Asking a Real Question

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“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Matthew 22:36

Which commandment is the greatest, the most important, the one I have to think of first? God himself may be perfectly simple, but He has given us a number of commandments over the years. And when we search our consciences honestly, we find not just one, but many demands. Sometimes the various demands throw us into a quandary, and we don’t know what to do.

So we can see how someone might honestly pose the question. Teacher, help me sort out my conscience. Tell me which commandment to think of first.

But these Pharisees in Sunday’s gospel passage were not really asking a question, per se. Asking a question means having room in my mind for an answer. It means using the word ‘teacher’ with real respect. ‘Teacher, you know more than I do, so illuminate my mind with something I do not yet know.’

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Fig Trees Today

figSome people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.

He said to them in reply, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? …Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them–do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem?…”

And he told them this parable:

“There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard, and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none, he said to the gardener, ‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. So cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?’

He said to him in reply,

‘Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13:1-9)

Us: Fig trees that don’t bear fruit like we should. The gardener digs around the roots, fertilizes the soil—-to help us come into our own.

Ginevra de Benci by Leonardo da VWe have great potential, after all. Maybe not necessarily great potential to write novels or paint Mona Lisas. But great potential to love, great potential to worship the Creator, great potential to behold the Creator’s beautiful image in myself and in my neighbor.

–Is it just me, or are the two parts of the gospel reading (for tomorrow’s Holy Mass) really striking in the different pace in the images?

In the first part: swift, sudden death. Bam, bam, bam. Pilate kills Galileans. A tower collapses and kills everyone there.

Then the second part of the reading. The fig tree has no fruit. Okay, but let’s wait another year. Already waited three. An old, experienced gardener, who thinks of years as if they were passing days.

St. Paul tells us that our lives are: faith working through love. We believe. We hope for divine fulfillment. We patiently love.

Today might mean swift, sudden death for any of us. It might.

After all, today is all we really have. It has a sudden immediacy to it, of it’s very nature, it’s very today-ness. Yesterday has passed forever, and tomorrow…doesn’t exist.

But let’s try to look at it from the Lord’s point-of-view. He actually has all eternity, completely in His possession. All the yesterdays, all the tomorrows—He has them all, possesses all of that, and has infinitely more to boot. Yet He patiently doles out today for us, gives us a chance to take a step closer to the goal of bearing figs of love like we should. Every day He fertilizes, nutrifies our roots.

So let’s open up our leaves, take in the sun, and get a day closer to the fruit-bearing stage.

World Mission Sunday

So much to reflect on this Sunday, it’s almost too much. Bear with me here.

St. Isaac Jogues with missing fingers

St. Isaac Jogues with missing fingers

1. Sunday we mark 368 years since the martyrdom of St. Isaac Jogues, who died in upstate New York.

And he was by no means the only Jesuit who died for the faith on this continent. In 1571, eight Jesuits died as martyrs here in what is now Virginia.

We salute these greatest of American heroes. Before George Washington’s great-great-grandparents were conceived in their mothers’ wombs, the missionary martyrs of America gave their lives so that the people of this land could know the Good News.

2. In Rome on Sunday, our Holy Father will declare Pope Paul VI to be among the blessed in heaven.

Some of us, maybe, remember when Pope Paul governed the Church, which was from 1963 to 1978. The Beatification of Pope Paul concludes the Roman Synod that has studied marriage and family life these past two weeks, and which some of us may have heard something about in the newspaper or on tv. We had better discuss the Synod. But I think the Synod we had better discuss is actually the Synod on Evangelization, which took place in 1974. Let’s come back to that in a minute.

3. In the middle of all this, we hear our Lord say to us with His quiet wisdom: “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

Maybe you remember us talking about this gospel passage three years ago. We considered the challenge of actually trying to give God His due. We start at the altar: praising Him; offering the perfect sacrifice given to us by His Son; offering ourselves, along with Christ, to the Father. It all starts with Mass, and our whole lives are directed to the glory we come into contact with in the Holy Mass.

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Blessed Pope Paul VI

But we have to give God His due outside church, too. And we give Him His due by following His solemn command that we love our neighbor. We truly love our neighbor by thinking of him or her in the exact same way that Christ thought of us, when he spread out His arms on the cross for us.

Which brings us to “repay to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” Our love for our fellowman means paying careful attention to our duties as citizens. Because we love God, we also seek, even in this fallen world, the great political goal known as “the common good.” And in a couple weeks, we who are of voting age have to figure out a way to cast a pro-life, pro-immigrant vote.

…But let’s go back to the memorable Synod of Bishops, which took place in Rome—in 1974, when Blessed Paul VI was pope. One topic on the table then was this:

Since we Catholics firmly believe that God is all-merciful and all-loving; since Jesus Christ, crucified for our salvation, has revealed the truth about God like nothing else ever could, we of course believe that God has a plan for absolutely everyone to be saved. This includes people who have never heard of Jesus or received the sacraments.

We ourselves know only one way to heaven—Holy Baptism, along with the other sacraments of the Church. But God knows more than we do, so we never despair about anyone’s salvation. The second Vatican Council re-echoed these truths, which can be found in the New Testament. God can find a way for anyone to get to heaven. How then do we understand our mission to evangelize?

Such was one of the pastoral problems posed by the Synod of Bishops which took place in the 1974. A good question. Allow me to quote what Blessed Pope Paul VI wrote:

It would be useful if every Christian were to pray about the following
thought: men can gain salvation also in other ways, by God’s mercy, even though we do not preach the Gospel to them. But as for us, can we gain salvation if—through negligence, or fear, or shame –if we ‘blush for the Gospel’–or as a result of false ideas, we fail to preach it?

For that would be to betray the call of God, who wishes the seed to bear fruit through the voice of the ministers of the Gospel; and it will depend on us whether this seed grows. [emphasis added]

Parkman Oregon Trail…Anyone ever heard of Francis Parkman, the writer? He wrote the definitive history books about the two centuries when Europeans and native tribes both lived in what is now the United States, with each living according to their own long-standing traditional way of life. That is, the 1600’s and 1700’s.

Parkman was an amazingly smart historian and gifted writer. That said, in his books, Parkman has a clear bias against some of the Indian tribes. One group, though, he held in even greater contempt. The Jesuits. Parkman’s phrase for the Jesuits in North America during colonial times is: “Romish zealots.”

Seems to me that this lays a challenge on us. When biased historians look back on the 21st century, will they find a record of what we have done, and conclude: What a bunch of Romish zealots!

May God give us the grace to water this land with our blood, sweat, and tears, because we Romish zealots won’t be satisfied until everyone has a chance to share in the grace that we have received in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

How “Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation”s Came to Be

From the More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same File:

PAUL VI AND CARDINAL WOJTYLA CONVERSE AT VATICAN“…the duty of confirming the brethren…seems to us all the more noble and necessary…after the Third General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops…and we do so all the more willingly because it has been asked of us by the Synod Fathers themselves. In fact, at the end of that memorable Assembly, the Fathers decided to remit to the Pastor of the universal Church, with great trust and simplicity, the fruits of all their labors, stating that they awaited from him a fresh forward impulse… “ –Pope Paul VI, post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, paragraph 2 (1975).

Thus, the illustrious genre of papal post-synodal Apostolic Exhortations began.

Here’s how Peter Hebblethwaite, Paul VI’s biographer, summarizes what had happened in 1974:

“A new actor had entered the scene, whose importance was not recognized at the time. Frustrated in his desire to have a Synod on marriage, he was named Relator of the Synod on Evangelization…The Relator’s approach prevailed in the final document, with the effect that the Synod rejected it. The result was impasse. But not tragic…

“Everything was simply dumped in the papal lap, and Paul was invited to sort it all out. But since ‘informing the pope’ was one of the functions of the Synod, one could not say that collegiality had failed: better honest confusion than papering over the cracks. To the pope fell the task of synthesis.” –Hebblethwaite, Paul VI, pp. 626-27

And who was the ‘new actor,’ whose final document the Synod rejected, thus giving rise to the need for the pope to write an Apostolic Exhortation? Karol Cardinal Wojtyla.

Collegiality, a fancy word for trying to work together, began while the Lord Himself still walked the earth. And, as the Lord taught us, collegiality is only possible when—only possible; no collegiality, no co-ordination without: one loving father, who reigns supreme, who bears the burden of sorting everything out, and who demands obedience to what he decides.

Holy Father Francis called the synod of 2015, and Holy Father Francis will tell us what it means, when the time is right for us to know what it means.

In the meantime, much better to pray than to agitate oneself. The Church most certainly has been through all this before.

How Not to Be a Whitened Sepulcher

“You are like unseen graves over which people unknowingly walk.” (Luke 11:44)

Maybe you remember how we talked about this a little two years ago. All existing reality is divided into three sections: The holy, the clean, and the unclean.

God is holy and the source of life, vitality. Clean means adjoining God; it means vigor and the full-flowering of the gift of life; cleanness allows growth. Unclean means separated from God, squelching life, making growth difficult or impossible, impeding and thwarting the unfolding of God-given vitality.

Now, we are not talking about Ebola here. Though let’s certainly pray that the Lord will help everyone suffering from the disease, and that those who have died will rest in His peace.

thomas mertonWhat we are talking about is the severity of the imprecation that the Lord leveled against the Pharisees: Woe to you who spread the vigor-killing uncleanness of your self-righteousness, by covering it over with a cloak that makes it look clean!

St. Paul put it so beautifully: Against love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control there can be no law. None of these can be found in any unclean tomb; none of these can impede life. To the contrary, the fruits of the Holy Spirit are the sign of the greatest vigor, the cleanness of union with God.

Apparently, something came out in Rome on Monday, while I sat in the woods reading Merton, eating pb&j’s, and trying to pray a little. I think we should remember that the things the Church stands for don’t change at a Vatican press conference.

Problem is, there may be whitened sepulchers of self-righteousness both to the right and to the left, as we continue to tread the path the Lord has laid out for us in AD 2014.

–There can be no divine law against faithfulness and chastity. Kinda suggests that there is a divine law against both unfaithfulness and unchastity.

–By the same token, there is no divine law against patience and gentleness. Which kinda suggests that there is a divine law against both impatience and rudeness.

Breathless journalists tend to forget: there is only so far away that people can run from their consciences. Sooner or later, our consciences can and will do their work–if not in this pilgrim life, then at the moment we step into the next. And the human desire to make peace with death will keep the Church in business until way after USA Today folds.

The Lord Jesus ferociously imprecated the Pharisees for trying to burden other peoples’ consciences with burdens that they themselves couldn’t carry. Let’s make it our business to accept the rightful burdens that our own consciences legitimately put on us, and to help others carry the burdens that their consciences legitimately put on theirs.

And of course the best way to pursue this business is to go to Confession every month.

God’s UPS

Who paid attention to what St. Paul said to the Galatians? Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts. The only thing that counts:

Faith working through love.

Lord Jesus said that the heavenly Father made both the outside and the inside. Outside gets dirty, we wash it, take a bath, etc. Inside gets dirty—what do we do? Give alms.

ups¿Que indica eso? “Give alms.”

Not as hard to understand as we might think. Very straightforward in fact.

Anyone ever heard of St. Francis of Assisi? Little guy. Italian. Pope named himself after him.

St. Francis loved God, trusted God, wanted only God. Francis believed that everything the Lord Jesus said is true. The heavenly Father provides for the flowers of the field and the birds of the air, who neither toil nor spin, and He will certainly provide for us. The Father’s eyes are on the sparrow; He knows how many hairs are growing on our heads. Why worry? The Lord will take care of tomorrow; the Lord will take care of the rest of today. His will be done!

So St. Francis gave away everything he did not need. Then he gave away everything he needed. By doing all that, he cleaned his insides. Because all he wanted was God, and he did not want anything less than God.

stfrancisGod will take care of everything. Everything that I think belongs to me really doesn’t. It really belongs to the next person I see who could make good use of it. I am actually the UPS guy for all these people, employed by the Lord to deliver all the goods I have to the individuals who can make good use of them. Talk about logistics!

Let’s go one step farther. The most precious thing that I have is actually not a ‘thing.’ The most precious thing I have is my love. My genuine love for others: esteeming them, warmly engaging them, cultivating compassion for them, offering them true Christian friendship.

Guess what? None of this is ‘mine,’ either. True, constant, firm love comes from God, comes from the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ. It comes from Him into my heart for one reason: So that I will give it away. So that I will lavishly love, helping others bear their burdens, expecting nothing in return. Because indeed the greatest gift I myself can receive is to know someone worth loving. And every human being is worth loving.

Then the whole lesson about giving alms comes to its final conclusion. Because we discover that the more Christian love we give, the more we have to give. The Sacred Heart of Jesus flows like an inexhaustible fountain of love. Loving with Christian love is like making an investment that pays 1000% interest.

So, to summarize…’Give alms’ means: Love my neighbor, and give my neighbor everything I have, including what I need to survive. Then I will wind up as rich as poor St. Francis.

Terrorism Against the Unborn

The king summoned the invited guests. But they refused to come.

God invites us to a kingdom of peace, fraternity, communion, and love. In God’s kingdom, the innocent have the right to live, to grow, and to thrive, according to the divine plan. Who refuses to come to such a beautiful banquet? Well, those who commit acts of unjustifiable violence against the innocent. Killing the innocent means saying a big, fat, rude, ‘No, thank you!’ to God’s invitation to the Kingdom.

The evil acts of terrorism committed in the Middle East have stunned us all. A couple weeks ago, President Obama lectured the United Nations’ General Assembly about this. He concluded, “At this crossroads, I can promise you that the United States of America will not be distracted or deterred from what must be done.”

Barack Obama UNI stayed up late to watch the re-play of the speech on CSPAN. The camera panned across the joyless faces of the representatives of the countries of the world. I could not help but think to myself: One of these ambassadors could reasonably raise his or her hand and ask our president, “Yes, Mr. President Obama, yes. We condemn terrorism just like you do. But are you Americans so innocent?”

Now, maybe this ambassador would be referring to the bombs we drop from the sky, which regularly kill innocent bystanders. And we do not, as a nation, seem to give that a second thought. But there’s more.

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Faith of Abraham

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The great, wild, undaunted, new-day-dawning faith of Abraham. All the sins, all the foolishness, all the ignorance we dwelt in yesterday doesn’t matter now, because God has beckoned us forward.

The Lord holds today and tomorrow and forever in His hands. What He has planned will surpass anything my mind can conceive, so it’s actually better that I know as little as possible about it. Better for me just to stare up at the wide open sky, or at the stars, and know that God is all-in-all.

The wide-open faith of Abraham. Which is the faith of St. Thomas Aquinas. And of all the saints. Of Saints Simeon and Anna in the Temple, of Saints Ann and Joachim. The faith of the Blessed virgin, immaculate granddaughter of Abraham.

The faith of the remnant of Israel, of the Holy Church. The faith of the poor. The worldly powers tower over us, dwarf us like ants. But God makes the worldly powers look like protoplasms in a rain puddle.

Skyscrapers and spotlights turn to dust; the roar of the crowd goes silent; the graves of the former glitterati grow green with grass. And God remains God. The Father into Whose hands Abraham’s crucified grandson commended His spirit—that Father keeps fathering, and will never stop fathering us. His flowers will blossom as fresh as the original springtime, long after everything that is currently on the internet has long been forgotten.

We believe, oh heavenly Father! We are the children of Abraham. Lead on.