In The Middle, At The Back

As citizens we are called to participate in the national discourse and that discourse has gotten very polemic in the recent decades. The public discussion is now a ‘for or against’ dynamic, no in between; if ‘our side’ is not leading then we are being led wrongly. Choices made by groups are becoming more punitive then accommodating against those who disagree. The whole of society seems to be pushing to the margins any sense of common good, fellowship. Whether it is because mankind is moving away from faith, and this is the outcome; or our disordered discourse is causing us to move away from faith the result is the same: mankind is finding it harder to be in solidarity with each other. The eventuality is the evaporation the greatest commandments; love God and love our neighbor is devolving into deny God and challenge our neighbor. What are we to do? This is the choice for each of us.

For me, I look to God’s design; as a follower of Christ I am expected to stay right at the side of the marginalized, of those who suffer from the effects of our aggressive social dynamic. I will try to walk with them regardless of any differences in opinion. I will try to show compassion; I will offer love regardless of their viewpoint. Pope Benedict XVI then, and Pope Francis now, constantly remind us of what happens when God is pushed to the peripheries, or even forgotten. Pope Francis has spoken a few times on where clergy, and by necessary extension the laity, need to be on this social journey: ‘walking with our people, sometimes in front, sometimes behind and sometimes in the middle, and sometimes behind: in front in order to guide the community, in the middle in order to encourage and support; and at the back in order to keep it united and so that no one lags too, too far behind, to keep them united.[1]

Friends, with the ever increasing polarity of our society, especially our political arena, it is more important than ever that we walk behind and in the middle of our fellow man to keep hope alive for them.  Our tendency, inculcated from our society, is to push to the front, be the leader; but, as Christ’s disciples our witness comes best from these two other positions. Polemics and sophistry dominate the opinion and decision making process – distrust in our leaders is in the hearts of all. Let’s stand in the middle in solidarity next to those we encounter, including those we disagree with. Let’s walk in the back with those who struggle to keep up and urge them forward to be an active part of the societal journey, especially those who are different from us. There is no denying that our ideas and philosophies will differ. No one will have the exact same values and ideals as someone else; but we all have the same God-given dignity; and that should color our interactions.

Society will pressure us, but God is stronger. Rules will coerce us, but truth is everlasting. The only thing we need to do is choose God; choose fellowship and solidarity with our fellow man. Don’t give in to the prevailing societal dynamics of ‘for or against’, ‘ally or enemy’.

Brothers and sisters, let’s think about Christ’s victory which, as St. Paul wrote to the Philippians, began when Christ – ‘emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.[2] When He became the one next to us and the one behind us. He came for everyone, even those who persecuted and executed Him. Let’s use His example as our model of interaction. This leading from the middle and the back will change the current climate more than polemics from the front.

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[1]  Pope Francis, 10/4/13, Meeting with the clergy, consecrated people and members of diocesan pastoral councils Cathedral of San Rufino, Assisi Friday
[2] Philippians 2:17 (RSV)

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Poor

While finishing up a boat tour on the island of St. Lucia I heard one of the tourists, a man from the U.S., ask the tour guide if there were any poor areas on the island like the ones he saw on the other islands he had visited. It seems that he was surprised, relieved, he didn’t see any. I am not sure of his intent, I can’t read his mind but his delivery was brash, clueless and culturally insensitive. It was also idiotic since he had never gone onto the island – it was a boat tour that started behind the cruise ship – which is what the tour guide politely pointed out. She went on to say that the island was very rural in some parts – an interesting observation and one that confused the man – who then connected rural with poor.

Another time I heard a lady behind me talking to another about the low wages the crew made – it seems that these ‘poor overseas people didn’t know how much they should really be making’ – sigh! Americans, the gracious tourists!

I kept reflecting on these two tourists as the vacation went on and their attitudes. It seemed to me that there was a common thread: poverty is something that they shouldn’t have to see – it is evil and should be eradicated – and those who were poor didn’t know enough to elevate themselves.

They seem to think that being poor was something that should never happen, that it should be eliminated from the world. As honorable an intention as that might seem, it is both impossible and maybe, deep down, a selfish wish.

Impossible
Are we to contradict our Lord? It was He who said: ‘The poor you will always have with you,’[1] Christ is making us aware that being poor, in and of itself, isn’t something evil. Those who are poor aren’t failures because they are poor, in fact they could be successful in what is truly important – faith.

The issue here lies between two words poor and destitute.  The people of these islands that this tourist saw, and had a type of pity for, might very well not need his pity. Yes, they hardly had much at all, at least according to our standards (which is a very consumerist, vulgar viewpoint) but they were not lacking in the necessities, and they had family, faith – love.  They made due with what they had, and were happy.  Now to be sure some probably had fallen into destitution but not all.

Selfish
What strikes me about these types of tourists, and by extension many Christians of the first world is that their desire to rid the planet of the poor by elevating them is a cover for their fearful distaste of having to help them in a personal way.  Sure, these types of Christians will most certainly throw dollars at the issue, but that is not what Christ calls us to do – he calls for more.  He calls us to a solidarity with the poor. Pope Francis speaks constantly about looking into the eyes of the poor, talking with them, showing concern and care as we help them financially.  Christ calls us to love and love isn’t paying for them to go away by raising their standard of living. Love is compassion – compassion is made of two latin words: com (meaning with) and passion (meaning to suffer).  We are called to be one with them, solidarity among family.

Hard lesson but important
This is a hard lesson to teach even to the Christian world, especially we who live in the first world.  We are called to live with those who need our help. Some try to separate almsgiving from the social works of charity and I have to ask – is this how we witness to love? We proclaim to be members of the mystical body of Christ, the Church, so how can we be satisfied with this logic? Pope Benedict XVI, in his first encyclical speaks of the specific attributes that separates the church (and every member) from well-meaning but bureaucratic charitable organizations ‘The Church is one of those living forces: she is alive with the love enkindled by the Spirit of Christ. This love does not simply offer people material help, but refreshment and care for their souls, something which often is even more necessary than material support.[2]

Brothers and sisters, let’s take to heart Jesus’ words in our actions towards those we meet ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.[3]

Judgement no – compassion yes.

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[1] MK 14:7
[2] Pope Benedict XVI Deus Caritas Est section 28b
[3] MATT 22:37-39 (RSV)

The Right Attitude

During his first three years as pope Francis has repeatedly used a few reflections, over and over again; and he should, they are important and people should hear them. One of these is ‘God never tires of forgiving us; we are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy.[1]

The gospel we have just heard brings to light two completely different attitudes in regards to Pope Francis’ teaching on asking for forgiveness and it goes right to the heart of how we view our faith.

We see in the Pharisee a very jaded, comfortable view of faith.  This Pharisee, an elder religious figure in Judah invites this new and exciting prophet to his house.  On the surface this seems very good; but his actions speak otherwise. In this Pharisee we see a man who seems to be watching Jesus, scoping Him out, trying to judge whether He is worthy of his attention. At a great moment of mercy and love, Christ’s interaction with the sinful woman, the Pharisee passes judgement on Christ. , ‘”If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner.”[2] Then when Christ relates a parable to the Pharisee and asks him a question, the Pharisee’s response belies an almost uninterested attitude.  ‘The one, I suppose, whose larger debt was forgiven.[3] This Pharisee is comfortable with his station in life, with his understanding of God, with his faith.  All events must fit within his self-structured reality of faith; Christ doesn’t fit in it, so he dismisses Him.

In the woman we see someone who is an undesirable in her community; ‘sinful woman’ is what the gospel calls her. She is a moral outcast. People look down on her, with derision and contempt. She is all too aware of not only the attitude of the people, but the reason for this judgement – she knows she is a sinful woman. She needs help, and she knows it. So much so that she crashes the Pharisee’s dinner looking for the one who can heal her. Her actions of basically throwing herself at the feet of Jesus shows us that she is desperate to be cleaned, healed, and Christ is the one who can help her – she throws herself at his mercy. But in addition we see someone who actively participates in her healing as she offers Christ the homage that she feels he is due.  She grovels as she opens herself up to show Him her sinfulness and pleads for his healing.

What about us? Do we see ourselves for who we truly are and Christ for who He truly is? Is our interaction with our savior like the Pharisee, where we allow Christ to enter our faith when it fits within our self-constructed reality; or is our interaction like this beautiful sinful woman, where we open the depths of our hearts, admit that we are far from perfect and allow Christ in to heal us. To put it another way: Do we view our faith as an acceptable self-help philosophy where we pick and choose; or is our faith an ongoing intimate relationship with our creator, healer, savior?

At least for me the choice is clear. I am far short of the kind of relationship I want with God – my pride and ego envelope me in a comfortable bubble of denial; if not always, then some of the time. How about you? Brothers and sisters, let’s break from this false security – let’s live our lives in constant pursuit of a healing relationship with our loving savior. Let’s follow the sinful woman’s example, and her desire for healing, not the Pharisee’s self-contented fantasy.

If King David, the most powerful ruler in Judah, can come before God and throw himself at His mercy then we should be able to do so as well.    Let’s desire what St. Paul writes so beautifully about in today second reading: ‘I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me.[4]

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[1] Evangelii Gaudium
[2] LK 7:39
[3] LK 7:43
[4] GAL 2:20

More Than Just Us

In his April 19th homily at Domus Santa Marta Pope Francis talked about our paternity in relation to God. He said that no one is an orphan, but we risk becoming one by closing our hearts and not letting ourselves be drawn by the love of God.[1]

God is always here, always urging us forward on the path to home; always showing us the way; but we need to allow His help to guide us.  It takes two to bring us to heaven; He is doing His part, how about us? And this has more impact than on just us.  Our response to our Father does more than just help us home; it helps others as well.

In the readings today we see that Elijah implores God to bring life back to a young man.  Elijah’s persona, known to the young man’s mother, was one of holiness; but at a moment of crises she doubts and blames Elijah. Elijah reaction is one of calmness, patience, acceptance of his situation, and total submission to the will of God. The outcome was an amazing witness of the love of the Lord – the boy was brought back to life. “Now indeed I know that you are a man of God. The word of the Lord comes truly from your mouth.” [2] the mother exclaims to Elijah. God didn’t favor Elijah for his own sake, didn’t even favor the dead boy for his own sake – no, God worked through Elijah and the boy to bring His Gospel of Love to more people, to the multitudes.

Saul of Tarsis, the vicious pursuer of Christians was shown a great act by God, and he was converted. But this act was more than just God working on one man to change him. Through this great miracle of blinding and curing the whole Mediterranean region is awakened to the Gospel. St. Paul tells the Corinthians about this miracle: ‘For I did not receive it from a human being, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ.’[3] He told them, not to brag about his gift from God, but spread the gift to those he met. God didn’t work on Saul for his own sake – no – God changed Saul to Paul so others would be made aware of the Gospel of love.

Christ, also, went about performing signs and wonders; not so much to heal and cure those He helped, but more so to announce with these signs the wonderful news that lay behind His actions.  God brought the young man back to life; and the crowd – well: ‘they glorified God, crying out “A great prophet has arisen in our midst, “and “God has visited his people.”’[4]  And their surprise and wonder and joy didn’t end in the city of Nain; ‘This report about him spread through the whole of Judea and in all the surrounding region.’[5]

Elijah and St. Paul both could have gone another way. They could have hedged their bets with this unseen God and not thrown their whole beings into serving Him; but they didn’t, they let themselves be drawn by the love of God[6]. Brothers and sisters, their part of this ongoing story has ended here on earth; it is now our part in the story.  Do we sit back deaf and blind to the actions of God around us so that we aren’t responsible for our part in His family; or do we follow the examples of Elijah and St. Paul and the countless other saints throughout history and allow God to work through us to bring the saving news of His love to those around? Orphans don’t have familial responsibility – but we do.

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[1] April 19th Homily at Domus Santa Marthae by Pope Francis – as reported in L’Osservatore Romano pg. 14 English edition.
[2] 1 KGS 17:24
[3] GAL 1:12
[4] LK 7:16
[5] LK 7:17
[6] See footnote 1

Birthday Gift

 

Today, the Solemnity of Pentecost, is celebrated as the ‘Birthday of the Church’. The day when God sent His Holy Spirit among the Apostles so that His presence would still be with us, indeed closer to us than when Christ walked among us. Which is important, very important. God’s Holy Spirit didn’t just come to us, in us, to make us a big group of people who follow Him; a fraternal group of ‘holy rollers’ so to speak. No, He expects much more. Pope Francis, in his homily on the eve of the Feast of Divine Mercy said; ‘Through Sacred Scriptures, we find that mercy is above all the closeness of God to His people.[1] God sent His Holy Spirit among us to extend His Mercy throughout His world – through us.

So, Pentecost not only marks the ‘Birthday of the Church’ but because of it, it also marks the day that mankind took up the mission of bringing Mercy, Divine Mercy, to creation. The day that the disciples received God in their hearts, allowing the Holy Spirit to dwell within them, threw aside their fear, and went into the hostile world to suffocate evil, suffocate it with the embrace of mercy.

Brothers and sisters, we too have dwelling within us the Holy Spirit – the same closeness of God that the apostles had.  Let’s not waste this gift of mercy by not passing it forward.  Let’s suffocate evil – quench the terrible fire of evil with Divine Mercy.

No better present could be given on a birthday!

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[1] Pope Francis, Homily during the prayer vigil on the eve of the Feast of Divine Mercy, 4/2/16 – L’Osservatore Romano englishg edition 4/8/16

Media Morsels

Friday, the United States woke up to the first wave of editorial headlines about the Holy Father’s Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laeticia. For those who haven’t take the time (a lot of time) to read the exhortation what they know about it is what they have heard and read in the media.

  • USA Today editorial website: ‘Pope has good news for divorced, but not for gays
  • LA Times editorial website: ‘Pope Francis eases the way for divorced Catholics, but reiterates opposition to gay unions
  • Wash Post editorial website: ‘Pope Francis offers hope to divorced Catholics, says no to gay marriage
  • Boston Globe editorial website: ‘Pope offers ray of hope to divorced Catholics
  • NYT editorial website: ‘Rather Than Rules, Pope’s Document Gives License to Adapt
  • Chicago Tribune editorial website: well… they just used the Washington Post’s headline and article.

It is getting old to say, but once again media is driving the discussion. These headlines focused in on about ten out of 325 paragraphs (I did mention a lot of time).  Ostensibly the media is watching out/caring for society but it isn’t really their main goal; and in this case their desire to pass judgement on the church takes them to the opposite ends of the continuum. The usual scenario is that one day they are blasting the Church for various wrongs (actual, perceived or just made up) and the next day they are blasting them for perceived long-overdue changes – in most of these headlines they are doing both!

First, let me say that some parts of the Exhortation have some ‘edge’ to them; I am still in need of a reread of the eighth chapter. There are legitimate questions to some of what the Pope wrote. There are in any Apostolic Exhortation, after all, they are reflections on discussions that happened; in this case in the past two synods (extraordinary and ordinary). But what is striking is that the worldwide media if focusing on only these ten or so paragraphs. But the greatest parts (both in size and importance) of Amoris Laeticia are ignored. The majority of the exhortation, is a wonderful and inspiring proclamation on marriage, family and their issues.  It is a well written and insightful reflection on what our families, in all parts of the world, have to deal with, and it offers choices to help them, as well as, reassure them that Holy Mother Church walks with them. However, these parts don’t fit with the media’s idea of how the world should work; and besides, the media is all about ratings and the bottom line. They have no time for participating in addressing the ills that challenge families; it takes too much time, is boring, and it doesn’t bring them those ratings and dollars.  They are concerned with tantalizing the viewers/readers with exciting morsels of controversy – making a name for themselves.

For us, however, there is exciting value in this document, and one of the most exciting aspects of Amoris Laeticia is that it is a clarion call for Catholics to proclaim these good ideas about the good news. And can we do this:

  • By our words, as we talk about the whole document. Which means we need to read it.
  • By our lives, as we try living as the family that God intended us to be. Which means we should to read it.
  • By our embracing our extended families, which include the marginalized. Which means we should to read it.

In other words, we owe it to our faith journey and to the world to understand just what the synod fathers and the Pope distilled from the two synods. We need to be familiar with the document’s ideas so that we can both live the faith more fully and defend the teachings of church more knowledgeably. But first we need to start with prayer. We need to pray for our Pope and his bishops and clergy, especially our priests; because like it or not, thanks to this exhortation they will be on the front line. And we need to pray for ourselves, as we read this document and try to implement those ideas it contains that strikes our heart. Finally, we need to pray for the ability to help undo the damage done by appetizer-like headlines and editorials that do no more than tease us with partial truths and colored opinions.

The media will tantalize the world with tasty headlines, but it is the Lord and His followers that will feed them with sustenance.

 

Will and Testament

A little over a month ago Ron was called home to our Father’s house and we lost a valuable friend and knight.  I was not surprised by the participation that occurred during his visitation and funeral.  His life was filled with works for the church; and his giving of his time and talent to help others help others was a tremendous blessing to all who knew him. Ron’s life was centered around our Lord. Ron’s life was dedicated to serving God who loved him.

It got me thinking about what he has left us; which then got me thinking about what is the most important thing in our lives.

When each of us follow Ron and hopefully go to the Father’s house, we will leave a will and testament to our family and/or friends.  Some of us, those who write an actual will, leave two of them. The testament I am referring to here however is a testament, a gift, of the most important thing in our lives. Hopefully, it is the same for each of us – our faith.  Pope Francis in a February 4th homily spoke of this when he said. ‘When a testament is made people dispense: ’I leave this to him, I leave that to another’ but the most beautiful legacy that a man or a women can leave to their children is faith[1] He finishes the homily by telling us to ask of God two things. The first is not to fear our final passage and the second is ‘that, with our lives, we may all leave faith as the greatest legacy: faith in this faithful God, this God who is always at our side, this God who is Father and never disappoints.[2] I think it is important to note that this homily was given the day of Ron’s wake.

As men the most important thing for us to accomplish is passing to our children and friends a witness of faith – true and strong faith. Our lives should be remembered so that those thinking of us can’t think of us and our faith separately – we are one and the same. Our faith shouldn’t be something that we turn on and turn off – it should be constant. Our faith should be what drives our hearts and minds – so that what we say and do, at all times, is an outpouring of our relationship with God.  St. John the Baptist said: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’[3] That statement is the result of someone who lives his faith.

I would like to share with you part of a spiritual testament written in 1270 (746 years ago) by French king Louis IX to his son. It is a great example of how we should live our lives; and, of course, what we need to pass on to our children.

My dearest son, my first instruction is that you should love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your strength. Without this there is no salvation. Keep yourself, my son, from everything that you know displeases God, that is to say, from every mortal sin. You should permit yourself to be tormented by every kind of martyrdom before you would allow yourself to commit a mortal sin.

If the Lord has permitted you to have some trial, bear it willingly and with gratitude, considering that it has happened for your good and that perhaps you well deserved it. If the Lord bestows upon you any kind of prosperity, thank him humbly and see that you become no worse for it, either through vain pride or anything else, because you ought not to oppose God or offend him in the matter of his gifts.

Listen to the divine office with pleasure and devotion. As long as you are in church, be careful not to let your eyes wander and not to speak empty words, but pray to the Lord devoutly, either aloud or with the interior prayer of the heart.

Be kindhearted to the poor, the unfortunate and the afflicted. Give them as much help and consolation as you can. Thank God for all the benefits he has bestowed upon you, that you may be worthy to receive greater. Be just to your subjects, swaying neither to right nor left, but holding the line of justice. Always side with the poor rather that with the rich, until you are certain of the truth. See that all your subjects live in justice and peace, but especially those who have ecclesiastical rank and who belong to religious orders.

Be devout and obedient to our mother the Church of Rome and the Supreme Pontiff as your spiritual father. Work to remove all sin from your land, particularly blasphemies and heresies.

In conclusion, dearest son, I give you every blessing that a loving father can give a son. May the three Persons of the Holy Trinity and all the saints protect you from every evil. And may the Lord give you the grace to do his will so that he may be served and honored through you, that in the next life we may together come to see him, love him and praise him unceasingly. Amen.[4]

Brothers, let’s not waste the passing of Ron with just fond memories and wishes. Let’s embrace the faith that he lived his life in and make it our own.  Let’s use this sad moment as a time to reevaluate our own faith life, especially our inner most relationship with Christ and move forward with a better one. Let’s build a life with God in the center so that by our lives we can do as St. Louis did for his son. We don’t need to write this testament out St. Louis did – we just need to live it; our children and friends will understand.

St. Paul wrote to the Galatians, and to us: ‘it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.[5] Can we say the same? Can we pass on a legacy like St. Paul’s?

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[1] Pope Francis – Homily from February 4 2016 L’Osservatore Romano English edition 2/12/16
[2] ibid
[3] John 3:30 (RSV)
[4] Liturgy of the Hours, Office of Readings, 2nd reading for August 25, from a spiritual testament to his son by Saint Louis.
[5] Galatians 2:20 (RSV)