Breathing and Weeping

NCAA Basketball: Kansas at Georgetown

“From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force.” (Matthew 11:12)

If we find this sentence, uttered by the Prince of Peace, hard to understand, we won’t be the first. Thankfully, we have people like Blessed Pope Paul VI to explain this verse to us. In our humble parish cluster, we read the following paragraph together this past Sunday afternoon:

The Kingdom of God and our eternal salvation, which are the key words of Jesus Christ’s evangelization, are available to every human being as grace and mercy, and yet at the same time each individual must gain them by force–they belong to the violent, says the Lord, through toil and suffering, through a life lived according to the Gospel, through abnegation and the cross, through the spirit of the beatitudes. But above all each individual gains them through a total interior renewal which the Gospel calls metanoia; it is a radical conversion, a profound change of mind and heart. (Evangelii Nuntiandi 10)

Interior change brought about by struggling and striving against our profound tendencies toward evil.

My beloved Georgetown Hoyas took the court last night wearing warm-up shirts emblazoned with the phrase “I Can’t Breathe.” If I were coach JTIII, I would have told them, “Once you can hit 50% from the floor on a consistent basis, then you can make political statements…”

But I am not the coach. And center Josh Smith put it like this: “We weren’t saying the cops were wrong…We wore the shirts to show our condolences to the family. You don’t know who is right or wrong, but they still lost somebody, and they won’t get that person back.”

Now, in my book, there are probably better ways to express one’s condolences. But the pain is real. There are families who have lost someone in a fast-moving, violent scene, involving police firing their weapons.

mlk-jailTwenty years ago, I was sitting in a restaurant on 18th St., N.W., Washington, D.C., and a squad of police officers entered with guns drawn. It was genuinely insane. In their pursuit of two punks hiding in the bathroom, the police risked the lives of a roomful of innocent people. Thank God, no one was hurt.

That said: Is this country racist like it was fifty years ago? More than half of the police officers involved in the episode I just mentioned were black. In those days, I was a middle-school teacher with a classroom full of black boys. And the joke among them, after the trial of the decade, was: What did O.J. say after the not-guilty verdict was read? “Can I get my glove back?”

A large group of Catholic theologians have released a statement about the ‘racial unrest’ our country has experienced these past few weeks. I give these professors credit for getting organized and giving us something thoughtful and substantial to consider. Especially the proposal that, since local prosecutors and police can and should work so closely together on a day-to-day basis to keep the peace, someone other than the local prosecutor should instruct grand juries when charges arise against police officers.

These theologians have pledged to abstain from meat on Fridays as a sign of penance for the sin of racism.

Their statement, however, opens itself up to charges of ivory-tower foolishness by…

1. invoking Dr. King’s letter from a Birmingham jail in an anachronistic way.

2. citing the Greensboro, N.C., “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” as a precedent for a similar nationwide effort. I know some Greensborians, both black and white. I think I can say that the work of that Commission, such as it was, only confirmed the ancient axiom: “Exercises in conspicuous self-righteousness rarely accomplish anything.”

But exercises in friendship and kindness accomplish a great deal. Exercises in sharing the experiences of another human being.

The great evangelist St. Paul wept with those who wept. Laying down in the street to cause traffic jams seems stupid to me. But to weep with those who grieve a dead brother, or nephew, or son—and to hope and pray like Dr. King did, looking to Jesus to help us find a better day: we should do that.

A Wake-Up Call

came from Mother Nature. I have suffered a serious attack of 6’4″-and-Don’t-Know-When-to-Say-When Disease. Back pain so severe that I have spent three days shuffling around like a maimed daddy longlegs–after some boys plucked a couple legs off, in a sick frenzy of animal experimentation.

I hope to fight on for the Lord tomorrow. But please be patient with me. I have suffered this kind of Easter-octave debilitation before and have returned with all my vim and vigor restored. But I am not getting any younger. After all, Francis is my fifth pope. A lot of people have lived and died without so many popes.

I am going to have to slow down a little. Giving two beautiful parishes the illusion that each has its own pastor, when, in fact, there’s only one forty-something nerdnik behind the curtain–a man couldn’t have a better pastime. But the wizard, after saying, “Pay no attention!” relented. Please let it be noted: Father Mark loves Francis of Assisi and St. Joseph. Not going anywhere. Mass schedule will not change. Just needs to slow down a little and let the blossoms bloom by their own power. And if I was short or impatient with you during Lent 2013, please forgive me.

mlk birmingham jail cell

…Speaking of Easter-octave activity: We just had the 45th anniversary of his assassination, and this year we mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Easter confinement in the Birmingham City Jail.

He wrote a letter there, responding to a statement by local clergymen which asked the Civil Rights movement to slow down. That letter had been signed by a Catholic bishop. King fraternally disagreed with his brother clergymen.

You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may want to ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

mlk-jailNow, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.

To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality…

Segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and awful. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong…. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law…I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother.

This year the vice-president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference will visit Birmingham and the very jail cell in which Dr. King languished (now preserved in the Civil Rights Institute). I had the privilege of visiting it myself in February.

One of the great ironies of the past fifty years: As we have seen, Dr. King’s argument in his letter turns on his appeal to the natural law, the fundamental principle of justice which gives authority to any man-made law (and which denies authority to any man-made law which contradicts justice).

Our Pope Emeritus Benedict repeatedly pointed out to different law-making bodies of the Western world that their authority drifts aimlessly these days, having been severed from it source: God and His laws. (How will the poor justices of the Supreme Court possibly resolve all the problems laid before them last week without referring to God and His laws? How could anyone understand the original principle of deference to state authority in the area of regulating marriage without the presupposition that God’s fundamental laws have to guide state regulations?)

Anyway, Dr. King championed the cause of justice because he believed in God and His unalterable laws. May we do likewise.

St. Paul will Guide Us through the Week

Gerald Henderson smoked us.
Gerald Henderson smoked us.
Please bear with me.

There are few things more painful to your preacher than watching Duke beat Georgetown. I would rather be beaten up by deranged Mormon missionaries.

For about ten minutes during the first half, it looked like Georgetown could actually win the game. Then things fell apart.

Monroe got in foul trouble, including a mysterious technical foul. Gerald Henderson scored three points every time he touched the ball. Summers played a great game but could not make his free throws. And poor Jessie Sapp was joined by Chris Wright on some planet in another solar system where no one ever scores any points.

Anyway, enough bellyaching. God is good, no matter what happens. Here is today’s homily…

penn-aveBrothers and sisters, we have an eventful week ahead of us. On Tuesday, our 44th President will be inaugurated. Before, that—tomorrow—we will observe the 80th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King lived and died to vindicate the human rights of the weak and oppressed. That is why we keep a national holiday in honor of his birth.

Our eventful week will continue on Thursday with the March for Life. We will march for the same cause that Dr. King fought for—the rights of the weakest and most defenseless people.

But there is more. Next Sunday, we will keep one of the main feasts of the Year of St. Paul. January 25 is the feast of the Apostle’s conversion to Christ.

Continue reading “St. Paul will Guide Us through the Week”