Fallen Man’s List

last-judgment

From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within, and they defile. (Mark 7:21-23)

Thus says the Lord. I think we can find a lot of answers by reflecting on these two sentences. First, let’s make sure we understand the words.

From within people, from their hearts, come… 1. Evil Thoughts. Okay, yes. As in, Yes, I know what that means. And, yes, I am guilty of it.

2. Unchastity All of us grown-ups know what that means? Unchaste acts or unchaste thoughts. Unchaste websites or unchaste smartphone apps–unchaste anything. Anything other than: love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage.

Theft. Murder. Adultery. Greed.
We know the definitions of these words, I think. On Wednesday, cold-blooded murder punched us square in the face. But let’s finish the list and come back to that.

7. Malice. Not an easy word to grasp the meaning of. The more prevalent malice is, the harder it is to see. It’s like the opposite of sunlight. The sunnier the day, the more sunlight we see. Malice is the opposite. The more malice there is around us, the more and more blind to it we become.

On the cross, Christ revealed how God thinks of us. No malice. God made Himself the victim of all the Devil’s immeasurable malice, because our Creator holds no malice in His heart towards us. He wills only that we would share the Father’s love. On Wednesday morning , we saw malice, in all its grotesque ugliness. But, like I said, let’s finish the words in the sentence, then we’ll come back to the $10,000 question.

Next word: Deceit. I think we know the meaning: wrongly keeping someone in the dark about the truth.

9. Licentiousness. Anyone know what that means? …Driver’s license, pilot’s license, license to practice medicine… License-tiousness. Artistic license can be a good thing, like when Michelangelo used artistic license in depicting the Last Judgment on the wall behind the altar in the Sistine Chapel. But taking moral license means saying to myself something like: “Keep holy the Sabbath is a great commandment, but I have a soccer game!” Or “I know I already ate ten cookies, and that’s gluttony. But I’m going to have another one anyway, because I want to. I give myself a license to have an eleventh cookie.”

10. Envy. We understand the word, I think. 11. Blasphemy. Speaking of God, or anything associated with God, without reverence. 12. Arrogance. Again, I know what it means. And I know that I am guilty of it.

Mr T13. Folly. Anybody remember Mr. T? I pity the fool. I pity the fool who acts or speaks without thinking. The fool who makes decisions without first asking, What would the Lord have me do?

Ok. That’s the whole list. Guilty we are. All of us, somewhere along the line. We are children of Adam and Eve, members of the fallen race, for whom Christ had to die, so that we could receive mercy instead of punishment.

The Jews had their customs (as we read at Holy Mass). All of their practices had some reasonable origin in the piety of their forefathers. Washing up before a meal? That’s a good habit to have. Like keeping the kitchen clean, and all the plates and pots and pans. Keeping the Sabbath, as a genuine day of rest and spiritual refreshment. All good.

When the Lord Jesus condemned the Pharisees, He hardly intended to declare that eating with your hands dirty is the Law of the New Covenant. But: Carrying on as if washing my hands and letting the goyim do my work for me on the holy day… carrying on as if such things make a person righteous—that’s called hypocrisy. “A sinner? Oh, no. Not me! Look at my clean pots and plates!” That’s Pharisaism.

Because within us, within the innermost secret heart of any member of the human race, we can find the desperate smallness, the obtuse pride, the propensity to malice which somehow convinced Adam and Eve to trust the Devil, instead of God. The Devil managed to convince the First Parents of the human race that he is more honest than God.

He’s not, of course. Satan is a liar. The Liar. Maybe one reason why God let this terrible thing happen Wednesday is to remind us, each of us, in the secret center of our hearts:

“Look: You know neither the day nor the hour. This pilgrim life is fragile and short. Pray for the dead, pray for the suffering. And seek God. Seek God’s kingdom.” To find God, we just have to humbly admit that we need Him. Admit that we are gaping vortices of emptiness, without Jesus Christ.

After falling away from God by his pride, the devil despaired. Satan never hoped to find mercy. But that doesn’t make Satan a charmingly self-indulgent, fat, and rummy devil. His despair makes him, above all, perversely self-righteous.

The farthest thing away from Christ is not any particular item on the list of bad moves which children of Adam and Eve tend to make–the list which Christ spelled out for us in the gospel passage. The farthest thing away from Christ is the self-righteousness that would deny our need for Him. When we turn to our God on the cross, and open our inner floodgates, and cry out, “Lord, have mercy!”–He does.

Why, Lord?

Bridgewater Pllaza

Yesterday, the good Lord gave us a lovely day in these parts. Quiet, late-summer sunrise. A perfect day for a drive… maybe up I-81 through the beautiful “Valley of Virginia…”

Punctuate all this loveliness with killing three people, including yourself, and gravely injuring another? We could ask and ask and ask, and we won’t understand why someone would do that. I wish he hadn’t.

On a lazy summer afternoon at Bridgewater Plaza, you can watch the parents buying bags of popcorn to feed the schools of carp that congregate by one of the piers. Then their children stick their fingers into the fishes’ toothless gullets. They scream and laugh. It’s the kind of hillbilly fun that people in Franklin County, Virginia, really love.

Why let it all be disturbed with the report of bullets at sunrise, Lord? The last thing any of us ever wanted–that our home would become international news like this. Why do You allow this?

Shortly before she died, St. Monica said to her son Augustine, “Remember me at the altar of God.”

The best thing to do today: pray for the dead at Mass. The best thing to do tomorrow: same thing.

At Holy Mass, we encounter the Power Whose hands hold the living and the dead. When we pray with love, that He would help them–the dead and the living; when we pray at the altar that He would help them, He will.

At Holy Mass today, St. Paul tells us: “Stand firm in the Lord.” Because we stand firm, we can ask Why? He will unfold an answer, we trust Him enough to believe that. We ask because we believe He will answer.

Christ crucified is going through all this, right here with us, on these lovely late-summer Virginia days full of grief.

Crybabies

Leonardo da Vince Madonna and Child

Madonna and Child, Leonardo da Vinci

“We were gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children.” (I Thessalonians 2:7) Here St. Paul expresses the kind of love that the Church has for us, Her children.

We look, of course, to our Holy Father, and to the supreme magisterium of the Church, for guidance–when it comes to how the Church best loves as a mother. The Magisterium teaches us what the Church’s love involves by way of succor, and by way of discipline. We don’t love well if we love more indulgently than Holy Mother Church, or more severely. Those above us, the Pope and the bishops, teach us exactly how indulgent, and how severe, to be.

As for ourselves, let’s focus for a moment not on the mother, but on the baby.

The infant at the breast has no subtlety when it comes to communication, and no pride—no delusions whatsoever of independence. When the child is hungry, he or she simply… cries. Caterwauls, desperately.

That’s us. The crying babies. We can’t be too proud to cry. We can’t be too proud to acknowledge that we need the Lord to help us, that we need the grace which the sacraments give us. We need the sacred ministry of the Church Christ established more desperately than babies need milk.

Our gospel readings at Holy Mass today and tomorrow offer us a perfect warm-up for the passage we will read this Sunday. I’ll have more to say about the business of our Lord condemning the Pharisees then.

But we find the key to understanding Christ’s blistering condemnation of the Pharisees, I think, by putting ourselves in the place of the baby at the breast.

The evil of pharisaism lay not in any of their ceremonies and customs themselves, many of which were perfectly laudable. What the Pharisees lacked was: unpretentious dependence on the merciful love of God. They forgot that they were babies at the breast. Let’s remember that we are.

Fleshy Sunday Readings

I think we can find a particularly interesting paradox in the words of Christ which we hear at Holy Mass on Sunday. Hopefully we can receive the paradox as an invitation.

“This saying is hard,” they murmured. “Who can accept it?”

Which saying? The one we heard last Sunday. “My flesh is true food and my blood true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. The one who feeds on Me will have life because of me.”

Christ, the man, flesh and blood, born of the womb of Mary. He possesses divine life, eternally flowing into Him from the Father. Infinite life. The Holy Spirit, Who has breathed life into everything that lives. This particular Galilean fellow, made of bones and cells and stuff, just like us. He gives His body and blood as the gift of divine life for us. The Holy Spirit gives life–through the flesh and blood of Christ.

Earth Wind and FireOk: A hard saying, which demands faith in the Incarnation and the Blessed Sacrament of the altar, the Holy Eucharist. He anticipated that His words would shock some of us into disbelief.

A few weeks ago, an aspiring Catholic came to see me to discuss the possibility of coming into full communion with the Church. He has attended Mass with his dear Catholic wife every Sunday for 35 years. But this man’s Presbyterian sensibilities couldn’t quite feature the idea that God would have us eat somebody’s body and drink his blood.

The saying about the Body of the Galilean rabbi isn’t the only hard one involving flesh and blood in this Sunday’s readings. Anybody catch St. Paul quoting Christ quoting Genesis? “A man shall join with his wife and become one flesh.”

The fact that sex, marriage, procreation, and permanence go together, inseparably–like root beer and foam go together, or chips and salsa, or music and dancing–these are flesh-and-blood facts of life, brought to us by God Himself. Maybe the idea that we all come into the world in this somewhat messy way–maybe it strikes us as a little odd, if we think about it too meticulously. But God has His beautiful reasons.

In a similar way, “This is My Body,” and “This is My Blood,” come as simple Christian facts of life. Christ Himself said these words. It’s not as if Catholic priests made the whole thing up. We didn’t make up that marriage is the permanent bond of man and woman, any more than we made up that the Holy Mass gives us Christ’s true flesh. We Catholics just take the Lord at His word. We don’t see it as our job to “engineer” the meaning of those words. We simply believe them, holding back no part of our minds from our unequivocal belief. We know that, if we believe, then maybe we can begin to understand. But if we don’t totally believe, we know we will never understand at all.

priest_jesus_massAnyway: taken all together, the facts of life, given by God in today’s readings: fleshy. Altogether fleshy. Husband and wife: one, inseparable flesh. Holy Communion: Christ’s flesh and blood to eat and drink. Almighty God does not despise human flesh. To the contrary, He has embraced it more intimately than we can conceive.

Hence, the paradox: In the same breath with which the Lord lays down these stunning affirmations of intense fleshiness, He also says, “it is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is of no avail. The words I speak to you are spirit and life.”

The flesh has life. The flesh even has life to give. But the flesh itself is not ‘life.’ God wills to give us life in these muscles and bones of ours. He wills that we receive our lives through our parents’ flesh and bones. He wills that we receive eternal life through His incarnate Son’s living flesh.

But our life is not just breakfast, lunch, dinner, supper, tv, and bed. Our life is not even just earth, wind, and fire.

Our life is God. God is immeasurably greater than all flesh and blood. Immeasurably greater even than Earth, Wind, and Fire were, when they jammed “September,” in their prime.

God is so pure and spiritual that we cannot begin to imagine, cannot begin to conceive. He is the Beauty of everything beautiful, the Truth of everything true. He is our goal. God, purely God, awesomely, mysteriously God.

Everything Christ ever said has one fundamental meaning for us: that we would never shoot for anything less than God Himself.

So: we have flesh and blood, which came from our parents’ flesh and blood, nourished with divine life by Christ’s flesh and blood. And, in this flesh and blood, we strive for God.

Mr. Donald Trump, “de quien la humanidad debe sentirse avergonzada.”

— Armando Fuentes Aguirre, Reforma, Mexico City

US Mexico border wall

Dear reader, hope you have enjoyed your vacation! (From me.) You certainly deserved it.

But when anyone publicly refers to the border wall in Israel as a good idea, I start to get riled. I can’t just loll on the beach anymore. Anger overwhelms my capacity to relax. I have seen the wall in Bethlehem with my own eyes. I have seen its effects on the city where our Lord was born. And I have wept.

Donald Trump broke the sabbath this past Sunday to give us an immigration-policy proposal. If actually put into effect, his plan would produce a humanitarian catastrophe rivaling the Syrian refugee crisis.

In addition to writing that “humanity should be ashamed” of such a proposal, Mr. Fuentes writes in Reforma words that I hope we will all take to heart:

Creo en la esencial vocación de bien de la criatura humana… Confío en que los norteamericanos se quitarán de encima ese feo forúnculo que brotó repentinamente en su vida nacional.

“I believe in the fundamental goodness of man. I believe that the Americans will lance this ugly boil that has erupted suddenly in their national life.”

Dearly beloved, let’s greet this moment like we should. Our nation needs our pro-life/pro-immigrant message.

–The courageous undercover Planned-Parenthood videos have exposed the incontrovertible truth of what abortion involves.

–Meanwhile, the smallness of American-nativist suspicion of immigrants has also been thrown into focus. It is a cancer from which the USA has suffered for centuries.

We Catholics have a unique point-of-view: our Church family includes the documented and the un-documented, and we love all our brothers and sisters (without pausing for one moment to consider INS status). And of course we love all the babies, and all the mothers. We have the audacity to believe that our sexual power to conceive the next generation does not amount to a medical problem, but rather a beautiful blessing.

We have the message that our country most needs at this very point in her history: our pro-life/pro-immigrant message. Let’s be consistent about it, and let’s share it, with love!

Rolling into Roanoke on John 6

The ancient Israelites grumbled in the desert. The heat got to them. And thirst. And hunger. They preferred slavery in Egypt. They did not like the trial of endurance on which Moses had led them.

“Promised Land? Sure. But we don’t see it. We see nothing but parched desert sand.” So the Lord worked his ancient prodigies to help them. Water from the rock, manna from heaven. Even delicious quail.

quail-dinnerAnyone ever enjoyed quail? I only had the opportunity once. Not a lot of meat on the bone, so to speak. But very flavorful.

Anyway, the crowds followed Christ after He miraculously fed 5,000 men and their families, with five loaves and two fish, as we heard at Mass last week. These people who followed Jesus: they had the ancient miracles on their minds.

Moses gave the people bread from heaven. When that happened, the grumblers started to believe–the complaining liberated slaves. They saw the sign from heaven, and they believed. On the shores of the Sea of Galilee, Lord Jesus had accomplished a similar great miracle. Thousands fed to satisfaction. Seemed like the same ancient power had come to the Israelites’ aid again, like in the desert. Could the Nazarene carpenter be the new Moses? A great prophet? A liberator?

Christ knew their thoughts. He knew the crowd that followed Him liked the idea of free food. But He wanted to lift them up from their baser motives and purfity their intentions. He knew that, deep down, they sought God.

“What can we do to accomplish God’s works?” they asked. They liked to fill their hungry bellies, but they liked the idea of serving God more. Hopefully that describes us, too. Who doesn’t like to eat? But obeying God aways comes first.

What do we do to do work of God? Lord Jesus says, “Believe.” Our first act of obedience; our first act of service to God: believing. Marching hungry and thirsty through the desert might strike us as challenging. But believing, through thick and thin, requires even more. Believing in God and believing in the Christ that God has sent. Focusing our interior eyes on Jesus Christ, on His Mystery, which transcends everything we think we know–seeing everything else by the light of Christ–that gets every bit as hard as slogging through a desert sometimes.

So He works for us an even greater sign than His ancient feeding of the 5,000. He gives us His Body and Blood to eat and drink. He gives us Himself, when we come together and celebrate Holy Mass. The Bread of Life, come down from heaven to give life to the world.

taubman museum in roanoke[Material of local interest follows…]

I take it as a great privilege and a sacred responsibility to have been made the pastor here [at St. Andrew’s in Roanoke.] I know that Fr. Matt feels the same way about being parochial vicar. We have the honor of celebrating Mass for you. We come together; we believe. And the Lord feeds us and refreshes us. With Himself. Jesus Christ, body, blood, soul, and divinity. What kind of priest am I? The kind who can’t belive that I get to say the words of consecration and bring the Incarnate Word of God into the world, as our food.

I’ve been a priest for twelve years. For the past four, I was the pastor in Rocky Mount and Martinsville. For the past two years, I also cared for the school here as the chaplain.

Raise your hand if you already know Fr. Matt Kiehl from his Masses this past month… Fr. Matt will take over as chaplain at Roanoke Catholic.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard of St. Gerard’s parish… Down Orange Ave. Fr. Matt and I together have the responsibility for these two parishes, St. Andrews and St. Gerard. Seven Masses, each weekend, between us. In these two beautiful churches, full of inspiring people. It’s not a “parish cluster,” in case you were wondering. Not a parish cluster. It’s just that the two parishes have the same pastor and the same parochial vicar.

We will have years to get to know each other. Roanoke’s as close to heaven as you can get on this earth, so I’m fixing to stay here as long as I can. I’m looking forward very much to the years we will have together. These pastoral assignments start kind of like arranged marriages in rural India. I promise to do my best to be a good husband.

For right now, let’s respond to Christ’s words to us with the faith He asks for. Let’s declare, by our devotion, that we believe, and that we want to receive the Bread from heaven always. He will feed us with this Bread as we make our pilgrim way. He will refresh us in our thirstiest moments.

The Promised Land to which we journey–it is real. Roanoke seems altogether wonderful to me, but the Promised Land–the land of true justice, of peace, of genuine fulfillment and happiness–the Promised Land of light without darkness, where death no longer has its sting, where love doesn’t end–the Promised Land which we read about at the very end of the Bible–it exists. It’s real.

The Lord feeds us with His own Body. We unworthy priests bring the Bread from heaven to earth, so that we can eat and drink, and restore our strength as we make our way. I’m glad that we will be making our way together.

Digesting Laudato Si’ in the USA, Part I

The Inevitability of Priests

I have gone for a run and/or a walk in 38 of the 50 states (so far).  No ear-buds, and never a smartphone in my hand.  Pure and natural, touring these lands we occupy as a nation, on foot.

I would say that we can live in communion with God while traversing the earth here.  We can perceive by the beauty before our eyes (and the smells, and the songs of the birds and burblings of the brooks) that a Creator reigns.  And, in church, we can learn this wisdom: that the Creator sent His Son, Whose priestly sacrifice consecrated us.  So we can make our pilgrimage on the earth with upright consciences, on this soil of the USA.

Cover of English edition of Pope Francis' encyclical on environmentWe could say the same, of course, of every land which the Apostles and their successors have reached.  Our land has her own history, though.  I think we could divide American history into two ages: the period before English-speaking people took over, and the centuries since then.

(There was a brief interval, in some states, between the arrival of the Gospel in America and the takeover of the English-speakers.  Click HERE for more on that.  I offer this particular essay as a sequel to my July 1 homily on Fr. Junipero.  Forgive me–late July seems to bring essays out of me.)

The pre-colonial people did not know about the Christ.  I daresay, though, that they might have had more overall wisdom than we do, with respect to walking as upright pilgrims on these lands.  They could ask us:  Why do you live in these little airtight pods you live in?  Everyone travels by enclosed pods at great speeds, from the enclosed pods where you sleep and watch your personal tvs/use your personal websurfing gadgets, to the enlcosed pods where you use your own computer for eight hours, then travel by high-speed pod back to your other pod.

Sure, you have plenty of food, and air conditioning, and ritalin and stuff.  But your pod-enclosed existence strikes us natives of this continent as wretched. You have to travel great distances to national parks for a glimpse of the beauty and freshness in which we lived our whole lives.  We do not envy you.

Good points.  It seems to me that all the American institutions that involve something other than enclosed personal pods–institutions like cities, shopping malls, bowling alleys, the Boy Scouts of America:  little by little, they are failing, replaced by non-descript colonies of pods connected only to the internet and the highway system.  Only one institution really remains, impervious by Her very nature to pod-enclosure:  the Church.

tjeffersonChrist founded the Church to liberate the human race from sin, selfishness, worldliness, the dominion of Satan.  We receive the Gospel as the light of freedom, by which we can walk the earth with upright consciences, beholding true beauty, serving God and relating to Him as friends, seeking Him as our final goal by obeying the designs of His Providence.  We do this together, a band of people who share the deepest-possible bond:  we live from, with, and for Jesus Christ.

Christian freedom means coming out of the darkness–the darkness of knowing only vaguely about the Creator, confused by a lot of nonsense of purely human origin, powerless to master ourselves and live reasonably.  Freedom means coming out of this darkness into a place where the light shines.  The light shines in the Church of Jesus Christ, in her perpetual observances and activities, all of which revolve around Holy Mass.

“But, Father!” you may righteously interject, “What about Vatican II and Dignitatis Humanae?  Hasn’t the Church accepted the Enlightenment and acknowledged the fundamental freedom of the individual?  Don’t we teach now that individual freedom is what enables us to believe in the first place?  How can freedom come only from the Gospel, if we must have the freedom to believe in the Gospel when we hear it, to respond freely to Christ?  Don’t we have freedom by the dignity of our nature, even without the Church?  Also, don’t we Christians want to co-operate with non-Christians in the pursuit of the common good?”

Okay.  First of all, we have not left St. Augustine behind.  St. Augustine’s teaching still binds us.  The freedom with which our dignified nature can respond freely to Christ’s invitation to believe in Him–that freedom comes as a grace, through the Church.  (Regarding our co-operation with non-Christians of good will, I’m going to leave that to others to study; it’s not really my forte.  No comment regarding how easy it is to find non-Christians of good will these days.)

st-augustineWhen the English-speaking people came here, they had this idea:  Freedom means I get to decide.  If I get to decide, then I am free.  If I don’t get to decide, then I’m not free.  Going to church or not, listening to the priests or not, the free man decides.  Freedom means having that choice.

Meanwhile, an inescapable fact reigns in the Church:  our communion with the light of true freedom endures only while we frequent the sacraments.

Now, those of us who do try to frequent the sacraments often face a particular question, asked of us by those who don’t go to church.  We find the question odd.  They ask:  How can you accept papal infallibility?

And we’re like, What?  Do you have a problem with the idea that the Virgin Mary was conceived without sin, or that she was assumed into heaven?  It’s not as if the pope has ever infallibly declared anything controversial, really.

The actual issue, I believe, is this:  A parish priest does not possess the charism of infallibility; a good Catholic could ask his/her priest a question and then decide for him/herself that the priest gave the wrong answer.  But the parish priest has this little share in the charism of infallibility:  He possesses inevitability.

A Catholic can think his priest is boring, obtuse–a thoroughly patethic excuse (as many have thought these past four years in Franklin and Henry counties, Virginia).  But still the priest remains an inevitable fixture in the Catholic’s life.  No one can be Catholic without a priest.  (Which means no one can be Catholic without all the other people who have the same priest, too.)  Freedom does not mean the freedom to go through life without a priest, without participating in communal life directed by a priest.

The ceremonies of all the ritual families of the Church, eastern and western, all express one fundamental thing:  Faith that the Incarnation began in the womb of the Virgin and continues on earth in the Blessed Sacrament.  I think we can say that the rites and outward observances which we have–they all originally came into effect, in the earliest days, precisely in order to express this central principle of Church life.

To live in harmony with a priest (and all his other people, too) means participating in these observances.  Our ceremonies implant and nourish the Christian faith; by the same token, the faith makes the ceremonies make sense.  Church practices don’t make any sense without faith in the Incarnation and the Blessed Sacrament.  Submitting oneself to this, to the inner logic of the traditional life of the Church:  that is what liberates a soul from the interior slavery that we inherit as children of fallen Adam and Eve.

(It seems to me that all the side issues that gave rise to Protestantism have basically fallen by the wayside.  The late-medieval failures of clerical discipline that produced so much criticism have long since been addressed.  For at least a century and a half, the Apostolic See of Rome has given the Church inspiring leadership.  We Catholics have explained how we can agree with many of the original Protestant propositions.  Meanwhile, mainline Protestants find that they cannot avoid invoking ‘tradition.’  No reasonable person can really deny that the Catechism of the Catholic Church offers the world the synthesis of Christian doctrine.)

We walk this part of the earth, the USA, gazing at the Creator’s handiwork, purified in our consciences and animated by hope for eternal life, because we have communion with Christ through the mediation of a Catholic priest.

This is real freedom.  Our English-speaking forefathers would not have agreed (Thomas Jefferson, for primary example).  With all due respect to them, we have to regard them as wrong when it comes to priests and their inevitability.

The “freedom” to live outside the Church, estranged from the rites of the Incarnate God:  we cannot call that freedom.  In 2015, we can only call it paganism.  And we offer the invitation to everyone living that way:  come out of that darkness into the light in the Church!

Then we can come out of our pods.  We can live for more than fleeting moments of escapism, by way of leisure.  Together, we can stop wounding Mother Earth.  With respect to our ancestors who knew how to take care of Her better than we do–we can learn how to make them proud of us.

The first thing that has to go is the idea that “freedom” is about me, myself, and I.

The Claverings

Young man falls for his cousin-in-law’s beautiful younger sister. She jilts him and marries for money. Young man goes racing down the wrong career path, but along the way he finds just the right woman. Then his first love returns, a rich widow, offering him everything. A crisis ensues.

The Claverings TrollopeThe entire plot of this perfectly constructed Anthony-Trollope novel turns on this one moment: The protagonist lied in bed at home, laid up with a wicked cold. His mother offers him some advice. He takes it.

…Where does the joy of reading a Trollope novel truly lie? In the comic relief, perhaps? The Claverings has one of the funniest chapters I have ever read. A hapless, ill-educated, blue-blooded boy, cousin to the protagonist, seeks help in his love suit. From a cheap Franco-Polish con-woman, whom he believes to be a Russian spy.

Does the joy come from Trollope’s withering, righteous indictment of all the inhumane cruelty doled out by the heartless oligarchs he manages to capture perfectly? Hugh Clavering strides through the pages of this novel as one of the most believably loathesome villains I have ever encountered, the Victorian drawing-room equivalent of Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. Does Sir Hugh receive his just desserts in the end? I won’t spoil the novel for you. But we learn a lesson in boatsmanship: don’t go fishing off the coast of Norway in a small craft.

Maybe the deepest joy of a Trollope novel comes from the relentless struggle for honesty waged by the good guys. Henry Clavering faces an enticement to falseness–which he comes by perfectly honestly. The way all the other characters react to his predicament gives us a grand tour of all our predilections to judge our neighbor.

For my money, though, the most amazing thing about this novel is the character of Julia Brabazon. And the Way of the Cross she follows to reach a state of self-possessed kindness by the story’s end.

Now, I can’t say that I wished The Claverings had kept going longer than it does. The plot is not easy on the nerves. None of the characters sits with you like a relaxing companion (as some of the denizens of Trollope’s Barsetshire chronicles manage to do).

But every single page of The Claverings is worth reading. Reading them all both delighted and instructed this particular reader. Of all the things a person can find himself addicted to, Trollope novels have got to be one of the most thoroughly healthy options.

Signs of Divine Power on US 220

[Homily of your unworthy servant, saying goodbye to my beloved parishes of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Joseph]

If you have a sharp memory, you may recall that our three-year cycle for Sunday gospel readings has one special late-summertime twist.

The years when we read from St. Mark’s gospel at Sunday Mass are called Year… B. St. Mark had a unique virtue in his gospel writing, namely brevity. His gospel doesn’t quite fill a whole year’s worth of Sundays.

So, during Year B, from late July to the end of August, we take a detour from Mark to John. We read one of the longer chapters of the New Testament. The chapter about the Bread of Life, come down from heaven; about ‘he who eats My flesh and drinks My blood will live forever;’ the chapter that concludes with St. Peter humbly declaring to Christ, “Leave You, Lord? To whom shall we go?”

Christ in Capernaum

Christ in Capernaum

Right. John 6. It all starts with the Feeding of the 5,000. Then the chapter continues for four more Sunday Masses

It’s my favorite interlude in the three-year cycle of readings. It presents the wonderful opportunity to reflect on the most-famous miracle of Christ, and then segue into His Presence with us in the Holy Mass. These five weeks stand wide open, like an invitation from the Lord to preach a little series of homilies. Today would be the day to start the series. Except…

My best friend in high-school and I competed with each other in many things. Grades. Sports. But the thing we competed about most was: which of us loved his mother more. Maybe that sounds totally cheesy, but it’s true. Then, when we were 22, Eric lost his mother to cancer.

Brave, eloquent man that he is, he got up to speak at her funeral. The scene seared itself into my memory forever: The picture of him standing there by himself in the front of the dingy synagogue. The sound of his strong voice, valiantly mastering itself. He said, “Anyone who knows me knows that for me to be standing here like this… is destroying me.”

That was a lot worse than a transfer from one parish to another, to be sure. But standing here, having to say goodbye… If you know me, you know that this is kinda destroying me.

We read in the Holy Gospels how the Lord Jesus promised that miraculous signs would accompany the ministry of the Apostles. The Apostles then proceeded to work miracles, as we read in the New Testament.

Recently I had an argument with a brother Christian about the continuation of the apostolic ministry in the Church. The Apostles, of course, chose successors for themselves, to carry on their mission. An unbroken succession extends from St. Peter and the original Apostles to the pope and bishops of today.

This is a hard fact to argue with. But my Protestant friend disputed the legitimacy of what we Catholics call the ‘apostolic succession’ on these grounds: I don’t see the miracles. He said that he doesn’t see the pope and bishops accomplishing miraculous healings, or handling snakes, or drinking poison and not dying.

silver roanoke starNow, if he checked the list of promised signs in the New Testament, he might find that the biggest one is: speaking in all the tongues of the earth. And the Catholic Church, frumpy as She may be, does have the only claim, among all human institutions, to that. Does anyone speak all the languages of the earth? Yes, the Catholic Church does. No one else can say that.

But let’s leave that aside. Let’s stay more local.

What I really wanted to say to my friend is: You don’t see miraculous signs in the Church? Well, then, you don’t see what I see, man. You haven’t had the privileged point-of-view that I have had these past four years.

The miraculous sign of people, in an age of isolation, coming together. The miraculous sign of brother- and sister-Christians, in an age of selfishness, thinking of others first and making real sacrifices for them. The miraculous sign of the up-and-coming generation, in an age of relativism and self-indulgence, striving to find God’s truth and live by it.

The miraculous sign of good, competent, talented people, putting up with a feckless dweeb of a pastor, co-operating with him in spite of how impossible he is. And making beautiful things happen under this roof, week in and week out, in spite of the cluelessness of the guy in charge.

These are signs of divine power. You, my dear faithful people, have been working them for as long as I have known you. No doubt you will continue to work them, for the glory of God.

I’ll shut up now. If any good has come from my babblings up here, may the glory be God’s. I came here because Jesus Christ, speaking through Bishop, sent me here. And now the Lord, speaking through Bishop, is sending me to Roanoke. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

To Jesus Christ, Son of God and son of Mary, the divine Lamb, the Crucified, the Victor over death, the fountainhead of life and love, the Alpha, the Omega, the Name above every other name, the King of kings and Lord of lords; our brother, our Redeemer; the Heart of our hearts: to Him be glory and praise, in the Church on earth and in heaven, now and forever.

Ten-Commandments Marker

(Today at Holy Mass, while we read our way through Exodus, we come upon the Ten Commandments! Also: we read the Parable of the Sower.)

For some years now, we have endured the spectacle of public disputes about Ten Commandments sculptures. Judges or state legislatures or governors put them up; other judges or appellate panels or officials demand that they come down.

moses_ten_commandmentsLord Jesus declared that some seed falls on good soil, where its roots can grow deep. It sprouts, grows, and yields abundantly. Meanwhile, some seed falls on rocks or poor soil. Either it doesn’t sprout at all, or it lives only a short time and bears no fruit.

I am all for people having the opportunity to read and meditate on the Ten Commandments whenever and wherever possible. Anyone who lets more than a week go by without meditating on the divine Law is asking for trouble on Judgment Day, to be sure.

But the Lord didn’t inscribe the Ten Commandments in stone in the first place for us simply to chisel them endlessly, over and over again, on other stones. No, He gave them to us on stone to remind us that He had written them in our hearts, back in the Garden of Eden—but we did not obey them.

Christ has taught us how to obey them. “Thou shalt have Ten-Commandment sculptures in front of thy capitols and courthouses.” That’s not one of the Ten Commandments.

But “Blessed are the poor, the meek, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers, those who hunger and thirst for justice”—that comes from the mouth of the One Who wrote the Ten Commandments in the first place.

The best “memorial” of the Ten Commandments is a humble, God-fearing person who actually tries to live by the Sermon on the Mount.