Monday, August 27, 2012

Putting Faith First in the Family

What a sad story.  People who walked and talked with Jesus turned away from him when he offered them the greatest gift of all—his flesh and blood.  They couldn’t accept what he wanted to give.

It’s not our story.  If we thought the Eucharist sounded suspiciously like cannibalism, we wouldn’t be at Mass this morning.  We’d be happily reading the Sunday paper and shaking our heads as the oddball neighbours headed off to church.

Our problem is different.  We accept what Jesus says, but we do not always give it the first place in our lives.

Let me give you an example of what it means to put faith in first place. In my first parish there was an elderly widow at Mass each morning, Mrs. Schmidt. One day the pastor pointed her out, and said “there is a woman of the deepest faith.”  When I asked why, he told me that when her husband collapsed in their kitchen, she knelt beside him and said “Hans, make an act of contrition to the good Lord” before she called 911. Her concern for his immortal soul came ahead of her concern for his mortal body.

Even as I tell the story, I wonder what I would have said had I been the husband—something like, “will you just hurry up and call the ambulance!”

But this was a woman who understood the bottom line of St. Paul’s teaching on marriage that we’ve heard this morning. Marriage is essentially a spiritual project, and job number one is the salvation of both spouses, each helping the other.

And of course when the marriage produces children, another vocation comes into being—the salvation of the children. I will never forget the example of my friend Leone Young: faced with the terminal illnesses of two of her adult sons, she showed more concern for their spiritual welfare than their physical health.  She accepted their eventual deaths because she was serene in knowing they were strong in the Lord.

We might ask whether we are as concerned for the soul of our children as we are for their success in the world.  I heard a psychologist on the radio say that his number one technique is convincing parents to junk half the stuff their kids are doing.  Just this week a friend told me about a summer camp her son had attended.  It was one of these specialized “computer camps.”  The big selling point was the words “No recreation”!  They were promising that it would be all business.

Again, do we realize—in practice, not in theory—that the spiritual welfare of our children, even adult children, is more important than their success in school or in sports or in business?  Are we as dismayed when children lose the faith as we are when they lose a job?

This week we celebrate the feast days of a mother and son who are two of the most fascinating people in history—and two of the most fascinating people in heaven. Their names are Monica and Augustine.  Monica’s feast is tomorrow, Augustine’s is on Tuesday—notice that the mother comes first!

The son is one of the towering figures of Christian history, one of the greatest minds the Church has ever seen. His writings have shaped theology to this very day and his autobiography is one of the classics of world literature. The story of his conversion from lust-filled paganism is one of the most gripping stories ever told.

The mother, by contrast, is just a minor footnote to Christian history.  She wrote nothing that we know of, and the few words of hers we have came from Augustine’s pen.

Except for this: the son would never have become a saint but for the mother.

How do we know this?  First because he tells us so.  He says Monica “brought me forth from her flesh to birth in this in this temporal light, and from her heart to birth in light eternal.”

Augustine’s most famous lines still echo sixteen hundred years after they were written: “Late have I loved you, beauty ever-ancient, ever new.  Late have I loved you.” But late though he was in turning to God his Saviour, it would not have happened at all if Monica had not loved him… and loved him in a way that put his spiritual welfare first.

Because nothing but the power of prayer can explain Augustine’s journey, first from pagan philosopher, then to Christian thinker, next from a believer ensnared by his own flesh, and finally to the freedom of surrender to God’s will.  He was the toughest of tough cases.  But through it all his mother prayed and prayed and prayed some more, even when he seemed beyond reach.

Monica thus becomes a model and an intercessor, and a source of lasting hope, for the countless Catholic parents who are stunned at their adult children leaving the faith.  No so-called lapsed Catholic has had a journey back half the length of Augustine’s, and no grieving parent should ever stop praying for their children who have turned away from Christ.

Augustine himself reminds us that his mother needed not only faith but patience: “she expected to see me washed in the saving waters of baptism… and she rejoiced that her prayers were beginning to be answered and your promises with regard to my faith fulfilled.”

But we would not grasp the exquisite beauty of the relationship between Augustine’s faith and Monica’s love if we stopped there.  For once he was baptized, they strengthened one another by sharing faith.

His account of their final days together describes a meeting of hearts in spiritual conversation.  In he put it, “our talk that day seemed to make the world with all its charms grow cheap.”
Thus Augustine and Monica remind us how important it is that families share faith, that they talk about holy things.

Long before that mystical conversation, the mother was free in speaking about her own spiritual and moral struggles.  Augustine learned directly from her about his mother’s early problem with alcohol, and learned that it was God who cured her from what he called “that sly sickness.”  It’s a wonderful example of how parents—at an appropriate time—can teach their adult children by sharing their own stories, honestly acknowledging their difficulties.

Monica’s clear sense of her life’s mission strengthened her to the end.  As she lay dying at Ostia, she said “I find pleasure no longer in anything this life holds,” she said. One thing only kept me here—to see you a Catholic Christian before I died.  And this my God has granted to me more lavishly than I could ever have hoped… What now keeps me here?”

Her final words should also instruct children in the lasting duty they owe parents who have gone before them in faith.  When Augustine’s brother said that they would not bury her in a foreign country—she was from North Africa, not Rome—she replied “What nonsense: lay this body anywhere. One thing only I ask you: that wherever you are, you remember me at the altar of the Lord.”  Prayer for deceased parents is an obligation that no child, however old, should forget.

It’s not easy living on earth with one eye always on heaven. But that’s just what Jesus asks us to do, strengthened by the heavenly gift of his Body and Blood.  It’s not easy to put spiritual success—another word for salvation—ahead of every other accomplishment.

But anything else is illogical, if we believe. Where else can we place our lasting hope?  “Lord, you have the words of everlasting life.” Let’s make Peter’s reply our own.  Let’s not only accept Christ’s words, let’s make them the source of our number one mission on earth—working for our salvation, and the salvation of those we love.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Eucharist and the Examined Life (Sunday 20.B)

Every Sunday this month we listen to Jesus teach about his Body and Blood. These four passages from the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel almost make summertime preaching a breeze, because it’s easy to talk about how wonderful it is to receive the Bread of Life.

But Christian truth and Catholic faith are never quite that simple. On the first Sunday of August, we heard the people listening to Jesus respond “Sir, give us that bread always.” For the rest of the month, we hear them complain. After their initial enthusiasm, the full impact of what Jesus says about the Bread of Heaven becomes too hard to swallow. When this cycle of readings ends next Sunday, you’ll see that many are driven away by what Jesus taught.

It is not easy to look beyond the appearance of bread and wine to see the Real Presence of Jesus. It’s the teaching that most sets Catholics apart from other Christians: on this subject, we’re the true “fundamentalists,” taking Jesus literally in all he says about his flesh and blood.

The great preacher Father Raniero Cantalamessa asks a great question in connection with today’s readings: why not bread and water? That would certainly have pointed to suffering, an important aspect of the Eucharist, which is united with Christ’s sufferings and with ours.

But Jesus did something a bit less obvious.  Wine does indicate suffering—the grapes are pressed, crushed as He was. But wine also represents joy and celebration—as Father Cantalamessa says, we toast with wine, not water.  Yes, there’s pain in the Eucharist—all the pain in the world.  But it is pain redeemed by Christ, something to rejoice over.

And by choosing wine in his infinite wisdom, Jesus took a risk.  Wine can be abused.  So can the Eucharist.  There is no membership card required to enter the Church, as the Mormons have.  Only the most public of sinners can be turned away by the priest. For the rest: it is between the communicant and God. The responsibility is chiefly ours.

But what a grave responsibility! In his First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul warns that those who eat the bread or drink the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner eat and drink judgment on themselves. This is a very serious matter.

Wine is a wonderful thing; but if we abuse it, we suffer mentally and physically.  The Body and Blood of Christ is infinitely more wonderful; but if we receive it thoughtlessly or unworthily, the consequences can be worse still.

This doesn’t mean we receive Communion with fear.  St. Paul simply says “Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.”

I suspect we have started to forget this important truth.  In the days when people did not routinely receive every Sunday, or when they confessed every Saturday, an examination of conscience came naturally.  Now, perhaps we’ve all but forgotten the need to make a mental check before receiving Communion.  Is there a grave sin that I have not confessed?  If there is, I should not receive.

Now this teaching must be understood properly: if we have a genuine doubt that a certain sin was grave—perhaps there was something to lessen our freedom or responsibility—we may still approach the Lord’s Table.  But the doubt should be real, not just an excuse.

And I’m not suggesting that the middle of Mass is the ideal time to judge whether we should be receiving the Eucharist. Christian maturity requires regularly examining ourselves. “Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight,” our first reading says, offering a simple formula for growth in the Christian life.

The way of insight requires self-examination—not only as a preparation for Confession and Communion, but to make wise decisions in daily life. As the great Socrates told the ancient Greeks, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Receiving the Eucharist worthily requires knowing ourselves. But even more, it requires knowing Jesus and accepting all He has taught us about this great Sacrament. We must never take it for granted, which is why the Church offers us this intense refresher course every three years.

“This teaching is difficult,” some disciples say to Jesus in next week’s Gospel. “Who can accept it?”

The answer, of course, is “we can.” We can accept it if we live wisely and well, if we know ourselves and our calling, and if we hear and accept exactly what Jesus teaches and promises in this fundamental discourse on the Bread of Life. 

But you haven’t been able to listen carefully to Him on these warm August Sundays, open your Bible at the sixth chapter of John and read it through—someplace with air-conditioning!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Food for the Journey (19.B)

I’m sure most of you noticed on Friday that the B.C. Courtof Appeal upheld the so-called “right to die” of a woman in the Okanagan.

You won’t catch me preaching on the right to die, simply because almost every Catholic already understands that there is no such right, and that both suicide and euthanasia are gravely wrong

But what about something a little closer to home? Have you ever heard an elderly friend or relative say they wished they could die? Have you ever said it yourself?

At first glance, it seems a terrible thing to think or say. Yet in the first reading we just heard Elijah ask God that he might die, and God doesn’t seem to get upset with him. So what is the Christian view of wishing for death—is it wrong?

I have a book that gives an answer—a six and a half page answer, to be exact.   Since it takes Dr. Germain Grisez, a respected moral theologian, that long to respond to the question, I sure won’t succeed in the length of a homily. But in short, he says “yes and no.”*

Yes, it is wrong to wish for death ”by accepting and endorsing an unreasonable emotional desire to die.” If one judges that life isn’t worth living, and that pain is to be escaped at all costs, one “commits suicide in one’s heart,” Dr. Grisez says. Too much thinking of this sort can lead to neglect of our health or even to actual suicide.

But no, it is not wrong when we wish principally for life, but as part of our wish for life we welcome death also, as the gateway to the life to come. In this sense, “every faithful Christian, hoping for heaven, rightly wishes for death.” With this attitude, we can forego useless medical treatments or measures that prolong life unduly.

It is also quite acceptable for the terminally ill to seek adequate relief from pain, even at the risk of shortening life. Many of those who advocate euthanasia are unaware of the advances in palliative care in recent years, which have done a great deal to help people die without undue suffering

Sometimes, though,  the elderly or the sick desire death because they think there is nothing left for them to do on earth. Elijah felt like that—he’d done his best, and his best wasn’t good enough. Israel had turned against God despite his zealous preaching, and he was the only prophet who hadn’t been killed. What was left but to lie down and die?

Yet if you read to the end of the story, after the Lord restores his strength, Elijah heads to Mount Horeb for one of the closest encounters man has even had with God. He carries on his mission, anoints a new king for Israel, and finds a suitable successor in Elisha.

Whether we’re depressed or just plain old discouraged, it’s very easy to confuse how we feel today with what God has lined up for us tomorrow. To quote Germain Grisez again “God is a loving Father who always knows what is best for us. We would not remain alive if there were no good reason for us to be here.”

Today I want to suggest one of the best of all reasons for us to be here—because healthy or sick, happy or sad, we are able to eat the Bread of Life.

And that includes those who can’t come to church. I’ve never directed a Sunday homily to our parishioners who are housebound or in care facilities. But today I’m thinking very specially of them—this small group who eat the living Bread each week without being able to gather with us around the Lord’s Table

By receiving Holy Communion every week, these men and women can find meaning and purpose, even when they can no longer do the things they once did for others—and what a lot of good they can do for the rest of us, who are too busy sometimes to look beyond the Bread we eat to see the Saviour It has become!
United to the Lord in the Eucharist, they pray not only with us, but for us

We talk a lot about Sunday Mass being the high point of our week. But it’s hard—we’re in such a rush to get to church and to get out again. Those who are forced by circumstances to accept a quieter pace can spend time with the Lord after they have received Him at one of the nursing home Masses or during a Friday visit from Father Xavier, myself, or one of our Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion

Speaking of those dedicated Extraordinary Ministers, it’s time to say something about the service they provide our elderly and sick parishioners. Week in, week out, and in some cases over many years, they bring the Bread of Life faithfully and devoutly.

 In many cases, their ministry not only sustains people in pain or old age, it helps them prepare properly for death.  No doubt you all believed when you heard Jesus say in today’s Gospel “whoever eats of this bread will live forever.” But you can be sure his words “one may eat of it and not die” have an extra-special message for those whose natural lives are drawing to a close.

We must be grateful to our Extraordinary Ministers, these unsung heroes who so generously assist the priests in sharing the Bread of Life beyond the walls of our parish church. Just as important, we should ask whether our faith in this Sacrament is as strong as theirs—for surely their weekly sacrifice of time and energy demonstrates a very strong faith in the Eucharist and its saving power.

Let’s remind ourselves often of those worshippers who are the active part of our parish family that we do not often see. Jesus comes to them in the Blessed Sacrament every week as a sign of His faithfulness to all of us; their faith gives us an example of perseverance and trust.

We are called into a union of prayer with our parishioners who are sick or confined to home; that unity should be strengthened every time we eat the Bread of Life.  And like them, and like Elijah, we should trust that God will sustain us too, in all of life’s difficulties.
* Germain Grisez, Difficult Moral Questions, vol. 3, 196-202.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

More on "Gay"

In a footnote to my most recent post, the homily in which I talked about what the Church teaches on same-sex attraction, I mentioned that I was not comfortable using the term "gay" in this context. I did so in the homily only because people I was quoting used it; and one of them--Steve Gershom--explained that he wasn't that comfortable with the term, either, although he uses it.

Yesterday I had a very helpful e-mail from a bishop friend that pointed me to a post on the First Things Blog by a writer with SSA who does not want to call himself “gay”. The author, Daniel Mattson, talks helpfully about the terminology issue. His article also mentions yet another blog offering an authentically Catholic perspective on living chastely with SSA. You can take a look at that blog here.

I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Mattson, who thinks it is much better to speak of a Catholic man or woman (or of oneself) as having same-sex attraction or being same-sex attracted rather than being gay.

These websites also lead one to other internet articles that provide perspective and encouragement to those with SSA, and information to those who are still trying to understand Church teaching and the blessings it offers to those who accept it.

I'm grateful to the encouraging folks who have kindly let me know they were pleased by the homily. I'm glad it was helpful and that I was able to navigate perilous shoals with causing unnecessary offense. That was my goal.

That reminds me: since my homily had a specific focus, it didn't offer a "shout-out" (as my younger parishioners say) to Courage, the fine support group for Catholics with SSA founded by the late Father John Harvey (with encouragement from my friend Father Benedict Groeschel, whose book "The Courage to be Chaste" has become something of a classic guide and which is still in print). Courage has chapters in many dioceses, including ours, and a resource-rich website.

And while we're at it... Seems a day doesn't go by lately without someone telling me about one new website or another aimed at helping people live a chaste life, whether they have SSA or not. In an earlier post I mentioned mentioned Reclaim, the program for those with sexual addiction(s), and now can add the Angelic Warfare Confraternity (scary name, but it's a scary world), which is a Dominican apostolate under the patronage of St. Thomas Aquinas, offering spiritual help to those seeking to live more chaste lives. I've also been pointed to, which seems to be aimed particularly at young people.

Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more... As my friend Father Joe Hattie would say, "Yay, God!"

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Don't Look for Steve in the Pride Parade (Sunday 18B)

Let me introduce you to Steve Gershom.  He’s a former teacher in his late twenties, who now works as a web developer. He has a blog called “Catholic, Gay, and Feeling Fine, Thanks.”

Steve isn’t feeling fine in spite of his Catholicism; he completely accepts the Church’s teaching on homosexual acts, and finds it offers a way to deal with his same-sex attraction.

In his own words: “Without the Church’s clear teaching on the issue, I would have been at the mercy of my badly confused emotions. When your instincts are misleading, you need something unshakable. The Church is a rock.”

On his blog he offers one man’s answer to some pretty common lies. He writes “I have heard a lot about how mean the Church is, and how bigoted, because she opposes gay marriage. How badly she misunderstands gay people, and how hostile she is towards us. My gut reaction to such things is: Are you freaking* kidding me? Are we even talking about the same church?”

He says that when he has mentioned his same-sex attraction in the confessional, he’s “always gotten one of two responses: either compassion, encouragement, and admiration, because the celibate life is difficult and profoundly counter-cultural; or nothing at all, not even a ripple, as if I had confessed eating too much on Thanksgiving.”

“Where are all these bigoted Catholics I keep hearing about? When I told my family a year ago, not one of them responded with anything but love and understanding. Nobody acted like I had a disease. Nobody started treating me differently or looking at me funny. The same is true of every one of the Catholic friends that I’ve told. They love me for who I am.”

Now if I thought Steve Gershom’s experience was rare or special, I wouldn’t be quoting him. But I have met very few whose experience with the Church and with Catholics was much different than his, making allowance for the fact that families can sometimes have a time of adjustment after an unexpected disclosure.

On the other hand, the Church needs to work harder at getting its message across.  In an interview, Gershom said “I do think the Church’s approach to the topic needs work, and badly.”

I agree. It seems to me that one reason some people think that the Catholic Church is cruel or unfeeling towards people with same-sex attraction is that we fail to present the teaching clearly and respectfully, and in the context of the whole Christian message. If we can’t explain why the Church’s teaching—all of it—is good news, we open ourselves to a whole lot of misunderstanding.

This inadequate understanding is a crucial problem. For those with same-sex attraction, it’s hard to love the Church if you think the Church doesn’t love you.  And it’s hard to love the Church when you think she’s teaching something that’s wrong, even if you don’t have SSA.

Those Catholics, many of them young, who cannot accept what the Church teaches about homosexual acts risk feeling disconnected from the living stream of truth He makes flow through His Church. 

So how do we express our teaching in a way that expresses God’s love for each human person, and in a way that condemns no-one?

Well, first, we need to show respect for people who identify themselves as “gay”—so much respect, in fact, that we avoid confusing their sexuality with their personhood.  Today’s gay pride parade intends to promote respect, which is a good thing, but it fails to promote the dignity of the whole person.  Most of us do not identify ourselves based on whom we’re attracted to: we’re so much more. Collapsing a person according to their sexual inclination identifies them by what they do, or what they desire, not by who they are. As one priest told Steve Gershom in confession, “You’re not a homosexual. You’re a man.”

Showing respect for persons also means avoiding hurtful language, unkind jokes and stereotypes.  In the words of the Catechism, it means avoiding “every sign of unjust discrimination” in regard to people with homosexual tendencies.

Secondly, we need to know what the Church teaches and be able to share it with love. The Catechism of the Catholic Church contains only 222 words about homosexuality (nn. 2357-2359), and today’s Catholic can’t afford not to know every one of them. For instance, there are probably people who think that same-sex attraction is a sin, when the Church clearly teaches it is not.

Speaking of the Catechism, it’s unfortunate that it uses technical theological language in describing homosexual acts as “disordered.” Understood correctly, this means that these acts are not within God's plan for our bodies and so the act is disordered.  We are talking about acts here, not persons. Confusion on that point has caused a lot of hurt.

In any case, the Church’s teaching on the morality of homosexual acts must not be divorced from the big picture. It’s part of a package, set within the context of the call to holiness, the Catholic vision of the human person, and the Biblical view of marriage and the family.

The ‘full meal deal’ of Catholicism makes no apologies for making demands. Last Sunday’s Province newspaper had an interview with a young Baptist pastor.  When the paper asked what people would find most surprising about his church, he answered “We make Christianity hard, not easy.”

That’s because Christianity is hard. It’s hard for married people. It’s hard for widowed people, single people, everyone. I was particularly struck by a young convert to Catholicism, Jennifer Fulwiler, who blogged about a conversation she had with two men who were dear friends of hers. They told her it was unreasonable to expect them to make the huge sacrifice of abstaining from sexual relations.

She replied by telling them about marriage:  you are constantly having to make sacrifices out of respect for what this act is all about: If you’re totally open to having kids, then there are the sacrifices that come with birth and raising children; if you’re abstaining during fertile times, you’re sacrificing. Infertile couples sacrifice by not using artificial methods like in vitro to force new life into existence.

“Gay men and women sacrifice by living chaste lives, as do people separated from their spouses, and people who are not yet married, or whose spouse has died. Notice that we’re all sacrificing, and that all of the sacrifices are about the same thing: love and respect for new human life, and specifically the act that creates new human life.”

Steve Gershom makes the same point about sacrifice and suffering in his blog, asking “What did you expect?”

“Why do people think that living a good life is supposed to be easy? Readers, whoever you are — gay, straight, married, single, relatively healthy or inflicted with any one of a billion possible debilitating pathologies — you will be asked to carry a cross. It’s going to be hard, and it’s not going to be fair.”

“Suffering and self-denial aren’t extraordinary; they’re par for the course.”

In other words, the situation of those with SSA is not uniquely difficult –which is the point of comparison with other Crosses that Christians bear; all of us are asked to imitate Jesus by picking up our Cross daily, whatever it is. We all share the same dignity and the same vocation in Christ, Who is the source of joy and meaning in life

Do you see where I am going? The Church doesn’t tell people what they’re doing is wrong without offering them a promise of something infinitely better. If people don’t think the offer is worthwhile, they can ignore the Church—but they should not hate her for wanting to share what we sincerely believe to be the fullness of life.

Today’s Gospel is a reminder of what it is that Jesus offers: food and drink that feeds the soul’s deepest needs. And although that divine food endures for eternal life, it sustains us here on earth. Homosexual persons are not condemned by Church teaching to a happiness-free life while waiting for the joys of heaven.

As Steve Gershom has written, "Being a Catholic means believing in a God who literally waits in the chapel for me, hoping I'll stop by just for ten minutes so he can pour out love and healing on my heart. Which is worth moreall this, or getting to have sex with who I want? I wish everybody, straight or gay, had as beautiful a life as I have."


“You have a right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you.”

That was the line the policeman read to the crook in the TV cop shows of my youth. I’d like to conclude by telling you why it’s only half true for Catholics.

The detectives were right on the second point: Anything you say can and will be used against you—if what you say presents honestly and courageously what the Church teaches about homosexual acts and so-called gay marriage.

It will be used against you in the family, when children, siblings or other relatives demand that you accept their “lifestyle.” What you say will be used against you at school, at work, or in the political arena. You may be vilified in the media, or even hauled before tribunals or courts.

This may be dismaying, or frightening, but it should not be surprising. Israel rebelled against Moses for speaking an unpopular word, Herod murders John the Baptist for defending the Jewish marriage law, and Jesus goes to the cross for challenging the status quo. In case we miss the point, He tells us that a disciple is not greater than the Master; Jesus calls the Apostles, and us, to drink the cup he drinks.

What’s not true is that we have a ‘right’ to remain silent. On the contrary, we have a duty to speak out. We are called by Jesus to be salt for the earth and light for the world; we’re called to be noisy, shouting a message from the housetops, not just from pulpits.

Church buildings have walls and property lines, but the Church does not. In the words of an ancient Christian text, Christians are the soul of the world. We’re a voice that disturbs as well as comforts.

So forget about the right to remain silent. Jesus didn’t have that right, and he didn’t give it to his followers either.

What He did give us was truth, truth that sets free and makes whole.

* Just btw: even though it's a euphemism, in the pulpit I skipped the word 'freaking' used by Steve. And still on the subject of language: I do not think the term "gay" is a helpful one, at least not in the context of a serious discussion of homosexuality and the moral life. However, Steve Gershon uses it (reluctantly, as he explains here) so I did likewise since I quote him extensively above.