Saturday, April 24, 2010

Good Shepherd Sunday

Two of my favourite parishioners are Scots Presbyterians.

Well, since they are Presbyterians, it might be more accurate to call them “honourary parishioners.” One’s the husband of a long-time parishioner, while the other is the father of an active young adult in the parish.

The Presbyterian father actually says he’d become Catholic if we’d only bring back the Latin! I visited him when he was in the hospital recently and gave him a blessing—in Latin, of course.

One of the reasons why I enjoy the friendship of these two men so much is that Scots Presbyterians aren’t exactly famous for admiring Roman Catholics. We’ve come a long way together since the days of deep mutual distrust.

But that’s not to say that anti-Catholicism has disappeared. In fact, in recent days it has reemerged in public forms more vitriolic and offensive than anything we’ve seen since mobs attacked convents and churches in the U.S. and Britain in the 19th century.

Many recent newspaper stories about the Church are simply good journalism, exposing to the light things that needed to be known. As Peggy Noonan has written, the media has done the Church a big favour. But some of what has appeared in the papers is nothing more than old-fashioned hatred of the Church, and needs to be understood as such.

It’s a double tragedy when Catholics swallow anti-Catholic and anti-papal garbage simply because it’s published alongside painfully true stories that we cannot and should not deny.

God, however, works for good in all things. While many people will have their negative view of the Church confirmed by news reports, others recognize the hatred spewing from certain corners and will defend the Church.

This is a time when we find out who our friends are—and, more important, how fellow Christians and indeed some non-Christians, put what unites us ahead of what divides us.

This week a third Presbyterian friend—not a Scot, but a minister’s son—brought me joy that tempered the latest load of pain inflicted by the infidelity of some of my brothers in the priesthood.

He sent me an e-mail, in which he wrote “My heart has been breaking for you and all my Catholic friends during this latest beating.”

“There are Protestants praying for the Roman Catholics around the world. Certainly in North Vancouver.

He signed it “With gratitude and respect.”

And he called later in the week to apologize for taking so long to express his support. In his voicemail he said “There are so many people who are honoured to know Catholics like you and Catholics generally.” He called the attacks of militant Church-haters like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins “an absolute travesty.”

As if that wasn’t enough, my Presbyterian friend sent along a link to the blog of a well-known Canadian Christian songwriter and musician, Steve Bell. The blog posts an article titled “About a Catholic Priest and a Young Boy.” In it, Steve Bell tells the story of his youthful friendship with Father Bob MacDougall, a Jesuit priest who later became known for his appearances on the TV program 700 Huntley Street.

It’s a long story, remarkable mostly because of its timing. Steve Bell first acknowledges with great sensitivity that there are some awful stories that must be told so that justice may be served and healing take place.

“But among all the other stories that need to be told right now,” he wrote, “it feels important to tell this good story about a priest and a young boy.”

A good story it certainly is—one of friendship, support, and encouragement.

To sum it up, Steve Bell credits some of his considerable success as an artist to the fact that “a Catholic priest profoundly and appropriately cared about and invested in me during my youth and early adulthood.”

And he writes “I’m sure my story is not unique. The church has been marrying, burying, nurturing, and consoling souls for centuries. Her flaws do not constitute her any more than mine constitute me, and I bet yours don’t constitute you either. It’s terribly important we own up to and amend for our weaknesses. But it’s also important we don’t allow them to define us – mostly because in isolation, they are impotent to tell the whole truth.”

This is not your typical homily on Good Shepherd Sunday. But I share the thoughts of these wonderful Protestant friends as a reminder that God really does keep working, even in the roughest times—or maybe especially in the roughest times.

Equally, I share them as a reminder that the Good Shepherd never leaves his flock untended.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Divine Mercy Sunday

It’s been a humbling week.

First of all, the stream of news stories about the failings of the Church—some accurate, some scurrilous—was disheartening. Secondly, my best efforts to share some thoughts with you about the scandal just weren’t good enough. After I’d written more than 2700 words, roughly twice the length of an average sermon, two trusted parishioners whom I’d asked to read them over said in a nice way that I’d not quite hit the mark.

But, these wise friends suggested, the Easter editorial in The BC Catholic was just what disheartened Catholics need to hear. They said I might be better off taking the same approach.

After reading the editorial, I decided I could never hope to improve on it. So with thanks and admiration to Paul Schratz, the fine editor of our Catholic paper, I’m going to read it to you now:

“If Pope Benedict XVI were a lesser man, he might be wondering why he’s being treated like Job right now, during Holy Week, when the Church is preparing to celebrate the Resurrection.

At the same time that the Church is welcoming new members into its fold, around the world others are shaking the dust off their sandals and leaving the Church, so scandalized are they by accounts of sexual abuse and cover-ups that are spreading across Europe.

The Church in Canada and in the U.S. has already walked this Way of the Cross, but the current revelations in Germany and Ireland elevate the scandal to senior levels and even threaten to implicate the Pontiff himself.

These trials that the Church universal is undergoing in the week before Easter effectively display an earthly lesson of a heavenly plan: that God allows what He allows, and He brings His gifts from it.

This Easter could have been a time of worldly optimism for the Church. The Year for Priests is in full flourish, vocations are on the rise, the scandals of the past seemed to be in remediation, discussions with non-Catholics are showing progress; in short, the Church had no shortage of earthly reasons to think it was in good shape.

It was not to be, and now Pope Benedict is forced to carry a cross as big as the world.

The Pope, one of the world’s keenest theologians and Holy Father of the universal Church, knows that crosses are permitted for a reason, and he will faithfully carry his, as heavy as it is.

The scandals breaking out in Ireland and Germany are as painful to him as anything could be – his own Garden of Gethsemane. As he walks publicly through humiliation, scorn, and mockery in a personal yet public Way of the Cross, he may very well fall. If he’s fortunate he will be blessed by numerous Simons of Cyrene to help ease his burden.

But as Christ’s vicar on earth, he’s the one who is being called to the cross. The feckless public, fuelled by media thirsty to report the story as one of power and hypocrisy, will abandon him. In the words of professional atheist Christopher Hitchens, the man “personally and professionally responsible for enabling a filthy wave of crime” must be nailed to a cross, his reputation smeared.

If that does indeed happen, Benedict will be in glorious company. Jesus literally walked the Passion that Benedict is living in a figurative sense now. What’s more, Christ was completely stainless, in contrast to the flock Benedict leads, which certainly is guilty of sinfulness that has brought about the current state of affairs.

In the end, Christ died on the cross, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and redeemed mankind – from the worst sinner right through to the greatest saint.

There’s no question that sin, scandal, and abuse have existed in the Church since its institution 2,000 years ago. Pope John Paul II repeatedly apologized on behalf of members of the Church who had sinned in its name, and that sinning continues to this day.

Pope Benedict doesn’t know what will result from this Holy Week suffering. It may continue through the rest of his pontificate and beyond, its casualties including not only those who suffered abuse at the hands of trusted clergy, but to an extent every member of the Church today.

Pope Benedict in his letter to the Church in Ireland said he shares “in the dismay and sense of betrayal” that so many have experienced on learning of “these sinful and criminal acts and the way the Church authorities have dealt with them.”

He called on Catholics to pray, fast, read Scripture, and perform acts of mercy for the renewal of the Church in Ireland. Certainly much will have to change in the way the Church does things, starting with the attitudes that allowed abuse and cover-up to continue as long as they did.

At the same time, however, we can remain confident that God is walking alongside His Church, as He does each of us, while the suffering is endured. The glory of the resurrection and the promise of the heavenly wedding banquet will make up for the horrors of this world.

God chose the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, said St. Paul. He can certainly use trials of Good Friday to bring about the glory of Easter Sunday.”

That’s the end of Mr. Schratz’s editorial, and I am tempted to end there too. There’s more to say, certainly, and I hope I’m able to return to these issues in the weeks ahead. However, yesterday’s National Post carried a column by another writer I like very much, the American Peggy Noonan. I’d like to quote briefly from what she wrote about what she calls “the Church’s catastrophe”:

“There are three great groups of victims in this story. The first and most obvious, the children who were abused, who trusted, were preyed upon and bear the burden through life.

The second group is the good priests and good nuns, the great leaders of the church in the day today, who save the poor, teach the immigrant, and, literally, save lives. They have been stigmatized when they deserve to be lionized.

And the third group is the Catholics in the pews—the heroic Catholics of [North] America and now Europe, the hardy souls who in spite of what has been done to their church are still there, still making parish life possible, who hold high the flag, their faith unshaken. No one thanks those Catholics, sees their heroism, respects their patience and fidelity. The world thinks they’re stupid. They are not stupid, and with their prayers they keep the world going, and the old church too.”

Peggy Noonan is only partly right about that third group. I, for one, thank those Catholics, and I know well that they’re anything but stupid. I thank you, for your continued confidence in me. I know your heroism, I know how you have to put up with those who mock your faith and rejoice in the failings of your leaders. And I respect your patience, as the Church seeks reform and renewal.

So don’t falter or lose heart—with your prayers you will keep the world going, and the wounded old Church too.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Easter Sunday 2010

Parishioners like to forward me jokes, stories and links on the internet. I get a kick out of the jokes, even if they’re often older than I am. And sometimes the things they pass along are so hard to believe that I do some research and write back debunking an urban myth or a plain old error.

One of the most obvious frauds was a series of photos that showed duelling church signs, with a Catholic and a Protestant church duking it out over whether or not dogs had souls. A careful look at the various photos showed exactly the same cars parked in the background of every sign, proof positive it was a computerized prank, not an ecumenical crisis.

Last week a parishioner sent me a video clip called “The Bear.” It was taken from a 1989 movie by the French director Jean-Jacques Annaud. If it had been filmed any later, I’d have been sure it was just more computer wizardry, but in fact it’s an amazing film starring real animals.

Here’s what happens in the short clip, which you can find on YouTube.

A cougar, already snarling, appears on a mountainside. It catches sight of a bear cub some distance away. The predator licks its lips as the cute cub rolls happily in the grass.

After sizing up its prey, the cougar takes a great leap from atop a rock and begins to bound towards the cub. The cub looks up in terror and begins to run as fast as its little legs allow. The cougar pursues it relentlessly, and the distance narrows with each passing second.

The fleeing cub reaches a river, and runs up a fallen tree in a futile attempt to escape, only to have a limb break off and dump him in the fast-moving water. It’s not obvious that the little bear can swim, since he holds on to the log for dear life.

Just when it looks like the river might carry the cub away from his attacker, a waterfall comes into view. The crafty cougar positions himself there, knowing the bear has to get back to land or go over the edge.

And when the cub does get to land, the cougar’s there ahead of him. With a snarl, he swipes his claw across the cub’s snout. The bloodied bear’s only defense is a howl, part pain, part battle cry, but the horrified viewer has no hope for the younger animal against the mature cougar.

A second swipe, and the cub howls in pain.

Then all of a sudden, the cougar falters. He turns tail, and moves away. With relief and some bravado, the cub roars as his attacker retreats.

Then the camera pans out, and we see what’s really frightened off the cougar. Standing behind the small cub is an enormous, full sized grizzly, reared up majestically on its hind legs, growling in unison with the cub. Finally the cub turns, and sees the real reason for its salvation.

It runs to the giant bear, who licks its wounds as the tiny bear whimpers in relief.

Now what, you are all wondering by now, has this to do with Easter?

In the Book of Revelation, Jesus is called “the Lion of Judah.” And so he is: the noblest of beasts of the animal kingdom is a fitting symbol for the victor over sin and death.

But here in B.C., a bear is also a fitting symbol for Jesus, and the story I described can help us think about what His Resurrection can mean for us. For we have more in common with that helpless cub than we may care to admit.

I might be mixing my animal metaphors, but recall St. Peter’s words of warning: “Your enemy the devil is prowling round like a roaring lion, looking for someone to eat.” We’re being watched constantly by an Enemy who’s hungry and ready to strike without mercy.

And sometimes our best efforts at self-defence aren’t enough. We feel hopeless, swept downstream like the cub clinging on to the log. Then the devil takes one swipe, and then another. We howl and growl but he won’t back off, and life becomes a brutal contest just to survive.

The enemy may attack in different ways. Sometimes he attacks directly, cougar-like, with the yeast of malice and evil that St. Paul mentions in our second reading. Other times he comes from behind, using what Jesus called the yeast of Pharisees (Matt 16:11).

He may use our failures, or our fantasies; he may exploit illness, depression, or fear. The assault may come when we are young, just starting our Christian journey, or after many years of faithful living.

It may be the fear of death, or the fear of living. It may be loneliness, or financial worry. It may be the burdens of family life.

Perhaps doubts assail us, or lusts defeat us. One of the devil’s favourite ploys is nothing more than discouragement. I can only wonder what he might have done with the downcast disciples on the road to Emmaus if the Risen Lord had not been there instead.

In any of these circumstances, we need to know that ‘Someone has my back,’ as the current expression goes. Someone stronger by far, greater by far, fiercer by far confronts our Enemy if only we will take a stand. If only we will face our fears, the God who loves us as a mother hen loves her chicks (Matt 23:37) or a bear her cubs will defend and protect us.

To expect less from God on the day His Son has risen from the dead is to miss the point. Jesus rose in power. Jesus rose as victor. If he had chosen to roar as he came out from the tomb, all the trees of the world would have been uprooted at the sound.

The second reading is our invitation to let Easter change our lives. Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Why go back to the way things were before?

Why fight the battle alone, when there’s Someone right behind you who promises victory? Why flee in fear when an all-powerful champion wants to turn back the enemy in every attack?

Despite all I’ve said about lions and bears this morning, I promise I won’t use the new sign at the entryway to get into an argument with other churches about whether animals have immortal souls. They don’t!

But each of us has one, and each of our souls is precious to Jesus, our Lord and Redeemer. This Easter Sunday, let’s ask him to defend and protect them from every kind of attack.

Let us confront our demons—and the Demon himself—knowing that the Risen Christ, God of power and might, ‘has our back.’

And as we renew our baptismal promises to Christ, let us remember Christ’s Easter promise to us—a promise of protection, redemption, and hope.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Banality of Evil (Good Friday 2010)

I had the most peculiar thought while reading the Passion last Sunday. In the middle of the story of the greatest evil ever done, half-way through the most terrible tragedy in human history, I found myself thinking “these folks weren’t all that bad”!

After all, almost everyone was just doing their job. The high priests were defending their religion, Pontius Pilate was being a politician, and the soldiers were doing what they were told.

Nowhere in the picture is there a Hitler, a Clifford Olson, a Paul Bernardo, or anyone really resembling the monstrous criminals of the modern age. Even Judas is more pathetic than terrible.

And yet, undeniably, the condemnation, torture and death of Jesus Christ was the greatest evil, the most awful injustice, of all time. This is clear not only from the fact that Jesus was innocence itself, killed for his very goodness, but equally from what he himself said on the eve of his passion: “This is your hour and the power of darkness.” The passion and death of the Lord was the hour when darkness reigned.

So how do we reconcile this apparent 'routineness' of the Passion with its monstrosity? What can we learn from the absence of a psychopathic villain in the story?

The famous sociologist and philosopher Hannah Arendt gives one answer. In a controversial and startling study, she concludes that much of the evil of the Holocaust was perpetrated by very ordinary people: people who were not motivated by racial hatred but by a desire to please their bosses; people who weren’t monsters but frighteningly like you and me.

The title of the book is Eichmann in Jerusalem, because it revolves around the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the so-called architect of the Holocaust. But the subtitle tells you what it’s really about: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Arendt questions whether evil is radical or simply thoughtless—the tendency of ordinary people to obey orders and conform to mass opinion without critically thinking about the results of their action or inaction.

If she is right, and I am convinced she is at least partly right, compromises and cowardice can bring about great evils. Satan does not depend on evil geniuses to accomplish his wretched purposes. To quote the famous line attributed to Edmund Burke, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for enough good men to do nothing.”

The idea that evil is not all that bad sounds comical when you say it, but often that’s what our actions and attitudes are saying. Pope Benedict spoke of this in a particularly direct way on the feast of the Immaculate Conception in 2005.

"…we have a lurking suspicion that a person who does not sin must really be basically boring and that something is missing from his life: the dramatic dimension of being autonomous; [we suspect] that the freedom to say no, to descend into the shadows of sin and to want to do things on one's own is part of being truly human.

"In a word, we think that evil is basically good, we think that we need it, at least a little, in order to experience the fullness of being. We think that a little bargaining with evil, keeping for oneself a little freedom against God, is basically a good thing, perhaps even necessary."

Think about it for a second—don’t many of us think we need at least a little evil to be fulfilled—can’t we recognize in ourselves that “lurking suspicion” that people who don’t sin must “really be basically boring”?

The cross tells us that this is a lie. Evil brings death, not life. There’s no “good” evil. In all its forms evil cripples and wounds. Jesus died and rose to overpower evil and to free us from its power.

Pope Benedict tells us that this ‘lurking suspicion’ is a lie. Look at the world around you, he said, and see for yourself; “evil is always poisonous, [it] does not uplift human beings but degrades and humiliates them. It does not make them any the greater, purer or wealthier, but harms and belittles them.”

“The person who abandons himself totally in God's hands,” the Pope said, “does not become God's puppet, a boring “yes man”; he does not lose his freedom. Only the person who entrusts himself totally to God finds true freedom, the great, creative immensity of the freedom of good.”

Christ offers us true freedom—the immense freedom of good. The cross, not self-seeking pleasures, is the path to life.

As we behold Christ crucified, let us take the true measure of the sins that led him to Calvary, and renew our desire to live holy lives under the shadow of the cross.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Eucharist and Charity: Holy Thursday

What would you give to see the face of Jesus? Wouldn’t it be worth everything you own—your car, your house, your RRSP?

I don’t actually have a house—or an RRSP, for that matter—but I know there’s nothing I wouldn’t give to look into the eyes of the Lord for just one moment.

It’s only natural to want to see with our eyes what we know with our hearts. Even though the Apostle Philip walked and talked with Jesus, still at the Last Supper he says to him, “Lord, show us the Father. That will be enough for us.”

Jesus answers “Don’t you know me, Philip? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” That’s fair enough for Philip, who was sitting at the table with our Lord—not physically separated from him by centuries as we are.

But who could blame us for saying “Show yourself to us, Lord—and that will be enough”. Who could blame us for wanting something more visible than what appears to be bread and wine, real and wonderful though the Eucharistic presence is?

St. Augustine has something startling to say about this natural longing to see God: “If you see charity, you see the Trinity.” In other words, if God is love—as St. John tells us—then the experience of true love is an experience of God. If you see charity—if you see love in action—then you see the Trinity.

St. Augustine’s bold statement had me scratching my head for a moment; I’d never come across it before Pope Benedict quoted it in his encyclical on love. Then it hit me that I have been singing this truth every Holy Thursday for years, in the ancient hymn Ubi caritas. Its first line is “Where charity and love are, there God is.”

And all of a sudden I had a fresh understanding of why Jesus chose to wash the apostles’ feet at the Last Supper. If washing their feet was only about service, Jesus had many earlier opportunities to teach the lesson.

No, he got down on his hands and knees with a basin so that we’d never forget the connection between charity and the Eucharist. Jesus knew we’d see only the appearance of bread before us at Mass, so he chose to help us see him in another sacramental way—he wanted us to recognize him not only in the breaking of the bread but also in the service of our sisters and brothers.

Are you having trouble looking beyond the appearance of bread and wine at Mass? Then look to the love all around you and see another divine Presence, different but no less real.

So far this homily may strike you as theoretical. If you see charity, you see God. Well, where do we see charity?

We see it, of course, all over the place. For all its wounds, Western civilization remains a charitable culture, with good works carried on widely by both secular and religious organizations and by believers and non-believers alike.

But if you really want to see charity—to see the Trinity—look to your left and right. Look to the pew ahead of you; look across the aisle; you see charity right here. Because I can tell you better than anyone that the community that gathers around this altar every week is a community of love. The charity that shows God’s face is right here in this parish church and in its homes and schools.

I see the face of God in our parish community day after day, week after week. By care and concern and charity, Christ the Redeemer Parish lives the command that Jesus gave the apostles at the Last Supper.

Let me be more specific. Ours is a welcoming community. No sooner do I meet a family new to the parish than I hear they’ve been invited to dinner by other parishioners. Someone mentions they’re looking for work, and in the same breath that another parishioner’s been giving help and encouragement.

This is not just casual kindness, but a way of living for some dedicated members of the parish. They’re literally watching out for the needs of others.

We welcome the young, as Christ commanded when he said “Let the little children come to me.” Volunteers meet with new parents to help them prepare for the baptism of infants. Our elementary and high schools themselves are works of Christian charity, built by parishioners, including those whose own children had long finished school. The work of our catechists, both professional teachers and generous volunteers, is a gift of love to the youngsters who attend St. Anthony’s, PREP classes, the children’s Liturgy of the Word, and to the youth attending St. Thomas Aquinas or I2T, our high school religious education program.

We welcome those new to the faith, or returning to the faith. Week after week our RCIA team members and our bible study organizers sacrifice their time to share the Good News.

Our greeters welcome people at the door each Sunday, along with the parking patrol, who have the hardest job in the parish but one of the most charitable, since they do their work rain or shine—and there’s usually more rain than shine.

The liturgies we celebrate are themselves labours of love, made possible by the generosity and hard work of sacristans, choirs, lectors, extraordinary ministers, and altar servers.

The parish is a caring community. When parishioners hear someone is ill, they want to know “how can I help?” Meals appear, rides are provided, and prayers are offered. Devoted men and women visit the two nursing homes in the parish each and every week.
I enjoy watching CWL members serving food after funerals. They make it so obvious that they’re not there just to pour tea, but to be a visible sign of the care and concern we feel for the bereaved and sometimes bewildered families of the deceased.

The community that gathers for Morning Prayer and daily Mass shows its care for the entire parish through prayer, interceding regularly for the sick, the dying, families, and other intentions.

This is a charitable community, responding with astonishing generosity to any need, local or global. In the two and half years I’ve been here, the parishioners have donated more than $100,000 for international relief, development, or evangelization. We have also supported the great work of North Vancouver’s Harvest Project which offers struggling folks “a hand up, not a hand-out.”

I can’t even begin to talk about the work of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which in its first year at Christ the Redeemer has already become one of the most vibrant organizations in the parish, showing Christ’s own compassion to people on both sides of the bridge in all kinds of generous service.

Charity begins at home, they say, and much of the Christian charity of the parish takes place in families. The stories I could tell about what parents do and suffer for their children—and, increasingly, what children do for aging parents—would have you weeping if they didn’t get me started first. The sacrifice and dedication shown by more than a few families makes washing twelve dirty feet seem like easy work indeed.

And the parish itself —like any family—needs charity just to keep ahead of the tensions and conflicts that are part of everyday life. While we do have two or three perfect parishioners (I keep a list of them to look at when I need encouragement), I’m not perfect and most of us aren’t perfect, but when we rub each other the wrong way, forgiveness is asked for and given quickly and easily.

I could go on and on—maybe I already have! The point of all this is not to congratulate you. It’s to see the connection between the love around us and the altar in front of us.

Again, we can turn to St. Augustine for a key insight. He says to us “Become what you eat; receive what you are.” We are becoming the Eucharist we receive! We receive at Mass the very love that we are living.

At Mass, we “come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled Himself to share in our humanity.” What could be more wonderful! What could be more profound!
On a lighter note, I like the story of the youngster who confessed that he’d tripped and hurt his brother.

“Well, surely that was an accident,” the priest said kindly. “No, Father,” the lad replied, “I tripped on purpose.”

I’m sure Jesus did nothing by accident, and everything for a purpose; and the Gospels record only his most significant sayings and gestures. The washing of the feet is packed with meaning: When inspired by love, every service we give to our neighbour takes on an extraordinary dimension; it foreshadows the total sacrifice which we should be ready to make, in imitation of Jesus.

When we open our eyes fully to the needs of our brothers and sisters, we will be moved to become more and more like Jesus, and others will see him in us more and more.

“I have set you an example,” Jesus tells us tonight in word and sign, that you also should do as I have done.” As we celebrate his Eucharist and follow his example in charity and love, we see God now in our midst, and live in the hope of seeing him forever in glory.