Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Lesson from a Man on the Highway: The Value of Relationships in Evangelization

Tuesday morning I was driving westbound on I-240 towards OKC. As I came around a bend I saw on the eastbound side a man standing on the hill on the side of the road, some way off from his car. This isn't particularly unusual by itself. People whose cars break down often go sit on the hillside overlooking the road (if there is one) to wait for help to come.

This guys was different though, he was standing on the hillside holding a big sign on a stick. It looked like a protest sign like one might carry in picket line but it had in big red letters the simple message: "Trust Jesus Christ." To make things even more unusual he wasn't even in the city where you might not be surprised to see someone near the roadside. No, he was out by himself, at least 10 miles east of the city, almost to the point where I-240 and I-40 connect.

His location and personal presence (as opposed to just hammering the sign in the ground and leaving) did draw more attention to his message and, with a heat index already in the 90s it did speak to his dedication to the cause; you don't stand on the roadside by yourself in the summer heat for something you only casually care about. It leaves no doubt as to how much he believes in the importance of trusting in Jesus and I applaud him for that faith. But...

How effective is this method as a missionary tactic? For all I know lots of people were positively affected by his message and witness. Perhaps many saw his sign "Trust Jesus Christ" and decided to do so but I'm afraid that far more people saw it and thought he was a crazy-person and that his message was of little importance.

I had to sit an reflect for a while to figure out why he struck me the wrong way despite my agreement with his message. - I think the problem with his method is that there is no communion, no relationship built with the people he is trying to reach. The Christian message requires community, requires knowledge of the other. Jesus said "Love your neighbor." St. Paul said we are all members of one body. People learn about the love of God through  relationships.*

So, I don't want to condemn the man on the road side; he was doing nothing technically wrong and maybe some people were affected positively. But real Christian evangelization has to take place personally, with relationships, face to face...not at 70mph.

*-Some people may start their journey into Christianity by an intellectual path, sure, but they stay because (hopefully) once they start trying to be a Christian they meet others in whom they see God's love and understand it more profoundly than any book could convey.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Overgrown altars and One-Upmanship (Reflections on the 14th & 15th Wednesdays in Ord. Time)

These are Reflections (not homilies) given at daily mass in my summer parish. The links take you to the readings for the days which I would recommend reading first for the reflections to make good sense.

Reflection given on Wednesday of the Fourteenth Week in Ordinary Time - 2014

As I began reading Hosea I thought I knew where it was going: "Israel is a luxuriant vine, whose fruit matches its growth. The more abundant his fruit the more abundant altars he builds." This sounds pretty good. Israel seems to be doing well. But then it takes a turn... "Their heart is false, now they pay for their guilt." Whoa...things aren't so great, apparently!

God blesses Israel but rather than praise him for his goodness they take his blessings and turn into pagans. Hosea warns them: "thorns and thistles will overgrow their altars!" The worldly good they were given will be taken away because they built, if you will, the wrong kind of altars. That is, they didn't turn their hearts to God but instead turned away. In Jesus' time the people of Israel are still failing to turn their hearts to God so Jesus sends out the 12 to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel."

Let us not be like Israel and instead respond to Jesus' call. Let us "sow for ourselves justice and reap the fruit of piety" so that instead of our "altars being overgrown with thistles and thorns" we may enter "the kingdom of heaven [that] is at hand."


Reflection given on Wednesday of the Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time - 2014 (with reference to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel

I don't know what the equivalent is for little girls, if there is one at all, but little boys around grade school age like to play a one-upsmanship game called "My dad can beat up your dad!" The rules are simple: each participant takes turns (more or less) elaborating on why their father is superior to the fathers of the other boys. This game usually continues with with increasing levels of hyperbole and exaggeration until the end of recess or the teacher makes them stop, whichever comes first.

In a sense, this is the game the prophet Isaiah is playing, the other boys being the leaders of the Israelites who follow pagan false gods. The difference is that for Isaiah it's not a game and it's not hyperbole. The LORD, the God of Israel really is all powerful and able to subdue nations under his feet. Unlike with the boys on the playground who have to embellish, Isaiah's father, who is our father too, really is unquestionably superior. Being the creator of the universe he couldn't fail to be anything but.

However, this image of a mighty defender is not the only image of God, lest we be afraid. He is also tender and loving towards his children as Jesus Christ showed us. It is the same God who destroyed the enemies of Israel who also said "let the children come to me" and "love your neighbor as yourself" and laid down his life on the cross for our sake. (He also gave us to the tender love of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who we celebrate today as Our Lady of Mt. Caramel).

Let us always be childlike and trust in our heavenly father, remembering that he is both a nurturing parent and a mighty defender!

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Two Most Awkward Days of the Year

Everyone knows Easter is coming up this Sunday. Candy has been out in stores for months and plywood cutouts of bunnies have been in front yards for weeks. And yet we're not quite there...

Before we can get to Easter we have to pass through the days of the Triduum: Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. They're important, very important! Without the Last Supper and the Crucifixion the Resurrection would have no significance. But they're very strange too, especially Good Friday (today) and Holy Saturday (tomorrow).

What makes them so strange and awkward?

The tabernacle is empty. There's no Jesus. It feels weird. What is usually a sacred space is reduced to just a fancy room. Out habits of reverence don't make sense.

A time unfulfilled - Good Friday: On the night of Holy Thursday Jesus is arrested after the last supper and taken to the Sanhedrin. Friday morning, well, he's still there, and there's nothing we can do about it. We know his trial and crucifixion is coming but it's not here yet. It's like a dreaded exam coming up. You know it's going to be terrible but you can't take it yet. You just have to wait for the inevitable. Finally there's the Good Friday service, the Passion happens. "It is finished." But you're not done. Easter isn't here.

A time unfulfilled - Holy Saturday: The worst is over but the victory hasn't come. What's happening? Nothing. And that's the worst part. It's just waiting, hoping for this to be over. It's at least a taste of what the followers of Jesus felt after the Crucifixion. "He said he would come back and we remember something about 3 days but, I mean, you saw how he was tortured! There's no way anyone could come back... Could he be who he said he was...?"

We know what happens whereas the first disciples did not but we can't help but feel somewhat the same way. And here's the important part: I think that's exactly the experience the Church wants us to have. The Triduum is supposed to feel this way, to feel strange and awkward, uncertain. But why put us through all this???*

Yes, it may be awkward and strange to focus so much on the seemingly bad things that happened before the glory of the Resurrection and it's likely to make us uncomfortable both physically (if we're fasting) and spiritually/psychologically but all that is to place that much greater of an emphasis on the victory of Easter.

The sacrifice of our comfort in these is not for the sake of sacrifice in-and-of-itself. That would be a waste. It is for the sake of having a more glorious Easter like an athlete who trains for the sake of a more glorious victory. Let us embrace what the Lord and the Church has seen fit to ask us to endure because in the end it will be that much better!

* - Also not helpful is when the weather is beautiful and joyful-feeling on a solemn, somber day like Good Friday. Everywhere should be Oregon on Good Friday and Southern California on Easter Sunday.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

America's Unique Freedoms and Catholic Evangelization

In class yesterday afternoon we were discussing the history of the Catholic Church in America. The Catholic population was very small at first, 1/10th of 1% in 1776 but expanded rapidly later on especially as the immigration floodgates from Europe were opened.

This situation created a difficulty that no one really expected. The "American experiment" of democracy, of a government for and by the people worked quite well for the Protestants who were very comfortable with the idea that every man could and in fact should determine what is best for him and go about it as he sees fit. The massive diversity of the modern Protestant Church is a witness to the comfort it had with the questioning of authority and the pioneer spirit.

Catholics did not have such an easy time. Catholics are used to giving consent to the wisdom of those in authority, you know, like that guy in Rome (who is a faithful followers and servant of the one God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, just to be clear). There was much disagreement among the Catholic hierarchy about how Catholics ought to go about being Americans.

As no one will be surprised, many Church leaders at the time advocated isolationism, where Catholics basically self-enforced the formation of ghettos where they could live, work and die surrounded by fellow Catholics (of course Catholics of their home country). We all know about the Irish, Italian and other ghettos that used to exist very prominently in cities like New York.

But there were other Bishops who proposed an opposite approach. Now, they weren't wanting the people to totally assimilate and lose their Catholic practice or identity but they were much more in favor of Catholics going out and engaging the world.

Some Church leaders in Europe heard about the freedoms allowed in American and American Catholics talking about "freedom" and became understandably nervous and resistant. I don't blame them for their caution. Just think of how awfully the Church was treated in other countries that talked big about "Freedom". See: France.  Thankfully though, America didn't turn out like France. Our ideas of freedom have played out in a more productive way.

There exist big books of dense philosophy and theology that lay out a way that the American ideals of "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" line up perfectly with not only Christianity but Catholicism too. I'm not prepared to go that far, especially since that kind of attitude tends to raise the State to a level uncomfortably close to the Church. (I am all for God blessing America; I hope he does, but I don't like to blur the line between patriotism and faith. Loving my country and loving my God are separate.)

So, it isn't my intention to say that America and Christianity go together in what they hold as important. They often disagree.What I mean to get at with all of this is that, like some of the early bishops that broke with the isolationist mentality, I think the United States is a great place for Catholics to be out among everyone living their faith boldly and even, dare I say it, pro-actively evangelizing. Definitely way more than we have been comfortable doing so far.

Many of our Protestant brethren and other religions like the Mormons take great advantage of this uniquely American situation. Why don't Catholics??? I hope any non-Catholics readers will forgive me but, Catholics, we've got the good stuff, the real deal, the unbroken line of leadership from Jesus himself through St. Peter and all the Popes up until now! We have the Saints! We have the Eucharist! We've got the Jackpot and yet too many Catholics barely get to mass on Sunday (or not at all) and wouldn't even dream of mentioning their faith to a co-worker let alone going door to door or standing on a street corner preaching.

There is something unique and wonderful about the American respect for freedom of speech and I think that we should be taking as full advantage of that as possible. We may get strange looks but who cares? I have heard many many conversion stories that start with "What is that crazy Catholic talking about?" and end with "..and after careful consideration I decided to join the Church."

The great thing about the Truth the we have is that it speaks for itself and since we live in a country where we're free to speak what we want let's do it! Let's make good use of the opportunity we have, this "American Experiment" to out there and be active, to preach and teach and be bold proclaimers of the Gospel that we have been given!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Afternoon Philosophy: On the Failure of Atheistic Materialism

Have you ever been run over in conversation by some smooth talking atheist or materialist type? They have all these ideas about how the world would be so much better if we just got rid of morality and how science is the only thing there is? Sometimes their arguments sound pretty good and you can't quite put a finger on what's wrong with them. Don't worry. You intuition is probably right.

I was talking with a young man at the parish this afternoon and he was relating to me the discussion he had in class today with an atheist. The guy I was talking to, let's call him Anthony, was arguing in favor of morality. The atheist was arguing against him on the grounds that it is not the purpose of the government to legislate morality. His stance included the contentions that there are there is no morality and no dignity of human life.

Now, I wasn't there and was getting the conversation second hand from a person with a biased interest. Given that, I'm not looking to give an exhaustive argument that takes sides and picks a winner between Anthony and the atheist. My purpose here is to just give some general thoughts that this conversation made me think of.

Proposition: The government is not in the business of morality.

Response: What exactly, then, is the purpose of all those laws? I would like to suggest that every law is a proclamation on morality. What atheists usually mean when they argue this way is that "I don't think the government should make laws about things that those religious people care about." which is much different than the government not dealing in morality. Let's look at what would happen if the government stayed out of morality...

Traffic Laws - For the purpose of safety. Why? Because safety is good. Why? Because injuries/deaths are bad. Guess what, that's a moral judgement. Injuries/deaths are bad. So, no traffic laws.

Environmental Laws - For preserving the environment. Why? Because it's good. We need it to be good to stay alive. We like staying alive. Living is good and pollution is bad. Oops...another moral judgement...better get rid of environmental laws too,

Theft, murder etc... - Stealing and killing are illegal because killing and stealing are bad. Dang, looks like we found another one. We'd better get rid of those laws too... We wouldn't want the government meddling in morality...

The point obviously is that the "government should stay out of morality" argument is ridiculous because adhering to it would totally destroy society.

Bonus: Those people that argue against morality probably still would be pretty upset if you just randomly punched them in the face in the middle of the conversation, probably insisting that it was wrong of you to do so. (morality! there it is again!)

For centuries philosophers have tried to work around this. They fill volumes that usually make no sense to anyone and either come to no conclusions at all or to ones that have really weird and scary consequences. That should tell us something. (Hint: If if's so hard and complicated to work around morality maybe it actually exists, maybe it really is a part of our human nature.)

Proposition: Materialism. What you see is what you get. We're just the same as robots.

Response: You'd better put down that poetry and stop looking at that art. In fact, stop talking...and no thinking either. And really, living too. What's the point? (Immediate disclaimer: I am not in any way at all condoning suicide or mocking those that have made that unfortunate choice. Human life is precious but I can't help but think that rigid materialism leads to this very unfortunate conclusion.)

If there is nothing beyond the physical, what we can measure and observe, if there's nothing meta-physical, our life is a sad one. Actually, it ceases to be life.

Words and art are symbols that we exchange to convey meanings and ideas. But you can't actually hold and idea. You can't have a bucket of beauty. You can have things that are beautiful but not beauty itself. That is metaphysical. It exists but not physically. Any other idea or concept is like that too.

Let's look at Life. You can point to things that are alive or if something is dead we have no problem saying that it used to be alive but we can't get just life by itself. You can't have just a bucket of life. Life clearly exists but it is not a tangible thing. You've got to have meta-physics to have life.

Let's look back at society, at government: Upon what is it established? From where does it's authority come? (oh, and authority is one of those non-tangibles too.) What gives the government the right and obligation to make laws and regulate society? Because we the people give it to them? Yes, but why do we do that? Because it's for our own good (hopefully). So, we have government for our own good. Ah, but what then is this "goodness"? That sure sounds like a metaphysical concept to me! Okay, so we have to strike the concepts of good and bad. Nothing is either good or bad. It only just is. Whatever and however is fine.

Oh, and no free will either, since we're mechanistically determined. I had better quit talking about what I want to do. Everything I do I am unavoidably constrained to.

This is turning out to be really depressing...

Bonus: Note that none of the above makes any appeal to religion. Atheism gets subsumed by materialism. If you're a materialist your have to be an atheist by default, logically at least.

If we're going to bring religion up, well, that's depressing too. If there is no life after this and we just cease to exist when our physical bodies die, what's the point? Most people just ignore this question and pretend that they're happy just ceasing to be. I don't buy it! I think that question nags at every atheist/materialist even if they refuse to admit it (even to themselves).

Do I mean this to be an exhaustive and philosophically air-tight argument? No. I just wanted to throw a stick in the gears of the secular confidence. So many "enlightened" ideas lead to, honestly, some pretty depressing and scary conclusions. Fiercely atheistic governments don't exactly have great track records for the well-being of their people. Those secular Utopias never seem to quite work out, do they?

*-I'm not proposing that Anthony reply to his friend this way. Witty comments and rebuttals don't change hearts and minds. Only love does that.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Humble Certainty vs. Passive Suggestion

 Saying "It is..." instead of "As Catholics, we believe it is..."

This often comes up in the context of a non-Catholic attending a Catholic liturgy or perhaps in other conversation of an apologetic nature. (apologetic - to do with explanation/defense). The Catholic will say to the non-Catholic "As Catholics we believe that the Eucharist is truly the Body and Blood of Christ and so [we genuflect/only Catholics may receive/etc...]" This is true. As Catholics we do believe that. However (and maybe I'm just splitting hairs here) I think that sometimes this phrasing, or things similar to it, carry a different implication.

What it sometimes sounds like to me (even when I say it myself) is "This is what we believe but I don't want to offend you by being too blunt so I'm going to soften it with language that lets you off the hook in case you don't want to believe it." I think we do this without even realizing, because we're so used to a culture where we have to make everything palatable lest we offend anybody. Again, I am plenty guilty of this myself so I'm not trying to point fingers here.

I want to encourage a different approach. What if we said "It is the Body and Blood of Christ and so [we genuflect/only Catholics may receive/etc...]"? It's a subtle difference but an important one. It leaves no room for relativism, no room for "If I don't believe it, it isn't true." I'm not proposing rudeness; we should always speak with Love.

Of course, I don't mean this to only apply to discussion regarding the true presence in the Eucharist. This is just the most obvious example. I think that speaking with humble certainty is needed in all aspects of our public dialogue. We only seem to know how to speak in the extremes of tiptoeing around everyone's nerves or abandoning all concern for others and just saying whatever we want. As usual, the middle ground is better.

Remember, love is all charity but also all truth and that we're not doing anyone a favor by softening, by lessening the truth to make it palatable. True things have their own sweetness and we should be let them shine through.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Teaching Moment: Accidentally Unconsecrated Hosts

At the 10:30 Sunday mass, like at any other parish, there is a process of gifts from the back of the Church to the altar. At this particular mass there are too many attendees to bring up all the hosts to be consecrated at once. It would be possible but would require multiple pattens and would be awkward to carry. (An excellent problem to have, if you must have one.) For the sake of the symbolism of the bread and wine to be consecrated being brought up by the people it isn't necessary that all the elements to be consecrated are brought up in procession. It's okay that about 200 hosts in a separate patten and 8 pre-filled chalices are kept in the sacristy behind that altar. Only some of the hosts and the little bit of wine needed to fill the priest's chalice is brought forward with the gifts. A portion can symbolize the whole lot.

This past Sunday we forgot to bring the extra hosts from the sacristy out to the altar. It wasn't until after the consecration that we realized we had forgotten to bring them out. There was the one patten full of unconsecrated hosts sitting there on the sacristy table.

One might be tempted to just bring these hosts out and mix them in as if they hadn't been forgotten, but, that would be the absolute wrong thing to do! I emphasized the symbolism of that carrying down of the gifts and it's inherent flexibility in order to contrast it with the inflexibility here.

These hosts that were left in the sacristy are not interchangeable with those that made it out to the altar because the Consecration that the priest does at the altar is not a symbolic act. It is a real act. The bread and wine that were on the altar literally have become the Body and Blood of Christ, the Eucharist (the physical properties, the "accidents" in philosophy-talk, remain of bread and wine but their nature is no longer so simple. They have been transubstantiated.) To mix these unconsecrated hosts in with the consecrated ones would be to terribly mislead the faithful. (For the record, no one present was suggesting we do so.)

This wasn't a big deal, of course. We just left them where they were in the sacristy. It would be ideal to have consecrated them so that there would be enough for everyone to have a whole host but in this case those distributing communion just broke the ones that were consecrated into smaller pieces so that there were enough for all present (no matter how the small the piece the True presence of the Body of Christ is not diminished) At the end of the mass it was probably entirely forgotten, except hopefully by the servers but I choose to share it as an illustration of the seriousness of the Eucharist. It's not just a symbol. It's a reality that can't be fudged.