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.