Basilicas of the Patron of Comedians

Titian Martyrdom of St. Lawrence
Titian’s Martyrdom of St. Lawrence

St. Lawrence died for the faith 1,758 years ago today.

Rome has at least two grand basilicas of St. Lawrence. But we have one, too—a basilica of St. Lawrence, here in the Appalachian mountains.

Why did they erect a basilica in honor of St. Lawrence in Asheville, North Carolina? Is it because Lawrence exercises a special patronage over brewers? But the basilica came before the craft-beer movement…

St. Lawrence loved the faith, and the Mass, and the poor. He went to his martyrdom so fearlessly that he made his famous joke, as they burned him alive: “Turn me over. I’m done on this side.” At that moment, he became the patron of both cooks and comedians. The Perseid meteor shower occurs on or around St. Lawrence’s feast day to remind us of the sparks from the fire that burned him into heaven.

Anyone visited the basilica in Asheville? It’s no St. Andrew’s—just like Asheville is no Roanoke. But you don’t visit a church with a soaring elliptical-dome roof every day. It’s like the peaceful and prayerful Oval Office of God.

Good St. Lawrence, pray for us.

75th Anniversary of a Holocaust Death

Exactly seventy-five years and two weeks ago, the Catholic bishops of the Netherlands issued a statement condemning the Nazis for deporting all Jews from the country.

Seventy-five years ago today, the Nazis killed a German Jewish philosopher in the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, as an act of retaliation against the bishops’statement.

St. Edith SteinNow, how’s that? Kill a German Jewish philosopher to retaliate against Dutch Catholic bishops? Well, this Jewish philosopher had become a Catholic nun. Edith Stein had become Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.

The sisters of her convent had escaped Germany, and made it to the Netherlands. But the Nazis caught up with them. And when the Dutch Catholic bishops had the gall to call the Nazis the vicious racists they were, the Nazis proceeded to arrest and deport all Jewish converts to Catholicism. As we know, the Nazis were efficient. They only needed two weeks to get their revenge, in the gas chamber.

Pope St. John Paul II declared that we must remember the Holocaust on St. Teresa Benedicta’s feast day. Nazi racism justified the systematic killing of millions of innocent people—racist killing carried out with scientific coldness. My departed grandfather participated, as an American G.I., in rescuing people from one of the concentration camps. What he saw horrified him so much, he could never talk about it.

But we must. We must acknowledge the fact that man can, and does, inflict such evil upon man—and for no good reasons other than his own profound spiritual delusions.

On the other hand, man can, and does, also love his fellow man. St. Teresa Benedicta died for love. “Come, let us go for our people,” she said to her sister, who had also become a nun, as they walked to the gas chamber.

Pope St. John Paul II put it like this, when he canonized St. Teresa Benedicta, “We must stand together for human dignity. There is only one human family.”

Exaggerated Reports of Death

Apparently the latest sociological findings hold that “religion” has entered into a death-spiral in the Western world. The studies show that religion will inevitably end. There’s a Ted talk about this.

I tried to watch it, but I couldn’t quite grasp what sociologists mean by “religion.” Our first reading at Holy Mass today prescribes the yearly routine of the religion of the Old Covenant. But that seems more precise and specific than what a sociologist means by “religion.” To be honest, I got so bored watching this Ted talk that I almost doused myself in frying-pan grease, just to ease the tedium.

Anyway, plenty of people in and around Ars thought that religion had entered a death-spiral in their town. When their new priest, Monsieur John Vianney, arrived, few people ever darkened the door of the town’s church. They considered themselves too modern for such things. Only old ladies went to Mass.

But, by the time the Curé died, 158 years ago today, the train company had to run a special line from Lyons, to accommodate the crowds who came to the little parish church in Ars to go to confession to the living saint.

st-john-vianney-confessionIn other words, reports of religion’s death in Ars had been greatly exaggerated.

Now, granted: nothing could be more boring than a sociologist’s idea of “religion.” Nothing could be less attractive. That is, I guess, except for sociology itself.

But, on the other hand: For St. John Vianney, and for Saints Peter, James, and John, and all the Apostles; for the martyrs and all the heroic pastors of the Christian centuries—for all of them, nothing—no one—could be more interesting than: Jesus Christ. And His Blessed Mother. And His heavenly Father. And His Holy Spirit at work in His Church.

You can have “religion.” “Religion,” as understood by sociologists, is a thin nothingburger that I wouldn’t feed to any animal.

But give us: Christ—studied religiously, obeyed religiously, loved religiously.

“Religion,” understood as a phenomenon that doesn’t depend on the truth of particular facts; “religion” that could be Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam, or Hinduism, or Buddhism, etc., etc.—chuck it. We don’t need it. We Catholics don’t like it any more than atheists do, or hippies, or Millennial “Nones.”

But give us the holiness of Jesus. Give us the fulfillment of all the prophets’ ancient promises. Give us the Body and Blood of the Lamb that takes away the sin of the world. Give us the joy and hope of the saints and the common bond that holds the great family of the Church together. Give us our holy Catholic religion, and we will gladly die for it, even if we and the pope were the last Catholics left on earth.

Back to the Future, Cluster Edition

DeLorean

Anyone ever see “Back to the Future?” Seems to me like I have presided at Sunday Mass as the brand-new pastor of the Rocky Mount-Martinsville cluster before. I guess I must have gotten into a DeLorean… [click HERE por espanish.]

But let’s listen to our Lord. Whoever loves his life will lose it. Whoever loves his life in Roanoke will lose it. Or his life in Beverly Hills, or gay Paris, or anywhere else on earth, for that matter; whoever loves a settled, complacent existence–he will lose it.

How about “Groundhog Day?” That movie resonated pretty deeply with real life, because things can get rather repetitive. Bill Murray got stuck on February 2. Seems like I have gotten stuck on July first: July 1, 2017, seems disturbingly like July 1, 2011.

But didn’t Jesus demand precisely this? As we know from St. Luke’s gospel, the Lord didn’t just say: “take up your cross.” He said: “Take up your cross daily.” Today, take it up. Tomorrow: repeat. Our day-to-day life, repetitive as it may appear, is exactly where we meet our opportunities to follow Christ.

john paul ii loggia be not afraidAt first Bill Murray found it cruelly, intolerably boring to be stuck on the same day. But, after a while, he learned how to live that one day well, He saw the same people, in the exact same situation as he had seen them before, over and over again. By repeating the process, he eventually learned that each encounter with another human being presented him an opportunity–an opportunity to be kind.

His character had lived a selfish, arrogant life. But, by virtue of repeating the same day over and over again, he grew into a soft-hearted, generous gentleman. So maybe there’s hope for me yet.

Have things changed since I last saw you, dear Rocky Mounters and Martinsvillians? This isn’t a movie after all; two years of real history have elapsed. Some of our parish family members have died. And we have new members, too: new arrivals from other places, and new babies sent by God.

God gives growth. When I left, the bushes around St. Francis, outside the front door of the church in Rocky Mount, did not rise so close to his head as they do now. And the pine saplings they planted along the Dick and Willie bike trail in Martinsville, while I was stationed here before: those trees now stand almost twenty feet tall. God gives growth.

Bill Murray caddyBut, for us, spiritual growth requires taking up a cross. Over these past two years, I don’t think it has gotten any easier to follow the Lord faithfully in this world. The world has not grown more hospitable for the Christian life. I don’t think any of us have turned on the tv, or checked our facebook, over the past two years and thought: Oh look! There’s less temptation to pride–and self-indulgence, and despair–there’s less evil in this world than there was before!

Don’t think so. So we need to stick together, now more than ever. We need each other. We, the mystical Body, who have been baptized into Christ’s death, so that we might live His newness of life. And, as St. Paul put it: Christ’s life is “for God.” “He lives for God.”

To live for God is our duty, our business, our common undertaking together. Bishop DiLorenzo has given me the honor of serving as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Joseph. When he first gave me that honor, six years ago, I wrote a little sonnet about it. I managed to dig the poem up.

How do I love the cluster?  Let me count
the ways, like Will Shakespeare of old would do.
The first:  a five-speed, four-wheel steed to mount
and burn the road between the parishes two.

The second?  These two fine towns to explore:
Both Piedmont villes, of character diverse.
In one, lake and farm folk both shop the stores.
The other is the NASCAR hero’s nurse.

Throughout the rolling counties, I descry
fertile fields for the sewing of the seed,
and a band of eager discipulae,
attentive to our Church’s every need.

O Lord, how great You are in every act!
May we, like You, great many souls attract.

…I am honored and humbled to serve. Thank you, dear old friends, for welcoming me back so kindly. As you may remember, we had the privilege of celebrating together both the beatification and the canonization of Pope St. John Paul II–in 2011 and 2014, respectively. I think everyone knows that he is my hero. He was born exactly fifty years and six weeks before me. And he was created a cardinal exactly fifty years ago this week.

In other words, at the same age: he became a cardinal, and I become pastor of Rocky Mount and Martinsville again. I don’t envy him; I think I have the better place.

Abram and Lot Part

Abram and Lot part mosaic Santa Maria Maggiore
Genesis 13 mosaic in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome

We read at Holy Mass today from Genesis, about how a separation occurred. Lot went one way, to the Jordan Plain. Then God made a prodigious promise to Abram.

Today, we, too, say farewell to each other, dear Roanoke–like Lot and Abram. The Lord has apportioned to me the fruitful plains to the south. Actually, they are hilly piedmont counties, on the far side of Cahas Mountain.

But the promise to Abraham holds good for all us sons and daughters of the Church, in whatever lush county the Lord gives us to inhabit. We will bear immeasurable fruit. The good that can come from even one single Christian walking the narrow way behind our Lord—that good trumps all the dust of the whole earth, if all that sand and soil could get measured in a scale.

…Now, some of us make it a habit of calling our Lady the “Mother of God” quite often. Like at least fifty-three times a day. We have St. Cyril of Alexandria to thank for keeping that phrase in use. He battled the heretics who tried to eliminate “Mother of God” from our Christian lexicon. St. Cyril died 1,573 years ago today.

Hail Mary,…

Aloysius Hidden in God

Your Father who sees in secret will repay you. (Matthew 6:6)

The big-time college basketball team named after him seems always to knock on the door of the Final Four. But they never win it all.

St. Aloysius GonzagaThat, however, cannot be blamed on St. Aloysius Gonzaga’s lack of holiness.

Because he gave a lot of alms. He gave his inheritance and his title of nobility to his younger brother. Then he gave his very life to the sick. Four hundred twenty-six years ago today, St. Aloysius died of a fever he contracted while working in a hospital.

The heavenly Father sees things that lay hidden to our eyes. The true treasure of life lays hidden.

St. Aloysius was an extraordinarily well-educated, cultured young man. He could have had many prosperous years as a prince of the realm. Having foregone all that, he could have had many profitable years as a Jesuit priest. Instead, God took him at age 23.

It makes no earthly sense, seems like a huge waste of talent and potential. But God sees things that we don’t see right now.

St. Aloysius died a few days after the Solemnity of Corpus Christi. He knew his death was coming with the great feast of the Holy Liturgy, so he kept repeating the line from the psalm, “We go rejoicing to the house of the Lord!”

The Father, Who sees what is secret, repays all our acts of generosity with the richest treasure of all, which is hidden now in the Host.

St. Peter and the Unforgivable Sin

When we read the gospels, we discover that the Lord Jesus declared one sin to be “unforgivable.” Blaspheming the Holy Spirit.* And if it doesn’t terrify us that the Divine Mercy Incarnate declared one sin unforgivable, it should.

st-peter-in-penitence-el-grecoLord, we beg You in Your mercy to deliver us from ever even facing such a temptation! Deliver us from such perilous danger! May we never even know what it means to blaspheme the Holy Spirit!

Now, we know that St. Peter did a pretty daggone rotten thing. At table with the Lord, He had declared, “I will die with You, Master, rather than deny You! See, I’m brave and consecrated to the truth, just like You!”

Then, when push came to shove, and the Jerusalemites recognized Peter’s rustic seaside accent, the fisherman said, “Oh, yes. Indeed, I am a Galilean. But I have no dealings with this fanatic rabbi, whom they now rightly condemn as a lawless miscreant. Please excuse me while I go about my business, which most certainly does not involve following this lunatic as one of his disciples!”

Wow.

Rotten. Weak. Cowardly. Small. Faithless. Heartless. What kind of friend is this? An ungrateful, wicked, self-deluding one.

But: None of this involved blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Not at all. Jesus spread out His arms on the cross and gave up His Spirit precisely so that we rotten, weak, cowardly, small, faithless, heartless, ungrateful, wicked, self-deluding sinners could be forgiven.

Christ never expected us to be good before He died to redeem us. We sinners need to behold the Lamb of God, crucified out of love for us, first. Then, we can find the strength to examine ourselves and face the truth.

St. Peter never came close to blaspheming the Spirit which Christ breathed into the world by redeeming us on the cross. When his Lord was crucified for him, faithless, weak, self-deluding Peter loved Christ more than ever before. Peter’s own confused and sinful heart broke with love for his Jesus, crucified for him.

No. The one who blasphemed the Holy Spirit wasn’t Peter. It was… Judas. And betraying Christ to the Sanhedrin did not itself involve blaspheming the Spirit. We know that the Lord Jesus would have forgiven Judas’ betrayal just as freely as He forgave Peter’s.

No, Judas blasphemed the Divine Mercy not by betraying Jesus, but by despairing. Judas blasphemed the Holy Spirit when he made his own evil the ultimate sovereignty of his little life. When he hardened his heart and closed himself off completely from the merciful gaze of the gracious Father.

Lord, we beg You: Pour out Your Spirit upon us, to soften our hearts and illuminate our souls, with the warm light that shines from the face of Christ crucified—Christ crucified for us.

_________

* Matthew 12:31, Mark 3:29, Luke 12:10

Childlike St. Philip

Philip & James

Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us. (John 14:8)

St. Philip said this to Lord Jesus on Holy Thursday night. I think we can see the ‘inner child’ in Philip here.

At some point, maybe a age four, or five, or six, seven, or eight, the child begins to grasp that life involves strife. To reach satisfaction, we must strive through sometimes-difficult adversities.

At eight or nine, I myself remember having young reflections like: “Okay, winning a basketball game can be really satisfying. But sometimes the opposing team actually has some tough players. So you have to fight. You have to play defense, and box out for rebounds, and get yourself good and tired, out-of-breath from running up and down the court, and you have to dive for loose balls, which hurts. But then you can win and feel good.”

Georgetown Marquette BasketballThe child begins to grasp this reality of striving to achieve satisfaction. Then that childlike trust–namely, that hard work earns a reward–becomes part of the inner make-up of an honest person. It becomes the foundation of our sense of justice. Let me do right, diligently—because doing right diligently merits a reward.

So here’s Philip, a diligent seeker after righteousness. An eager student of the great Nazarene rabbi. And we know all too well how demanding this rabbi’s doctrine is. Philip, with his inner-child driving his sense of justice, blurts out “Okay, Master, now for our reward!”

I think we can try to relate. Philip’s eager innocence here moves me, at least.

What about the Lord’s response? “Philip, how can you say ‘show us the Father?’ Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? …You will do greater works even then those which I do.”

Maybe the Lord tricks us into something by planting the child-like zeal for honest satisfaction within us. He tricks us into learning the secret that the greatest reward for being a Christian is being a Christian. The greatest reward for obeying Christ is sharing in the Christ-ness of Christ.

Winning basketball games certainly was fun. But the euphoria would fade. The just reward of those justified with the justice of Christ, however, does not fade. Because the just reward is Christ Himself.

Big Anniversaries Coming Up in a Few Short Years

Mount Rushmore

Beautiful sunny day here in Roanoke, so let’s consider some significant sunny-day anniversaries.

Today at Holy Mass we mark the anniversary of the death of St. Athanasius, the hero of the Council of Nicaea. The bishops met in Nicaea on sunny May and June days. And they gave us our Symbol of faith, our creed.

On another sunny day, the Fourth of July, we mark the anniversary of…

Thomas Jefferson and Co. did the signing and declaring in the summer of 1776. In the year 2026, we will mark a significant milestone in the history of our beloved country, the 250th anniversary of Independence Day. For a nation to endure so long, a quarter of a millennium—an inspiring thing to contemplate.

But let’s focus on an anniversary that will come a year earlier, one year before the USA’s 250th birthday. In 2025.

athanasius
St. Athanasius

When Thomas Jefferson and Co. declared independence in the summer of 1776, they did it on a Thursday. On the preceding Sunday, every Roman Catholic priest on earth had recited the Nicene Creed. And every Catholic priest recited it the following Sunday, along with all the faithful who were following along with the Mass. In the summer of 1,776, the Nicene Creed was already 1,451 years old.

In 2025, the Nicene Creed will turn 1700 years old.

And yet it’s still as fresh as the day when St. Athanasius helped to write it. Jesus Christ: God from God; light from light; true God from true God; begotten—not made; consubstantial with the Father.

In these words we find the hope of the world, the foundation for a real spiritual life, the truth about God Almighty, the key to understanding the four gospels, the center of Christian joy.

When we think about the legacy that our Founding Fathers gave us Americans, nearly a quarter-millennium ago, it humbles us.

But, may it please God that our Founding Fathers made it to heaven, when they contemplate what St. Athanasius and the Fathers of Nicaea gave the world almost 1700 years ago, it humbles them.

Human Means of Divine Communication

St Mark stained glass StA
St. Mark stained-glass window in the St. Andrew’s sanctuary, Roanoke

Today we keep the feast of my heavenly patron, who died 1,949 years ago today.

First reading at Holy Mass comes from the first letter of… St. Peter. He wrote the letter to… “The chosen sojourners of the diaspora” in Asia Minor (now Turkey.) He wrote to them from… “Babylon.” Literally, Babylon? No. In the New Testament, “Babylon” = Rome.

At the end of his letter, St. Peter sent the greetings of his “son”… Mark!

St. Peter, father; St. Mark, son. Not by conjugal generation, but by spiritual relationship. St. Peter accompanied the Lord Jesus through His saving pilgrimage on earth. St. Mark accompanied St. Peter during his time in Rome.

st-peters-sunriseAlso at Mass today, we read the end of St. Mark’s gospel. Lord Jesus entrusted His mission to His Apostles, and He ascended into heaven. A transition took place: Christ passed-over to a realm that we cannot now see. But His work on earth continues apace, through the ministry of those who believe in Him.

Some years later, another transition occurred: the Apostles who had seen and heard Jesus came to the end of their earthly lives. Someone needed to write down their accounts of Christ’s words and deeds. St. Mark wrote down St. Peter’s memories.

We love the New Testament, and the entire Bible. Not because it’s some kind of “magic book.” Reading the Bible gives us communion with God through the perfectly normal means of human communication.

The incarnate divine Son walked the earth, did things, taught stuff, accomplished His mission. People who loved Him saw and heard it. And people who loved those eye-witnesses took the trouble to write it all down for us.

Not magic. But wonderfully real; wonderfully human, and wonderfully divine, all at the same time.

Praise you, Lord, for communicating with us in this way! And thank you, dear St. Mark, for doing your part. May we have the grace to do our part, too.