Praise and Blame

Contemporary pop-psychology emphasizes the importance of “positive reinforcement” or praise. All of us long for the approval of our peers. By the same token, no one wants to take criticism.

The word “moral” has practically been banished from the English language. But our everyday, pop-psychology-filled lives involve constant moral evaluations. To praise or “affirm” someone almost always requires some kind of moral judgment; likewise criticism.

In fact, it seems to me as though we live in an age of moral judgments as severe as any in recorded history. Pretty much any political speech these days involves condemning someone—or even a whole group of people—as fundamentally bad. The Salem witch trials dripped with circumspection, compared with Fox News vs. MSNBC and CNN.

In other words, giving other people the benefit of the doubt seems to be a dying art. Thinking of other people first and foremost as brothers and sisters, and then secondarily as someone with whom I may have a serious disagreement—we don’t see too much of that on t.v.

What’s the answer? I think the answer lies in one of the neglected aspects of the Gospel message, the aspect to which St. Paul refers in today’s reading from I Corinthians.

Christ will judge. Christ alone knows the whole truth. He will judge with perfect fairness. In the end, at His second coming, true goodness will be praised, will be affirmed, with an unimaginably delightful reward, the smile of God Himself. And all that is genuinely evil will be condemned and thenceforth stricken from the kingdom forevermore.

It is good for us to praise those who do well. And love can also move us to condemn severely actions that an honest person would judge to be evil.

But in the grand scheme of things, the job of judge has not been given to us. We need not fear: justice will be done by the Man Who has that job.

In the meantime, the job we really have now is to do our best to give everyone else the benefit of the doubt–and worry about repenting of my own sins.

Where is Time Headed?

In explaining his international preaching enterprise, St. Paul takes one interesting fact for granted. In his famous sentence,

Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified,

St. Paul takes this for granted, namely that the preacher will always have an audience, no matter where he goes. The preacher will have an audience among all the different peoples of the world, because everyone everywhere wants to learn something; we want to hear the answer to some mysterious question or questions.

Now, we could spend all day discussing what it is exactly that this eager audience longs to hear. I hardly propose myself as competent to give an exhaustive answer. But let me suggest one thing. It is the mystery which lies, in my opinion, at the heart of today’s parable of the Ten Virgins.

What do we want to know, that a preacher can tell us? One thing, it seems to me is this: Where is time heading?
We observe that times moves forward. For instance, I observe that I am now 42 years old. It seems like the last time I checked, I was like 12. Time moves on; it waits for no man.

But, on the one hand, time appears to move in a circle, like NASCAR racers around a track. Noon recurs. Friday recurs. August 31 recurs. We have been here before.

But, actually, we haven’t. As of August 31, 2011, the Mexican Olympic soccer team had never won a gold medal. As of August 31, 2010, Steven Strasburg had never had Tommy-John surgery.

This is not just one big loop. We are headed somewhere. Where?

St. Paul, where are we headed? Church of Christ, where are we headed?

To Christ. The power of God and the wisdom of God. The firstborn of the many brethren who have fallen asleep. Who will come in glory to judge. Whose kingdom will have no end.

Keepin’ it Apostolic

The Son of God came to the earth and fulfilled the promises made to Israel. He gave the gifts of the New Covenant to His chosen representatives. He established the new and everlasting Israel—with twelve patriarchs. He gave to these leaders the sacred inheritance, and directed them to share it with the world.

In other words, in the vast and complicated world at the time of Tiberius Caesar—a world full of countless tribes, languages, nations, philosophies, temples, governments, recreational activities, hairstyles, and musical genres—in this enormous world, twelve men held the eternal fire of God’s truth and grace in their humble hands.

We call these twelve the…Apostles.

Every generation of Christians experiences the desire for authenticity of faith. We want Christianity that is “Biblical,” “Scriptural,” “orthodox.” “original.” The best term would be “apostolic.” We want the faith and the spiritual life of the Apostles.

Okay: what transpired? Over the course of two millennia? The world kept turning, with its stunning diversity of changing attitudes and hairstyles. Everything that stood on the earth in the year of Peter and Paul’s martyrdom—everything that stood then fell away and got changed to something else. Nothing under the sun remained the same, except…the faith and discipline of the Apostolic See of Rome. Through the course of 2,000 years, the successors of St. Peter have preserved what the Apostles received from Christ. Through untold twists and turns of political history, through countless “regime changes,” the See of Peter has endured, preserving the revelation about the true love, the loving truth, of Almighty God.

Church and state. Religious freedom. The rights with which the Creator has endowed man. The dignity and inviolability of man’s conscience, of woman’s conscience…

The gift we have received through the 2,000-year miracle of the Roman Church: this gift puts us in communion with the all-powerful Creator of the world. This gift fills us with heavenly grace. This gift gives us hope for eternal life in heaven.

One thing we can therefore say without hesitation, without the slightest doubt: No human authority ever has the right to interfere with our reception of this gift.

We concede to our government all its legitimate powers. Running a country is no picnic. Maintaining law and order? Not easy. What could pose a more difficult challenge than guiding society towards the common good?

We pray for the President, Congress, the courts, governors, legislators, police, fire, rescue—everybody involved in serving the body politic.

But, please, public officials; please do not tell us that following the teaching of the Pope is illegal. Don’t impose fines on Catholic hospitals for following Catholic teaching. Don’t make Catholic charities close down–just because we say that two men can’t marry each other. Please.

Everyone has the right to hear the teaching of the Apostles, to believe in it, and to follow it. No power on earth has the right to make it illegal to stay in communion with the Apostolic See.

St. Paul’s Faithfulness

Like a spiritual father and a good friend, St. Paul wrote to Timothy. Let’s consider for a moment three ways in which the great Apostle kept faith.

1. St. Paul kept faith with his ancestors, the children of Abraham, the nation of Israel. Paul was a rabbi, a zealous adherent of Moses’ law. He undertook his mission as an Apostle of Christ not to depart from his Jewish heritage, but to keep faith with it. Christ had fulfilled the Law and the promises that the prophets received. St. Paul perceived this, and he served Abraham, Moses, and the nation of Israel—by serving Christ.

2. St. Paul kept faith with Christ’s promise of eternal life. Paul never encountered a single event without understanding it by the light of faith. Everything happened to prepare for eternity.

Am I achieving success in organizing a church here in this town? It is for the salvation of souls and the kingdom of God. Am I sick, hungry, and alone because they threw me out of this other town? Then my sufferings serve the cause of building up Christ’s mystical Body. Am I imprisoned in Rome? Then there is a soul in this prison with me that I am meant to touch with the Good News.

Everything by the light of faith—faith in the promises of Christ: The final day will come. The dead will rise. God is the God of the living, not the dead.

3. And St. Paul kept faith with his friends. The New Testament testifies to many wonderful things. But one thing it most certainly testifies to is this: It is the written record of some of the most beautiful, most loving, most intimate and pure friendships that the world has ever seen or ever could see.

Christ taught the human race how to be a friend. St. Paul put the lesson into immediate practice. He prayed for; he lived for; he spent all his intellect and strength for; and then he died for his friends.

Let’s pray that some of St. Paul’s enormous faithfulness will rub off on us.

PS. Don’t forget that quick click on the handy Compendia tab offers you instant access to an extensive collection of Holy-Year-of-St.-Paul material!

St. Paul’s Perspective and Ours

When St. Paul spoke in Athens, he referred to the one, true God, Whom no pagan image can represent. The true God does not need our service. Rather, He freely gives us all that we have and are. He has made the whole world and the entire human race. He is everyone’s God, the only God.

St. Paul appealed to the fact that everyone, somewhere within him- or herself, knows this God. God is, after all, closer to every individual human being than he is to himself.

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Source of Apostolic Zeal: the Promise

(for the Feast of St. Bartholomew)

The Holy Apostles acted with such great courage that they seem superhuman.

Among the Apostles, we know St. Paul the most intimately, since so many of his writings have been passed down to us. We know the details of how he willingly suffered every possible hardship for the sake of expanding the kingdom of Christ.

St. Paul nearly starved; he nearly drowned; was repeatedly imprisoned, flogged, beaten within an inch of his life. He patiently endured painful mistreatment of every kind—the willful misunderstanding of his motives by people he had helped, betrayal by people he loved, the unfair judgment of countless supposed allies. In the end, he willingly bent his neck under the executioner’s axe, rather than deny Christ.

All the Apostles acted with similarly astonishing zeal and dedication. The Church expanded from a small band of dreamers, apparently beaten in an obscure Roman province, to a unified worldwide organization.

In other words, a great miracle of social development occurred. And at the heart of this miracle lies the Apostles’ superhuman zeal. Where did it come from?

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Remembering All the Martyrs of Nero

We call Abraham our father in faith. For one thing, Abraham imitated our heavenly Father in this way: He was prepared to offer his only son in sacrifice. The similarity stuns us when we read, “Abraham took the wood for the offering, and laid it on his son’s shoulders.”

The human race has always known that we make peace with God by offering sacrifice. But, by the same token, we have also never been able, by ourselves, to come up with a truly worthy victim.

Again, in this matter, Abraham acted with pure faith. Isaac asked him, “Father, where is the sheep for the offering?” Our father in faith replied, “God Himself will provide the lamb.”

God provides the peace-making lamb, the victim worthy of sacrifice to the almighty, infinitely good Father.

And in His consummate love for us, God provides this worthy victim from among our own kind. We can boast now, like proud children: ‘Look, Father, we were worthless. But then a worthy man offered Himself to You on our behalf!’

Saints Peter and Paul, and the other Apostles, explained all this to us nearly 2,000 years ago, right when it all happened. Since then, the Lord, acting with the same consummate loving kindness towards us, has provided countless lambs for worthy sacrifice from among the Christian people. Namely, the martyrs.

The Burning of Rome by Robert Hubert
The martyrs did not choose themselves; a self-chosen martyr, in fact, betrays the Gospel.

But God ripened the time, at certain moments, giving certain Christians the consummate opportunity to bear witness. And they went to their deaths singing with joy.

God ripened the time like this in Rome at the dawn of the Christian age. His choice of location was no accident. The Lord, for His own reasons, chose the city of the emperors to be the perennial capital of His Church on earth. So He moistened the earth there with the blood of His chosen witnesses at the very beginning.

When we offer our peace-making sacrifice to the Father, we sometimes refer to Abraham and also to Abel. After Cain killed him out of jealousy, Abel’s blood cried out from the ground to God as an urgent prayer.

So, even though today we recall acts of great violence and the shedding of innocent blood, we rejoice. God has taken the malice and selfishness that led to this bloodshed and turned it to our advantage. God is greater than Pontius Pilate; He is greater than the emperor Nero; He is greater than all the evil and discord that rends the history of mankind. At the holy altar of Christ and His martyrs, we find peace.

Very Unlikely Confederates

Could two more different men than Peter and Paul possibly be found? Yes, they were both Jewish males, born in the same decade. But any similarity ends there.

Paul was bookish; Peter was a man of the sea. Paul was a city-slicker, cosmopolitan, a Roman citizen; Peter came from the quiet seaside hills. If it weren’t for Christ, Peter probably never in his life would have left the shores of the Sea of Galilee. If it weren’t for Christ, Paul probably would never in his life have spoken with a single Galilean.

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Right on Cue

From whom or from what will we take our cues?

On the stage, one actor begins to speak and move without a cue–namely, whoever speaks the opening lines. From then on, everything proceeds according to cues. To succeed as an actor, the first rule is: learn your cues.

Well, the Bard of Avon wrote, “all the world’s a stage.” On the stage of life, the only one who begins to speak and to act without a cue is: God, the Creator. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

Shakespeare spoke true: We human beings resemble actors on a stage in that we live our lives following cues. None of us here started this big show. Our first rule needs to be: Stay on cue.

The question is: From whom or from what will we take our cues?

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Please Pray for Priests, Holy Father, and Me

On June 29, 1951, Joseph Ratzinger was ordained a priest.

George and Joseph Ratzinger ordination day
I had a chance to meet then-Cardinal Ratzinger in February of 2005, about ten weeks before he had to change his plans for retirement.

I was visiting Rome with a friend from Raleigh, N.C. In our brief conversation with him, Card. Ratzinger expressed interest in the region between North Carolina and Washington, D.C. He admitted to knowing little about the “upper South,” and wanted to learn.

Anyway…On June 29, we solemnize the memory of the twin patrons of the church of Rome, Saints Peter and Paul. This year, the Holy Father will celebrate the 60th anniversary of his ordination. He has asked the entire Catholic world to pray for vocations to the priesthood as a way of wishing him a happy anniversary.

It also happens that June 29 will be the day when your unworthy servant will begin my ministry as the pastor of both Franklin and Henry counties, Virginia.

My predecessor in Martinsville will be on the way to sunny Florida. My adventures up and down US 220 will begin.

Perhaps, then, dear ones, while you are praying for our Holy Father’s health, and for vocations to the priesthood throughout the world, you could also say a little prayer for this gangly numbskull.

…By the by, we have come around the three-year cycle to another “summer of Romans” (St. Paul’s letter, that is). This summer I intend to preach on Matthew 13 instead, but if you have any interest in the prattlings I made three summers ago, you can click HERE.