Sunday, October 30, 2011

Contemporary Anticlericalism (Sunday 31.A)

Gossip can be good for you—at least that's what a new book says.

I'm not so sure. The author makes a clever case for the benefits of gossip, but if he spent a week in any parish he might change his mind. The fact is that much of the gossip you hear after Mass just isn't true.

I'll never forget the gossip that met me on my arrival here as pastor. On my second or third day someone asked me about the rumour that I was very unhappy to be at Christ the Redeemer; a day later another parishioner said she'd been told I had schemed and plotted to be named to this plum parish!

Parish communities are often hotbeds of gossip, and priests can be the prime target. Sometimes, of course, the gossip is true. We know all too well that priests, all too often, have given people good reason to speak about their faults and failings. What Jesus says doesn't apply just to the scribes and Pharisees, but to priests and other religious leaders as well.

And of course the proud or arrogant behavior that Our Lord describes in the Gospel isn't the worst evil; the first reading speaks of something much worse, the corruption of some priests—which brings upon them damnation and disgrace. But we've talked about that tragedy before. Today I would like to look at how we deal more generally with the flaws of our priests.

It's a tough topic, because we want our priests to practice what they preach. Last week, we heard St. Paul telling the Thessalonians to imitate him—he was that confident oh the example he gave. In today's second reading, he continues the self-portrait. Paul was a gentle and caring pastor, a model of Christian life. Priests should be, too.

But priests are human, and so struggle with human weakness. How do we handle that in a parish community?

Once upon a time, we handled it by never criticizing priests. In some pious homes you'd get away with criticizing your mother before criticizing a priest. This policy certainly helped people to be charitable, but it also helped some priests escape legitimate correction of faults and worse. It's not the answer.

And like most extreme positions, the "hear no evil, speak no evil" had a partner on the pendulum. That partner is called anticlericalism.

It's a word many Canadian Catholics have never heard, and that even fewer understand. Those of you from Europe or Mexico, however, know what anticlericalism is; in many countries, at various times, it was an organized political movement directed towards priests and religious. In some cases, it meant laws that made life more difficult for the clergy; in others it meant active persecution and even death.

An informed Canadian Catholic needs to know enough Church history to realize two things about anticlericalism. The first is that excessive priestly privileges in past centuries, or too much wealth concentrated in the hands of the Church, certainly encouraged the hostility towards the Church's ministers that anticlericalism represents.

There are few things more disturbing than hypocrisy, which is why Jesus uses the examples of the proud religious men of his day. When the clergy become a privileged group in society, resentment is natural.

In the middle ages there were books and poems that might be called anticlerical, because they mocked the clergy. Some of these writings were scandalous, but others expressed legitimate disappointment and disapproval of weak or selfish priests. At the end of the 1300s, Chaucer ridicules some of these in his famous poem The Canterbury Tales, considered a classic of medieval literature.

But the second thing we need to remember is that modern anticlericalism, at its heart, was not primarily an attack on priests. It was an attack on the Church.

The French Revolution, Communism, the Mexican constitution of 1917, the Spanish Civil War—all these and many other political movements had strong anticlerical elements. An Italian friend who just finished reading a history of his native country mentioned to me this week that he'd forgotten how much anticlericalism there was in the movement for Italian Independence.

In these and many other examples, hostility to the clergy was hostility to the Church of Christ, period.

Now why I am emphasizing these historical facts in today's homily? Simply because the ghost of anticlericalism continues to float through the air today. (And speaking of ghosts, you may be sure that most people dressed as priests and nuns at Halloween parties are doing so in a disrespectful way.) Communism is dead, at least in the once-Christian nations of Russia and Eastern Europe, and most of Mexico's anticlerical laws were not enforced in recent decades. But the strategy of attacking priests as a way of attacking the Church is alive and well, and Catholics need to know that.

Of course we need to know that intelligently, not blindly. Every attack on a priest is not an attack on the Church. We need to acknowledge that and to lament the terrible harm done by some priests. Yet if we don't recognize how enemies of the Church use the clergy as a proxy to attack the Church we will fail in our duty to defend her.

Recent scandals have prompted the threat of laws attacking the seal of the confessional in Ireland and some U.S. states. Various threats are made to the tax status of churches. Some extremists even argued for the arrest of the Pope when he stepped on British soil.

Again, there is no defense against actual crimes committed by clergy. But when we read the papers, watch TV, and speak with non-Catholic friends we must separate fact from fiction, and genuine reaction from anticlerical opportunism.

In other words, bad priests may have given a stick to those who despise the Church, but it doesn't mean good Catholics should sit around while they beat the Church with it.

Twentieth century Catholics need a mature understanding of this, and to be able to recognize three things:
  1. Serious failings of priests must be reported and addressed by the competent authorities, religious and civil.
  2. Foibles of priests—their everyday faults and shortcomings—we must take in our stride and not confuse with more serious things. As long as priests are chosen from among men and not angels, there will be some who do not practice what they teach or give an example to imitate. Jesus knew this from the start, which is why he warns us so sternly—and why he made sure that the power of the Sacraments did not depend on the holiness of the minister.
  3. The shortcomings of the Church's ministers, whether grave or not, aren't the shortcomings of the Church itself. When they're used as an excuse to attack the Church and her mission, it's likely that old-fashioned anticlericalism is at work once again.
It's good that I close by thanking you for the way you put up with my faults. I depend on your charity. You overlook my impatience and busy-ness, and generously wait for me to return phone calls and answer e-mails, to mention just a few things.

And I plead guilty to one of the specific charges that Jesus makes against the scribes and the Pharisees. I do love the place of honour at banquets, since we get fed first! But if you went to as many banquets as I do, you might forgive that fault...

Saturday, October 22, 2011

No Hands But Ours (Sunday 30.A)

I was praying in the front pew a while back, when out of the corner of my eye I saw that something was wrong with the statue of the Sacred Heart. On closer inspection, I noticed that it was missing one hand.

Some detective work quickly discovered that the hand had come loose and fallen on the floor; it was in pieces in the sacristy.

Fortunately, Father Xavier's many talents include statue restoration, and all was well a day or two later.

But to tell you the truth, I was a bit disappointed that the repair was so quick and easy—because I'd started to think about putting up a sign that said "Let's give Jesus a hand!"

It's not as silly as it sounds. Consider the more serious words of St. Teresa of Avila, who wrote:

Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.

God is all-powerful, and can do all things. Milton recognized this when he wrote "God doth not need/Either man's work or his own gifts." But the fact is God chooses to do much of his work on earth through human instruments.

Today the Church celebrates World Mission Sunday, our annual reminder that spreading the Gospel everywhere is a responsibility of every Christian. Pentecost was the first and last time that the Holy Spirit worked all on his own; since then God has called on men and women of every age to assist in the Spirit's mission to the world.

Today our parish celebrates another Welcome Sunday, when we acknowledge the new members of the congregation. But the real job of welcoming them isn't done from the pulpit. They are made to feel at home by handshakes, smiles, the pouring of coffee and the cutting of cake.

Many years ago, I met a woman who had been baptized the previous Easter at St. Anthony's parish. But when I asked her how she liked the parish, she said "oh, I don't actually go there. I much prefer the Cathedral. Nobody ever speaks to you at the Cathedral!"

Well, there's no accounting for tastes. Still, the fact is that the Church is a communion of persons, and communion among believers is shown by the warmth of welcome. I still mourn the letter I got a year or two after arriving at Christ the Redeemer. It was from a woman who was moving away after three years here, during which, she said, no-one ever spoke to her.

I was tempted to write back and ask if she'd ever spoken to anyone, but that's not really the point. In our second reading, Paul is saying that he and his companions were like living Gospels for the Thessalonians; people imitated them, confident that they were authentic models of Christ's own way of life.

It's often said that you are the only Gospel some people will ever read. We support the Church's world-wide mission of evangelization by prayers and sacrifice, including financial sacrifices. But closer to home we are missionaries at home, school, and work. We are missionaries who speak a language of love, as Jesus commands us in the Gospel we have just heard.

I found a wonderful Methodist website where a Quaker writer listed all the ways the early Church cared for the poor, both within the community and beyond. By the year 250, Christians in Rome were caring for some fifteen hundred needy people; a hundred or so years later, St. John Chrysostom reported that the Church in Constantinople fed 3,000 people every day, regardless of religion.

As you know, you can find just about anything on the web, and you can't take all of it too seriously. But I came across a blog that made me very sad. In a post entitled "Why I am Not a Catholic," a man wrote "Does Roman Catholicism have some of the same behavior as early Christianity. No. Not in the least. There's not even a resemblance."

It's not true, of course, except in his experience. Much of the good that's done in the parish is done quietly, out of respect for the privacy of those who are helped; so where possible we need to show love in action right here in church.

We will not love our neighbour if we do not begin by loving our fellow parishioners—even those who park in front of the rectory garage, or who abandon their cars in the fire lane. (Not at this Mass, of course!) "See how they love one another," was the pagans' reaction to the early Christians as recorded by Tertullian.

In times of persecution, early "Christians also provided for those who lost their jobs because of their faith in Christ. It was assumed, for example, that an actor who became a Christian, and had to give up his profession because of its involvement in pagan mythology, would be cared for by the church. . . "

We may yet have to help those who lose their jobs on account of the faith, but right now we love our neighbour in the parish in numerous ways, some of them as simple as moving over in the pew. The warmth of our greeting at the sign of peace can make a big difference, especially when the person we are greeting is someone we don't know.

Of course Jesus doesn't only tell us to love our neighbour. The first and greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul and mind. From such love flows love of neighbour in all its forms.

Today, as we continue to think about the upcoming changes to the liturgy, I'd like to suggest that participating fully at Mass is a way of fulfilling both the command to love God and the command to love our neighbour at the same time.

Our reverent silence invites others to join us in prayer. Our genuine responses and heartfelt singing make it easier for others—especially visitors—to take part. Have you ever thought of that? I can tell you from a priest's point of view that Mass is richer when the congregation is actively involved. Yesterday I said Mass for the Dominican Nuns—who are coming to visit us in a few weeks, by the way—and I felt truly holy! Only it wasn't me at all; I was flying in their spiritual jet stream.

There's even a missionary aspect to such things as bowing during the Creed and before we receive Holy Communion. These gestures are ways to proclaim publicly what we believe. We shouldn't assume that everyone in the Church is a fellow Catholic. There are a surprising number of folks who come to see what our parish is about, and they are going to read our body language carefully.

Today's a great day to get rid of two false ideas. The first is that someone else will look after proclaiming the Gospel to the whole wide world. The second is that someone else will share the joy of being a Christian with the person next door, in the next office, and beside you in the pew.

So let's lend Christ a hand. He has no hands but ours.


Sunday, October 16, 2011

Giving God His Due (Sunday 29.A)

This morning's paper says that grizzly bears are expected to appear on the North Shore before too long.

This could be God's way of getting people to church on Sunday morning—when you spot a grizzly in the woods or on the slopes it's not a good time to think "Oh-oh. I'm supposed to be at Mass."

More likely, if we do get grizzlies—and the experts say that's many years away—there will be some who'll say, "Sunday Mass? Not me. Might get attacked by a grizzly in the parking lot."

Oh well, we do need a new excuse for missing Mass. The old one is getting pretty tired—"I don't get anything out of it."

That excuse has been a used for years, by young and old, to explain why people miss Mass, either some of the time or all of the time. And for just as many years, priests have preached "it's not what you get out of Mass, it's what you put into it."

That's true, but it's not my message today.

Today I want to look at attending Sunday Mass from a different angle, that of duty. In today's Gospel, Jesus says "Give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."

Almost all of us understand what it means to give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, even if we lament our income taxes and are annoyed by parking tickets. But what does it mean to give to God the things that are God's?

Very high on the list is giving God the worship he desires, deserves and demands. The Catechism tells us that worship is a commandment written naturally on the human heart. Pagans worshipped God without being told to. The Old Testament, of course, states the commandment of keeping the Sabbath day holy.

For Christians, from the earliest times, the celebration of Sunday—and the Sunday Eucharist especially—have fulfilled this natural and supernatural obligation of worship. From all that we have received from God, we offer back our act of worship.

Small wonder that the Catechism calls the Sunday Eucharist "the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice" and reminds us that deliberately missing Mass without a serious excuse or dispensation is a grave sin.

Please don't get the idea that Sunday Mass is only about the worship we owe to our Creator. It's much, much more: it's "a testimony of belonging and being faithful to Christ and to his Church." [CCC 2182] It's the weekly celebration of the Easter mystery—of our salvation. [CCC 2177]

But today our Lord reminds us of one central fact: we owe to God the things that are God's. While blessing the candle at the Easter Vigil, the priest says "Christ yesterday and today, the beginning and the end, Alpha and Omega; all time belongs to him and all the ages…"

How can we hold back an hour a week from Him to whom all time belongs?

At this point, if you are a sharp listener, you have realized that there's a problem with this homily. I am preaching about the duty of attending Mass to people who are already here attending Mass. What's the point of that?

There are two points, actually. The first is that the duty to attend Mass is so basic to our lives as Catholics, that we have a related duty to help others fulfill this obligation.

Here's how Archbishop Miller put it in his homily at St. Edmund's Parish last night: Of course you must practice what you preach, but you must also preach what you practice.

The Archbishop mentioned extending an invitation to Mass as one of the ways we can tell people that God loves them and wants them as his friends. How many of us have invited a neighbour or co-worker to join us at Mass, and perhaps for brunch afterwards?

Archbishop Miller's challenge to St. Edmund's parishioners is a challenge to us as well: "A parish community which is alive in the Spirit must invite those who no longer worship with us to hear the Gospel all over again, as if for the first time." [cf. Benedict XVI, Homily at Vespers (28 June 2010].

Those who have become inactive he says, are often just waiting for an invitation from us.

The second reason I'm talking to those who are attending Mass about the duty of attending Mass is this: we owe more to God than our mere physical presence in Church. Worship demands reverence and attention, and Christian worship requires participation.

In a positive way, this means that all of us take an active interest and become personally involved in the liturgy. While there is a unique and irreplaceable role for the priest, because of the common priesthood all of us received in Baptism, every baptized person participates in the offering of the Eucharist. Although there is a distinction of roles, the lay faithful do "offer to God the divine victim and themselves with him." [Apostolic Letter Dies Domini, 51]

Practically, full and active participation involves attention, whole-hearted and audible responses, and an effort to lift our hearts and minds to God—both in prayer and in song. It helps enormously to prepare for Mass, either by looking at the readings at home, or by a period of prayer before Mass starts, or both.

With the bulletin today you will receive a handout about posture and gestures. It reminds us that we are composed of body as well as spirit, and that we pray also with our bodies. The postures of standing, kneeling and sitting all say something; and the gestures of bowing, making the sign of the Cross, and processing to the altar are not merely ceremonial.

It all depends whether or not we do them consciously. When we do these things with awareness, understanding and faith, they have great meaning and value. If you've never thought hard about this, today's your chance—take the handout home and give it a careful read. Then try for the next few Sundays to do at least two things, whether it's genuflecting, or kneeling, or bowing in the Creed, with very careful attention.

The changes at Mass coming up on November 27 will include some changes in gesture and posture as well. The bishops of Canada have determined that the sign of reverence before receiving Holy Communion will now be a bow of the head to the Sacred Presence. The children at St. Anthony's School have been practicing this for some months already.

Doing certain things together bears witness to our unity in Christ. So on November 27 we will follow new common directives from the Archdiocese and bring to an end the mixed practices we've been following until now.

These are, as I've said, the positive ways we render to God our humble worship as his creatures and as Christians.

Looking from a different angle, there are things we need to avoid if our worship is to be fitting. The first, of course, is arriving late. While there will always be people—often the parents of young children, or the caregivers of the elderly—who have gold plated reasons for showing up late, habitual tardiness really contradicts the proper sense of duty to God that is part of Sunday Mass attendance.

It's uncharitable, of course, to those we disturb, but the real losers are the folks who are late, because after getting off on the wrong foot, so to speak, they are going to have a much harder time entering into the profound mystery of the Mass.

I had a wonderful letter this week from a parishioner who mentioned one family sitting near her where the children read non-religious books all through the homily while their father texted. And each time someone texted back, his Blackberry buzzed! Small wonder God let that network crash.

The letter also mentioned inappropriate dress and an amazing number of people who think they can carry on a full conversation during Mass without disturbing others or offending God. Wrong on both counts, I assure you.

I should make it very clear that the parishioner who wrote is not some cranky person; she concludes her letter by saying "let she who is without sin cast the first stone," admitting she once kept a parish library book for nine months! I should also add that she is not alone: two other parishioners spoke to me just this week about how disturbed they were by someone talking all through the homily.

Someone else sent me an excellent internet item about many other things that should not happen in church. But I'm not going to carry on about them, since if you accept my basic point—that we owe God our true worship on Sunday—then a long list of rules is unnecessary. And if you don't, the rules will do no good anyway.

St. Paul reminds us today that the message of the Gospel didn't come to us only in words, "but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction." The latest steps in the renewal of the liturgy is an opportunity to examine ourselves and to ask whether this is how we come to Mass—expecting not only a message but an experience of God's power in our lives.

But if we're not quite there, let's begin with the basic conviction that God desires, deserves and demands our weekly act of worship. If we give him that faithfully, we will arrive sooner rather than later at the "full conviction" every Christian should have.


Monday, October 10, 2011

Actually Blogging!

No homily this week! I offered Mass this morning in a small chapel in Ottawa, using the new translation of the Roman Missal for the first time--jumping the gun slightly on the November 27 introduction date, which I judged to be all right when celebrating with a congregation of two!

I liked the more solemn cadence, although I stumbled a bit, and I believe the changes will help us celebrate Mass with greater reverence and solemnity.

My host here, Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, SJ, was on the Vox Clara commission that worked on the new Missal, so we had some interesting discussions, and enjoyed watching the light-hearted DVD presentation that the American group Lifeteen has produced to introduce the changes to youth.

Yesterday I gave a talk on stewardship and youth at Annunciation Parish. It was basically the same as the one I gave at the International Catholic Stewardship Conference in San Diego last year, but I didn't think that would be a problem--until I discovered Father Maurice Dionne, director of the stewardship office for the Archdiocese of Ottawa, in the audience. He'd also been in San Diego, so I had to tell him he'd be hearing a rerun. At least he liked the talk in San Diego--a recording of it is posted on his website.

Later I married a young parishioner at St. Mary's Parish, coincidentally another parish under the pastoral care of the Companions of the Cross, the religious order founded by Father Bob Bedard, who after a long illness died the night I arrived in Ottawa. I met him only twice, but he made a very deep impression on me. He encouraged priests to pray over people in need, overcoming our shyness in this regard. He also spoke powerfully about "giving God permission" to work in our lives. May he rest in peace.

The parishioner met his bride at Catholic Christian Outreach's annual Christmas conference, Rise Up, a few years back; it's a wonderful match and it was a wonderful wedding. I didn't write my homily out as I usually do nowadays, but the highlights are very simple--some lines from John Paul II that I found while reflecting on the couple's choice of Gospel reading, the passage in Matthew where Jesus calls us the salt of the earth and the light of the world.

The first quotation came from Blessed John Paul's letter on the Christian family in the modern world, known by its Latin title Familiaris Consortio. Here's what he wrote, in n. 13: Spouses are "the permanent reminder to the Church of what happened on the Cross."

The second is not as dramatic, but still surprised me some. It's from his letter on the laity, Christifideles Laici, n. 40: "The lay faithful's duty to society primarily begins in marriage and in the family. This duty can only be fulfilled adequately with the conviction of the unique and irreplaceable value that the family has in the development of society and the Church herself."

The notion that the primary service the laity renders to society is through marriage and the family shouldn't really have surprised me, since I was familiar with the fact that "The family is the basic cell of society. It is the cradle of life and love..."

I used the words of "the Polish Pope" (both Ada and Thomas come from strong Polish-Canadian families) to stress that their marriage matters to society especially in these times "when human egoism, the anti-birth campaign, totalitarian politics, situations of poverty, material, cultural and moral misery, threaten to make these very springs of life dry up."

Ada's pastor, Father Roger Vandenakker, and I were very quick to agree: there's nothing quite so joyful as celebrating the marriages of young Catholics who practise their faith. We can't help feeling a bit flat when we officiate at the weddings of those who don't see their union as a deeply spiritual event. We enjoyed ourselves thoroughly--Father Roger even graced the reception with a splendid version of a Caribbean wedding toast sung by the great Harry Belafonte long before Thomas and Ada were born.

A good weekend all around! Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Producing Fruit: Sunday 27.A

Every priest has at least three books he treasures: his bible, his breviary, and his book of somebody else's Sunday homilies. And of course I think he ought to treasure a fourth book, the Code of Canon Law, but that's just my biased opinion!

Actually, most of us have a few volumes of Sunday homilies on our bookshelves. I have four sets—two from the States, one from France, and one from Italy. As the years have passed, I consult them less and less, but this Sunday I came up a bit dry so decided to turn to my trusted books.

One of the Americans, Father John Jay Hughes, suggested that today's parable would have been very clear to the people of Palestine, because there was a real problem with land owned by foreigners. He also explained that three details in the parable—the fence around the vineyard, the wine press, and the watchtower—would also mean a lot to them, because they knew Isaiah's version of the story, which is our first reading this morning.

The people listening to Jesus wouldn't have had any trouble figuring out that "the vineyard story was a parable about God's loving care for his people, and about their ungrateful response."

The second American preacher, Father Stanley Krempa, tells us that this parable "looks backward and forward. Looking back, it sums up the story of redemption." Those who were given care of the vineyard didn't produce a yield for the Lord, and rejected the Son who came to help. The vineyard was then given to new tenants, called to produce the rich harvest the Lord desires. That's us.

"The parable also looks forward with a rich meaning for us. The vineyard is our world, our society. What are we doing with it? How are we caring for it?", Father Krempa asks in his homily.

And then he gets very specific: "Within this vineyard is the most precious gift of all, the gift of human life. Do we reverence life?"

That's not just a question in a book. It's a very immediate and personal question to all of us. As the years pass and we become more used to legalized abortion, we can forget that we Christians have a duty of care for the society in which we live; we have an obligation, not an invitation, to defend life from conception to natural death.

Our parish has accepted the challenge of providing enough people to pray from midnight to midnight at BC Women's Hospital on October 21 as part of a dramatic campaign of prayer to end abortion. 40 Days for Life is the largest and longest coordinated pro-life effort in history; Christ the Redeemer Parish has taken one of these 40 days as its responsibility—our people will stand for life during a peaceful vigil that's meant not only to change the hearts of those contemplating abortion, but to change us as well.

Before we brush off this challenge, we need to ask ourselves: am I producing the fruits of the kingdom? Is the landowner—the Lord of all creation—asking one hour from me?

A third homily, by the French Jesuit Albert Vanhoye, now a Cardinal, reminds us that this parable refers to the passion of Jesus, who is, of course, the Son killed by the wretched tenants.

It's the Father who speaks to us through the prophet Isaiah in the first reading, and He speaks with as much sadness as anger. What more could I have done?, the Father asks.

It's a question He must ask Himself every Sunday. When entire families skip Mass because it interferes with soccer practice, when we rush to Mass unprepared, when we say the responses and sing the hymns like we wish we were somewhere else, don't you think God is more than a little sad?

I suppose you could say that missing Mass—either by not showing up mentally or not showing up, period—isn't to be compared to killing the landlord's son and tossing him out of the vineyard. But nor is it what the landlord expects—a warm welcome and a ready offering of the fruits of our lives.

Today's handout on the Mass from the Archdiocese—which I hope you will all take home and read—reminds us that each member of the congregation has a role in the celebration of the Eucharist. The Church calls everyone to full, conscious and active participation in the worship of God.

This means that each one of us must make a sincere effort to be fully engaged in the liturgy. Those in the pews are not spectators but participants.

The changes in the Mass that we'll see next month are a real opportunity to take stock of how—and how often—we fulfill our baptismal calling to share in the priesthood of Christ. As the parable reminds us, we owe spiritual fruit to the owner of the vineyard, and anything less can amount to a rejection of His Son, our Lord.