Starting Fresh from Christ

He reigns in heaven. He sends out missionaries of divine love. Missionaries of His triumph over evil, ignorance, and death. Consecrated Christians who greet every person and every moment with the open Heart of Jesus Christ.

This is “the Church.” The Lord built His Church on a rock—that is, St. Peter, missionary apostle of Jesus’ divine love. St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, in all its splendor, sits on top of the little bones of a relatively short man who took no money and no second tunic.

El Greco St Peter keysThe year 2019 rumbles along. When will we get any good Church news? Seems like the wheels just spin and spin, stuck in a mud patch.

But there is Good News. Christ still trains and sends missionaries of divine love. That still is what the Church essentially is.

Yes, our Church finds Herself in a massive land war against multiple formidable enemies, with colonels who can’t read a compass. We can’t be naïve about “the brass.” We can’t fantasize that they know how to organize the war effort. They clearly don’t.

But we can still gladly die on the battlefield, so to speak. As missionaries of the divine love of Jesus Christ.

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At the Lincoln Memorial

Martin Luther King I Have a Dream

Lord Jesus gave the homily in his hometown church. At first they loved and praised Him. But then He brought up some painful facts. [Spanish]

‘Our prophet Elijah did not save one of our widows from starvation. He saved a pagan widow–a Gentile foreigner. And our prophet Elisha did not cure the leprosy of one of our Jewish generals. He cured a Syrian who didn’t even want to wash himself in our Jordan River. He thought of it as a muddy creek. But our Elisha healed him in those very waters anyway.’

So the Nazarenes got mad at their countryman for pointing out that God loves the Gentiles as much as the Jews. As you will likely get mad at me, before I’m done here.

Most of the world now knows that there’s a Catholic boys school in Covington, Kentucky. At least everyone with a smartphone knows it. And everyone knows that a group of Covington-Catholic boys traveled by bus to Washington, D.C., to march for life. To stand up for the innocent and defenseless unborn children—the most vulnerable class of people in contemporary America.

After the March ended, the boys visited the Lincoln Memorial. In hindsight, they now think to themselves—and all those who know and love them think—they should have stayed inside the Memorial, quietly reading and meditating on the Gettysburg Address. It’s chiseled into the marble wall.

MAGA hat.pngInstead, the boys stayed outside. And mixed it up with some strange characters.

A dishonest person made a cellphone video, and accused the boys. ‘They surrounded a Native-American man beating a peace drum! Then mocked him and threatened him! An aggressive racist mob!’

Once the video hit the internet, another aggressive mob took over. The social-media mob. A bandwagon of moral indignation. ‘These boys should be expelled from school! They make us Catholic pro-lifers look bad! They stand for everything racist and unjust in this country!’

I myself first saw the “viral” video late that Saturday evening, when I “checked my Twitter.” I did not at first notice the “Make America Great Again” caps that some of the boys wore. I just saw high-school kids making more noise than they should, as high-school kids often do. And a Native-American man beating a drum endlessly for no immediately apparent reason. And a staring contest that made no sense.

I watched the video with my own particular interest, because I know that spot very well, as I imagine many of us do. One of my college jobs involved giving tours of the National Mall. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have A Dream” speech right where the famous video was shot. The east staircase of the Lincoln Memorial, at the western end of the Reflecting Pool. A uniquely beautiful place, a place for quiet reflection—not for beating drums, or school chants, or staring contests.

But, like I said, when I watched the video, I didn’t notice the MAGA hats at first, because I’m not a particularly observant person. But a lot of people did notice the hats. That’s why they jumped to unreasonable conclusions. As they checked their Twitters and facebooks that Saturday, they saw the caps, and they immediately suspected the boys of harboring ill will towards non-whites.

lincolnNot fair. Not fair to judge the morals of a high-school boy, based solely on his cap. In the ensuing days, the truth emerged, about what happened between the boys and the Native-American with his drum. The boys had not mobbed anyone. The original viral video had a context. Other cellphone videos, recorded at the scene, revealed the full sequence of events. Then some people in the original social-media mob faced up to the truth and admitted their serious mistake. They looked in the mirror and realized that they had done to the boys what they had accused the boys of doing. Forming a cruel mob.

But, we’re not done here yet, fellow Israelites. We cannot simply say: Vindication for the good, pro-life boys; episode over. No.

The political life of our president began years ago. That is, it began when he claimed that our previous president, the first non-white President of the United States, actually came from Africa, not the USA.

Then Donald Trump began his campaign for president with a particular premise: Namely, that Mexicans steal, rape, and murder.

The social-media mob saw MAGA hats and over-reacted. Over-reacted big time. But: Had someone given them cause to over-react? Had someone given the MAGA hat a particular meaning? Namely: This country is primarily for white people. Yes, someone did give the hat that meaning. Donald J. Trump gave the hat that meaning.

Ok. The whole business at the Lincoln Memorial upset a lot of people. And I probably upset you, by even bringing it up. Do what’s the antidote?

Guess what? Ain’t hard. The antidote is: Going to Mass.

Some people think the internet is pure evil. Some people think it’s where we can finally find true democracy. One thing is for sure: Everything on the internet gets put in perspective when we come to Mass.

Yes, we can learn beautiful things that we never knew, over the internet. And we can join cruel, irrational mobs from our own couches, over the internet.

But the fundamental social network—it’s not on the internet. It’s at the holy altar of Jesus Christ. Where people actually know each other, and give each other the benefit of the doubt, and recognize each other not as “legals” and “illegals” but as: fellow sinners in need of God’s loving mercy.

I have probably said something that makes you mad. But I’m just trying to do my job as a priest–whose main job is: to say Mass. Holy Mass is the opposite of a viral video causing a “Twitter storm.” At the altar of Jesus Christ, dear reader, we can actually find peace with each other.

Seeds and Bubbles and Lists

The farmer sows the seeds. Then he proceeds to continue living in his own little bubble of life—eating, drinking, sleeping, laboring appropriately. Over time his plants grow. The farmer doesn’t know how.

We all live in our own little bubbles of life. What makes the farmer in the parable pious and fruitful? He knows he lives in his own little bubble. He knows that, outside the limits of his puny perceptions, God does great things.

alanis-morissette-27121At mid-day every day he pauses and declares: ‘Here are the crops God gives me, growing in the soil He gave me, thanks to the sun and the rain He has given me. All according to His design, and by His power! Praise Him! Now: time for lunch.’

The trend among American bishops these days is: Release a list of all the priests accused of sexual abuse in my diocese. In the ‘American bishop bubble’ this amounts to major drama these days. ‘Look! Openness! We’re actually willing to discuss these things! See!’

Meanwhile, outside the highly insulated bishop bubble, the rest of us are like: ‘Okay. Fine. Good for you. Do your thing. Let’s hope it’s all fair and true. Let’s hope it does more good than harm.’

Sexual predators try to create an impenetrable bubble, to swallow up the victim. Alanis Morissette completely nailed it in her song “Hands Clean.”

If it weren’t for your maturity, none of this would have happened. If you weren’t so wise beyond your years, I would have been able to control myself… This could get messy… Don’t go telling everybody. Overlook this supposed crime.

There’s more. It’s agony to listen to. Because it is so real.

Jesus Christ came and died to liberate us from such bubbles of enslavement and degradation. He came to free us, and unite us again with the indomitably life-giving mystery of God.

Christ’s grace comes from heaven to pop the noxious bubbles and get us out into some clean air. We still live in our bubbles of highly limited perception. It takes a lifetime to get free of them completely. But at least, with the grace of Christ, we can live like the steady farmer. We can see that God has plans of love and growth for us, even though we don’t always understand those plans.

The Opaque “Transparency” of the Richmond Diocese

cartoonvillainLet’s use our imaginations. A couple of fairy tale characters.

One: A hard-hearted scheming bishop. He hates some of his priests. He wants to see them suffer. So he includes their names in a published list of sex abusers.

Two: A princely, zealous, loving bishop. He longs for the faithful people of his diocese to live in open, pure chastity. Free of sexual abuse.

The princely bishop carefully studies all the clergy files, to determine if any contain information that would help the public. When he finds something against a priest, he gives the accused the chance to answer.

Then he publishes a list. It helps people heal. And it puts fear into the hearts of potential predators.

Trick is: How to tell these two characters apart, in real life? In a fairy tale, the one would wear a black cape and twiddle his fingers together maniacally. The other would look like Tom Brady in a Roman collar.

But we don’t have the luxury of type-casting. Here in the real world, we must seek evidence, in order to distinguish villain from prince.

The bishop of our beloved Diocese of Richmond summoned us priests to a mandatory meeting. Last week, his Vicar-General wrote us:

“Bishop Knestout will provide pastoral resources to assist in responding to questions and concerns relating to the release of a list of the names of priests who have served in our diocese and have a credible and substantiated accusation of sexual abuse of a minor.”

His Excellency himself did not attend the meeting today. Too busy.* He provided us with the “resources” via certain members of his staff.

Tom Brady

If you’re like me, dear reader, you would arrive at such a meeting with questions, like:

When will the diocese publish the list?

What information will it include? Just names? Summaries of specific cases? Will any additional documents accompany the publication of the list? Legal proceedings, etc?

Why did His Excellency decide to publish this list? And why now?

Guess what? Nope. No answers to any of these!

Okay. So the prince won’t tell us: when, what, or why. How about: Who or how?

Who exactly is working on the compilation of this list? The Vicar for Priests? No.

Who then? Some skilled people.

Will the diocese’s list include only those clergymen tried and convicted in a court of law (or admittedly guilty)? Or will it include any priest accused by anyone ever? Or is there some clear criterion in between, which will settle the question of what names appear?

Answer:

Does “sexual abuse of a minor” include “grooming” activities?

Answer:

Will the diocese’s list correspond to the list already available at bishop-accountability.org?

Answer:

Have we asked victims whether they want to see this list published?

Answer:

Actually: Some victims say that publishing lists can help heal souls. Others say that it’s just a publicity stunt that only makes the victims feel worse. Do we have any evidence to go on, to try to settle that dispute?

Answer:

Mark Herring

…Dear reader, you may remember that our Virginia State Attorney General recently opened an investigation into the dioceses of Virginia. And he published a hotline for victims to call.

Has that hotline received calls? A lot of calls? Involving new cases or old ones?

Has the diocese even asked the Attorney General about that?

Answers from the diocese at today’s mandatory priests’ meeting:

[crickets]

…Now, the fact is: good people have already worked hard to give the public a great deal of information about sexual abuses that have occurred in our diocese. The bishop-accountability list I mentioned above has links to newspaper articles. And you can go to the “tapatalk” of the Survivors’ Network, and search the names on the bishop-accountability list. Lots of information.

But information is only as good as the trustworthiness of the person who provides it. Who can we trust? Do we have a supreme judge in our diocese whom we can trust to do the right thing? About criminal violations of the Sixth Commandment?

Forgive me for slipping into cynicism. But the entire exercise of today’s mandatory meeting, and the imminent release of the list–it all seems to me like a smokescreen, intended to divert attention from something else.

Sacred Heart cathedral Richmond.jpg

Our bishop came to us a year ago. In our cathedral, he sang the praises of his mentor, the prelate who had ordained him to the episcopacy. Donald Card. Wuerl.

Turns out: That mentor has participated in the on-going cover-up of Theodore McCarrick’s sexual abuse of seminarians. Turns out that Donald Wuerl lies. Shamelessly. He lied to one of Theodore McCarrick’s victims two weeks ago.

We Catholics desperately want to trust our shepherds. We want to trust that they know what they do. And do it honestly.

But today’s mandatory meeting? I would sin against honesty if I did not report this: It consisted of morale-sapping groupthink propaganda. I left the meeting as dispirited and angry as I have ever been in my life.

This is “transparent?” If so, what does opaque look like?

—–

* Bishop’s brother died today. May he rest in peace.

What a Fool Believes He Sees

[An essay at theatlantic.com inspired me to give the old blog a new name–the first line of Shakespeare’s Henry V. A Muse of fire can destroy a Death Star.]
Homily on the Parable of the Sower

The eternal Word proceeds eternally from the Father. He pours out the eternal Spirit. And He gives us created reality as we know it, in all its glory.

Or, should I say: He gives us reality as we strive to know it. The work of our lifetime: to attune our wayward and ignorant minds to reality as it actually is, as God gives it to us.

To hear the Word and accept it—that requires constant effort. It requires our daily readiness to admit that we, for the most part, live in our own little dream-worlds, miles away from God and each other.

doobie brothers 1979

What a fool believes he sees no wise man has the power to reason away.

(Doobie Brothers, 1979)

How? How can we find the courage to reason away all our own foolishness? So we can welcome God’s gift, as it comes? Without getting in His way? Without shutting the little door that cuts off our ‘personal space’ from the great, lovable world outside, full of people whom God gave me to love?

How about if we try to grasp the most-fundamental reality of all, first.

On the cross, the eternal Word spoke His entire truth. “You are My people!”

Let’s answer: “You are our God!”

Vertical and Horizontal

christ-synagogue1Let’s try to put the three readings for Holy Mass this Sunday together, into two sentences.

From all eternity, God Almighty ordained a holy law, to fill His creatures with true blessings. Jesus came to bring that law of divine love to fulfillment, by gathering us all into His Body.

The Body of Christ. His flesh, given for us, offered to the heavenly Father on the cross. A human body, Jesus’, comprised of different parts—feet, hands, ears, eyes, nose—all forming a unity. Now, He reigns on high, risen from the dead. And He abides with us in the Church, uniting us intimately with Himself, through the sacraments.

By heavenly grace, we make up a part of Christ’s Body. Each of us—distinct, individual members of one, living body. Doing something together. That is, forming Christ’s Church, here and now, in the winter of 2019.

Why? How?

Well, everyone has his or her own reasons for showing up at Mass. But I think we can say this much. All the members of Christ’s Body have at least one thing in common. God. We frequent the church building because of God.

God is… God. He deserves worship and praise. He deserves prayerful attention from us. He deserves our obedience. He has a sovereign will. By that eternal will, all things have come to be. He governs all His creatures. He decrees our good, our blessing, our abundant life.

Our business: To co-operate. To do the good that God wills. And to avoid evil, which we know displeases Him.

So:

1. God is God, from all eternity unto all eternity. Eternally willing goodness, life, fruition, blessedness.

2. We’re not God. We dwell on the earth. We are God’s creatures. He summoned us out of nothingness by His power. To give Him glory, by forming His Body.

We cannot see Him; we cannot understand Him. We struggle even to find the words to begin to speak to Him and about Him.

In between the two ends of this vast expanse—the impenetrable, exalted heaven of God on the one end; us here, walking around our little corner of the lowly earth, on the other—in between these two ends stands one man.

He stood up in the synagogue and read from the book of the prophet Isaiah. He fulfilled the prophecies. That is: The prophecies that slavery and blindness would end. That time would not just march on meaninglessly, but would reach a goal. He stands at the point that unites us with our Creator. He unites God and mankind in Himself. The Christ.

From all eternity, God ordained a holy law, to fill His creatures with true blessings. Jesus came to bring that law of love to fulfillment, by gathering us into His Body.

torahscrollSt. Francis of Asissi parish, St. Joseph parish–every Catholic parish: a “religious organization.” Our parishes are “religious organizations.” No doubt. Like I said earlier: What brings us together under one roof? God. God does. We come to church to practice religion.

But the phrase “religious organization” doesn’t quite do justice to the reality. It doesn’t quite capture the Body of Christ that we are. God, the Almighty and unknowable, has fulfilled His eternal law in Christ, the humble and the knowable.

He, like us, had the custom of frequenting the local church building on the Lord’s day. He, like us, read and meditated on the Scriptures. He, like us, participated in the ancient liturgy.

In other words, the Christ exercised religion. In order to bring religion to its fulfillment. Union with Christ means not just imitating Jesus’ scrupulous submission to God; it also means sharing in His perfect fulfillment of God’s love. He loved His Father in heaven. And He loved every human being, enough to die on the cross for each of us and all of us.

We need each other to form the Body He made us to be. At the same time, each of us needs to seek God and His ineffable heaven. We must do that individually, in order to be for each other what we must be for each other. We love each other best by loving God first.

It all sounds demanding. Because it is. But we can’t go wrong if we keep the eyes of our minds fixed on the one man, the God-man, Jesus Christ.

Dose of Reality for February Vatican Meeting

tu-es-petrus-st-peters-dome

We Catholics generally want to believe that our hierarchy possesses the skills necessary to respond to crises. We want to think that the meetings they have, and the documents they produce, will “move things forward.” We foot-soldiers for the kingdom of God want to find something that justifies optimism about the institution.

But we must recognize these emotions for what they are: Pointless and distracting fantasies.

In a month, the leaders of the bishops’ conferences of the world will meet in Rome. A kind of mini-three-day ‘Vatican III.’

Why? Ostensibly to address the sex-abuse crisis.

Reason #1 Why We Can Hope for Nothing Good

The Vatican itself remains hopelessly mired in at least one major sex-abuse cover-up. To be sure, other corners of the globe may know of others. In our little mid-Atlantic corner, we know of this big one:

Theodore McCarrick sexually abused seminarians during the 1980’s. At least two of his victims notified neighboring bishops, during the 90’s and early 2000’s. The Vatican knew of the accusations.

McCarrick sofa

The two currently living popes, multiple living Cardinals, former and current heads of Roman dicasteries–all have participated, and continue to participate, in the cover-up of Theodore McCarrick’s sexual abuse of seminarians.

None of the churchmen who know the truth about this have reckoned with it at all, except anonymously. (The one exception, of course: Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò.)

The facts are indisputable; none of the churchmen involved in the cover-up have ever disputed them. But no one has acknowledged anything. That’s what you call an on-going sex-abuse cover-up. Involving the former and current popes.

To be sure, the McCarrick case is not the only one that fits into this category. It just happens to be the one that your humble servant knows and understands well enough to write about.

Reason #2

The very villain of this on-going cover-up, Theodore McCarrick, personally presided over the USCCB Cover-up of 2002. Which the organizers of next month’s Vatican meeting have the self-serving audacity to envision as a kind of model.

The idea peddled by meeting-organizer Blase Cardinal Cupich is this:

The Church in the USA accomplished a “breakthrough” in child protection with the Dallas Charter of 2002. Let’s break that down…

i. Education in chastity and in recognizing potential abusers

(I’m going to have to write a book on this. But, for now, let’s say:) We know that sexual abuse is sexual abuse because we know what chastity is. When you don’t know what chastity is, sexual abuse seems like just another form of interpersonal relations.

Because Christ is chaste, and because He gives the gift of true happiness in chastity to the beloved children of His heavenly Father, we can recognize sexual abuse for the heinous crime that it is.

Teaching this pertains to the perpetual duty of Christ’s Church. Experienced counselors can help in this educational effort. To some extent, lay experts have helped to supply the grave deficiencies in education of this kind, which bishops and clergy have failed to offer. And continue to fail to offer. The Dallas Charter has, to some extent, facilitated this education.

ii. Preventing convicted felons from working or volunteering in Catholic institutions

The Dallas-Charter rules about fingerprinting and background checks probably have prevented some potential predators from gaining access to our young people. Praise God for that.

iii. The idea that our young people are “safer” now, thanks to our bishops and what they did in 2002

No honest professional who has interacted with sex-abuse survivors would ever claim to know this. We cannot honestly maintain that we have had fewer instances of sexual abuse during the past sixteen years than we had before.

Minors rarely report sexual abuse. It takes many years even to begin to find the courage. We won’t know whether the Dallas Charter has led to a reduction in sex-abuse cases until 2045.

Cardinal Cupich and the reigning church mafia loudly insist that Dallas 2002 made children safer. Guess what? That self-serving insistence itself deters victims from coming forward. It’s the same episcopal reaction as before, just under a new guise.

Keep your mouth shut, because what you have to say makes us look bad.

That’s what sex-abuse victims got from bishops in the 1980’s, in the 1990’s, in the 2000’s, in the 2010’s, and now.

2002 was a cover-up of the real scandal. The real scandal was, and is: Our bishops did not have, and do not have, the kind of moral compass that any normal Catholic parent has.

Cardinal Cupich writes:

“Here in the Archdiocese of Chicago, we report all allegations of sexual abuse of minors to civil authorities, offer support to all who make allegations through our Victim Assistance Ministry, remove archdiocesan clergy from ministry permanently if an allegation of abuse of minors is substantiated and publicize the names of those with substantiated allegations against them.”

What’s missing? The fundamental duty of the bishop: To reckon fully with the truth and see to it that malefactors receive an appropriate punishment. The Cardinal’s litany of swell accomplishments misses the most-important one of all: Finding, and clearly declaring, the truth.

The Attorney General of Illinois pointed out recently that the Dallas-Charter norms do not have adequate clarity and specificity. Over and over again, knowledgeable investigators have pointed out that bishops must formulate clearly–in concrete cases–the precise violations of chastity that have occurred. That’s how justice gets done.

But, of course, that involves hearing a victim’s entire story yourself, rather than shuttling the victim off to some “Victims’ Assistance Ministry” who likely will not even answer the phone.

So, speaking of justice being done:

Apparently the pope and bishops gathered in Rome next month will celebrate a “penitential liturgy.”

st-peters-confessio

With the Holy See itself still implicated in the McCarrick Cover-up, not to mention other similar cover-ups, the liturgical expression of penance at St. Peter’s will ring hollow. The sound of the pope’s and bishops’ crocodile tears will bounce off the inside of Michelangelo’s dome.

If they really want to move God to pity, all the prelates of this mini-sex-abuse Vatican III should kneel at St. Peter’s tomb and cry out as follows:

Lord, we have failed you and your people! Forgive us for presuming to shepherd and govern, when we obviously do not know how!

We will stop talking about policies. We will stop engaging in endless paper-pushing exercises, aimed only at repeating moral truths that are obvious to every mature human being who has ever lived.

Instead, we will make a thorough account of all our own scandalous failures as shepherds. Then we will establish a procedure for choosing our successors by lot.

By this random-selection process, please choose better men than ourselves to take our places, Lord!

Once the lots are chosen, we will ordain our successors as necessary, and then we ourselves will retire to live in quite prayer and penance until Judgment Day.

St. Paul and Vatican II

Caravaggio Conversion on the Way to Damascus Paul

Lord Jesus died, rose again, ascended into heaven bodily, and reigns over all things, at the right hand of the Father.

The original Apostles witnessed some of these events, from the point-of-view of Planet Earth. St. John saw Jesus die. They all saw Him after He rose. They watched Him ascend into the clouds.

The Apostles proceeded to testify orally and in writing. All except John suffered execution, rather than deny what they had seen, and what they believed about the One they had seen. Namely: that He is the Christ of God, the incarnate eternal Word, Who has made Himself the new Adam of the redeemed human race.

St. Paul did not witness the things that the original Apostles witnessed. But he did encounter some of those Apostles personally, as well as other original Christians.

At first Paul not only did not believe them, he despised them. He counted them blasphemers, criminal enemies of true religion.

But then, on this holy day, He, too, encountered Jesus. The Lord spoke to Paul from heaven. Why do you persecute Me? Why do you kick against the pricks? You love God and desire only to serve God. I, Jesus, am God—the true God of love and mercy, in Whom your father Abraham believed.

St. Paul had the faith and courage to embrace Jesus with every fiber of his being.

One thing that makes Christianity so believable is this: The New Testament depicts the human countenances of some absolutely believable people. Jesus Himself. His mother. St. Peter. St. John. And St. Paul.

John XXIII Vatican IIProbably St. Paul more than any other. After all, he wrote half the New Testament. Plus, almost half of St. Luke’s second book is about Paul.

Many passages of St. Paul’s letters pose extreme challenges to the reader. He had a mind of encyclopedic complexity, and he lived a pilgrim life ten times more adventuresome than Indiana Jones.

A lot of Paul’s writing requires careful study in order to understand–precisely because it is all so absolutely real. The whole thing is geographically coherent, religiously consistent–full of human love, human impatience, webs of relationships, and fatherliness.

Speaking of which: sixty years ago today, the new pope, John XXIII, visited the tomb of the Apostle Paul. The pope gave a little speech. He declared that he would soon summon all the world’s bishops to the Vatican, for an ecumenical council.

I think I may be one of the last of a dying breed: an incorrigibly conservative priest who loves Vatican II. Who loves it more, not less, with each passing year.

Conversion. Pope St. John XXIII had enough faith in Christ, and enough courage, to imagine that the indefectible Church could convert—in those aspects of Her life that can, and have, gone wrong. The pope believed that the true Church of Jesus—Who is the same yesterday, today, and forever—could adapt Herself better to what the Lord asks of Her now. Which differs somewhat from what He asked of Her yesterday.

St. Paul trusted totally and completely in Christ—enough to change. We can, too.

Why We Don’t Like Pharisees

Head of a Pharisee by Leonardo da Vinci
da Vinci “Head of a Pharisee”

We don’t like Pharisees. We don’t want to be Pharisees. But what exactly was a Pharisee?

A purist. Separated from the world for the sake of purity.

The ancient practice of temple Judaism had grown worldly. The prophets had long decried how pilgrims and priests just went through the motions. And the “Jewish” monarchy hardly maintained even the pretense of religion.

The Pharisees sought purity of heart and soul, in the home and in small communities. By scrupulous observance of devotional practices. They read the Scriptures assiduously, with faith and reverence. They cared about people’s souls. They despised idolatry and corruption.

So what’s not to like? Why do we dislike the Pharisees? How about three reasons.

1. They sought devotional integrity, instead of empty temple ritual. But in doing so, they fell into the same trap that they tried so zealously to escape.

At the Temple, no one really undergoes a conversion of heart! they thought. Christ replied: Guess what, Pharisees? You go through the motions with your pieties also. Without real conversion of heart.

2. This trap of empty external-ity turned the Pharisees into outrageous hypocrites. Their ‘system’ failed to take one very important thing into account: the unfathomable depth of mankind’s inveterate moral weakness.

Now, people called Jesus ‘rabbi.’ He practiced devotional prayer and worship, like the Pharisees did. He frequented the synagogue, like they did. Christ interacted with many Pharisees.

I’m not calling Jesus a Pharisee. But there are certain walks-and-talks-like-a-duck similarities.

Except: The Pharisees responded to the reality of human sin and weakness by a. judging it in others, and b. pretending it didn’t exist in themselves.

Meanwhile, the Lord Jesus responded to the reality of human sin and weakness by…

Grunewald the Small Crucifixion

3. The Pharisees’ hypocrisy made them mean. When your religion insists on something impossible, it becomes an instrument of human oppression; it leads to false judgments.

The Pharisees insisted on scrupulous observance of their practices, all based on the Torah. By this means, you could become perfect. Or so the system claimed.

But it didn’t work. Still doesn’t.

We need mercy from above. We need grace from God–grace that we didn’t, and can’t, ‘earn.’ We need to humble ourselves and face the truth about our miserable sinfulness.

That’s the only path to perfection. And it’s the only way to avoid judging others in a pharisaical manner.

Melchisedek and St. Agnes

saint agnes fuori la mura
Sant’Agnese fuori le mura, Roma

At Holy Mass today, we read that Jesus, the Son of God, ministered as a priest. Not as a priest of the Old Covenant with Abraham and Moses, but a priest of the order of Melchisedek.

Any idea what that means? Melchisedek ruled Jerusalem in the most-ancient times. Our father Abraham won a battle, and Melchisedek blessed him afterwards. Melchisedek offered a sacrifice of bread and wine, and Abraham offered a tenth of his goods, which is where we get the idea of tithing. (Genesis 14:18-20)

King David sang as a prophet in Psalm 110. He called the eternal Son of God “a priest forever in the manner of Melchisedek.”

We Christians mention Melchisedek at the altar, whenever we use the Roman Canon at Mass, Eucharistic Prayer #1.

We use that prayer today (at St. Joseph, in Martinsville, Virginia), because we also mention St. Agnes in that prayer. She went to her martyr’s death today.

At age twelve or thirteen. Younger than the now world-famous-for-a-short-time Covington-Catholic students. (St. Agnes, pray for them, and for all of us!)*

In ancient Rome at the dawn of the fourth century AD, the persecution of emperor Diocletian tried to force Christians to burn incense to the pagan gods. Especially lovely, young, eligible bachelorettes, like Agnes.

But she refused. She made the sign of the cross instead. She had consecrated her virginity to Christ. She would not marry the suitor who courted her.

They took her to a brothel. The one man craven enough to try anything with her? He got struck by lightning and blinded. St. Agnes kindly healed his blindness.

So they beheaded her.

Her name sounds like one of the titles of Christ, in Latin. “Agnes.” “Agnus.” Lamb. The Lamb of God.

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*My prize for the best, most-appropriate reaction to the initial video of the Lincoln-Memorial incident, from a dear parishioner who watched it with me on a smarrphone after Mass yesterday: “What’s up with the staring contest?”