the Christian world. And on and on. So we can hold on to hope that though we might struggle through our time on earth – God’s plan continues no matter what mankind throws in His way.

Our Heavenly Father doesn’t wish for our waywardness and failure – He doesn’t wish to ‘clean house’ and start afresh – He desires our success.  But He knows our struggles and He understands the pressures exerted on us by Satan and, yes, ourselves.  We hear in the Gospel of St. John Christ tell us that He has a plan for this: ‘Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.[2]  As scary as this sounds it is a much more loving correction that what He visited on Sodom and Gomorrah, what He tried during Noah’s time.

Years ago, then Cardinal Ratzinger made a shocking statement, at least at the time, and though rather lengthy it needs to be reflected on in total:

‘From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge—a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision.

As a small society, she will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members. Undoubtedly she will discover new forms of ministry and will ordain to the priesthood approved Christians who pursue some profession. In many smaller congregations or in self-contained social groups, pastoral care will normally be provided in this fashion. Alongside this, the full-time ministry of the priesthood will be indispensable as formerly. 

But in all of the changes at which one might guess, the Church will find her essence afresh and with full conviction in that which was always at her center: faith in the triune God, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, in the presence of the Spirit until the end of the world. In faith and prayer she will again recognize her true center and experience the sacraments again as the worship of God and not as a subject for liturgical scholarship. 

The Church will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right. It will be hard going for the Church, for the process of crystalization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek. 

The process will be all the more arduous, for sectarian narrow-mindedness as well as pompous self-will will have to be shed. One may predict that all of this will take time. The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism of the eve of the French Revolution—when a bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmas and even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain—to the renewal of the nineteenth century. 

But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. 

Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret. 

And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already with Gobel, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.’[3]

Brothers and sisters, we have seen terrible decisions made in our lifetimes, this week’s decision by the Supreme Court is just another in abominations done in the name of love.  We can see the continued and increasing threats to our faith, our ability to live our faith and probably even our freedom.  We have every reason to be sadden and worry – but never despair; and never resignation.  We have the right of it because we have been given truth from our creator.  If our church is entering a retooling then we continue the good fight and accept God’s will.  If we remain true to Christ He will remain true to us and Holy Mother Church will come out on the other side of this period stronger and more vibrant.  So I proudly say what is hanging on our front door: ‘as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.[4]

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[1] http://time.com/3938050/orthodox-christians-must-now-learn-to-live-as-exiles-in-our-own-country/
[2] John 15: 2-3 (RSV)
[3] Glaube un Zukunft (1970) Faith and the Future (1971/2006)
[4] Joshua 24:15b (RSV)

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Living in the Liturgical Year

Today we celebrate Father’s Day.  When families get together and honor an integral part of the family. Along with Mother’s Day it is one of the most celebrated holidays in the United States; just look at the restaurants, and the parties in the neighborhood.  And it goes without saying that this is good; families celebrating family.

But, as great as these days are they are very secular. Except for the faithful that always attend Sunday services most families don’t give consideration to the faith aspect of the celebration.  In fact, even the religious based holidays such as Christmas, Memorial Day and yes Thanksgiving have been stripped of their faith foundations by most people in the United States, even Catholics.

In the southern European countries of Portugal, Italy and Spain Father’s Day is celebrated on the Solemnity of St. Joseph.  A quick review online shows that seven other countries do this as well. In these countries there is still a religious awareness to this celebration.  I bring this up as an example of the beauty of social life that revolves around the liturgical year.

I know that bringing this up to you sitting here is the very definition of preaching to choir.  Our Sunday Vespers group have been living our lives the last eight years in and through this valuable gift.  Each Sunday we celebrate the fact that time belongs to God. We are not blindly traveling a path through chaos. Weekly we come together to dive deeply into God’s economy of salvation by calling to mind and heart different aspects; and while doing so lift up our hearts and minds by our collective voices in praise to our creator.  This gives us the peace of mind that, come what may, we are not alone; we are loved.  We have each other and we have our Creator. Together we celebrate each of our lives and we celebrate the revealed aspects of our Triune God.  Our group takes strength from those of our extended family, the saints, and we reflect on our lives through their witness.  Each of us, I am sure, has come to appreciate the joy of the flavor that the liturgical year gives us as we live our lives.

I offer this reflection to you not just to savor what we have; but to challenge us to show others what life lived within the liturgical year means to us. In two weeks we celebrate the ninth anniversary of this prayer group.  For nine years we have enjoyed the gift of the liturgical year and have allowed it to impact our lives.  Let’s go into our parish and show those unknowing and/or marginal Catholic brothers and sisters just what variety and intensity Holy Mother Church offers her family.

Niches

Last Sunday after touring Mammoth Cave we were watching a documentary about Christ.  The host was the actor David Suchet who played Hercule Poirot in the mystery series of the same name.  He was standing in front of a cliff-face wall of empty carved pagan idol niches near Caesarea Philippi (the same place that Fr. Barron used in His Catholicism Series) where it is said Jesus asked His disciples the question ‘But who do you say that I am?[1] There in front of a pantheistic worship place Jesus poses a fundamental question to His closest followers ‘But who do you say that I am?[2]

Earlier, I had read two articles; one was a news article on the quiet tsunami of changing moral values over the past 20-30 years in the United States. The other was from Rome about a group of Catholic Bishops and other ‘intelligencia’ meeting at a private seminar headed by Reinhard Cardinal Marx, president of the German Bishop’s conference, to discuss ‘developing the Church’s teaching on human sexuality based on a ‘theology of love’’[3] as an alternative to Pope St. John Paul the Great’s ‘theology of the body’. These were very worrisome articles to me.

As David Suchet was discussing the events that happened there in front of those pagan idol niches something of an awakening came to me.  These changes of moral acceptance and the organized discussions to create within the church a new point of view towards some of them, that I read about earlier, forces each of us (those reading about them and those participating) to answer the same question that Christ asked His disciples in Caesarea Philippi – ‘But who do you say that I am?[4]

Standing near the pagan idols in Caesarea Philippi Peter spoke with clarity and chose Christ.  That is what each of us is called to do. That is what those attendees in Rome are called to do, and that is what I think they are trying to do.

But what really hit me watching the documentary was the realization that I needed to review my own actions and thoughts. That before I try to remove the splinter from their eyes I have to take the plank out of mine – by understanding how I am answering Christ’s question ‘But who do you say that I am?[5] I am nervous about the reports that have surfaced from last year’s extraordinary synod on the family. I am really nervous about the statements from the German Bishops Conference this year.  I am very nervous about this meeting of progressive intellectual elites.  And I have every right to be nervous.  But I should be most nervous about how I answer Christ. Do my words match my actions?  Do I look straight into Christ’s eyes and answer as Peter did; or do I look past Christ as I answer and stare at those idols sitting the niches behind Him?

Do I rest my eyes on a cross or a niche?

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[1] Mt 16:15 (RSV)
[2] ibid
[3] http://www.churchmilitant and other reports
[4] Mt 16:15 (RSV)
[5] ibid

Seeds

We have moved into the next phase of our liturgical year – Green is back.  The liturgical year is half over and we have celebrated the major feast seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter – now we look to how to improve ourselves as disciples.  We start to learn how to bring understanding to those who don’t know what these great celebrations mean to us.   Today[1], Christ gives us a lesson in how God works His salvation and what part we play in His workings.

The parable of the sower and seed highlights three important lessons.

We shouldn’t think great things are expected from us – at least as far as the world sees great things.
The parable describes the actions of the sower as just sowing the seed.  God does the rest.  But Christ is making the point that that it is by our small part, our little actions, that great things happen. We sow – God does the rest. We witness – God does the convincing. We proclaim – God moves hearts. We introduce – God makes friends.  But as small as these actions are (as compared to God’s part) we need to know that our part is important. To think that for our actions to be important they should be great, awesome and grandiose is the work of pride, the manipulations of Satan. After all, there is nothing greater than love and love comes in small actions as well as large.

Today, Christ teaches us that it is by small actions that great things grow.  God’s action of love fertilizes and nourishes our seemingly small actions and they become large and bear fruit. Christ’s great action of climbing onto the cross began with a commonplace birth in a small town among farm animals.  And that birth was enabled by a small yes from an unknown maiden. Think back in your lives – how many times have you mentioned an impactful moment to the one who impacted you and they were surprised – little to them monumental to you.

Our small actions should be a constant and important part of our lives.
God expects us to be farmers/sowers all the time.  What isn’t as obvious in the parable to we who live in suburbia but was to those Christ told the parable to was the constant effort needed by the sower. Ask any farmer what is entailed in raising crops.  The sowing, the weeding, the fertilizing and so forth.  God, is growing the seed but we are to tend the field – our actions of discipleship are constant. Rarely does someone introduce two people to each other and then just walk away. Rarely do we give someone a new way of looking at something and then just drop it – let them digest this new viewpoint on their own.  We need to tend to God’s field.

We should be aware of the help we receive from God in our small actions.
The parable also assures us that though it might not seem like it God is working with the seeds we have sown.  We can feel comfortable that our seemingly small actions, if done within the Love who is God, will grow to greatness as the mustard seed. And most importantly we need to remember that we are seeds ourselves – God is working with and in us. We are not alone and we are not left to our own devices – God is there.  This is important for us, the sowers of today – it doesn’t depend only on us. Don’t let doubt, despair, desperation and frustration take over – if we have sowed with God’s love then we have done our part. Pope Benedict XVI addressed this in his first encyclical. These words I return to whenever I am tempted with doubt, despair, desperation and frustration over my part in His plan:

There are times when the burden of need and our own limitations might tempt us to become discouraged. But precisely then we are helped by the knowledge that, in the end, we are only instruments in the Lord’s hands; and this knowledge frees us from the presumption of thinking that we alone are personally responsible for building a better world. In all humility we will do what we can, and in all humility we will entrust the rest to the Lord. It is God who governs the world, not we. We offer him our service only to the extent that we can, and for as long as he grants us the strength. To do all we can with what strength we have, however, is the task which keeps the good servant of Jesus Christ always at work: “The love of Christ urges us on” (2 Cor 5:14).[2]

Brothers and sisters, let’s start to look at how we are as sowers.

  • Do we not sow at all and just rely on God to do everything?
  • Do we grudgingly sow a few seeds and then leave it up to God?
  • Do we sow seeds and get frustrated at the pace of growth?
  • Or do we sow with vigor, work with constancy, and rejoice in our participation with God in His field?

There is only one of those that brings God’s kingdom among us.  The rest of our schooling in discipleship depends on this choice.  Pray for the grace to allow the lesson of this parable to sink deep into your heart. Pray for the acceptance of our small part in God’s plan. Pray for the strength to resist the frustrations that can erode our actions. Pray and work for God’s glory.  Pray and work to help those are lost. Prayer and action.  St Augustine summed up this parable in one sentence “Pray as if everything depended on God and work as if everything depended on you.[3]

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[1] Mk 4:26-34
[2] Deus Caritas Est – Pope Benedict XVI #35
[3] CCC2834 (quoting St. Ignatius of Loyola)