Some Good-Shepherd Equations


Yesterday we kept Good Shepherd Sunday. Today, Good Shepherd Monday.

Our divine and human Shepherd said, As the Father knows Me, and I know the Father, so I know My sheep, and My sheep know Me. (John 10:14-15)

Jesus Christ knows us as the Father knows Him. How sublimely, then, does He know us!

Almighty God knows Himself and loves Himself. God’s knowing Himself = His eternal Word. Nothing has greater unity, greater communion, greater friendship, than God has, with Himself. That eternal, triune communion involves the Father and the Son knowing and loving each other, infinitely and perfectly.

In other words, the Father’s knowledge = the Son = the Truth. Pontius Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” We Christians answer: “You’re looking right at Him!” To live in Christ = to live in the truth.

We need His shepherding. Because the struggle of our pilgrim lives = to let the Truth purify our own wayward and darkened minds.

The Son, in His human mind, beholds the full and intimate truth, God. He beholds the divine simplicity that unifies everything. The Christ shares that insight, that wisdom, that pure and rapturous contemplation with us. We, the stumbling pilgrim sheep, DO know the Shepherd. Not by sight, but by hearing. We hear and recognize His divine and human voice. And we believe His words.

To believe the words of Jesus Christ: that is how we fulfill the meaning of our lives. And it is also how we achieve genuine unity, genuine communion. The Apostles couldn’t believe it at first. God has granted life-giving repentance not just to us Jews who believe in Christ, but to the non-Jews who believe, too! (Acts 11:18)

The Shepherd in Whom we believe can and does unite us all, in the truth.

Getting Ready to Dunk on Dennis Rodman, Spiritually

Michael Jordan Gary Payton
Jordan and Payton

In our first reading at Mass on Sunday, we hear St. Peter announce to the people of Jerusalem: God has made both Lord and Christ this Jesus whom you crucified. [Spanish. Or watch on youtube.]

In other words: “You have sinned. But it brought about your redemption.” Or another way to put it: Oh oh, sinner. Why don’t you answer? Somebody’s knocking at your door. Continue reading “Getting Ready to Dunk on Dennis Rodman, Spiritually”

Universal Mission, Grassroots Apostolate

El Greco St Peter keys

God has granted life-giving repentance to the Gentiles, too. (Acts 11:18)

That message penetrated the minds of the first Christians during the lifetime of the original Apostles. The Messiah had come not just for the kosher-keeping Jews, but for everyone.

Apparently, St. Peter had as hard a head about this as he did about everything. A voice from heaven declared, regarding non-kosher foods: “Get up, Peter. Slaughter, and eat.” “Certainly not, sir. Nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” “What God has made clean, you are not to call profane.”

You would think that a voice from heaven making this point once would suffice. But, as we read, in St. Peter’s case, it required three repetitions. Just like how he denied Christ three times, and then professed his love for Christ three times, after Jesus rose from the dead.

Anyway: We have a universal mission. God has revealed His love in Christ, and the message is meant for everyone. Every Christian must serve the apostolate, and our apostolate must, by God’s grace, reach everyone.

What do we have to do? Stay close to Christ through the sacraments, prayer, and the Scriptures. Love God and our neighbors. Hold the faith with clear consciences. Communicate the Gospel as best we can.

We can do these things, peacefully, until we die. God has a long-term plan for the future of His Church, which we don’t need to know. We just need to serve the grassroots apostolate of Christian love right here and now.

St. Paul, Admitted Malefactor and Heavenly Authority

Caravaggio Conversion on the Way to Damascus Paul

Saul, meanwhile, was trying to destroy the Church. Acts 8:3.

Who wrote this–the human author? Did St. Paul want St. Luke to write this?

Well, we can safely presume that St. Luke wrote the whole book of Acts in consultation with St. Paul. After all, St. Luke narrates significant stretches of his account of St. Paul’s work using the pronoun “we.” St. Luke traveled with St. Paul from Asia Minor to Greece, from Greece to Jerusalem four years later, and from the Holy Land to Rome two years after that.

We can rest assured that St. Paul gladly approved of St. Luke reporting for all the world how the younger Saul originally tried to destroy the Church. St. Paul referred to the same fact in his own letters. To the Galatian Christians, Paul wrote: “You have heard of my former way of life, how I persecuted the Church.” To the Corinthian Christians, he wrote: “I am not worthy to be called an apostle, since I persecuted the Church.” To the Philippians: “With zeal I persecuted the Church.”

Now, yes, the younger Saul had acted out of ignorance of the truth of Christianity. But he knew that didn’t exonerate him of the malice he had shown. Paul admitted openly, without fear, that he had sinned grievously. He had received mercy from Christ. Paul responded to that mercy with pure honesty and love.

St. Paul went on to co-found the Holy and Apostolic Church of Rome. Throughout the ages, popes have invoked the authority not just of St. Peter, but of St. Paul as well. Even though Paul had done such great evil. The truth had come out, God had shown mercy, and no one has ever doubted the heavenly authority of St. Paul of Tarsus. His sins do not taint his authority—because he freely admitted everything, holding nothing back.

(And of course we could say all of that about St. Peter, also.)

mccarrick and wilton gregory

Would that we found ourselves now in such a situation, when it comes to our pope and bishops! But let’s look at what happened in Washington, D.C., Newark, N.J., and Rome, over the course of the past year.

In all three of these churches, the successors of the apostles had participated in a massive cover-up of sex-abuse crimes by Theodore McCarrick. Last June a little of the truth came out, from another source. Despite the pope and bishops’ multiple-decade effort to keep it all hidden.

Did the cover-uppers come clean then? To the contrary, they tried to put a lid on it. Then a little more of the truth came out. They tried another lid. Then even-more-damning facts came out. Yet another ploy to keep a lid on it. By the beginning of October, all three of the incumbents had promised “full reports.”

But that empty promise was: just another lid they tried to put on the steaming mess.

Where are those accountings, those reports, those acknowledgements? Where are the fearless admissions that can restore trust?

(They are nowhere, my friends. They don’t exist. Last month, the New Yorker magazine published an interview with the original source of the original McCarrick revelation, Ms. Camille Biros. She revealed that there are as many as seven sex-abuse cases against McCarrick pending in the Archdiocese of New York.)

See, here’s our problem. Paul admitted the worst of all the things he had done. The worst part of the truth was out there, freely acknowledged.

But when a guilty party won’t even openly admit the facts that we already know, we can only assume that the reason is: There’s worse. What we know about the McCarrick cover-up is bad. But there’s actually much worse that we don’t know. That’s the only reasonable conclusion.

St. Paul, repentant enemy of the Church and protector of the Holy See of Rome, pray for us!

Three Points on a Fresh Start

El Greco St Peter keys

In our first reading at Sunday Mass, from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear part of one of St. Peter’s early sermons. He explained to the people of Jerusalem the true meaning of what they had done. When they clamored in a cruel frenzy for Jesus of Nazareth’s death, they fulfilled the prophecies about the Messiah–namely that He would suffer and die. Then Christ triumphed over death. So now the sinners who wrongly condemned him have the chance to repent of the evil they did. And make a fresh start. [Spanish]

In the Sunday reading from St. Luke’s gospel, we hear the Lord Jesus ordering this mission of reconciliation. Begin here in Jerusalem, where they crucified Me. Then go to the whole world, and declare: “God will forgive your sins. Repent. Choose life. Start fresh.”

God’s mercy extends beyond any limits we can imagine. He went, in the flesh, to the city full of fickle, self-centered numbskulls. He gently offered Himself there as a lamb led to slaughter. A perfectly innocent man, Who had never spoken an untrue word or done an unloving act–the perfectly innocent man offered Himself quietly. He submitted to death at the hands of desperately ignorant, cruel, maladjusted buffoons. Precisely because He loved them. He wanted only for them to have the chance to see the evil of their ways, and repent, beg mercy, and start fresh.

I have managed to get a few years under my belt now hearing confessions. And it seems to me that a fresh start is the key idea, the decisive aspect of the business. Three brief points on this.

1. No one can give him- or herself a fresh start, all by him- or herself. The fresh start has to come from God, because God alone possesses the resources to give me a fresh start, anytime and every time. I need to give myself a break, of course, and start over with myself. But without some heavenly help to do that, I can’t manage it. After all, I don’t have the skills to fix everything that I have broken.

jerusalem-sunriseGod, on the other hand, never has a day when He’s too tired, or sick of it all, or discouraged. The passing of time, and my repeated falls and weaknesses, do not deplete the Lord’s storehouse of newness. He has an infinite number of new beginnings available to deploy at any time, and He can easily fix things that to me look irreparably broken.

2. We gain access to this divine fountainhead of youthful re-invigoration by wanting to change. The men who yelled, “Crucify Him!” and the soldiers and officials who closed their eyes to Christ’s innocence: at some point they realized, through the working of their consciences, that they had participated in something truly wrong, terribly wrong. They didn’t want to live in such a dark place anymore. They didn’t want to be the men who callously crucified the Christ. So they welcomed the preaching of St. Peter, with weeping, and with hope for a better day. They knew they had done wrong, and they did not want to do wrong again.

3. I think all of this helps us to resolve a perennial Easter-season mystery. Why did the Lord Jesus appear only to a chosen group after He rose from the dead, and then vanish into heaven–without appearing openly to everyone? He could have made his victory crystal-clear and indisputable, removing all doubt. Why didn’t He?

Well, why did He become man in the first place? To astound people, as if to compete with George Lucas or Pixar Studios for the most wow-able visual moments? To prove how awesome He is–to make everyone believe? Did He come to cultivate His popularity, or get elected president, or improve His standing in opinion polls? Did He come seeking money, or comfort, or a Maserati, or a beachfront condo?

Hardly. Christ came to reconcile sinners with the Father. To reconcile foolish, malicious, selfish, lazy, weak, nasty, moody, grouchy, unrealistic, proud, deluded, egomaniacal, obtuse, snarky, judgmental, petty, gossiping, klutzy moral nincompoops. To reconcile us wiith our good, unendingly patient Creator. The only-begotten Son of God came; He died; He rose: for the forgiveness of sins. For a new beginning.

God needed nothing. He became man to give us a fresh start. That fresh start is right there, in our grasp. All it takes is: a searching, painfully honest encounter with the unvarnished truth–the truth that we and the Jerusalemites who killed Christ are in the same boat.

Right there, on our knees, weeping over the horrid things we have done–there we find Jesus, risen from the dead. And He says: Forget it. We’re starting fresh.

The παρρησία of the Apostles and Us

El Greco Pentecost

Parrhesia. Childlike boldness in praying to our heavenly Father. And fearless boldness in bearing witness to Christ before men.

Christian boldness springs from our conviction that God has spoken His Word of love in Christ. And we—obtuse and klutzy as we are—serve that Almighty Word.

Gamaliel the Wise counseled the Sanhedrin during the first Easter season: Leave these ‘apostles’ alone. If they act out of real obedience to God, then nothing will stop them anyway. If not, then their misplaced fervor will die out on its own.

So the Sanhedrin had the Apostles flogged and released, instead of jailing them pending execution. And St. Peter and Co. rejoiced—for having the opportunity to share in the sufferings of the crucified Word of God.

This parrhesia—our bold conviction that the Gospel of Christ is altogether true; that the man who fed the five thousand with five loaves and two fish is the Anointed One—this “parrhesia” is one of our Holy Father Pope Francis’ favorite things.

Pope has used the word parrhesia over and over again in his teachings. And he has dedicated an entire section to the word parrhesia in his new exhortation to holiness. Let me quote the Holy Father:

Holiness is also parrhesía: it is boldness, an impulse to evangelize and to leave a mark in this world. To allow us to do this, Jesus himself comes and tells us once more, serenely yet firmly: “Do not be afraid.” …Parrhesía describes the freedom of a life open to God and to others…

Look at Jesus. His deep compassion reached out to others. It did not make him hesitant, timid or self-conscious, as often happens with us. Quite the opposite…

Parrhesía is a seal of the Spirit; it testifies to the authenticity of our preaching. It is a joyful assurance that leads us to glory in the Gospel we proclaim. It is an unshakeable trust in the faithful Witness who gives us the certainty that nothing can separate us from the love of God.

God is eternal newness. He impels us constantly to set out anew, to pass beyond what is familiar… He takes us to where humanity is most wounded, where men and women, beneath the appearance of a shallow conformity, continue to seek an answer to the question of life’s meaning. God is not afraid! He is fearless! (Gaudete et Exsultate 129-135)

Then the pope quotes himself, from the speech he gave as a Cardinal, right before the conclave elected him pope.

We know that Jesus knocks at the door of our hearts. We read that in Scripture. But maybe He wants to go out “to escape from our stale self-centeredness.”

Some people find the pope controversial. A lot of people don’t. Regardless of whether we find him controversial or not, we have to hear what he is saying here. We have to let the Vicar of Christ remind us about this fundamental aspect of Christianity: Every human being searches for the meaning of life. And we cannot live in the truth ourselves if we do not take the risks necessary to form relationships with other human beings searching for the meaning of life like we are.

Especially the ones we do not want to form relationships with, because they do not presume the same things that we do. Relating to them is hard. It requires the very hard work of sincere communication. Which we can’t do without working hard at understanding ourselves. Which will ultimately lead us to the point where we have to acknowledge: we are fundamentally just as weak and clueless as any confused child.

But God loves us anyway. That is the Gospel!

Getting Religious about Christianity in Antioch, Syria



If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father. (John 14:28)

The Acts of the Apostles shimmers with ancient place names. Lystra, Derbe, Perga, Attalia, Pamphylia. And the two Antiochs—one in Pisidia, now Turkey, and the other in… Syria.

Antioch, Syria, is where the disciples were first called… Christians. St. Peter governed the Church universal from Antioch for a time, before he sailed for… Rome.

I think we might be able to go so far as to say this: Antioch, Syria, is where Christians first got used to rejoicing that the Jesus we love has gone to the Father. Got used to the idea that Christianity is a mystery of faith. That Jesus gives us His peace through our religion, in the sacred liturgy.

We got used to the idea that we pass through this world as pilgrims. Yes, the Christians of Antioch were officially citizens of the Roman Empire, or they were members of other peoples whom the Romans had subjugated. Officially, that is, according to the Roman census.

But we Christians learned in that first generation that our true citizenship is somewhere else, in heaven. And we learned that what we do in this passing world, in this pilgrim life, fundamentally is: Wait. We wait.

We love God; we love our neighbor; we celebrate the mysteries of Jesus, with Whom we achieve great intimacy by faith. And we wait for Him to come again from the Father. Or we wait for our pilgrim lives to run their course. Whichever comes first.

Yes, we try to keep ourselves occupied doing good things in the meantime. We Christians here love Roanoke as much as the first Christians in Antioch loved their hometown, too. We pray for peace and prosperity and justice for all, even here in this earthly city.

But this is not our home. Our home is with Jesus, Who is with the Father. We rejoice that He is with the Father—and that He wills that we wind up there, too.

St. Peter, Fisherman and Priest

fishing1St. Peter figures prominently in both readings at Holy Mass today.

In the gospel reading, he announces, “I’m going fishing.” And his confreres reply, “We’ll go with you.”

Now, we might think of going fishing as a cheerful, relaxing occasion. A quiet day, away from the hustle and bustle. No Honey Do lists. Just the calming sound of water.

But St. Peter and the Apostles didn’t go fishing on the Sea of Galilee for a getaway. It meant something else to them. It meant: “Well, I guess our mission as apostles has come to an end. Let’s go back to our old way of life, and try to pick up where we left off, before we met our Teacher, Whom they crucified.” The Apostles’ fishing trip in John 21 didn’t mean relaxation; it meant disappointment, disillusionment, confusion, maybe even despair.

St. Peter’s speech in our reading today from the Acts of the Apostles took place about fifty days later. And we hear St. Peter fearlessly preaching the Gospel in Jerusalem, having reclaimed his role as the heroic Prince of the Apostles.

bloody and unbloody sacrifice crucifixion massA startling change.

In the course of those fifty days, Peter and the other Apostles not only had seen the Lord risen from the dead. They also had heard His further teaching, enabling them to grasp the meaning of His Passion and death. We know that the Lord Jesus had to rise from the dead—for many, many reasons. But one reason why He had to rise was: simply to explain to the Apostles what His crucifixion and death had really meant. He had suffered no catastrophic defeat; His mission had not ended in failure. To the contrary, on the cross, He had triumphed. Omnipotent and eternal love had triumphed.

Now, we might wonder: What part of the Lord’s words at the Last Supper had the Apostles not understood? We might wonder that. But we have the benefit of hindsight, and our own years of participating in the Mass. The Mass that Christ gave to His Church on Holy Thursday offers the key to understanding His death on Good Friday. Jesus did not suffer a tragedy. He offered a sacrifice. The sacrifice by which God united Himself with all our suffering, and our own deaths, and has reconciled the world to Himself through the establishment of the new and eternal covenant.

So: What changed between St. Peter’s dejected fishing expedition in Galilee and his heroic preaching in Jerusalem? He came to understand the Mass that Christ had given him to celebrate. On Holy Thursday, Jesus had made the Apostles priests of His mystery. But it took them until Pentecost to understand that His crucifixion and death was not just a slaughter, but was in fact a mystery, the mystery of His life-giving Body and Blood, of which He had made them priests.

And when we understand this, we become true apostles, too.

What Do You Mean, We? A Quiz and Two Lessons in Honor of St. Paul’s Conversion

Who wrote the Acts of the Apostles? St. Luke.

What is the book about? The beginnings of the Church. The beginnings of the mission entrusted by Christ to us human beings who humbly put our faith in Him.

For whom did St. Luke originally write the book? For Christians who spoke Greek, which means both Gentile and Jewish converts. At that time, Greek was the language that the world had most in common.

Saint Luke
St Luke

Who are the two most significant heroes of the Acts of the Apostles—other than the Holy Spirit, of course? Saints Peter and Paul.

How many times do we read about St. Paul’s conversion to Christ in the Acts of the Apostles? Three times. St. Luke narrates the event once, in chapter 9. Then St. Luke recounts St. Paul telling the story of his conversion twice. Once before to the Jews in Jerusalem, and once before the Roman procurator, on the Mediterranean coast.

The details remain the same in all three accounts. Lord Jesus spoke from heaven to the zealous Pharisee, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”

But when St. Paul told the story to his final audience, which included non-Jews, he added something. When the Lord spoke from heaven, He asked Saul about persecuting Him, and He also employed a common Greek expression to try to help St. Paul come to his senses: Saul, why do you kick against the pricks?

A yoked ox must learn to submit to the farmer. A prick, or goad, will stir an idle ox to action. But at first the ox doesn’t understand that the goad means, “Move!” So the ox kicks when pricked, instead of stepping forward. The kick just makes matters worse and exacerbates the pain. The ox has to learn that the prick means, “Step forward, dummy!”

Let’s take a lesson from Lord Jesus saying this to the young Paul. A farmer driving an ox knows more about what’s good for the ox than the ox does. Likewise, God knows more about what’s good for us than we do, left to our own devices. We prosper when we submit to God and obey Him.

Second, let’s take a lesson from St. Luke writing the Acts of the Apostles the way he did. Submission to God involves participating in the living, breathing institution that Jesus founded when He was on earth.

One thing St. Paul never thought was, “My relationship with God is my own independent, personal business.” He knew that he needed to belong to the People of God. The question was, “Who is the we? Who are we, the People of God?”

The answer he got: the one, visible Church founded by Jesus, presided over by St. Peter and his successors in office. An institution full of foibles, to be sure. But united nonetheless by the divine Gift, the Holy Spirit of Christ.