Sunday, September 30, 2012

Not a Moment... a Process (Sunday 26.B)

Motion 312 sponsor Stephen Woodworth, MP

The Hon. Jason Kenney, MP

The Hon. Rona Ambrose, MP

In a recent issue of Convivium, the fine new magazine edited by our good friend Father Raymond de Souza, a journalist tells when he first understood how societies change. He was interviewing a committed Quebec separatist before the 1995 referendum who told him that, no matter how it turned out, his cause would continue.

“Separation,” the man said, “is not a moment. It is a process.”

Up to that point, the reporter—Peter Menzies of the Calgary Herald—had seen the world in terms of events, or “moments.” Since then, he has tended to see each moment as simply part of a more important process. Moments, he writes, are simply “when the process is unveiled.”

Mr. Menzies, who later became the Herald’s publisher, had a second experience of the nature of social change when the City of Calgary published a bold new urban plan. It was an ambitious and broad blueprint for the city’s future, and accommodated everything you’d expect to see in a vibrant city—theatres, stores, housing, offices, public buildings, even spas. Everything, that is, except churches.

He analyzed this omission very simply: the people who wrote the document “almost certainly had never made a decision to exclude faith. But when the document excluded faith, they had decided.”

Perhaps you’re wondering why I’m telling this story. Quebec separation and urban life in Calgary seem a long way from us, or at least a long way from what concerns us in church on a Sunday morning.

But Peter Menzies tells us why the story matters a great deal to us: because it tells us “that somewhere along the line each of us participates in the process of cultural change either through our initiative, our acquiescence or our ignorance.”

“As often as not,” he concludes, “those who don’t decide are the ones who do decide.”

Or in the words of another Albertan, Joni Mitchell, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

We can certainly point to moments when society turned away from the protection of the unborn: the bad law of 1969 and the worse Supreme Court decision of 1988. But another moment happened this week, and it shows that the process continues, slowly but surely.

What happened this week was no surprise: the defeat of a private member’s motion calling on the House of Commons to create a committee to study when life begins. But what followed was astonishing, and marked a new milestone in the advance of the culture of death.

As well-reported in the National Post (here and here ) those ministers who voted their conscience on the motion were attacked viciously by opposition politicians and by interest groups.

Rona Ambrose, the courageous minister for the status of women, who voted yes on the motion, was called upon to resign. A prominent doctor said the minister should be ashamed. All for supporting a committee just to discuss the biggest unanswered question in Canadian life.

No less surprising was the reaction to the yes vote of Immigration Minister Jason Kenney. Pundits analyzed Mr. Kenney’s vote as a move to challenge the Prime Minister, or at least as an attempt to position himself for the next leadership race.

I really didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I’ve only met Jason Kenney a few times, but if he spent more than thirty seconds deciding to vote in favour of this motion, I’d be very much surprised. It seems that someone in public life can no longer be given credit for having a personal conviction of what is true and good.

The level of public discussion and debate has now sunk so low that the question involved here—is life in the womb human life, or not?—can’t even be talked about.

How many of us wrote letters or e-mails before or after the vote last week? How many of us even took the time to figure out what was being proposed?

To return to Peter Menzies: “silent voices change the world.”

And not for the better.

Today’s Scripture readings are complex and varied, and in many ways unpleasant. The first reading and the Gospel both remind us that religious people can be divided inside and outside the Church. The reading from St. James is a grim prophecy of hard times for the rich who exploit the poor. And Jesus is no less harsh when he warns us of the consequences of scandalizing others.

It’s not difficult to wiggle out from under these readings. Most of us have no farm workers to cheat, no-one in the parish is fighting over the right to perform miracles, and we recognize that Jesus does not want us to start amputating limbs.

But what do the readings say to each of us? Aren’t there a dozen ways in which I cause others to stumble—by my lukewarmness, my acquiescence, or my ignorance? Do I, as a priest, water down the demands of Jesus, so that parishioners do not become discouraged or even angry? For if I do, I place a stumbling block in your path. Parents who live the faith casually do the same to their children.

It is hard to preach much less to live the Gospel without compromise in a society that is virtually based on compromise. Yet if there is one thing Jesus tells us this morning, it’s that compromise is not compatible with his call.

He may not intend us to take him literally when he says it is better to enter the kingdom missing one of our eyes than to go to hell with both, but he does intend to be taken seriously.

Let me return to Peter Menzies’ observation that “As often as not, those who don’t decide are the ones who do decide.”  The famous words attributed to Edmund Burke say much the same thing: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

The triumph of the culture of death is not a moment. It is a process.

This afternoon we—you and I—have an opportunity to do something. There is a one-hour Life Chain in front of Lion’s Gate Hospital at 2 o’clock, a quiet gathering that raises our voices in defense of life. I hope you will join me there.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Catechetical or Commissioning Sunday

This Sunday the parish recognizes and commissions our catechists—the women and men who help teach the faith to young and old alike.

We have already commissioned the staff of St. Anthony’s School, and today I will commission the coordinators and teachers in our Parish Religious Education Program, RCIA, Liturgy of the Word for Children, Adult Faith Formation Program, and Youth Ministry.

The Gospel today is perfect for the occasion. First, the final passage shows Jesus to be a great teacher, a model for catechists. Look how perfectly He presents the lesson—he picks up a little child, and with a very few words he teaches the disciples something they’ll never forget: Christianity is about service, not power. Humans don’t become important: they’re born with value and dignity.

It’s not as simple a lesson as it seems. A fine new book on Mark’s Gospel reminds us that children were viewed as non-persons in ancient society, without “legal rights or status of their own.”  With one gesture, Jesus shows human affection for the child, while “at the same time teaches his disciples to have a whole new esteem for and responsibility toward those who seem the most helpless” or unimportant. (Mary Healey, The Gospel of Mark, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, 186)

The second lesson, of course, is that children matter a great deal to Jesus, as we know from His words in the next chapter of Mark: “Let the little children come to me and do not stop them.”

It should be obvious why the parish devotes such great resources to its younger members, and why so many of our dedicated catechists are devoted to teaching the faith to children.

At the same time, we shouldn’t miss that Jesus isn’t talking to children in this Gospel text: he is teaching his apostles, all of them adults. And he’s doing so classroom style: St. Mark tells us that Jesus sat down, and called the twelve around him. Again, scholars tell us that sitting down was “the customary posture for a teacher in the ancient world.” (Healey, 185) Certainly Jesus taught by example, but he also taught many lessons in an effective and memorable way.

Adult faith formation, therefore, is no less important than the religious education of children—and it was no surprise that our Archdiocesan Synod’s third recommendation was developing an adult faith formation strategy for parishes, something we have done quite successfully here at Christ the Redeemer thanks to the creative energies of our coordinator and many volunteers, assisted by resources and leadership from the Archdiocese.

The Synod also recommended that the Parish Religious Education Program be extended beyond grade seven to the end of high school, something we’ve also been able to accomplish in the parish through the hard work of our youth ministry coordinators and Lifeteen volunteers.

Given the importance of the catechists’ mission, the annual rite of commissioning is a major moment in the life of our parish. Through it the Church blesses these faithful servants, assures them of our prayers, and offers official recognition of their ministry.

But there is a very important group of catechists who will not be commissioned today, because they’ve already been commissioned to teach the faith. I’m not referring to the school teachers who were commissioned at the school Mass; I’m talking about parents. They got their commission the day they were married, and had it renewed the day their children were baptized.

Parents need no special rite to recognize the privilege and duty they have as the primary catechists of their children. Our Catholic schools and the Parish Religious Education Program exist to help parents teach the faith, not to replace them. Even the best of catechists are no substitute for parents.

I’d like to tell you a story that makes this point, and that offers something of a challenge to parents.

This week I met a brand-new lay missionary who has come to Vancouver to work with Catholic Christian Outreach. He’s a big smiling guy in his twenties, visibly in love with God, and I am sure he will be very effective sharing the Good News on the university campus.

I always want to know where someone got such vibrant and visible faith. The young man told me a beautiful story of God’s work in his life, culminating at a CCO event when he truly experienced God’s love poured into his heart. But that wasn’t the part of his story that really captured me.

What I found most powerful was this: every Sunday for an hour, his Dad (and sometimes his Mom) spent an hour teaching him catechism. Maybe that doesn’t sound dramatic to you—but hearing it from the lips of a serious young disciple, and seeing the fruits of such a simple decision, it took my breath away.

Because it’s something any parent could do. With small children or with teenagers. With one child or several. A simple decision that would sow seeds that would sprout ten, maybe twenty years later.

I’m not naive: simple doesn’t mean easy. The young missionary told me that he didn't necessarily look forward to the lessons, and confessed that if his Dad forgot he wouldn't have reminded him!

But he also said that those hours of catechism in the living room “laid the foundation for my understanding of church teaching, and looking back, I’m extremely grateful for it.

Today, the whole parish family is extremely grateful to all those who generously hand on the faith—and not only our catechists. As St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, God gave gifts so that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for ministry, for building up the Body of Christ.

Although we do not commission people to evangelize—we all got that commission at Baptism—we recognize today the hard work of our Alpha volunteers, who are so important to the work of evangelization in the parish.

As we prepare to celebrate the Year of Faith, I pray that each member of the community reflects on his or her individual call to share in the mission of Jesus, the one perfect Teacher of us all.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Homily Humour

In last Sunday's homily (see below), I said at one point "By now those of you have never heard of Karl Rahner are sitting back comfortably, thinking this homily has nothing to say to you."

This morning I heard about a clever young grade two student from our parish school who promptly nudged his Mom and said, "That's what I'm thinking."

And we don't think kids pay attention in church!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Anonymous Christians?

“Anonymous Christians.” These were the two most exciting words I heard in my high school religion class. Fresh from the pen of the German theologian Karl Rahner, they summarized his theory that those who followed their conscience would be saved by Christ much like Christians are saved, even if they did not know or even refused to accept the Lord.

It was a long way from what we had heard about such folks in grade school.  At best, they were on their way to “limbo,” a rather pale imitation of heaven for the non-baptized.

The theory of the anonymous Christian did some good things. It helped make us more respectful of people with other faiths or none, and more aware of the mystery of God’s saving will. But along the way it did significant damage to the Church’s missionary identity.

The theologian and evangelist Ralph Martin has concluded that the theory has “greatly weakened the impetus to evangelization” in the Church.   In a brand new book called Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization, Dr. Martin writes that “It is very easy to get the impression from Rahner’s essays on the topic that almost everyone, if not everyone, is already in a saving relationship with Christ.”  All that remains is to “enrich” or “improve” such a person’s life.

By now those of you have never heard of Karl Rahner are sitting back comfortably, thinking this homily has nothing to say to you. Alas, that’s not true. Whether you’ve heard of him or not, whether you’ve ever thought about anonymous Christianity or not, it’s almost certain you’ve signed on to the rosy view of nearly-universal salvation that is so much a part of present-day thinking.

I can say that with authority, since I spent many years thinking like that myself. But Ralph Martin, responding to the Church’s authentic teaching and particularly the teaching of Blessed John Paul, has been sounding the alarm for quite a while now, and he has managed to wake me up.

Here’s what he wrote in 2008:

“There is certainly a widespread impression among many Catholics today that virtually everybody will end up in heaven, with possibly a few, truly awful exceptions going to hell. … If I were to describe the prevailing world view among most Catholics in North America, Europe and Oceania today, I would describe it like this: ‘Broad and wide is the road that leads to salvation and almost everyone is travelling that way. Narrow is the road that leads to hell and hardly anyone is travelling that road. … The unfortunate thing is that it is exactly the opposite of what Jesus indicated is the truth about our situation.” (In The New Evangelization: Overcoming the Obstacles,  27)

Let’s be honest with ourselves. Isn’t this the way most of us think?

And I’ll be honest with you: it’s not the way a Catholic should think.  Consider these words of Pope John Paul: “If we go back to the beginnings of the Church, we find a clear affirmation that Christ is the one Saviour of all, the only one able to reveal God and lead to God.”

The Pope then quotes the words of St. Peter: “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” He adds “This statement, which was made to the Sanhedrin, has a universal value, since for all people—Jews and Gentiles alike—salvation can only come from Jesus Christ.”

Before I spell out what this means for all of us, I need to pause to mention what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean non-Christians are going to hell! The Catechism states that the Holy Spirit offers the possibility of salvation to all, in a way known to God.  Everyone who is ignorant of the Gospel, “but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity.”

Nonetheless, even those who do not know him are saved by Christ, not by their own virtue.

Which brings us to the question: Why should we evangelize? Why not just let people alone with their conscience and whatever understanding of God they already have?

For one thing, we should note that the Catechism speaks of the salvation of the unbaptized "in a way known to God," whereas the salvation promised through Baptism and repentance has been made known to us by Christ.

Another new book also provides a clear answer. André Regnier, the co-founder of Catholic Christian Outreach, has just published Catholic Missionary Identity, reflecting on what has driven him for the past quarter-century as a lay missionary on university campuses.

The book concludes very simply that we must evangelize because Jesus told us to evangelize. “To be Catholic is to be missionary—to be willing to reach out to others and share with them the Good News of salvation.”

I know André Regnier very well, and when we’re ready for it I’ll ask him to speak in the parish. I say “when we’re ready,” since he doesn’t mince words. He writes very bluntly in the new book: “Unfortunately, for many Catholics, parish life does not inspire missionary activity. Apart from the relatively small group of people who are active within the community, the majority of the baptized are bored, uninspired, or uncommitted to parish life.”


He gets even more specific, adding “most parishes and their parishioners do not see themselves as instrumental in bringing back those who have walked away from the faith.”

I’m not going to get defensive and argue with André about the situation in our parish. Society is in crisis, and this is no time for back-patting. Although we have been blessed at Christ the Redeemer by the evangelizing zeal of some truly dedicated parishioners, we won’t be a fully missionary parish until every one of us thinks and acts like a missionary.

We are on the eve of the Year of Faith that Pope Benedict has offered to the Church as a fresh opportunity for “renewed enthusiasm of the encounter with Christ.” Announcing the Year of Faith, the Holy Father quoted his homily at the Mass marking the beginning of his pontificate where he said that the whole Church “must set out to lead people out of the desert, towards the place of life, towards friendship with the Son of God, towards the One who gives us life, and life in abundance.”

We are also on the eve of the Catholics Come Home initiative in our own Archdiocese, where the entire local Church community will work together to invite Catholics back to Mass by a number of ways, including television ads and a warm welcome in the parish.
And in our parish, we are just a week away from the two most important missionary moments in our own annual calendar: the first of these are evenings for those interested in learning more about the Church. They begin a week from Tuesday. These inquiry sessions will lead to the Rite of Christian Initiation for those ready to join the Church.

The second missionary moment in the parish is the Alpha Course, which begins a week from tomorrow. Alpha is a basic introduction to Christianity; it doesn’t presuppose anything. Some folks come just to argue, but many hearts are changed by the witty videos and the non-judgmental discussion that follows.

It should be obvious that most of the folks who should be at RCIA or Alpha next week are not in church this morning! So there’s only one way we won’t be cooking for empty tables or talking to empty chairs: and that is if you think like a missionary and ask family members and friends to participate—which usually means coming along with those you invited, at least until they’re comfortable.

But we won’t think like missionaries unless we first think like disciples—unless we recognize with true joy that Christ has saved us. Today’s readings are a wonderful opportunity to think about that: they don’t say much to the anonymous Christian, but they speak with great power to those who have experienced the grace of salvation: water has been poured into the wilderness of our hearts, refreshing the desert of our weary spirits.

Each one of us has had our eyes and ears opened to the truth—the truth about ourselves, and the truth about God’s merciful love. As the opening prayer for today's Mass says, we know that we are beloved sons and daughters, offered true freedom and an everlasting inheritance.

These aren’t poetic words but the facts of our salvation in Christ. If we believe them, how can we not share them?

Through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord commands us “Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. … He will come and save you.’”

These are probably not the words to use with your brother-in-law or next-door neighbour!  You can probably find a somewhat softer approach.

But we must not soften the words God speaks to us as active Catholics in the parish. We’re called this week to speak to someone with a fearful heart—someone who fears the future, someone who fears the past, even someone who fears the Church. What we’ll say will differ in every case, ranging from a lighthearted invitation to Alpha to a direct challenge to rediscover a once-strong faith.

Will you do it?

I leave you with one thought based on today’s Gospel. Imagine a family member or friend whose vision or hearing was seriously impaired. What if you knew something that would give them the gift of sight or allow them to hear? Would you keep it secret?

Jesus has laid his healing hands on each one of us. Let us now help others to experience that saving touch.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

More on Monica! (Sunday 22.B)

My time away was good.  The meetings went well, the weather was fine, and I had some time with my brother and his family and visited fine friends at Madonna House.

I had only one disappointment—I was away for the feast days of the great St. Augustine and his mother St. Monica. They follow one after the other in August, with the mother coming first, of course! The story of Augustine’s slow conversion to faith is fascinating, but for me the real drama comes from Monica’s persistent prayer for him, answered at last in full measure

Today’s Gospel gives me a good reason to speak about St. Monica as a model for evangelization, especially in the family. Jesus says “This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Compare that to what St. Augustine wrote about his mother: “You could feel God’s presence in her heart and her holy conversation gave rich proof of it.

“You could feel God’s presence in her heart.”  Isn’t that the exact opposite of what Jesus says about the scribes and Pharisees? They believed in what we call lip-service; not walking the talk.

The Psalm today says that those who speak the truth from their hearts will live with God. Again we hear the same message: our words have to flow from our inner selves, or they mean nothing before God.

The lessons we can learn from the Word of God today and from the example of St. Monica are crucial at a time when sharing our faith is an uphill climb. Parents wonder how to reach the children, students wonder how to be faithful in atheistic classrooms, and the workplace can be downright hostile to Christians.

The Bible gives us a powerful directive this morning: Faith is primarily something we do; talking comes later. St. James says it very simply: “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers.”

This has practical consequences.  Parents have to pass on the faith first by what they do, and only then by what they say. Faithfulness in attending Mass is worth more than all the catechism lessons in the world.

For the rest of us, priests included, we must make it possible for others to sense God present in our hearts. We must try to live so that people can recognize grace working in us.  Only then can our words—our holy conversation, as St. Augustine called it—have their full impact.

One of my high school teachers loved to say that faith is caught, not taught. He wasn’t knocking the teaching of faith—he was a religion teacher, after all; he was emphasizing that the only way to share truth effectively is by taking them on board ourselves. Our hearts must be where our words are.

This, of course, is the reason the Archdiocese fought so hard to protect our right to insist that Catholic school teachers are faithful not only in the classroom but in their personal lives. The 1984 Supreme Court of Canada decision affirming that right is the most precious possession of our school system, more valuable than all the school buildings put together

Most of us—especially preachers—can probably talk about the faith better than we can live it. Jesus doesn’t want to make us feel like hypocrites every time we open our mouth on the subject. But his tough words are a challenge to put flesh on our words by walking the talk with generosity and courage.

In particular, today’s Gospel invites us to a reality check about any areas of our lives where what we believe in our head doesn’t square with what’s going on in our heart. Anyone taking a driving lesson learns about blind spots in the mirror; Christians can have them in their hearts, and they’re just as dangerous.

I want to close with a word of warning: today’s readings call us to square our actions with our words, but they don’t excuse a failure to share with words when the time is right. It’s true that flawless Christian living will attract people to Christ, but until we reach that point, we need to talk to them also.

Next week we’ll talk about our Fall Alpha course that begins this month. Non-Catholic family and friends will only know about this exciting program if you tell them. So start thinking about who you can invite, and about coming with them to Alpha as a way of putting your own faith into action.