Upcoming Holidays

Bl Miguel Pro

We want to know the origin of our holidays. This week at Holy Mass we read from the books of the Maccabees. Those books recount the origins of… Hanukkah.

Our national Thanksgiving holiday originated with President… Abraham Lincoln.

On Sunday we will keep the Solemnity of Christ the King, instituted by… Pope Pius XI, after all the spiritual upheaval caused by World War I.

Then, of course, after Advent, we keep the great holiday of the Nativity of the divine man, Jesus Christ. We read all about that in the first chapters of the gospels of… Matthew and Luke, and also John.

Our holidays, and the history of their origin, teach us who we are. They give meaning to our lives; on a holiday, day-to-day reality touches eternity.

Let’s not forget an important anniversary for us Americans. This year, Turkey Day falls on the 90th anniversary of the martyrdom of Father Miguel Pro. The atheist government in Mexico at that time condemned him to a firing squad. He died shouting, Viva Cristo Rey!

May we have the same faith, the faith that gave the blind man in Jericho his sight.

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The Good News of the Last Judgment

 

pantocrator

After a long time the master of the servants came back and settled accounts with them. (Matthew 25:19)

Once every three years, we spend three Sundays in November reading the 25th chapter of St. Matthew’s gospel at Holy Mass. Last week we heard the parable of the ten virgins awaiting the bridegroom. This Sunday, the Parable of the Talents. Next Sunday, we’ll read about the separation of the sheep from the goats. [CLICK FOR SPANISH.]

The human soul longs for justice. When particularly grievous evils occur, it oppresses us; it shakes our faith. I think we all know how, two weeks ago today, a man walked into a church in Texas and shot 26 innocent people, for no reason. We might think: How can God stand idly by? How can a good God let such evil occur, and do nothing?

Okay. But how about this question first: Is the Bible true?

About 150 years ago, the truth of the Bible became a hotly debated topic. Is the Bible true, or is evolution true? Is Jesus Christ the only savior, or do all religions lead to heaven? Do we need religion at all, or is it better just to try to be a good person?

thanksgiving-BeverlyHillbilliesDebates on questions like this gave rise to a particular idea of God. According to this idea, God exists, but He does not have anything directly to do with the world. He is “above” it all. “Above” all human arguments about religion; “above” all disagreements about right and wrong; “above” all the suffering in the world. It’s an idea of God that supposedly resolves all religious controversies and allows people to have Thanksgiving dinners without family bickering.

But: If we have this idea of an above-it-all God, when we think of all the evil and injustice on earth, we are left to wonder: How can God stand aloof and do nothing?

Now, we Catholics are not fundamentalists. We see clearly that the collection of ancient books called the Holy Bible contains reading material that we cannot understand without the help of careful reflection and good teachers. No one who has ever sat down and actually tried to read the book of Revelation thinks that biblical fundamentalism works.

That said, we Catholics do not and cannot accept the idea of God being “above it all.” Because that idea contradicts what Sacred Scripture clearly reveals. God is not “above” the fray. God does not stand idly by. To the contrary, we solemnly affirm these two things about God.

  1. God Himself has embraced the bitter depths of human suffering and death. Twenty-six innocent people died bloody deaths, in church, two weeks ago today. Almighty God also died a bloody death as an innocent person, in Jerusalem, in AD 33. A lot of people still mourn down in Texas. Like our Blessed Mother mourned—and she mourns with them.
  2. This same God Who died will, in the end, judge everyone with perfect justice. All crimes will receive their due punishment from the divine Judge.

Now, we do not usually think of the doctrine of hell as something that makes our Catholic religion appealing to un-churched people. But it seems to me that the full Catholic teaching about the Final Judgment is precisely what the un-churched world needs right now.

The human soul longs for justice. The idea that evil would go unpunished—we simply cannot tolerate that. Some people, thinking they make Christianity more attractive by doing so, try to present Jesus Christ as some kind of super-nice person. But He is not. He is a demanding person. He is the jealous God of Israel. He does not tolerate evil–at least not for long. The righteous holiness of Jesus can and should terrify everyone.

scales_of_justiceChrist is not an “idea” of God. He is a real Person. The Person Who will, as the man that He is, stand in judgment. His eyes penetrate to the level of absolute truth. No injustice, no matter how small or big; no act of physical or emotional violence; no exploitation or abuse escapes His gaze. He reckons it all.

What happened in Texas did not happen in a meaningless universe with a powerless and aloof God standing far away. It happened under the all-seeing eyes of Jesus Christ. Justice will be done. Bad people don’t die, and then it’s all over. No, bad people who don’t repent die, and then they go to hell.

Which hopefully reminds me that the bad person I really need to worry about is myself. And that makes me love Jesus not so much for the Final Judgment as for the cross. On the cross, the terrifyingly righteous Judge made it possible for me to find mercy at the final reckoning. He made it so that even someone like Devin Kelley could find mercy, or Osama bin Laden, or any of the famous evil people of history. On the cross, God Himself paid the price of justice for all human sin. He did it as a human being. He joined Himself to all the suffering of the innocent, in order to redeem even the guilty.

The revelation of the Final Judgment truly comes as good news, as consolation and peace—compared to the prospect of a meaningless world in which evil never gets adequately punished. And we can face the Final Judgment without fear, when Christ crucified is the love of our lives.

Beauty, Wisdom 13, and Paganism

Blue Ridge fall foliage.jpg

During the past few autumn weeks, the gentle mountainsides of southwest Virginia have shown so splendidly with living color that a person might find oneself tempted to worship them. Then I had a chance to scale Pilot Mountain down in northern NC. And its majestic strangeness also invited a kind of pagan adoration.

Wisdom 13 seems to sympathize with paganism, with the worship of beautiful places and things. Because God has indeed made so much bewitching beauty. Some modern philosophers, theologians, and poets have had a similar sympathy for the openness of the pagan heart–because the pagan at least knows how to abandon himself to the life-giving power of communion with the earth.

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Pilot Mountain pinnacle

Modern man has achieved a great capacity to analyze and control Mother Nature. So much so that we have a tendency to forget that God created it. We forget that creation has a mysterious depth which we will never completely understand, which we must simply revere. We analyze and control things so much that we have a tendency to forget that religion is actually our most natural, and most important, pursuit. Religion—that is, submission to a higher intelligence, a higher power, a greater glory than ourselves—religion is what makes us most fully human, most fully ourselves. Religion organizes our minds and our lives; religion unifies our being; religion keeps us open to reality.

Which is worse? To worship the Blue Ridge, or to think of the Blue Ridge as a little sideshow in my purely secular life? Which disrespects God more? Wisdom 13 seems to suggest that God has more sympathy for a soul that mistakes something beautiful for the Source of all beauty, rather than the soul who concludes foolishly and blindly that beauty is really just a fluke, nothing more than a photo-op.

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Pilot Mountain pinnacle up close

Pagans can graduate easily enough to true religion, upon seeing the most-beautiful thing ever: Christ crucified for love. But how can anyone find a way out of the bottomless pit of modern secularism? The technocratic mind assumes that beauty is merely something we see–atoms in a shape that we arbitrarily find pleasing. It doesn’t really mean anything, and we owe it nothing.

But the truth is: beauty exists, utterly independent of our perception of it–and it takes a lifetime of religious discipline on our part for us to see it as it truly is. Beauty is a language being spoken by the Friend to Whom we most desperately need to listen. We have a solemn duty to revere the beautiful. And to worship the One Who made it, and Who communicates with us by its very beauty.

The Kingdom of God

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The Kingdom of God is among you. (Luke 17:21)

The Pharisees asked: When will the kingdom of God come? St. Cyril of Alexandria, in his commentary on this passage, presumes that the Pharisees were taunting Christ. They mocked the crowds who believed that Jesus would sweep into Jerusalem and take over the government. The Pharisees knew that, in fact, a cross awaited the Galilean rabbi. So they spoke of the “kingdom of God” with sarcasm.

Lord Jesus had already declared: “No one can see the kingdom of God—without being born from above.” He had said that during His conversation with… Nicodemus, recorded in John’s gospel, chapter 3. I think that John 3 contains keys that can unlock many mysteries for us, so we will study that chapter in detail during Advent, at our talks before Sunday Vespers at St. Joseph’s, beginning on Christ the King Sunday, a week from this Sunday (4:30pm).

Anyway, the Lord repeated the same idea here in Luke 17. No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above, without being born anew of the Holy Spirit. You cannot see the reign of God here or there, in this town or that country, as if God were a politician or a petty potentate. You cannot tell that God reigns by a flag flying in front of the post office or the police station.

God reigns always and everywhere, according to His transcendent, omnipotent power, which leaves everyone perfectly free. He doesn’t give parking tickets or impose taxes or draft people into military service. He simply demands total obedience and love, and leaves us free to respond.

“The Kingdom of God is among you.” “The Kingdom of God is within you.”

In the Sacred Heart of Christ, God reigns perfectly, as God wills to reign. The reign of God is the peace of Christ, the perfect obedience of Christ to the will of the Father, the all-consuming love of the Son for the Father–and for all the Father’s children.

The reign of God in the Heart of Christ is among us—in the Blessed Sacrament, and in all the works of Christ’s love which happen through the mystery of the Church. And the reign of God in the Heart of Christ is within us, too: When we believe in Him, the Holy Spirit loves with Christ’s love in our own hearts, because we are members of His one body.

The Wise Virgins Parable

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William Blake, Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins

The wise virgins waited faithfully for the bridegroom to arrive. Everyone knew the groom would come; they just didn’t know when. In those days, even well-meaning bridegrooms could get delayed. The camel might go lame. Or a sudden rain might wash out a road entirely. Or enemy troops might take a whole swath of territory, making it impassable to you, so you had to go way around. [Click HERE for Spanish.]

So the virgins, not to mention all the other wedding guests, had to wait. But they didn’t mind, because the groom’s arrival would mean so much joy. The bridegroom was coming to consummate something wonderfully beautiful–to open a new chapter of life for the family, to give a new future to the bride. The wedding feast brought immense happiness to everyone, because it showed God’s faithfulness and power. A wedding meant that time itself is pregnant with a future, not sterile and dying.

And there’s more–more cause for joy at a wedding. We know that God Himself, having taken flesh, has become the devoted Bridegroom of the human race. The fathers of the Second Vatican Council listed the images of human salvation. Here’s the final image on the list:

The Church is the spotless spouse of the spotless lamb… Christ loved His Church and delivered Himself up for Her. He unites the Church to Himself by an unbreakable covenant, subjecting Her to Himself in love and fidelity. The life of the Church is hidden with Christ in God until we appear in glory with the Bridegroom.

So the wise virgins waited patiently for the tall, dark, and handsome gentleman. The bridegroom in the parable represents the divine Bridegroom, Jesus Himself. He is our champion and our beloved, our hero Who, by His humble obedience to the will of the Father, has conquered death and every evil. He will come again in glory, and He will judge all things, setting all things to rights. Then He will reign forever over a kingdom of unimaginable, peaceful, splendid blessedness.

He will come. We just don’t know when. The virgins in the parable had to wait longer than expected, because, as we read: “The bridegroom was long delayed.”

Long delayed. Maybe 2,000 years? People might think: If Christ really intended to return in glory, wouldn’t He have done it by now? He must have been a crazy lunatic, rather than the real Messiah! 2,000 years is too long to wait.

torahscrollBut we don’t know from ‘long,’ really. Two thousand years may seem long to us, but not to God. As St. Peter put it, “To the Lord a thousand years are like a passing day.” Our perspective on the enormity of time is patethically limited. Two little millennia? Compared to the Pleistocene Age? The Ice Age lasted over 2.5 million years. Christ could wait another 200,000 years, or 200,000,000 years to come back, and it wouldn’t make Him any more or less omniscient and omnipotent than He is.

The whole point of the parable is: it’s not our job to know when the Lord will come again; it’s our job to be ready when He does come.

Which brings us back to the wise virgins. They were ready when the bridegrooom came, as opposed to the foolish ones. The foolish virgins had foolishly run off to go shopping at midnight. But the wise virgins were waiting patiently, so they stood ready when the unexpected hour arrived.

What distinguished the wise virgins from the foolish? The wise ones had flasks of oil with them. So the $10,000 question is: What do these flasks of oil in the parable represent?

There were five flasks. Five wise virgins, five flasks. So maybe the flasks represent the books of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. Torah–which means… Law. Or teaching, guidance, fatherly instruction. Or: Divine Wisdom.

These virgins did not have wisdom in the worldly sense. They happily waited deep into the night, even though they had no idea when the bridegroom would arrive. Worldly virgins would long since have gone off to play field hockey, or watch Dancing with the Stars, or get their hair done. But the wise virgins of the parable chose to spend their long evening waiting patiently by the door.

They possessed a non-worldly kind of wisdom, a supernatural wisdom. They grasped the ultimate goal of history; they had a share in the mind of God Himself. They held fast in faith to the certainty that the bridegroom would come. They did not doubt. They never wavered in their eagerness to meet Him. They persevered in their attentive vigil, even deep into the darkness of night.

They had the wisdom of true Christian faith. While they waited, they could not see the feast that had been prepared for the wedding guests. But they held on to the promise of good things yet to come. The gift of divine wisdom gave them a little taste of the delights that await us in heaven. They awaited the surpassing glory of God being all in all.

The View from the Center

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Most Holy Lateran Church, of all the churches in the city and the world, the mother and head

Anyone visited the Lateran Basilica? In the great city of… Rome!

Rome offers a unique view of the Catholic world. First time I visited, I realized that, until then, I had seen the world off-center. The Catholic world, which extends to every continent, not to mention back in time for two millennia—that world has one geographical and historic center. Rome. The one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church has a single geographic and historic center point. And, praised be God, you can get a good cappuccino there.

From that center point, you see the world from a unique point-of-view. You hear all the languages and see all the skin colors involved in the one Church.

Most holy places in the world receive pilgrims from some far-flung places—like the Shrine in Washington receives pilgrims from all fifty states, or the shrine in Guadalupe, Mexico, receives pilgrims from all of Latin America. But Rome alone receives pilgrims from everywhere.

One man sits on the chair at the center of Rome; one man sits at the center of the center of the Church. Namely…

pope-francis_2541160kWe owe him a huge amount of respect, if for no other reason than that he has this far-more comprehensive view of the world. The pope’s unique point-of-view can become a terrible burden. It also can fill him with a unique love for the one Church. He alone sees from the point-of-view of the man at the center of the center.

Also, the pope’s unique point-of-view allows him to grasp just how small he himself really is, in the grand scheme of things. He can see just how much everything really depends on God and His Providence.

So let’s rejoice in the fact that really matters, when it comes to the unity of the Church. All of us Catholics agree on it. Pope Francis is the pope. He alone has the right to sit on the chair of Peter. He alone has that crushing duty. We agree on who the pope is. That itself is an amazing and wonderful thing.

Maybe I think Pope Francis is the worst pope since Vatican I. Or maybe I think he’s the best. Doesn’t really matter what I think on that subject. None of us can competently judge the job-performance of a pope anyway. That judgment exceeds our pay-grade. Let’s leave such judgments to God.

The great thing is simply that we all agree on who the pope is. May he preside in health and holiness, from the center of our one, beloved, ancient, and worldwide Church. Long may he live. We love our Holy Father.

Defenseless and Fearless in Church

martyrs of abitene
The martyrs of Abitine

 

Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind; blessed will you be because of their inability to repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. (Luke 14:13-14)

When Christians come together to worship God, everything transpires peacefully—almost always. But not absolutely every time.

The ancient Romans sometimes prohibited celebrating Mass, and martyrs lost their lives as a result. Forty-nine Christians were arrested and ultimately executed in Abitene, Tunisia, in AD 304, during the persecution of the Emperor Diocletian. When the proconsul asked them why they defied the law and had Mass anyway, one of them replied, “We cannot live without Sunday Mass.”

Where Christians come together and worship God, the doors stand open. Everyone is invited. The poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, the outcasts and weirdos, the creeps and hateful people, the atheists and the nihilists. When Christians come together and worship God, it’s not a club with a clear list of members and non-members. It’s a sprawling, teeming, open public place.

So we have accept this fact: We cannot defend ourselves against cruel and random acts of violence. We can’t do it any more than anyone else can, anyone who wants to have an open, public place where people can come together, like a shopping mall or a public park. If a church isn’t an open, public place where people can come together, then it isn’t a church.

But: We have a totally different point-of-view on our bodily safety anyway. We love life, to be sure; we Christians have no death wish. But the fear of death can’t scare us away from church.

To the contrary: the fear of death scares us into going to Church. Being a Christian means sobering up to this inconvenient fact: we’re all going to die sooner or later anyway. What really matters is what’s going to happen then.

And the Lord clearly said: When you welcome everyone, even the one who would shoot you for absolutely no good reason, then you will receive a reward. We Christians do not fear the Devin Kelleys of the world. May he, and everyone he killed, find God’s mercy.

We will keep our doors open. We cannot live without Holy Mass.

Friends with Saints

john paul ii mother teresa

Age can catch up with a guy. The good Lord gives us plenty of reminders. Like the gray hair. The sore back. The diminishing powers of memory.

But how about when you celebrate the feastdays of saints that you met in person–back when you were young? Like Pope St. John Paul II. Or St. Mother Teresa. The good Lord blessed me with the opportunity to meet both of them, back before I had gray hair, and those two saints still walked the earth.

Not everyone gets opportunities like that. Being a seminarian gives you some special chances. But all of us have the opportunity to get to know particular saints. We can visit the places they lived. Or we can read about them. Or, if they themselves wrote, we can read their own writings.

st_therese_of_lisieuxSt. Therese of Lisieux died in 1897–way before I was born. (I’m not that old.) But I feel like I know her well, because I have read her Story of a Soul. Everyone who has read that book feels personally close to St. Therese, because she wrote so honestly and humbly and clearly.

St. Junipero Serra died in California even way before St. Therese was born, way before any of our great-great-great-great-grandparents were born. But I feel like I know St. Junipero well, too, because I had the chance to visit the missions he founded, from San Diego to San Francisco. I walked where the saint walked, and I saw the land and the sky from the same point-of-view as he saw them. Also: I got to concelebrate his canonization Mass with Pope Francis.

My point here is: Getting to know a saint or two—getting to know them personally, so to speak, is something we can all do. And when we do that, we discover that the saints always had a saint or two that they knew personally, to whom they prayed every day. St. Junipero was friends with St. Francis, even though St. Francis died centuries before Junipero was born. St. Therese was friends with St. Theresa of Avila, even though St. Theresa died centuries before St. Therese was born. Part of becoming a saint is to have a saint or two among your best friends, the people you talk to the most.

Reading really helps in this area. I love to read, so I have made friends with a couple saints who wrote a lot, especially St. Thomas Aquinas. That’s just me; we all have our particular interests, which means we will have affinities for particular some saints, and not others. The important thing is for each of us to find an interesting saint.

Or, let the saint find me somehow. A lot of times we stumble across a favorite saint, just by visiting a new church, or looking into things like: Whose feast day is my birthday? Or my wedding anniversary? Or such-and-such other day that is significant in my life.

So let’s all find a saint or two for close friends, if we haven’t already.

Of course, we all have the Blessed Mother for a close friend, of course. All the saints have loved the Blessed Mother best. That’s the way it should be. That is, all the saints have loved her the best, except she herself. She simply loves others with everything she has.

 

Loving and Believing in God and Man

 

mezuzah mezuzot

Hear, O Israel. Thou shalt love God. And not just a little, but with an all-consuming passion. With your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength. [CLICK para español]

Now, commanding love seems strange. After all, can I really obey this command, just by my own choice? Doesn’t real love always involve a force beyond my control? Isn’t that the distinguishing characteristic of love? Namely, that it comes to me and changes me by its power. It consumes me. I don’t choose love or control love. Rather, I receive the force of love within, and follow its lead.

So someone could say, in response to God’s law of love: “Lord, You can command me to love you all you want. But I can’t do it by my own choice. You need to give me the gift of divine love first.”

Amen. He does. God commands by His law only what He makes possible by His grace. He is the immeasurably loveable Compassionate One. He has counted all the hairs on our heads. He loves us with more devotion than a mother loves the baby nursing at her breast.

He has opened His Heart up to us, by sending His only-begotten Son, Jesus. We know the love the invisible God has for us by the love that Christ showed us on the cross. And to know that love of God is to love God in return.

sacred-heart-crossSo: Yes, He commands us to love Him with all our hearts, but only because He has loved us with His whole Heart first, thereby moving us to respond with love.

And He commands that we love Him back not for His benefit, but for ours. The truth is that loving God above all things is the only way to have a life worth living. The only way to find meaning in this life is to love God. If we don’t love the triune God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength, we will wind up loving something else instead–something much less truly lovable, something beneath us.

But there’s more. Not just, “Love God with your whole heart, mind and strength.” But also: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” –Now, Lord Jesus. The man asked for the greatest commandment in the Law. He asked for one. But here come two.

Is this fair? Loving God totally is one thing. God is noble and glorious and true. But loving my neighbor, too? My neighbor annoys the living daylights out of me. And loving myself, also? That’s probably the hardest thing of all. The more experience we acquire in life, the more we tend to conclude: this human race of ours is not all it’s cracked-up to be.

But, let’s remember: God only commands what He makes possible by His grace. When I gaze upon the face of my neighbor, I may not experience love. I might actually think to myself: “Not sure I have the patience to deal with this character right now!” And when I gaze at myself in the mirror, I may not experience love. I may not be impressed at all. But that is not the point. That’s not what this commandment is about.

The real question is: When the Lord Jesus Christ gazed at people when He walked the earth, what moved His Heart? Unfathomable understanding, sympathy, and love. Christ saw with perfect clarity how good, how beautiful, how honest and lovable all the people He encountered could be.

He sees the same when He gazes upon us now. From heaven He sees us with eyes that penetrate to the inner heart of the good man or good woman we all got formed in our mothers’ wombs to become. He sees the path to heaven that stretches out in front of each of us. He sees it perfectly, in every detail—and He always sees it, no matter what nonsense and confusion we manage to get ourselves involved in.

John XXIII Vatican IIThere’s only one way to fulfill the double commandment of divine love which Christ laid down. Only one way. Namely, to let Him love through us.

I may have lost faith in the people around me. But Jesus Christ has not. I may have lost faith in the fundamental goodness of mankind. But Jesus Christ has not. I may have lost faith in myself. I may have lied to myself about myself so many times that I no longer really believe myself about anything. But Jesus has not lost faith in the honest man I could be.

Fifty-five years ago this month, Pope St. John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council. The pope made an act of sublime faith. Faith not just in the goodness of God, but in the fundamental goodness of the human race, too. Pope John believed that people could learn to trust each other, and lay aside our petty antagonisms, and work together for a more peaceful future.

The fifty-five years since October 1962 have seen plenty of continued antagonism. World peace has not exactly broken out.

But we Christians still hold fast to the vision of the good, holy pope who started Vatican II. We still believe in mankind. People thought Pope John was naïve to believe that mankind could become good. But believing in God—and believing in man—doesn’t make us naïve. Because Jesus Christ still reigns. And Christ still gazes upon us all with the kind of love that can make us good.