Thursday, December 24, 2009

Midnight Mass 2009

Almost everyone has heard the story of the first performance of Silent Night, the most popular of all Christmas carols. You remember—mice had chewed through the organ bellows, so it had to be played on the guitar that snowy Christmas Eve in Austria.

Unfortunately, Google plays the Grinch when it comes to this story. Apparently, the organ in the village church was so poor in the first place that it was only natural to accompany the carol on a well-tuned guitar rather than on an off-pitch organ.

There never was much of a story behind the most popular English carol, Joy to the World. The lyrics are by one of the greatest of all hymn-writers, Isaac Watts, a Protestant pastor who wrote O God Our Help in Ages Past and 700 other English hymns. The tune we know so well was written after Watts had been dead for many years, by an American composer influenced by Handel’s Messiah.

So why is Joy to the World so well-loved? You can’t say it’s particularly Christmassy: While the first line announces that "The Lord is come," those are the only words that relate to the birth of Jesus. There’s no mention of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the manger or the wise men. In fact, Isaac Watts didn’t even write the song as a Christmas carol.

Yet there’s a good reason why this carol captures the Christmas spirit. The reason is one simple word: joy.

Our Christmas scripture readings are simply brimming with joy. Start with the first reading, from the prophet Isaiah. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light—a light that has shone in their deepest darkness. And what’s the result? Their joy is increased. They rejoice like harvesters hauling in the crop, they jump up and down like victors dividing the spoils of battle.

Perhaps you didn’t notice, but Joy to the World echoes our psalm tonight. “Let the heavens rejoice and earth be glad” is pretty close to “let heaven and nature sing.” Even creation is joyful at the coming of Christ!

Tonight’s Gospel, most of all, places joy near the heart of the Christmas message. The angels themselves proclaim this: the birth of the Saviour is good news of great joy.

There’s really no way around it. We are invited to experience joy tonight. Joy that a child has been born for us. Joy that the crushing burden has been lifted off our tired shoulders. Joy at the message of peace that the angels have brought us.

But how easy it is to say this! And how difficult, sometimes, to live with joy, to find joy…

I’m facing a challenge tonight. When I told a friend that I didn’t really know what to say this Christmas, he said “tell us what it means to be joyful.” Tell us what it means for a Christian to experience joy in illness, in worry, in frustration, in unemployment, in disappointment.

Quite correctly, he knew that Christian joy can’t mean having no problems. We all have problems. Quite correctly, he grasped that Christian joy can’t be a feeling—since no-one’s ever suggested that Christ was born in Bethlehem so that we could walk around feeling peachy all the time.

So what is Christian joy, if it’s not just a good feeling? More to the point, how do we find it?

Scripture and tradition offer many answers to these questions, but I'll suggest just three of them tonight.

The first way we find joy at Christmas is just by knowing Christ is here. We’re joyful because we are no longer fearful; and we are no longer fearful because of Christ—Saviour, Redeemer, Healer, and bringer of peace. Christian joy is anything but unfocussed; it’s the fruit of faith and hope in God’s promise, fulfilled in the saving birth of Christ.

Imagine yourself as a child in the emergency room, aching from appendicitis. The school managed to contact your parents, and they arrive at your bedside. The pain is still there, but it’s now secondary to the marvelous, redeeming presence of Mom and Dad. That’s what Christian joy is like.

There’s joy, as Isaac Watts wrote, because the Lord is come.

The second answer is that serving others brings joy, regardless of our good or bad fortune. In the Catechism, joy is listed first among the fruits of charity (n. 1829). As Father Groeschel says, it is “the remedy that always works.”

Why is it that Christmas and charity are so often linked—even in the minds of people who do not know Christ? I think joy and Christmas are inseparable because joy and charity are inseparable. Wasn’t that the lesson that Ebenezer Scrooge learned the hard way?

Serving our neighbour at Christmas is itself an experience of joy. Ask any one of the families that has decided to spend time on Christmas Day or around Christmas helping serve meals to the poor or visiting the sick—and find me one that was disappointed by the experience.

There’s joy then, natural and supernatural, when we ‘prepare Him room’—by serving him in our brothers and sisters.

Finally, we find joy in thanksgiving. How can we celebrate Christmas without thanking God for His many blessings, including the supreme gift of His Son? Grateful hearts are joyful hearts—it’s pretty well automatic.

The third and fourth verses of Joy to the World are less well-known than the first two, but perhaps more important. Isaac Watts says “He comes to make His blessings flow” and “makes the nations prove the glories of His righteousness and wonders of His love.”

Those blessings, those glories, and those wonders are more powerful than death. By living in thanksgiving we place our sorrows and losses in a scales, and see them far outweighed by joy.

A while back a sailing school established an annual award for bad navigators. The first winner was Christopher Columbus. The announcement read “Poor Chris. He started out not knowing where he was going; when he got there he didn’t know where he was; and when he got back he didn’t know where he’d been.”

No-one should leave church like that at Christmas. We have come to hear the angels’ message of great joy; we are gathered as friends, family, and fellow believers to experience that same joy now; and when we return home, we take with us a joy that can only grow as we share it with others in love and service.

Joy to the world! And joy to each of you: the Lord is come.

Christmas Morning 2009

Last week I appeared on stage for the first time in thirty years. And I won an award—the St. Anthony’s School Oscar for best supporting actor in the role of an innkeeper.

Of course there was only one nomination in the category. And it wasn’t exactly an Academy Award, although the statuette they gave me was made of solid chocolate.

Being asked to play the innkeeper in the school Christmas pageant was something of an honour, and I took it fairly seriously. I even started looking for my contact lenses, until I realized that since St. Joseph was wearing glasses I might as well too.

I’m not what they call in Hollywood a “method actor,” but I tried to get inside my character. What really was the innkeeper thinking that first Christmas night, when there was no place for them in the inn?

I’m pretty sure I know what St. Joseph was thinking after he’d given up knocking on doors before and decided a stable would have to do. I have a good idea what was going through Mary’s mind—she to whom the angel had spoken.

But what about that innkeeper?

I played the role twice, once at the matinee and once in the evening performance. The first time, I felt the innkeeper was an operator, taking advantage of the Nazareth yokels and offering them spaces no-one else would be willing to pay for.

The second time I felt he was a more sympathetic character, offering the only solution he could possibly think of to the poor couple.

We’ll never know what went through his mind, or what his motive was. The innkeeper exists only in Christmas pageants; he’s not mentioned in the Bible at all. But join me this morning in stepping into his shoes.

How do we feel about that tired couple looking for a place to stay? Do we have a place for them? What about their unborn child? Will we welcome Him?

I’m still wondering why I played the innkeeper once as a good guy and once as a bad guy. Is it because sometimes I welcome Christ and sometimes I don’t?

God himself was coming to earth. And still there was no room for Jesus in Beth¬le¬hem. Sometimes there’s no room for him in our hearts today.

Of course, there were other supporting actors playing roles much more important than the innkeeper—figures who really were there at Bethlehem. I was particularly impressed with the students who played the comical shepherds and the stately wise men.

Those are very important roles because it’s been said “there were only two classes of people who heard the cry that night: Shepherds and Wise Men. Shepherds: those who know that they know nothing. Wise Men: those who know they do not know everything.
Bishop Sheen says that “Only the very simple and the very learned discovered God” when they looked into the stable at Bethlehem. [Fulton J. Sheen, The True Meaning of Christmas.]

Which are we? The simple or the learned? Actually, it doesn’t much matter whether we know nothing, or know that we don’t know everything. What’s important is that we’re not know-it-alls—that we’re ready to learn the messages of Christmas.

It’s not that difficult, because Jesus is a great teacher. Even in the manger He is teaching us. Even before He can speak he has lessons for us.

What are these lessons?

Look first at the manger. It’s beautiful to look at here in the church, decked with cedar boughs and all, but you can’t get away from one thing: Jesus was born poor. Even all those many years ago, only poor people were born with no heating, no nurse—and with animals in the room.

He was born poor so that we would know that happiness doesn’t come from anything money can buy. He was born poor so that we would know what real riches are.

He was born without publicity, with only shepherds to join his family in welcoming his birth. He was born that way so that we would know that it doesn’t matter whether or not we are celebrities; he showed us how beautiful it is to be humble.

And by being born in that humble way, Jesus lets us get close to him—he makes sure there’s nothing to keep us away from him. Sometimes we know someone who lives in a much bigger house than ours, and it makes us nervous to visit them, or to have them visit us. Jesus makes sure we never feel that way about him.

Every detail of the Christmas story shows us how God is at work—if we look into the stable with wonder and awe.

Those shepherds are another detail. Why weren’t reporters the first people to know about the birth of Jesus? Well, you might say there were no reporters, but that’s only partly true. In every society there were people who were listened to.

But shepherds were not that sort of people. To be very honest… they slept in the fields with their sheep and they didn’t take a shower in the morning! Today we might call them “the great unwashed.”

But shepherds were the first to hear about Jesus—and from angels even!

Again, we learn something. Jesus came for everyone: the important people and the not-so-important people. People with class, and people with none, who needed a bath.

There’s almost nothing obvious about that first Christmas, nothing you’d really expect except the angels I suppose. Who were the first people to tell others about Jesus? Why those same unwashed shepherds! Not even the distinguished Three Kings.

God makes himself known to us in everyday people, everyday happenings. So long as we watch and listen, so long as we stay alert—he will let us discover Jesus, with us now, with us always.

We see Jesus in the symbols of Christmas: in the crib, in the beautiful flowers, in the tree which is green with life. We meet him in the Mass, where he becomes truly, really present to us, just as he was in the manger all those years ago.

And we meet him in others—sometimes in people who are lovely and gentle, like Mary was, and sometimes in people who are a bit rough, like the shepherds were.

If we want to know whether we’re really meeting Jesus this Christmas we might ask ourselves: how would I play the innkeeper—friend or foe, operator or rescuer? Can I find a place for Christ?

That question takes us to the central issues of conversion: room for Christ within our hearts, and service to Him in the world beyond.

When we make room for Christ, when we serve Christ in the poor and worried, and when we tell others what it means to know him, we have found Jesus—not wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, but alive in our hearts this Christmas.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Cradle and the Cross (Advent 4, Year C)

The news media reported this week that a second-grader in the U.S. was suspended from school for drawing a picture of a crucifix when he was asked to draw something that reminded him of Christmas. Apparently the stick figure of Jesus on the cross was too 'violent'.

There’s more than enough in that story to inspire a homily on political correctness gone mad or, even better, on the new intolerance that respects any and every religion—except Christianity, and especially Catholicism.

But let’s leave that aside, especially since there’s a lot of fur flying over whether or not the story was exaggerated in the papers. Instead, let’s allow the youngster’s picture to teach us a powerful lesson that might change the way we look at Christmas. For the cross and the manger are far closer than we think: as the English writer and mystic Caryll Houselander wrote, “the passion of the Man Christ on Calvary is at once revealed and hidden in the Infant Christ in Bethlehem.”

The Letter to the Hebrews points us to this by putting the words of Psalm 40 [in the Greek version] on the lips of Jesus: “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me.” The child that lies in the manger is already a sacrificial offering: he has come to die.

On Christmas Day our bulletin cover will be a beautiful icon of the Nativity by Steve Knight, the art teacher at our parish school. But if you look carefully, you will see that Mary places Jesus not in a manger, but on an altar. Elizabeth calls Mary blessed for her believing that what was spoken to her by God would be fulfilled. But the Lord spoke to her twice—once at the Annunciation, through the Angel, and later at the Temple, through the prophet Simeon. And what did Simeon prophesy? That Mary's son was to be rejected, and that a sword would pierce her own soul.

Although Simeon’s prophetic words were not yet spoken, they were being fulfilled even in the poverty of the stable. So we are not meant to visit Bethlehem without turning our thoughts—and hearts—towards Calvary.

Mr. Knight has not only provided the cover for our Christmas bulletin. He drew at my request this simple wooden manger. That Jesus was placed in a wooden crib at his birth and nailed to a wooden cross at his death inspired Caryll Houselander to write an astounding book called The Passion of the Infant Christ. She shows how the Cross casts its shadow on the manger scene that we tend to look at sentimentally rather than prophetically:

“On Calvary He was naked, stripped of His garments and of all that He had. He was naked and stripped of all that He had in Bethlehem. …

“On Calvary He was lifted up, helpless and held up for men to look upon. In Bethlehem He was lifted up, helpless, to be gazed upon. …

“By the Cross stood Mary, His Mother; by the crib knelt Mary, His Mother.

“At His birth He was called ‘King of the Jews.’ At His death He was called ‘King of the Jews.’ The claim to be King threatened His life in Bethlehem. The claim to be king cost His life in Jerusalem.

“In Bethlehem Christ slept His first sleep in His Mother’s arms; on Calvary, Christ slept His last sleep in His Mother’s arms.”

These are just some of the poetic comparisons Caryll Houselander uses to bind Christ’s birth in Bethlehem to His death on Calvary. But she doesn’t stop there. Christ came from the darkness of the womb in Bethlehem, and from the darkness of the tomb in Jerusalem; at Bethlehem there were angels in the fields and over the stable, while in Jerusalem they stood beside His empty tomb.

So not only Christ’s death but His resurrection is already unfolding in the dim light of the stable. A body has been prepared for him—the Word has become flesh—for a purpose which already has begun to be accomplished in the manger.

A simple image shows us the truth of what Caryll Houselander wrote. As you can see, Mr. Knight has drawn us a good solid wooden manger. But turn it just slightly—and the same planks form not a manger, but a cross.

Let us adjust our perspective on Christmas in the same way, looking at the big picture, the whole picture. Sentiment is fine as far as it goes, but it does not go to the heart of the matter. The mystery and the message of Christmas is not only Christ’s birth, but His suffering, death and resurrection as well.

[Note: I am still working at keeping my promise of some reflections on scandals in the Church. Thanks for your fine comments and patience!]

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Reflections on Scandal

I'm grateful for the very thoughtful comments posted on last week's short post promising further thoughts on scandal in the Church. I didn't get anything more written but will work on it as time allows. This week's homily is posted below.

It Doesn't Have to be Complicated! (Advent 3C)

I’ve just spent a week with some extraordinary people. On Monday, I attended a meeting in Toronto with the Catholic evangelist and author Ralph Martin, together with a number of other men and women who share his ministry of teaching and preaching the Gospel message with conviction and passion.

On Tuesday, I visited Msgr. Les Ivers, a classmate of mine who helped organize two papal visits to New York. We strolled through Manhattan disguised as tourists, only to hear a flock of happy and habited young Sisters skating on an outdoor rink shout “Monsignor!”—first at him, and then at me, since one of them is from North Vancouver. They were Sisters of Life, an energetic young community founded by the late Cardinal John O’Connor.

On Wednesday I met Archbishop Timothy Dolan. He is a very imposing figure, and drew a great laugh when he said “there is one spot in the Cathedral crypt reserved for my predecessor, Cardinal Egan, and a spot and a half for me!” (When he was named Archbishop of New York, Archbishop Dolan was asked what the difference was between him and Cardinal Egan. “About sixty pounds,” was his quick reply.)

The occasion at which I met the archbishop was a Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral marking the 30th anniversary of the death of Fulton Sheen, perhaps the most impressive preacher ever to climb the stairs of the Cathedral pulpit or any other for that matter.

And on Friday I spent the day with my old friend, the spiritual writer and well-loved speaker Father Benedict Groeschel, frail but forceful after barely surviving being hit by a car some years ago. He is a rival to Archbishop Sheen as a powerful speaker and courageous witness to the faith.

Truly remarkable people who have done and are doing remarkable things to build up the Kingdom of God.

But where does that leave the rest of us? No-one’s offering me prime time on TV; I don’t have the gifts or even the energy of these champions of the Christian cause. How can I and how can you even begin to live the Gospel in a remarkable way?

In today’s readings, both St. Paul and John the Baptist give us simple answers to that question. They tell us that there’s no need to be extraordinary people to live the good news to the full in our daily lives.

Let’s look first at what St. Paul says. It’s simple enough, but I’d like to boil it down to a few verbs: Rejoice. Rejoice! (He says it twice!) Pray. Be gentle. Don’t worry. Be grateful. And you will have peace.

While I was away, a thoughtful parishioner e-mailed me something off the internet called “A Letter from Jesus about Christmas.” It was really directed at our American friends, who are quick to protest the political correctness that creates “Holiday Trees” out of Christmas trees and magically turned Starbuck’s “Christmas Blend” into “Holiday Blend” a few years back. We have the same problem here, but unlike the Americans we can’t be bothered to organize a protest or a boycott.

But the "letter from Jesus" showed very well the simplicity of His message. Here's what it said:

“It has come to my attention that many of you are upset that folks are taking My name out of the season.

How I personally feel about this celebration can probably be most easily understood by those of you who have been blessed with children of your own. I don't care what you call the day. If you want to celebrate My birth, just get along and love one another.

If you want to give Me a present in remembrance of My birth here is my wish list. Choose something from it:

1. Instead of writing protest letters objecting to the way My birthday is being celebrated, write letters of love and hope to soldiers away from home. They are afraid and lonely this time of year. I know, they tell Me all the time.

2. Visit someone in a nursing home. You don't have to know them personally. They just need to know that someone cares about them.

3. Instead of giving your children a lot of gifts you can't afford and they don't need, spend time with them. Tell them the story of My birth, and why I came to live with you down here. Hold them in your arms and remind them that I love them.

4. Pick someone that has hurt you in the past and forgive him or her.

5. Instead of worrying about what a store calls the holiday, be patient with the people who work there. Give them a warm smile and a kind word. Even if they aren't allowed to wish you a “Merry Christmas” that doesn't keep you from wishing them one. Then stop shopping there on Sunday. If the store didn't make so much money on that day they’d close and let their employees spend the day at home with their families

6. If you really want to make a difference, support a missionary—especially one who takes My love and Good News to those who have never heard My name.

7. Here's a good one. There are individuals and whole families who not only will have no "Christmas" tree, but neither will they have any presents to give or receive. If you don't know them, buy some food and a few gifts and give them to the St. Vincent de Paul Society or some other charity that believes in Me and they will make the delivery for you.

8. Finally, if you want to make a statement about your belief in and loyalty to Me, then behave like a Christian. Don't do things in secret that you wouldn't do in My presence. Let people know by your actions that you are one of mine.

Don't forget; I am God and can take care of Myself. Just love Me and do what I have told you to do. I'll take care of all the rest. Check out the list above and get to work; time is short. I'll help you, but the ball is now in your court. And do have a most blessed Christmas with all those whom you love and remember… I love you.”

I’m a bit uncomfortable quoting something from the internet in a homily—maybe I feel it’s too simplistic. But is that letter any more simplistic than what Paul wrote to the Philippians? Be gentle. Rejoice. Pray. Be grateful.

John the Baptist isn’t much fancier than the anonymous internet author either. Look at what he says: Share. Don’t cheat. Be satisfied with your pay.

And after I posted my homily on the internet, a friend e-mailed me to say that she would add two things to Jesus’ wish list. People could (a) send a card to a widower/widow. The first three years are pits of sorrow, she wrote from experience, especially after the first year when people think they’re healed and they’re not. And (b) strike up a conversation with a homeless person. It doesn’t have to be profound or paternal, just person-to-person, as you would with someone at a bus stop. Often our eyes don’t see them.

It sounds a bit like the book that came out some years back called All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Now everyone knows that life isn’t always simple, and that there’s a whole to learn after kindergarten. But that’s no excuse for over-complicating Christ’s message, which He himself boiled down to loving our neighbour as ourselves.

If we don’t have the basics in place—justice, joy, prayer, and charity—we can’t expect to move forward with Christ in Advent. Those basics are what prepare our hearts to receive the peace that is God’s Christmas gift to each one of us.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Scandal and the Church

No homily this week--I am in Toronto for the annual meeting of the board of Renewal Ministries. But just before leaving I had a long conversation with one friend in Ireland and an e-mail from another. The e-mail got me thinking, not for the first time by any means, about scandal in the Church.

Here's what it said: "Am I just angry, or has the institutional church become a hindrance to the mission for which it is intended? I think I may join the calls for reform. We need bishops to be above all else preachers of the Gospel and shepherds of the people. It's time to acknowledge that it ain't gonna happen from inside the walls of a chancery office. We need to start looking at new models - or maybe old models, I don't know, but we definitely need a different model than the one we have at the moment."

It won't be easy, but I am going to try to respond--over a period of time--pulling together a number of thoughts I've had since the clerical abuse scandals first hit Canada at the end of the 1980s. The most direct response to what my friend said will come later, when I draw on the insights of one of my professors who has written extensively on the need to see "the institutional Church" as one with the "spiritual Church" or whatever you want to call it. But I want to approach this systematically first.

I propose to write (briefly, I hope) along the following lines:

1. the Old Testamant: the infidelity of the Chosen People does not negate the Covenant; the psalmist's laments.
2. the Gospel: the case of Judas; the weakness of Peter; the fact that Christ died to save the worst--knew the worst.
3. New Testament: Paul's account of sexual immorality in the first communities; the Epistle of Jude.
4. scandal in the early Church and dissolute Popes in the Medieval Church.
5. Lumen gentium 8 and Gianfranco Ghirlanda's reflection on its analogy between the Church and the Incarnate Word.
6. Organizational behaviour: the current controversy in the RCMP, Watergate.

As you can see, I think that we need Scripture, ecclesiology, Church history and a bit of sociology to make sense of these dreadful things, along with some psychology (an area where I probably won't dare to tread).

I warn my readers--all eleven of you--not to expect a whole lot, but I guess a blog permits some random thoughts developed over time. But since I will be spending time this week with both Ralph Martin and Father Benedict Groeschel, both prophetic voices in the Church, I may well be inspired by their wisdom. In the meantime, one can only join Isaiah in his lament "O my people who have been threshed, beaten on my threshing floor."

Sunday, November 29, 2009

God's Anti-Anxiety Vaccine (1st Sunday of Advent, C)

No-one’s likely to tune out the homily this week, since we’re focusing on something everyone can relate to: anxiety. Five year olds experience anxiety, long before they can spell the word. Teenagers are anxious about a million things. Newlyweds worry about housing costs. Middle-aged people are concerned for their retirement.

And just when you think you’ve got things under control, you start getting anxious about your health, and, eventually, mortality.

We’re all in this together. About the only thing that doesn’t make me anxious is the fear of unemployment.

Lately the H1N1 virus has caused a whole lot of anxiety—I call it flu phobia. In particular, the flu vaccine has been in the headlines for weeks. Getting the shot was like winning the lottery for some people, while a small group doesn’t even want one. There’s been a shortage of vaccine, but no shortage of controversy.

On one point, though, everyone agrees. The flu shot doesn’t cure the flu. Vaccines don’t cure illness; they prevent it. And flu vaccines don’t always stop you getting the flu but rather make the sickness less severe.

That’s an important distinction, isn’t it? Sometimes we think our faith should be a cure for anxiety. We’d like it to work like an antidote, banishing worry from our lives.

I learned a valuable lesson about that from Sister Josephine Carney, who spent a couple of days in the parish this week. Many of you know her, although obviously not everyone, since we had a phone message asking what time Mother Teresa would be giving her talk! Sister Jo is the 89-year old sister of our late archbishop, and though almost blind she regularly travels back and forth between Vancouver and her home in Victoria giving talks and retreats.

During her visit here, Sister told a story from her childhood. Once, after she’d got frightened, her father asked “but didn’t I tell you not to be afraid?”

She replied “I wasn’t really frightened, but my stomach was.”

What he said next was truly wise. He told her that her stomach would often feel frightened, but that she was not her stomach. I’ve never heard a simpler explanation for what it means for the Christian to stand tall in the face of fear.

Fear is a feeling. We don’t control our feelings. So when Jesus said “do not be afraid” he can’t have been talking to our stomachs, but to our heads. We are meant to keep our heads in times of turbulence, not to faint from fear and foreboding.

But this, surely, is easier said than done. Anxiety is upon is in a flash. A series of reflexes takes over. How can we be expected to cope as Christians?

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us how to get vaccinated against fear, especially the fear that comes with the end of time or the end of our earthly lives. He offers no guarantee that we won’t feel anxious, but he shows us how to become strong enough to face our fear.

The first thing our Lord says is “stand up and raise your heads.” I’d be inclined to translate that “stand up and look up.” Know what’s happening around you, and face it. The worst fears are fears of the unknown. We need to read the signs of the times: to reflect intelligently on what’s going on around us.

Are we aware of the strategies Satan is using against our society and against as individuals? (If we’re not, it’s probably to read or re-read C.S. Lewis’ classic The Screwtape Letters, where a senior devil reveals Satan’s tactics to a junior tempter.)

Do we analyze the signs of the times, the trends in the media, politics and entertainment for evidence that we are being misled? Being awake to these realities and guarding ourselves from them is a very “proactive” meaning of staying awake.

At the same time, don’t bury your head in the sand. In Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, there is a beast described as “so mind-bogglingly stupid that it assumes that if you can't see it, then it can't see you.” Refusing to acknowledge the risks and challenges we face guarantees we’ll be surprised by temptation or trial. We may not feel anxious, but our peace will be false.

We must watch out for anything that can harm us or those for whom we are responsible. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so like the watchmen who stood on the ramparts of Jerusalem, we must be alert to every spiritual danger.

“Be on guard” is the second part of Christ’s anti-anxiety vaccine. What he’s saying is “guard yourself”—don’t be like a watchman asleep at his post after a few drinks on duty. Christians who are sluggish from sin will hardly recognize what’s happening when things really start to heat up in their lives or in their world.

This means getting a handle on those things that cloud our vision and slow us down—what the Letter to the Hebrews calls “the sin that clings so easily.” It means getting serious about our bad habits, addictions and compromises, and starting to live the Christian life as if it really matters—which it really does.

Repentance and conversion are always the first step towards welcoming Christ at his coming. They are also essential if we’re to have the spiritual strength to endure trouble without losing heart.

Do we practice the Christian discipline of examining our consciences, probing our actions and even our feelings for signs of sinful acts and patterns? This is indispensable to staying alert. We used to speak of avoiding the near occasions of sin, by which was meant steering clear of situations and people who draw us away from the Lord. And, of course, do we celebrate the sacrament of penance regularly, going to confession to receive both grace and strength—and to keep watch over ourselves?

Finally, Jesus tells us we must pray. And mean what we pray. How many times have we said “Lead us not into temptation?” How many times “Deliver us from evil”? Prayer is the way Christians keep focused and stay alert.

Prayer is where we find our strength. Prayer is the ultimate vaccine against anxiety, because in prayer we surrender our will to God’s: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” Prayer is how we put ourselves in God’s hands as regards both the present and the future.

Let me close with a parable, not from the gospel but from management expert Stephen Covey. In his book First Things First, Covey compares going to school and farming. He confesses that in school he used to cram for exams; I'm afraid I did the same. But he asks us to think about the results we'd get from cramming on the farm. What happens if you forget to plant in the Spring, lie around all summer, then madly sow seed in the Fall? We all know the answer: not much! That's the Law of the Farm.

God is a bit more generous with us, allowing for the occasional deathbed conversion or the like. But ordinarily, he asks us to prepare for what’s ahead of us with the steady effort the farmer shows in preparing for the crop.

That steady effort will slowly move us from anxiety to peace, from worry to hope. Advent is our annual reminder of this, our time to wake from sleep and watch for God: for we do not know when our trials may come.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Obeying Christ the King (Christ the King, Year B)

Queen Victoria was the last British monarch to have any real power. But it was far from absolute. While sailing to Ireland, her ship was hit by a gigantic wave that made the ship list violently to one side. As soon as she recovered her balance, the Queen told a servant “Go up to the bridge, give the admiral my compliments, and tell him he’s not to let that happen again.”

Small wonder that her son, the future King Edward VII, wondered whether Queen Victoria would be happy in heaven, since she’d have to walk behind the angels.

In the modern age, kings and queens have become largely symbolic figures, with many countries rejecting monarchy altogether. Some smaller countries, like Denmark and Holland, have royals who ride bicycles or take on outside jobs.

But the kingship of Christ, which we celebrate today, cannot be compared to the modern monarchy. His kingship is not symbolic. The waves do obey him, and the angels bow at his feet.

Christ is not a constitutional monarch. We cannot reduce Him to a ribbon-cutting King, to a garden-party King, in other words to anything less than the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Perhaps we make this mistake because no-one actually obeys a modern monarch. Certainly there are people who swiftly bring Her Majesty a cup of tea on command. But obedience—doing what someone tells us to do when it’s not what we want to do—isn’t part of the picture.

Today’s feast tells us many things about Jesus and His kingship. But I would like to focus on obedience, precisely because it has become so unattractive to the modern mind.

“What right have you to tell me what to do?” Have we never said those words or at least thought them—at school, at work, or in the family?

“What right have you to tell me what to do?” I admit it’s pretty hard to say those words directly to God and keep a straight face. Still, actions speak louder than words, and often that’s just what we’re saying with our attitudes. Sometimes we camouflage the question by saying “what right does the Church have to tell me what to do?” when what we’re really questioning is God’s right to rule us.

“What right does Christ have to tell me what to do?” Daniel’s dream answers “the right of the one to whom God has given dominion, and glory and kingship.”

“What right does Christ have to tell me what to do?” John’s vision answers “the right of the ruler of the kings of the earth.”

And Jesus answers by saying simply “everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Notice how little Jesus relies on His right to rule. His claim on our obedience rests not on a mere title, but on His own obedience. Vatican II teaches that we must “follow the example of Christ, who by his obedience unto death opened to all people the blessed way of the freedom of the children of God” (Lumen gentium, 37).

One of the most moving speeches of the Second World War was given by Queen Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother. Responding to rumours that the royal family would flee London, she made the famous reply: “The princesses will not leave without me. I will not leave without the King. And the King will never leave.”

By sharing the dangers and difficulties of the rest of London, the King and Queen taught by example; Jesus taught us obedience in the same way. He says repeatedly that he did not come to do His own will but the will of His Father; towards the end of His life on earth He says “If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love” (Jn. 15:10).

When was the last time we examined ourselves on the virtue of obedience? Most of the time, we follow God’s law and Christ’s teaching because it seems the right thing to do; we don’t so much obey it as agree with it. It’s usually just one “little” area of our life where we can’t quite see the point, so there we do things our way—and yet that’s exactly where obedience to the Lordship of Christ is needed.

Because we are children of this age, sometimes called “the Me generation,” we tend to reject the biblical teaching that every follower of Christ is called both to obey the pastoral authority of the Church and, ultimately, to surrender himself or herself totally to God (The New Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, 712).

But there may be more to our disobedience than just the times we live in. Fear plays a role, too. We’re really not sure where submitting our will to God might lead. What might He ask? What might this all-powerful King command?

Our fears reflect a lack of trust in God. We forget that what He commands He also makes possible. Obedience isn’t achieved through sheer will-power. It’s not something we do just by human effort. Both the will and the ability to obey is a gift from God—a grace made possible because Christ’s sacrificial obedience preceded our own. (The New Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, 712).

So what does it mean, practically speaking, to trust God enough to obey what he commands in all things?

First of all, it almost goes without saying that it means complete obedience to the moral law summarized in the Ten Commandments. Jesus says “be holy, as your heavenly Father is holy,” (Mt. 5:48) which rules out all deliberate sins against the fundamental moral law.

Secondly, obedience to God is obedience to God’s Word revealed in the sacred scripture. The law of love taught by the words and actions of Jesus is just as binding as “thou shalt not steal” or “thou shalt not kill.” It too must be obeyed.

Finally, we are called to obey what the Church teaches in Christ’s name and by His authority. This is the area where disobedience often comes in, partly because we forget that Jesus said to His apostles “He who hears you, hears me” (Lk. 10:16).

Those words of Jesus support the teaching mandate of the Church. Here is how Vatican II explains them: “by divine institution the bishops have succeeded to the place of the apostles as shepherds of the Church: and the one who hears them, hears Christ; but whoever rejects them, rejects Christ, and Him who sent Christ” (Lumen gentium, 20).

It follows, then, that disobedience to the Pope and bishops is disobedience to Christ when they teach authoritatively on matters of faith and morals.

Many good people were confused by a common misunderstanding of the meaning of “conscience” throughout the late sixties and early seventies. Even some priests seemed to think that the conscience operated independently of Church teaching. So long as your actions didn’t bother you, you were acting according to conscience. Indeed, it was more important to follow your conscience than to obey Church teachings you didn’t fully understand. How you felt about your decisions was the crucial factor.

This error is easy to understand. Most of us talk about conscience in terms of feelings. “My conscience is clear” means “nothing’s bothering me about what I have done.” But this is not the traditional Christian idea of conscience.

The Church certainly teaches that we have a right and duty to follow our conscience. But equally it teaches that we have a right and duty to educate our conscience. We don’t distinguish right from wrong on instinct alone. Rather, as the Catechism states, “The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings” (CCC 1783).

Note that word “indispensable.” Obeying our Lord requires finding out what He commands. A king’s subject is not obedient and loyal if he only follows the orders that he hears the king proclaim; he must also seek to know the law of the kingdom, and to follow it.

This feast day marks the end of the liturgical year—a new year’s eve, of a sort. What better time to make a resolution or two? What better time to take a look at ourselves and ask whether we are living as subjects of Christ the King in every area of our life?

Do we have some kind of “dual citizenship,” keeping something from His sovereign oversight? Have we failed to examine more closely a teaching of His Church with which we choose to disagree? Are we settling for lukewarm discipleship, just trying to get by instead of striving for holiness?

Our parish claims this solemnity of Christ the King as our parish feast day, because Christ the King is indeed Christ the Redeemer. We hail this King and we love this King because He first loved us. We obey because we are redeemed—and we obey because we ourselves hope one day to share in the reign of the eternal King.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Archbishop Miller's Visit

No homily from me this week. Archbishop Miller made his 'official' visit to the parish this morning and preached at the 10 a.m. Mass. He has been here many times, but always for special functions rather than a parish liturgy. He blessed the new side chapel/baptistery and by extension the entire renovation project, which included the relocation of the tabernacle to the center of the church and numerous other details--all of which he appears to welcome warmly. Other than on my ordination day, I have never felt more affirmed in my priesthood.

My modest technical skills don't extend to posting the archbishop's homily on this blog, but you may wish to read it on the parish website:


Friday, November 6, 2009

Christian Death: Catholic Practices

I visited three military cemeteries during my years in Italy. The American cemetery at Nettuno includes the graves of those who died during the landings at Anzio, just a few miles away. It is a very elegant memorial, with landscaped gardens and sculptures of marble and bronze.

The Polish cemetery at Monte Cassino honours more than one thousand Poles who died during the Battle of Monte Cassino, around the same time as the Anzio landing. But it is also a monument to the Polish spirit: its central feature is a massive eagle, a powerful symbol of a free Poland during the years of Communist rule.

Although they are otherwise very different places, the gravestones in the American and Polish cemeteries both bear simple inscriptions: name, rank, regiment and dates.

The small Commonwealth cemetery in Rome followed a different policy. The next of kin of the fallen soldiers were permitted to add words to the gravestones of their loved ones. The cemetery was less uniform as a result, but these final tributes were very moving.

Many of them were predictable. I remember particularly one marker on which was written “Fondly remembered by Mum, Dad, and his little dog Peg.”

But there was one tombstone I shall never forget until I’m in my own grave. On it was written “One thing I ask, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord.” This plea for the prayers of passersby not only reflected the deep faith of a family; they are the words of the dying St. Monica to her son St. Augustine, spoken not 30 kilometers away.

For more than 25 years I have tried to remember that young soldier at Mass. Part of it, I suppose, is sentiment; but the deeper reason is simply that this is what Catholics do: we pray for the dead.

We pray for them at every Mass. There are four Eucharistic prayers in common use, plus a number for special Masses. In each you’ll find a remembrance of the dead.

We pray for them when we pray together; every time we said grace in the seminary, we concluded with the traditional words “May the souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace.”

The Catholic funeral itself is primarily an extended prayer for the person who has died. Certainly it celebrates his or her life; and we pray for those who mourn. But the heart of our funeral liturgy is our fervent hope that the one who has died may be purified with the help of our prayers, and hasten to see the face of God.

We pray also at cemeteries. Catholic cemeteries provide special opportunities and places for prayer, but the graves of our loved ones are also a place to pray. From November 1-8 each year, the Church enriches our prayer for the souls in purgatory by granting a plenary indulgence each time we devoutly visit any cemetery and pray.

In a very special way, we pray on All Souls Day for the dead, especially members of our family and friends.

All of these practices are part and parcel of being Catholic. Far more than mere customs, they are expressions of our faith.

I’ve already indicated that we pray for the dead because we believe in the doctrine of purgatory—which the Catechism calls simply “the purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.” (CCC 1031) A more detailed definition of purgatory is the “intermediate state between the death of the righteous and the last judgment, a state during which there is expiation for sins [that are] already forgiven,” readying us for the fullness of eternal life with God.*

In simplest terms, purgatory is heaven’s waiting room. But those who wait are not beyond the reach of our prayers. Death is not the end of life, and it is not the end of our relationship with loved ones who have died. Praying for them—and for all those in purgatory—is a responsibility that flows from our belief in the communion of the saints.

Purgatory is not the only truth that is underscored by Catholic burial practices. Something equally important is symbolized by how we honour our dead, namely faith in the resurrection of the body.

All of us know about Christ’s resurrection, but how many of us know about our own resurrection? This is something distinct from the eternal life of the soul that we should talk about more often, since it’s a consoling doctrine. We believe that “by death the soul is separated from the body, but in the resurrection God will give incorruptible life to our body, transformed by reunion with our soul. Just as Christ is risen and lives forever, so all of us will rise at the last day. (CCC 1016)

This is not some dry dogma: it’s a promise—a promise that on the Last Day, God will grant incorruptible life to our bodies by reuniting them with our souls, through the power of Christ’s Resurrection. In other words, we get our bodies back from the grave, only we get them back glorified. We don’t know exactly what that means, but surely we can forget about every weakness, disability, limitation, or imperfection.

A glorified body: That's well worth thinking about, especially when our bodies start to fail us.

The Church expresses a preference for burial because it connects us more closely with the Lord whose body was laid to rest as He awaited his Resurrection. The reason that the Church once prohibited cremation was that historically it was chosen by those who wanted to deny the resurrection of the body. The Church now permits cremation, but the law still contains a reminder that it must not be chosen for that reason.

And the reason why the Church prohibits the scattering or dividing-up of cremated remains is precisely her faith in the resurrection of the body. Even cremated remains are to be buried or placed in mausoleum or columbarium so that the person is seen to be awaiting the Last Day and the restoration of his or her body.

When we go to the cemetery for what may seem to be a final farewell, we are expressing our faith that the whole person will rise from the very grave in which the mortal remains are placed.

As I said, all these things express our faith in concrete ways. We let go of them at the risk of losing touch with the deeper realities they symbolize.

The archbishop has asked all priests to give a sermon like this one during the month of November. He is concerned about the way things seem to be going, and so am I. Let me just point out a few of the worrisome things I’ve encountered:

• A desire for a “memorial Mass” instead of a funeral with the body present. Sometimes cost is given as the reason, but when I offer financial help it doesn’t seem to make a difference. This problem sometimes arises when the deceased person is a widow or widower, with children who are distant from the Church. Since those making the arrangements see no value in Catholic traditions, they do not respect them. The solution is an obvious one: Catholics in that situation need to make their wishes known in advance, pre-purchasing a funeral and cemetery plot if needs be.

• Insufficient respect to cremated remains is another issue. It sometimes happens that cremated remains are kept on a shelf by next of kin who do not know the correct thing to do. Or a romantic idea of scattering the remains on a favourite hiking trail replaces their reverent disposition according to Catholic practice.

• Failing to attend funerals is another sign of weakening in our community. Even when we are not all that close to the deceased, attending the funeral is an act of charity and a corporal work of mercy that was once highly prized. We don’t need to miss work all the time to go to funerals, but those who are able should consider how valuable their presence can be.

• Finally, the falling attendance at Mass on All Souls’ Day should worry us all. We had two Masses in the parish on Monday, and between the two I think they attracted about 40 or 50 people other than those who attend daily Mass every day. This suggests to me a loss of community spirit, a weakening of our sense of responsibility—not only to departed family and friends, but also to those who have no-one to pray for them.

If I am getting my point across amidst all this detail, you’ll see how this is about a whole lot more than funeral practices. It’s about what we believe as Catholics, and about how firmly we believe it. It’s about the spirit of the age—including busy-ness, materialism and so on—starting to steal something precious from our Catholic culture that once boldly celebrated death as a beginning rather than an end, as a doorway to the eternal.

When I was younger, Remembrance Day had started to be just another holiday for many Canadians. But slowly we’re rediscovering it as something crucial to our identity; there seems to be a much more lively sense of its importance.

Part of that is, of course, the tragic deaths of Canadian soldiers in our time. But part of it, I think, came from Canadians just plain waking up to the fact that something precious was being taken for granted.

It’s time for Catholics to wake up also—to realize that our prayer for the dead and our respect for their mortal bodies is a deep and precious part of who we are and what we believe. We let go of this only at our peril.

* M. Downey, ed. The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality, 27.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

All Saints

The success of our parish photo directory depends on the participation of a majority of the parishioners. So two weeks ago I made a pitch from the pulpit, asking everyone to sign up.

To make my point—and get a laugh—I begged people to have their picture taken for my sake, explaining that the directory is a middle-aged pastor’s only hope of getting to know all his parishioners’ names.

Well, it back-fired. Several people have been heard to say “No, I’m not going to be photographed. Monsignor Smith already knows my name.”

So much for my marketing strategy.

Let me, then, look at the photo directory from an entirely different angle—to be precise, from the perspective of the Last Judgment.

Now I really have you worried! Sign up for the photo directory or else… big trouble on the Last Day. Boy, our pastor sure takes things seriously.

Relax: the Last Judgment I’m talking about is a painting, by the Dominican artist Fra Angelico. The original is in Florence, but a detail of it hung in the dining room when I lived at St. John the Apostle parish. That’s the part of the painting I want to talk about this morning, because it shows something remarkable—angels and saints playing the game we called ring around the rosy. For those of you not familiar with the game or the nursery rhyme, it gathers children together in a circle, holding hands.

The painting reminds us that we’re not going to heaven by ourselves: we’re holding hands with our brothers and sisters. I am not going to heaven; we are going to heaven.

As you might already suspect, I am not using my homily to promote the photo directory—I am using the photo directory to remind us that we’re far more than an odd collection of people who happen to attend the same church. We are men and women, boys and girls, babies and even unborn children all moving together toward Paradise. We’re together because, together, we want to be saints.

Which brings us to All Saints Day. It’s not a day for complicated theology—Cardinal Vanhoye, one of the Church’s great scholars of the Bible, says simply “Today is a great family feast day: we’re united with our brothers and sisters, the saints. They’re close to us, they understand us, they love us, they light our way, and they guide us to true happiness.”

A simple thought, but electrifying! The cardinal continues on the same vein: “In the saints the love of our heavenly Father is easier to see, easier to feel, more lively.”*

But don’t we have enough saints already on the calendar to keep us happy and close to God? Think about the ones whose names we know—St. Francis, St. Therese, St. Anthony, St. Mary Magdalene, and so on and on. Why this nameless group we honour today?

I think there are three reasons why “today we rejoice in the holy men and women of every time and place,” as our opening prayer says.

First, so that we can be assured that heaven is a crowded place! The dramatic stories of apostles and martyrs can leave us feeling like we’re golfing with Tiger Woods, or trying to skate with Sidney Crosby. Many medieval and renaissance artists painted scenes from heaven. But it’s usually our Lord flanked by a few favourite saints. I like Fra Angelico precisely because his vision of heaven is packed with people.

It’s important to remember that we’re all of us—every one, no exceptions—called to be saints. Not, perhaps, St. Gregory of West Vancouver, complete with stained-glass window, but saints nonetheless. And God does not call us to the impossible. God did not become man so that a trickle of his brothers and sisters could join him in the kingdom. No-one is denied sufficient grace to become holy, and no-one should settle for less.

Second, the feast of All Saints calls to mind the men and women we’ve known who, as far as our human judgment can place them, truly deserve to be imitated as much as canonized saints. While we should not go around ‘canonizing’ everyone who dies—the archbishop recently remarked that eulogies that virtually canonize a deceased person are seriously flawed, since it is our job to pray for the dead, not to decide they are already in heaven—it’s nonetheless true that most of us have known someone in our family or in our parish who appeared to possess heroic virtue.

To recognize that friends and family who have passed away may very well be among the number we celebrate today is consoling and joyful.

The third reason is one I have already touched on. We’re here because we want to be saints. We recognize there is something better—much, much better—than what the world promises. But it’s not always that easy to see, as Cardinal Vanhoye warns as he contrasts this world’s thinking with today’s Gospel:

“The world says ‘blessed are the rich, for they shall possess whatever they desire.’ The Gospel says ‘Blessed are the poor.’

The world thinks and says ‘blessed the strong and the violent, for they shall impose their will on all, and take over whatever they want.’ The Gospel says ‘Blessed are the meek.”

The world thinks and says ‘blessed are those who laugh, who enjoy life.’ Christ says ‘Blessed are those who weep.’

Who’s right, the world or Christ?”*

Today is a good day to answer that question. Or to use a common expression, “who has the last laugh?”

I’ll put my money on the smiling people playing ring around the rosy with the angels. In fact, I’ll put my money on you, the women and men, girls and boys of this parish who are striving and struggling, working and praying in faith.

Discouraged? Sometimes. Failing? Sometimes.

But all the while holding on to the hope of heaven, where a surprising number of sinners have found themselves to be saints after all.
*Albert Hanhoye, Il Pane Quotidiano della Parola (2002) 965.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Is "Busy" Bad??

No homily this week... as the following message from this week's bulletin explains to the parishioners, I am in Ottawa, doing a whole lot more than looking at the beautiful autumn colours. The "apologia" below is an effort to respond to concerns that individual parishioners express, usually unintentionally, about my busy-ness when at home, and my not-infrequent absences from the parish. Not sure how successful the letter is, but it's a sincere effort to help folks understand the fact of, and need for, my duties and activities away from the parish.

When I was a boy, I loved my father’s business trips—we always got a small gift on his return. (Many years later I learned that some of the souvenirs we received from exotic places were actually purchased much closer to home, to make the trip a little less pressured!)

I’m not so sure that the parishioners are equally pleased by my travels, or indeed by my apparent “busy-ness.” Some say “away again?” while others seem surprised that they cannot always get same-day appointments. Even the most understanding often preface a request with “I know you are awfully busy…”

Unfortunately, I cannot afford to bring souvenirs back for all of you! So I thought a few words of explanation might be helpful. A conversation today with a friend who is a doctor gave me a few thoughts about this “problem” that I’d like to share with you as I prepare for a week’s absence.

This hard-working physician told me that he will be in Victoria next week to give a talk, returning to Vancouver in time to run a course for other doctors, just before leaving on vacation. This means no office hours for a significant period, which distresses both him and his patients. But as we talked over his situation, we realized there is no “solution” to it. He is an excellent doctor because he is a constant learner; medicine in our province is better because he is a committed medical educator. Yet, if he doesn’t take time off, he will soon be a patient rather than a doctor.

There’s a parallel with my situation. As most of you know, I have spent five years studying canon law. I have an obligation to provide some return on the Church’s investment in me by assisting whenever I am asked; at the same time, I must keep up the knowledge that I have acquired by a certain amount of ongoing study.

Among the responsibilities the Archbishop has given me are membership on the College of Consultors and the Presbyteral Council, bodies that provide advice to him through regular meetings. I am also a member of the national boards of Catholic Christian Outreach and Renewal Ministries, two Catholic organizations that do much good with which I have been associated for many years.

In every way that is consistent with the Archbishop’s wishes and my own sense of responsibility to the Church at home and elsewhere, I put the parish and parishioners first. I routinely decline requests to be involved in other groups and activities that do not involve canon law. But I am convinced that my work and study outside the parish help to make me a better pastor, and better able to serve you.

“You’re soooo busy.” Yes, I am busy. But my doctor friend and I chuckled when we talked about this, wondering what people would say if I wasn’t busy... We also wondered whether parishioners would want doctors, counselors, and other helping professionals who have lots and lots of spare time—it might suggest they aren’t much in demand, which doesn’t seem like a very good sign!

Yes, I am busy. But I am busiest when seeing parishioners, attending parish meetings, and preparing and delivering homilies and talks at the parish. I always have the time to meet parishioners about any issue that concerns them, to hear confessions (scheduled and not), to anoint the sick, and to offer spiritual direction. It’s simply that arranging an appointment sometimes takes several days, especially since I have to prioritize requests according to urgency.

My latest duties takes me to Ottawa, where I will spend three days doing research at St. Paul’s University, and then attend a Catholic Christian Outreach function, before returning early next week.

When I get back on Wednesday I’ll be… busy! But happy to see you.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Secondhand Suffering (29th Sunday, Year B)

Some of you in church this morning are dear friends of mine. Others are active members of the parish for whom my heart is filled with thanks. Still others are parishioners I don’t know personally. But everyone here is my brother or sister in the Lord.

It’s not surprising, then, that I pray for your wellbeing and happiness. I wish you good health, I wish you freedom from financial worry, and I wish you peace.

But I do not wish you never to suffer. For never to suffer means never to have loved.

Does that sound shocking? It shouldn’t. It’s possible, with good fortune and good genes, to get through life without ever facing serious illness. I heard someone complain once that her mother died in perfect health!

Getting through life without financial worry is getting tougher, but it’s still possible. The best way, I’m told, is by inheriting a lot of money. I haven’t tried that myself, but I have the blessing of a very secure job, which is the next best thing.

Finding peace and keeping it in our hearts is not easy. However, many people do achieve this through prayer, positive attitudes, and the practice of acceptance.

But avoiding all suffering is impossible: because even if you are spared personal suffering—even if your own life is running like a well-oiled machine—the odds dictate that someone you love will experience illness or misfortune. And their suffering will become yours. Unless you have a very small family, a very limited circle of friends—worse, unless you keep others at an emotional arms-length—you will experience suffering vicariously.

Vicarious suffering occurs when another’s suffering becomes our own. And sometimes that’s worse than anything that could happen to us directly. We’d be happy, in fact, to be the one with the cancer or the one battling depression—especially when we’re bound to the sufferer by family ties.

Someone said that when we marry, we give hostages to fortune.* What that means is that marriage and family—the place where most of us love most—is a place where suffering is almost inevitable.

So what do we make of “secondhand suffering” in light of the Scripture we have heard this morning?

It’s a key question. Even the Catechism notes that suffering is one of the experiences that seem to contradict the Good News and can shake our faith and become a temptation against it (CCC 164). I think we’d all agree with that—it’s used as a standard argument against Christianity. When the one who suffers is a child, it’s even easier to see the problem.

But if suffering does contradict the Good News, then we are in deep trouble. This really is one of the questions we can’t afford to ignore—because if we’re not facing it now, we’re going to, sooner or later. So let’s see what the Lord is trying to teach us.

Because it seems to me this a problem only Christ can solve. You can make a pretty good case for the existence of God using your head alone—in other words, with the tools of reason or philosophy. Try to do that with the suffering of children or the torture of innocents, or the maddening experience of unanswered prayer for healing of a loved one. It won’t work. Only Jesus can answer the problem of pain.

I was quite surprised, to tell you the truth, to find that the Catechism says very little about human suffering. Then I figured out why: it says little about suffering but lots about Jesus. And he is the answer.

Notice I say that “He is the answer,” not “He has the answer.” Jesus resolves the apparent contradiction between suffering and the Father’s love more by what he does than by what he says.

Who is the suffering servant crushed with pain in our first reading this morning? The Church has always identified him with Jesus.

We cannot know our Lord or understand his mission if we will not know or understand his suffering. Isaiah’s prophecy contains a simple statement of this truth: “The righteous one… shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.” His life is an offering for sin.

It sounds so dark. Yet “Out of his anguish he shall see light,” the prophet tells us, and “he shall see his offspring and prolong his days.”

This is not human reasoning. Anguish is anguish. Being crushed with pain is not a good thing. But this is the way God chose to ransom the world.

And although Jesus has redeemed the world, he has chosen to allow us to share in his work of redemption until the end of time. As St. Paul says, “in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24).

So the first answer Jesus gives to our heartfelt question about why he can allow human suffering is “because it permits us to drink the cup that he drank.” To suffer—firsthand or secondhand—is an invitation to become a partner in the saving mission of Christ.

Suffering that is offered to God is a work of atonement—for our own sins, the sins of others, and sin in the Church. We’re still reeling from the thought that a bishop right here in Canada could fall so far from grace; yet we can’t forget the example of Cardinal Bernadin—falsely and publicly accused, he spoke only kindly of his accuser, and gently forgave him everything before he died. Cardinal Pell, who visited our parish last year, was similarly the victim of a false accusation, which he bore with courage and grace.

(I am not saying this by way of comment or contrast with the present case, but rather to illustrate the fact that atonement is a powerful and necessary force in the Church, wounded by the sins of her members.)

While thinking about my homily yesterday afternoon, I asked myself this question: Can we know Jesus without knowing suffering?

I’m not sure—it’s a difficult question. But the more I thought about it the more one thing struck me: Jesus himself said the disciple is not greater than the master. I think, then, that Jesus’ second answer to why God permits suffering is “so that you might know me.”

The passage we heard from the Letter to the Hebrews is both consoling and instructive. We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has in every respect been tested as we are… Jesus was not Superman, unfeeling and immune; he wept, he bled, he grieved. To know his sacred humanity is essential to knowing his divinity.

In other words, Jesus stands beside all who suffer, in complete solidarity. Knowing this is a huge help to knowing him.

I have used a lot of words to say much less than a crucifix does about Christ’s answer to our questions about suffering.

One final word about unanswered prayer—because that topic often comes up when we’re talking about suffering, especially of loved ones.

The foot-in-mouth disease of James and John in today’s Gospel reminds us that we sometimes pray for things without knowing what we’re asking. Let’s give the two brothers a break, and assume they really didn’t have a clue. Perhaps they just wanted to be close to Jesus. They asked for crowns, he gave them the cross. They got what they really needed, not what they asked for.

I will never tell anyone not to pray for miracles, especially for others. But as the years go by, I’m more and more convinced that our first prayer in tough times should be for greater understanding of the mystery of suffering—and for the grace and courage to accept it.

* In fact, it was Sir Francis Bacon, who wrote in Essay 8 “He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.” He was actually talking about the consequences of celibacy in society, but the quotation is now used more in the sense in which I have paraphrased it.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends (28th Sunday, Year B)

I got a little bit emotional listening to a Canadian politician the other day. It’s been a long time since that happened!

During my political youth, I listened spellbound from the gallery of the House of Commons to legendary figures like John Diefenbaker and Pierre Trudeau. But on Friday, I listened with equal admiration to Stephen Harper—singing a Beatles’ song!*

And, believe it or not, I was moved by the song and by the singer. (I can’t say his piano-playing did that much for me!)

When it was written, “I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends” was probably about drugs. But it is also a modern anthem to the fact that we can do nothing alone. In this light, it can be seen as a hymn to community—to our basic human need for others.

And when a Prime Minister who is considered by many to be a bit of a loner, who rarely hears a flattering word from the media, can take to the stage in front of the Ottawa elite, you have to figure he might just mean what he’s singing.

On this Thanksgiving weekend, I thank the Prime Minister for his moment of vulnerability, and for accidentally reminding us of one of the central truths of Christian faith: we can’t live it on our own. We get by, with a little help from our friends.

Brothers and sisters in the Lord are one of the greatest gifts God gives to us. Jesus promises Peter he will not lack brothers and sisters just because he has left home to follow Him. The Church is a family—a big and sometimes dysfunctional family—but a family nonetheless. Experts say that the first sign of a healthy parish is the sense of belonging.

Each brick of this building and the school next door tells a story of belonging. The generosity and sacrifice of individuals made it possible, while the recent renovations remind us that the story of stewardship continues.

The parish spiritual committee suggested that Thanksgiving weekend would be a good time to pray and give thanks for the benefactors, living and dead, who built and sustain our community.

I wonder whether the committee had read today’s Gospel before they got this idea. Because whether you call them benefactors, donors or stewards, those who made and make this church possible are first and foremost our brothers and sisters in Christ. They are men and women who felt part of a parish family. It is rarely philanthropy or community service that prompts people to support a parish; it’s usually the sense of belonging that gives birth to stewardship.

Do you know, for instance, that one of the largest donors to our parish is someone who has been unable to attend Mass here for years?

Our Gospel gives another reason why we should be thankful to those whose sacrifices built and sustain our parish. Many of them display the spirit of detachment from this world’s goods to which Jesus invited the rich young man. Whether in a family or in a parish, sacrificial giving means letting go.

Sometimes it means letting go of money. Benefactors of our parish have asked themselves the tough question “What do you own and what owns you?” And their answer was stewardship and sharing their resources.

But let’s never forget that a parish needs much more than money: the stewardship formula of time, talent and treasure puts the financial in third place. One of the best parts of being a pastor is watching our small army of volunteers help people make the jump from being “members” of the parish to being brothers and sisters in Christ.

I wish there were time to tell some stories, but I can only say that those who organize and perform the many ministries of the parish, those who serve coffee, those who calm down the parking lot, those who calm down the pastor—all of these and more are helping Christ fulfill his promise to Peter. They’re helping Christ provide brothers and sisters for each one of us. There are no only children in the Body of Christ.

On this Thanksgiving Day, our first priority is to thank God for His many blessings, and to renew our commitment to share them with others. But let’s make it our special prayer to thank God for those who have shared with us.

We do much more than “get by,” and we receive much more than "a little help" from our friends. They are a sign of God’s love for us, and part of the promised reward for those who follow Christ.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Good News About Sex and Marriage (27th Sunday, Year B)

Two kinds of disasters made the news this week. The first kind were natural ones: typhoons and earthquakes that threatened the lives and welfare of people in the Philippines, Indonesia, and the South Pacific. The second disaster was closer to home—allegations in Antigonish that once again send Catholics reeling, asking ‘what’s next?’

There’s no avoiding the fact that these are difficult and painful days.
The natural disasters will, judging by past experience, have a positive side amidst the terrible human tragedy. Generous people will bring material aid and comfort to the victims, making visible the basic goodness of the world even in the face of suffering.

Moral disasters, however, rarely have an upside. They bring only discouragement and confusion, and when they involve the Church they make it that much more difficult to carry on the saving work of Christ.

The failures of Church leaders—and in the current case it’s important to mention that we’re dealing with charges still to be dealt with—lead both believers and non-believers to ask many question.

Today, I’d like to tackle just one set of questions: Why is the Church so concerned about human sexuality, about the institution of marriage, about what people do in their private lives? Why can’t the Church—and its celibate clergy—stick to a “religious” message? Why does it need to make an issue of “political” things, things like same-sex “marriage” and the like?

Aren't we just setting ourselves up for a fall, for the charge of hypocrisy?

I’ve heard these kind of questions often enough, even from loyal Catholics. So today I want to answer them by speaking about the Church’s mission; calling; duty; and obligation to preach a message about human sexuality and its place in securing the good of both individuals and society.

Of course we all know folks who consider themselves Catholic but disagree with various moral teachings of the Church. I’m not really talking to them today, but to rather to those Catholics who don’t see that the Church is compelled by her Founder to preach a message about the plan of God for all creation.

Do I fault people for that? I certainly do not. I can tell you that much of what I know about the Church’s divine calling to preach about God’s plan, about the natural order, about the natural law, I did not know until well into my seminary years and even later. We don’t do a good job of getting this message out.

As a result, there are sincere Catholics who think that the Gospel message is an exclusively — in quotation marks — “religious message.” They don’t realize that the Good News of Jesus Christ embraces both the truths we tend to think of as religious — forgiveness of sins or the saving sacrifice of the Mass, for example — and truths which are more broadly speaking natural, indeed pre-Christian.

Much of what the Church teaches about God’s plan for man and woman is found in the Book of Genesis. In the Hebrew scriptures—in the scriptures given to the Chosen People. Certainly we have in the New Testament an expanded and enriched understanding of the Genesis teaching. But foundationally, what is true at the order of creation, at the moment when God brought this world into existence, belongs to the deposit of Faith that the Church must preach in season and out of season.

I can’t underscore this simple point enough. The Church is called to preach the whole truth. And the Church is called to preach that truth to the entire world.

Many well-intentioned Catholics think that we should keep our nose out of public debates, and preach to our own. Many Catholics do not recognize that the Church has a mission to the world. We do not go out to the world and say, “Jesus Christ is Lord; be baptized so you can come to Mass and receive the Eucharist with us.” We say: “Jesus Christ has come to bring life, and to bring it to the full. To you, in every aspect of your being.”

There’s no such thing as a purely religious truth. Things are true or they are not true. And if they are true, if they bring life, then they are part of what the Church proclaims.

Both the first reading and the Gospel at Mass today present the divine plan written into our bodies: the creation account of Genesis reveals the distinct order of nature—man and woman we were created. Man and woman. And man and woman were created that they might be one. One flesh in the divine perfect plan of creation.

The Church must proclaim this. We cannot step back from these truths, for fear of consequences. They belong to the Gospel. They come to us from Jesus—how many times have I heard people say that the Catholic Church is against divorce and remarriage. This is not a teaching of the Catholic Church but of Jesus himself, as our Gospel passage today makes clear.

If our moral teaching is only rules and regulations, it can’t be understood as Gospel, surely. Yet I have a book on my shelf entitled “The Good News About Sex and Marriage”, and it’s remarkably popular with young adults in the parish.

Still, many Catholics have never heard a word about this kind of good news, and for that we preachers must apologize. In our defense, unless priests did nothing but talk year-round about issues of sexuality and creation and marriage, they couldn’t present from the pulpit a full and comprehensive explanation of why the Church’s teaching is wholesome and good and Good News.

It’s impossible first because we only have your attention for twelve to fifteen minutes a week—and sometimes we’re lucky to get that! Secondly, there are many other truths that must be shared in the course of a year. Finally, it’s impossible because there are limits to what one can say in a group that includes all ages. (Even today, if you’ve listened carefully you’ll notice I have used roundabout expressions to limit the questions that may come up on the drive home!)

And in fact, not everyone needs to hear every thing. At different stages in life we face different moral challenges.

The teaching on divorce, particularly, and the complex area of annulment is worthy of homily all to itself, but I’m not going to give it today. The Church’s teachings on responsible parenthood and artificial contraception … that’s really worth an entire sermon, and I will manage it someday soon, because these teachings are sometimes rejected by people who really haven’t heard them; no-one’s ever told them the reasons that might help them accept freely and joyfully what the Church proposes.

I’ll never forget Archbishop Carney talking about the controversy over Pope Paul VI’s letter on artificial contraception. “I didn’t obey Pope Paul,” he snorted. “I agreed with him!”)

This is a good moment to remind you that I’m not talking here about people who break moral laws. That’s quite a different issue. It’s possible to break moral laws—to commit sin—without rejecting the truth of the teaching or the authority of the teacher. We can choose what we know to be bad — I do it every time I go to McDonald’s!

But the fact remains: knowing and understanding is an aid to acceptance and obedience.

So let’s seek knowledge and understanding together. Give the Church a chance to share the good news about men and women and the family. Read. Talk. Express your doubts and ask your questions. Let’s exchange e-mails or have a visit. Contact our parish coordinator for natural family planning, Karen Magee; her number’s in the bulletin.

Whatever we do, let’s not let the daily paper and the other media distort the good news of the Church’s teaching. It’s enough that it has to be the source of bad news about the Church’s problems.

If I had the time, there's more I'd like to say at this painful moment for the Church in Canada. It is painful, certainly. But it’s a reminder that the times in which we live make it increasingly tough to remain a complacent Catholic. If we doubt that the Church has a message of truth from the Creator, and if out of embarrassment or sheer frustration over human failures in the Church we want to shrink Catholic truth to things around the altar, we will soon, I think, be dissatisfied with the broader, and indeed, true notion of Church.

Maybe more to the point, if we allow ourselves to conclude that the Church is just plain wrong about these important things, we’ll eventually love her less and perhaps stop loving her at all.

Let’s not allow that to happen. As a first step, many of us need to know a whole lot more about what the Church teaches, and why. To help with that, there’s an attractive booklet inserted in this week’s bulletin. It’s called Marriage in the Catholic Church: Frequently Asked Questions.* It tackles a whole lot of tough issues in a positive way, ranging from the Church’s view on sex to the best ways to strengthen a marriage. For the most part, it uses plainer language than most Church publications.

It offers a lot of solid information, nicely packaged, and it really deserves to be read by everyone sixteen years of age and up.

Most of all, the booklet needs to be read by all who want to understand Catholic moral teachings, particularly those most attacked today. Let’s discover for ourselves the good news about sex and marriage. And let’s be glad, not sad, that the Church can proclaim a liberating, holistic, helpful, and healing message… even in her human frailty.

*A pastoral document from the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, adapted for Canada by the Catholic Organization for Life and Family (COLF), which is co-sponsored by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Supreme Council of the Knights of Columbus.

Anniversary of Cathedral Dedication

Today we celebrate the anniversary of the dedication of the central church of our archdiocese, Holy Rosary Cathedral.

It’s clear that this is a very significant day, since the liturgical calendar ranks it as a feast throughout the diocese.

Why is that?

An obvious answer would be the importance of the cathedral to the life of the local church. It’s there that the archbishop has his chair, or cathedra, and it’s there we celebrate great moments in the community of faith. Many of us have gone to confession there thanks to the dedicated ministry of the Cathedral priests. Holy Rosary is a symbol of the unity of the diocesan family.

But that answer alone really wouldn’t explain this feastday. After all, when we celebrated yesterday the gift of our Guardian Angels, that liturgy was a ‘memorial’, a less important rank than feast.

The reason for this is deeply theological. In all religions, the temple is the place where the divinity is thought to make itself present to worshippers. By means of the temple, they enter into communication with the world of the gods.

We see this in paganism, we see this in Buddhism, and we saw it in the Old Testament, where the temple at Jerusalem is the sign of the presence of God among his people.

But that Old Testament sign was “provisional” and passing, destined to be replaced with a sign of another sort—not, however, a building, but the Body of Christ and his Church (Xavier Léon-Dufour, Dictionary of Biblical Theology [2nd ed.]594).

That’s why the Church is the New Jerusalem—itself a sign of God-with-us. We, as members of the Body of Christ, form a spiritual temple not built by human hands. Together with Christ, St. Peter tells us, we are one building (1 Pt 2:4).

So our feast today celebrates the invisible richness that eclipses even the most beautiful art and architecture of the great cathedrals of Europe. We recall the dedication of Holy Rosary as a shining symbol of the Church with a capital C, built on Christ, the foundation and cornerstone.

We rejoice in the presence of God in our midst—not just within four walls at Richards and Dunsmuir, but in the Body of Christ, which is at one and the same time, temple, sacrifice, and priest (Xavier Léon-Dufour, Dictionary of Biblical Theology [2nd ed.]594).

At the same time, as members of this local Church, the anniversary of the dedication of our cathedral to God’s praise and glory reminds us today of our call to work together in faith and charity for its growth and upbuilding.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Preaching to Beat Hell? (26th Sunday, Year B)

A group of American tourists was visiting Mount Vesuvius, the great volcano east of Naples. The volcano was quite active, and from the lookout they could see a seething mass of lava and steam.

At the sight of this, one of the Americans cried out “It is just like hell!”

An Italian standing nearby turned to her friend and said “Dio mio! These Americans—they’ve been everywhere!”

And speaking of Italians, Americans and hell, there’s the story of the famous Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli who was appearing in a production of the opera “Faust” in Boston. The stage had a trap door that sank down as his character descended to hell.

Unfortunately, it was a small trap door and Gigli was not a small man. Half way to hell, he got stuck and could descend no further. This prompted a member of the audience who’d had one too many glasses of champagne at the intermission to exclaim “Thank God—I’m safe at last. Hell is full!”

Those are lighthearted stories about a very serious subject, but today’s second reading and Gospel are actually rather grim: both talk about eternal fire, and in pretty blunt terms.

The timing is interesting. I read the paper on Saturday morning, before I looked at the readings for this Sunday, and I was annoyed—as I so often am—by an ill-informed opinion column, even though it made a few good points.

What got my goat was this statement: “Sunday morning pulpits are reserved for fire-and-brimstone sermonizing.”

Say what?

When’s the last time you heard a fire-and-brimstone sermon? Some of you have never heard one. Others maybe remember one from a Redemptorist parish mission in 1951. If the Sunday morning pulpit is reserved for fire and brimstone, the reservation must have been made a long, long time ago—and never claimed.

I’d go so far as to say that we do not hear enough about hell, considering that it is a truth of our faith, and one with pretty serious implications for all of us.

The other day I was chatting with someone who more or less apologized for keeping God’s law because of fear of God. That’s a perfectly good reason to keep God’s law! It shouldn’t be the only reason, since the law of God is the path to peace and many other good things. But God should be feared—over and over again, Jesus, in all his gentleness and meekness, lets us know that.

The Letter of the Hebrews puts it plainly: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).

I came across a story this week about a priest who came to Mass with a Band-Aid on his chin. He explained to the congregation that he’d been thinking about his homily and had cut himself. After Mass a rather outspoken parishioner suggested that next Sunday he should think about himself and cut the homily.

With that in mind, I think I can wrap this homily up rather briefly. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reaffirms the existence of hell and its eternity. While we speak of hell as “eternal fire,” the chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone we can have the life and happiness for which we were created and for which we long. (CCC 1035)

Is this just bad news? On the contrary: it’s good news. We have a right to know the consequences of our choices. The Catechism says that the teachings of Scripture and the Church on the subject of hell are a call to responsibility. These teachings invite us to make use of our freedom in view of our eternal destiny. (CCC 1036) In other words, Christ and his Church have let us know what’s at stake in the choices we make.

At the same time, the teachings of Jesus about hell are an urgent call to conversion. He says “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (CCC 1036)

No matter what nonsense we may have heard in the sixties, no matter what we think is “fair,” hell is real… and it is not full.

And we shouldn’t need fire and brimstone sermons to help us figure out what this means for us as Christians—no matter what the religious ‘experts’ at the Vancouver Sun think.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Small Sins, Big Results (25th Sunday, Year B)

A priest friend of mine called yesterday afternoon and asked what I planned to say this Sunday.

I told him “I'm preaching for six minutes on rudeness, taking my cue from the second reading [James 3:16-4:3]. Simple subject, simple sermon.”

And that was my honest intention. But I failed—for a good reason. As I reflected on what St. James says, I became convinced that it’s not simple at all. In fact, it’s deadly serious stuff, and needs a very careful look.

In the first place, the readings tell us that how we treat one another reflects what’s going on inside our hearts. There are a whole lot of good reasons to avoid conflicts and disputes and selfishness, but for the Christian the number one reason is spiritual.

When we act in ways that aren’t peaceable, gentle, merciful and fruitful we not only harm our neighbor, we turn away from God. We know this because St. Paul describes life in the Spirit in almost those exact words.

St. James also reminds us that small sins lead to bigger ones. Weren’t you a bit startled when he went from talking about conflicts and disputes to murder in just a sentence or two? It’s true: most of us won’t kill each other because we’re not getting along. And yet disordered desires and ambitions are actually the root of both minor squabbles and fatal fights.

You can see proof of this in the first reading. The godless have nothing more serious against the just man other than the fact he makes them feel uncomfortable. But that’s enough to lead them to torture and kill him, because nothing checks their hatred.

Jesus was not crucified by psychopaths or sociopaths or bloodthirsty murderers. He was condemned by religious folk like you and me who failed to deal with their personal issues—envy, ambition, and pride.

The root of some horrendous crime is mental illness, certainly, and at other times unadulterated evil. But often enough the source of great wrongs is much less dramatic and much more ordinary. It can even be petty.

One of the best books I have ever read was Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by the sociologist Hannah Arendt, who had attended the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi official responsible for organizing the details of Hitler’s “final solution.”1

Arendt argues that Eichmann showed no trace of anti-Semitism or psychological illness. Her use of the phrase the “banality of evil,” refers to Eichmann's claim that he bore no responsibility because he was simply “doing his job.”

But we’ve all heard that excuse. For me what was really astonishing about the book was Arendt’s discovery that Eichmann was less of a monster than a clown—he was a boring little man who helped with some of the worst things ever done in human history because he wanted to fit in, and he wanted to impress his superiors.

Even a team of Israeli psychologists had to conclude that in most respects Eichmann was “normal.”

If this is even partly true—and Professor Arendt’s conclusions aren’t universally accepted—we get an idea of how “ordinary” sins can deform the person and lead to the very heart of evil. There are, in other words, no harmless sins—sin by definition is harmful.

Let me take you from the drama of the death camps to more familiar places—perhaps to a staff meeting at work, or a family dinner, or even a parish council meeting. Does it matter if we commit ordinary sins in these settings?

Academic studies published this year have shown that just witnessing rudeness can reduce your performance of both routine and creative tasks.2 The researchers also found that witnessing rudeness decreased citizenship behaviors—that’s a fancy term for acting kindly and thoughtfully. On top of all that, it “increased dysfunctional ideation.”

“Dysfunctional ideation” is just a really fancy term for “stinking thinking.”)

All that from just listening to people being rude. And the study looked at both rude authority figures and rude peers. Same result.

On top of all that there’s the research I cited a few weeks back that showed how sitting next to co-workers who bad-mouth your employer makes you more cynical, less trustful of your bosses, and more likely to engage in bad-mouthing of your own.3

Small sins. Big results.

Just before the passage we listened to this morning St. James talks about “taming the tongue.” I don’t know why we don’t read these verses as well—they are very practical, and St. James pulls no punches. He points out that a great forest is set ablaze by a small fire. To do great harm it doesn’t even take a fiery tongue: sometimes a spark will do the trick.

He adds that when we put a bit in the mouth of a horse, we guide the whole horse; similarly, when Christians hold their tongues, they control themselves. The tongue is like the rudder of a ship—very small, but it determines where you’re going.

It’s hard to think of any sin more common than sins of speech—whether we’re talking about gossip, criticism, slander, anger, detraction, rudeness or insincerity. There are pastors who need to tame their tongues, there are parents who need to tame their tongues, and there are children who need to tame their tongues.

There are seven year olds who sin by what they say or how they say it, and eight-seven year olds who do the same. I won’t say anything about ninety-seven year olds in the hope they have the problem licked.

So let’s take this lesson seriously, all of us—young and old, at home, at work, and at church— so that together we can enjoy the “harvest of righteousness that is sown in peace.”

1.Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). (Rev. ed. New York: Viking, 1968)].

2.Christine L. Porath and, Amir Erez, “Overlooked but not untouched: How rudeness reduces onlookers’ performance on routine and creative tasks,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 109 (2009) 29–44.

3.J.M. Wilkerson, W.R. Evans, and W.D. Davis, “A Test of Coworkers’ Influence on Organizational Cynicism, Badmouthing, and Organizational Citizenship Behavior,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 2008 (38) 2273-2292.