Sunday, August 18, 2013

When Life Doesn't Make Sense

What do we do when life doesn’t make sense?

How can we handle challenges that seem unfair—problems that pile up, one on top of another, leaving us gasping for air and grasping for God, who seems very far away, if not entirely absent?

These are not the questions that most of us ask every day, but they are questions that some of us ask more often than you might think. I meet people every week who think that life ought to be smooth sailing if only God is doing his job. I meet one of them in the mirror every morning.

And yet for almost everyone there comes a day, a week, or a year when life doesn’t make sense. A child drowns. A young parent dies in a car accident. A dear friend betrays our trust. Sometimes, we face two or even three tragic things around the same time and everything falls apart.

How does the Christian deal with this?

You won’t find many better answers than those offered in our readings today.

First of all, the Old Testament reading and the Gospel pair up to remind us that neither God’s Word nor the history of our salvation promises an easy life. Jeremiah is thrown down a well and left to die, precisely as a result of doing what God asked him to do. Who could blame him for asking God  'why?' as he sank into the mud?

Jesus, of course, is the ultimate example of innocent suffering, and we know that from the cross he asked why—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

It’s no surprise, then, that Jesus did not promise an earthly rose garden to his disciples. Do you think faith entitles Christians to a little peace and quiet? In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives an astonishing answer: not only will faith cause you problems at work, it’ll cause you problems at home!

Life’s miseries are doubly or triply hard for those of us who believe we’re entitled to make it through life without problems. Pain and trouble are much worse when they are unexpected. So the first step to coping with life as a Christian is to develop a realistic understanding and acceptance of what God has, and has not, promised to his faithful people.

But of course that’s not enough with which to face a real crisis. Happily, between the two bookends of Jeremiah’s misery, and the discouraging words of Jesus, we read a passage from the Letter to the Hebrews that makes sense of it all. These are four of my favourite verses in the entire Bible, and they give a framework for facing suffering and finding meaning in the disasters of life.

The very first words of the reading offer a starting place: the “great cloud of witnesses” that’s all around us. Who are these witnesses if not the saints? While the letter is likely thinking of the great figures of the Old Testament, we are surrounded also by twenty centuries of holy men and women whose example can strengthen us in any and every difficulty.

Do your children cause you great distress and worry? So did at least one of St. Monica’s, the future bishop Saint Augustine? Do you have a drinking problem? So did she at a young age.

Have you serious money problems? St. Gemma Galgani’s father died just when his prosperous pharmacy failed, leaving nothing for his orphaned daughter to live on. Creditors rushed in immediately after his death and searched the young girl’s own pockets, taking away the few small coins they found.

Do you mourn the loss of a husband? So did St. Paula, whose husband died when she was 32, and who could barely face her grief until St. Marcella, also recently widowed, showed her friend how to be happy again and find a purpose in life.

We could go on all morning with examples of people who proved by their lives that God is faithful and that human problems cannot defeat divine goodness—saints who bear witness in every age and culture that “all things work together for good for those who love God” and that nothing whatever can “separate us from the love of God” as St. Paul writes to the Romans.

But we’ve only looked at the first few words of the reading. It continues by inviting us to “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely.” We can’t just look at the saints; we must look at ourselves. And what do we see—weight. Just like some of us see extra pounds when we look in the mirror, all of us have excess baggage that slows us down on the spiritual journey.

The word “weight” means here an encumbrance, an impediment—perhaps something we’re carrying around that we ought to let go of. In almost every sport except Sumo wrestling, being overweight is an obstacle to success. Like an athlete in training, the Christian needs to weigh-in. We’re not talking here about sin but about impediments—things that prevent us from running with speed and grace.

It could be nothing more than a love of comfort: the extra cup of coffee that always makes us arrive at the last minute for Mass, with never five minutes to quiet our hearts. It could be a fear of what people might think, an excessive demand for respect, even a love for TV that stops us from taking a walk with the family on a sunny evening.

Everyone has a different build—what’s excess weight for me might be necessary pounds for you. The thing is: we need to take stock, and to be ready to let go of whatever is slowing down our spiritual run.

Nothing, of course, slows us down like sin. The letter tells us to throw off—to rid ourselves—of sin, and especially of a particular kind of sin: “the sin that clings so closely.” We might see this as what’s sometimes called our “besetting sin,” a habitual sin with which we’ve struggled long and hard without much result (or even a sin we've given up fighting). But the truth is that all sin clings closely in the sense that it trips us up when we try to run the race.

What all this is saying is that we need to be in good spiritual shape in order to face life’s inevitable struggles. When times aren’t all that hard is when we need to grow in our relationship with God so we’ll be fit when the race starts a steep uphill climb.

I would never tell someone who is overcome by trouble that they should have strengthened their spiritual muscles in better times—that would be almost cruel. But there is some truth in it. A solid relationship with God is a wonderful thing to have when sorrow strikes. At the same time, our troubles themselves are an opportunity to grow in that relationship, because they can lead us to connect with the sufferings of Jesus.

The letter tells us to “consider Jesus” and all he endured before we give up hope for ourselves. By thinking about what he faced we can put our problems in perspective—even better, we can unite our sufferings with his. I’ve never been brave enough to suggest that someone who is angry with God read through one of the Gospel accounts of Christ’s passion, but perhaps that’s not a bad idea.

The key message in this wonderful passage is found in the phrase “looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” I prefer the less literal but more forceful translation in the New Jerusalem Bible, which reads “Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.”

We can lose sight of Jesus because of pain and sorrow. But there is only one remedy, and that is to look at him through our tears, to recall the great truths of our salvation, and to unite ourselves with him in faith and hope.

This is no mere pious prayer—it is a practical way to persevere in sorrow and to find strength when our human resources have failed. If life is tough right now, read over Hebrews 12 when you get home. If life is easy, read over Hebrews 12 and make a plan to be in shape to meet whatever challenges are still to come.

And most of all, in good times and in bad, let us not lose sight of Jesus, “who leads us in our faith and brings it to perfection.” (NJB)

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

What Christ Wants from His Church

Chiesa, the English-language website of the prominent Vatican observer Sandro Magister, has published an unofficial translation of Cardinal Prosper Grech's meditation at the beginning of the Conclave that elected Pope Francis.  In the following excerpts, the elderly scholar is "drawing from Scripture some reflections to help us understand what Christ wants from his Church...."

These exhortations to the Cardinals seem appropriate and extremely valuable for every Catholic and so I am reprinting them here.


After his resurrection Jesus sent the apostles into the whole world to make disciples of all peoples and baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Mt 29:19). The Church does this by presenting the Gospel without compromise, without diluting the word. […] When one descends to compromises with the Gospel one empties it of its “dynamis,” as if one were to remove the explosive from a hand grenade. Nor must one give in to temptation thinking that, since Vatican Council II is believed to have leveled out salvation for those who are outside of the Church as well, the need for baptism has been relativized. Today is added the abuse of many indifferent Catholics who neglect or refuse to baptize their children.


The proclamation of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God is made concrete in the proclamation of “Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). […] It is precisely this scandal of the cross that humbles the “hubris" of the human mind and elevates it to accept a wisdom that comes from above. In this case as well, to relativize the person of Christ by placing him alongside other “saviors” means emptying Christianity itself of its substance. It is precisely the preaching of the absurdity of the cross that in less than three hundred years reduced to the minimum the religions of the Roman empire and opened the minds of men to a new view of hope and resurrection. It is for the same hope that the modern world is thirsting, suffering from an existential depression.


Christ crucified is intimately connected to the Church crucified. It is the Church of the martyrs, from those of the first centuries to the many faithful who, in certain countries, are exposing themselves to death simply by going to Sunday Mass. […] Jesus predicts: “if they have persecuted me, they will persecute you" (Jn 15:20). Therefore, persecution is a "quid constitutivum" of the Church, […] it is a cross that it must embrace. But persecution is not always physical, there is also the persecution of falsehood: “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake" (Mt 5:11). You have recently experienced this through some media outlets that do not love the Church. When the accusations are false one must not pay attention to them, even if they cause immense pain.


It is another thing when what is said about us is the truth, as has happened in many of the accusations of pedophilia. Then we must humble ourselves before God and men, and seek to uproot the evil at all costs, as did, to his great regret, Benedict XVI. And only in this way can we regain credibility before the world and give an example of sincerity. Today many people do not arrive at believing in Christ because his face is obscured or hidden behind an institution that lacks transparency. But if recently we have wept over many unpleasant events that have befallen clergy and laity, even in the pontifical household, we must consider that these evils, as great as they may be, if compared with certain evils in the history of the Church are nothing but a cold. And just as these have been overcome with God's help, so also the present crisis will be overcome. Even a cold needs to be taken care of well to keep it from turning into pneumonia.


The evil spirit of the world, the “mysterium iniquitatis" (2 Thes 2:7), constantly strives to infiltrate the Church. Moreover, let us not forget the warning of the prophets of ancient Israel not to seek alliances with Babylon or with Egypt, but to follow a pure policy "ex fide" trusting solely in God (cf. Is 30:1; 31:1-3; Hos 12:2) and in his covenant. Courage! Christ relieves our minds when he exclaims: "Have trust, I have overcome the world" (Jn 16:33). […]


No less easy for the future pontiff will be the task of keeping unity in the Catholic Church itself. Between ultratraditionalist extremists and ultraprogressive extremists, between priests who rebel against obedience and those who do not recognize the signs of the times, there will always be the danger of minor schisms that not only damage the Church but also go against the will of God: unity at all costs. Butt unity does not mean uniformity. It is evident that this does not close the doors to the intra-ecclesial discussion present in the whole history of the Church. All are free to express their thoughts on the task of the Church, but they should be proposals in line with that "depositum fidei" which the pontiff together with all of the bishops has the task of guarding. […]


Unfortunately today theology suffers from the feeble thought that dominates the philosophical environment, and we need a good philosophical foundation in order to be able to develop dogma with a valid hermeneutic that speaks a language intelligible to the contemporary world. It often happens, however, that the proposals of many faithful for the progress of the Church are based on the level of freedom that is granted in the area of sexuality. Certainly laws and traditions that are purely ecclesiastical can be changed, but not every change means progress, it must be discerned whether such changes act to increase the holiness of the Church or to obscure it. […]


In the West, at least in Europe, Christianity itself is in crisis. […] There reigns an ignorance and disregard not only of Catholic doctrine, but even of the ABC's of Christianity. The urgency is thus felt of a new evangelization that begins from pure kerygma and plain proclamation to nonbelievers, followed by a continual catechesis nourished by prayer. But the Lord is never defeated by human negligence and it seems that, while they are closing the doors to him in Europe, he is opening them elsewhere, especially in Asia. And even in the West God will not fail to keep for himself a remnant of Israel that does not bend the knee before Baal, a remnant that we find mainly in the many lay movements endowed with different charisms that are making a strong contribution to the new evangelization. […] Care must be taken, however, that particular movements should not believe that the Church is exhausted in them. In short, God cannot be defeated by our indifference. The Church is his, the gates of hell can wound its heel but can never suffocate it. […]


There is another factor of hope in the Church that we must not overlook, the “sensus fidelium.” Augustine calls it "the inner teacher" in each believer. […] This creates in the depths of the heart that criterion of discernment of true and false, it makes us distinguish instinctively that which is "secundum Deum" from that which comes from the world and from the evil one (1 Jn 4:1-6). […] The coals of devout faith are kept alive by millions of simple faithful who are far from being called theologians but who in the intimacy of their prayers, reflections, and devotions can give profound advice to their pastors. It is these who "will destroy the wisdom of the wise and nullify the intelligence of the intelligent" (1 Cor 1:19). This means that when the world, with all of its knowledge and intelligence, abandons the logos of human reason, the Logos of God shines in simple hearts, which form the marrow from which the backbone of the Church is nourished. […]


While professing that the Holy Spirit is the soul of the Church, we do not always take him into consideration in our plans for the Church. He transcends all sociological analysis and historical prediction. He surpasses the scandals, the internal politics, the ambition, and the social problems, which in their complexity obscure the face of Christ that must shine even through dense clouds. Let's listen to Augustine: "The apostles saw Christ and believed in the Church that they did not see; we see the Church and must believe in Christ whom we do not see. By holding fast to what we see, we will arrive at seeing the one whom now we do not see" (Sermo 328, 3). […] In 1961 John XXIII received in audience in this Sistine Chapel the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See. He indicated the dominant figure of Christ the judge in the fresco of Michelangelo, and told them that Christ will also judge the actions of the individual nations in history. You find yourselves in this same Chapel, beneath the figure of that Christ with his hand raised not to crush but to illuminate your voting, that it may be "secundum Spiritum," not "secundum carnem." […] It is in this way that the elected will be not yours, but essentially His. […]


English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Follow up on "Gay Pride"

At the end of last week's homily, I shared an e-mail--occasioned by the Gay Pride Parade--from a parishioner who lives chastely with same-sex attraction. It prompted a very warm reaction to his words from a number of folks in the parish and much support for him.

When I spoke about Church teaching on homosexuality last yearon the Sunday when the parade was held, I mentioned the blogger Steve Gershom, who accepts and defends that teaching while dealing with SSA himself. Steve Gershom was the pseudonym he used to protect his privacy.

"Steve" has now identified himself publicly as Joey Prever in a bold but humorous post. It's well worth a read, especially for those trying to understand Catholic teaching on homosexuality in a positive way.

Congratulations, Joey, for your fortitude and fidelity. God bless you!

A place for worry? (19.C)

In last week's homily I proposed a Christian approach to worry, daring to offer “a practical program for a happier and even longer life.” I suggested we should use our heads to recognize that worry is a total waste and even harmful to our health, and that we should see our problems through the eyes of faith.

In particular, I presented two scriptural “antidotes” to worrying: counting our blessings before we weigh our worries, and shifting our focus from this world to the next. By shifting our minds from the uncertainties of this world to the certain promise of the next, we put worry in its proper place.

Response to the homily broke records for enthusiasm. Almost everyone worries, so almost everyone got something out of the homily, including me

After Mass this morning, a parishioner told me that she was in the car on her way home from Mass last Sunday when her husband turned to her said"Well, Monsignor might as well have stayed in bed this morning."

She said, "oh, you didn't like his homily?"

"Oh no, I liked it very much" he replied. "But since you've been worrying for the past ten minutes, I decided you weren't listening!"

Despite the warm reaction to the homily, I heard a couple of critical comments too. Someone asked whether I wasn’t encouraging people to be careless and discouraging them from prudent planning and foresight.

That’s a fair point. So in today’s homily I am going to present the other side of the story, for the benefit of those who think I didn’t give worry enough credit last week.

Today’s message is: go ahead and worry, but make sure you worry about the right things and in the right way.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that’s there is really only one thing worth worrying about, and that’s our salvation. Oddly enough, it’s one thing that fewer and fewer people seem to worry about. Most of us spend more time and energy (and money, for that matter) on our physical health than on our spiritual health.

One of the reasons that folks don’t worry about being saved or lost is the fairly recent idea that just about everyone is going to heaven. We all know that Jesus said “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.” We know that he said “the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” But many of us act as if he’d said the precise opposite.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks particularly to procrastinators: to those who accept his teaching but put off doing something about it. Once again we shouldn't have any trouble recognizing ourselves, for procrastination is about as universal a problem as worry is.

In just 16 verses, St. Luke presents three vivid parables: the sleepy slaves waiting for the return of their master, the house about to be burglarized, and the trustworthy manager. All three lead to the same conclusion: “you also must be ready.”

I’m not sure it matters whether we think the words “the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” refers to the end of time or the end of our lives: either way, if we put off until tomorrow the spiritual challenges of today we’ll be in the same shoes as the servant caught out when his master returned without warning.

One of my brothers told me that his kids will call on the cell phone when he and his wife are out for the evening. “Uh, Dad, when are you coming home?”

He answers “And why do you want to know? Anything to do with the fact you still haven’t done what I asked you to do?”

Jesus has made it clear that there’s no use asking him the same question. We know what we need to do, we know how we need to live: we know what our Master wants.

So if you’re going to worry, worry about pleasing God. That’s not the fruitless and wasteful worry I talked about last week—it’s the right kind of worry about the only things that really matter. In fact, it’s not really worry at all, because the kind of worry I was talking about is worry about things we can can’t change or control.

Not worrying doesn’t mean not working. The famous “Serenity Prayer” popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous says this very well. It begins “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

Years ago I read about a woman whose husband died leaving her with six children to raise. She faced this enormous challenge with help from her church, and created a loving home not only for her six but for several foster children as well.

As the years went by and the children turned out well, a local paper came to interview her for a story. The reporter asked her how she’d managed to cope and to raise all those children so beautifully.

The woman replied with a smile, “Well, it was the partnership.”

“What partnership?” the reporter asked.

Still smiling, she answered “My partnership with God. A few days after my husband died, I looked at my situation and I said to God, ‘From now on, Lord, I’ll do the work if you’ll do the worrying.’ All through the years I’ve done what needed to be done. I have upheld my end of the bargain.”

And then with joy she added, “And God has upheld his!”*

*James F. Colianni, Sunday Sermons: Treasury of Illustrations, 1019.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Worry is a WASTE (18.C)

Today’s message is for almost everyone in the congregation: because it is about worry, and almost everyone worries.

Our first reading teaches us that worry is not only a waste of time but a source of pain. Jesus teaches us that we can deal with worry in the wrong way, by looking for security from what we own. And then the Apostle Paul gives us the Christian’s antidote to worry.

Before we talk about the Scriptures, let’s fast-forward a couple of thousand years, and ask whether worry is all that bad. Someone told me not to worry when I was working in the Chancery Office many years ago. I replied that worrying was in my job description.

Today is my sixth anniversary as pastor of Christ the Redeemer Parish. As I look back on the day I arrived here, the only thing I regret is the time I wasted worrying.

No-one likes worrying, so I don’t think anyone would argue with me when I say worrying is a waste of time and energy. But deep down, many folks think they need to worry. After all, what would happen to you family if you didn’t worry about them? What would happen to your job if you didn’t worry about it?

Let me answer: nothing. Worrying doesn’t change a thing about your job or your family or your exams or your investments. You think things will go wrong without worry, but that’s simply not true. Jesus says all the worrying in the world can’t add an hour to our life or a foot to our height; worrying changes nothing.

Or I should say, worrying changes nothing for the better. It can change us for the worse. Modern research has confirmed this time and time again. It’s been more than fifty years since researchers identified a link between anxiety and heart disease, and more confirmation of the harmful effects of worry arrives almost daily.

In fact, only this week I discovered that people who are more worried about losing their memory are more likely to have a protein related to Alzheimer’s disease in their brains. Now that doesn’t prove anything, but it points once again to the waste of worrying and its potential harmful effects.These people are sometimes called "the worried well."

In a magazine article, I read about a brain scientist who believes we can hold off memory loss by remaining in the present, rather than by wallowing and worrying about the past and catastrophizing the future.”

Modern medicine tells us the same thing as the Book of Ecclesiastes: life is hardly worth living if we are consumed with worry: our days are long and our nights are longer. And in the end, as the old saying goes, you can’t take it with you.

Today’s Gospel is even more up to date, since Jesus describes something we know very well in our affluent society. Financial security provides temporary relief from worry. Half-way through the parable, the rich man is happy, satisfied and secure. He’s found the answer to his worries. But in an instant his security crumbles.

These ancient writings are completely up-to-date. Which of us hasn’t put faith in material security, at least from time to time? Which of us hasn’t put more time and energy to retirement planning than to our spiritual life?

And as I said at the beginning, don’t we all think that worry is a reasonable activity that no smart person can be without?

Actually, there’s an interesting point there. Andy Andrew’s clever book The Noticer reminds us that smart people are more likely to be tripped up by worry than dumb people, precisely because they are more creative and imaginative. Jones, the hero of the book, tells a worrier that “Worry... fear... is just a misuse of the creative imagination that has been placed in each of us. Because we are smart and creative, we imagine all the things that could happen, that might happen, that will happen if this or that happens.”

But Jones invites the worrier to use his smarts to defeat those thoughts with logic. We can do the same thing: “Forty percent of the things you worry about will never occur anyway.

“Thirty percent of the things you worry about have already happened...” and all the worry in the world can’t change them.

Twelve per cent are needless imaginings about our health; ten are “petty-little-nothing” worries about what other people think. And as the folksy but wise Jones says, “we can’t do nothin’ about what people think.”

When you do the math, only eight percent of our worries are worth thinking about. These are the things we can do something about—if we avoid using up all our energy worrying about the things we can’t change.

In The Noticer, Jones tells a troubled man to count his blessings before he lists his worries. Gratitude is an excellent antidote to worry and sadness.

In today’s second reading, the Word of God gives us even better advice. St. Paul tells us to shift our focus from what is temporary to what is permanent, to lift our minds from the uncertainties of this world to the certain promise of the next. This is the best of all antidotes to worry: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth...”

Faith not only puts our worries in their proper place—even the worst of them is a passing trouble and shrinks as soon as we recall the God is in charge and that our only real concern is to get to heaven.

Seen with the eyes of faith, some of our biggest worries may even be blessings. Many a soul has been saved by ill health or financial failure since, as St. Paul teaches, all things work for the good of those who love God, and no earthly misfortune can separate us from his love.

Today’s readings offer us a practical program for a happier and even longer life. Use your head to recognize that worry’s a waste and even harmful to our health. And see your problems through the eyes of faith, just as St. Teresa of Avila did when she wrote this poem:

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things
Whoever has God lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.

Let me close by turning to St. Paul’s words about sexual morality in the second reading. Today is the day of the Gay Pride Parade. A parishioner who lives chastely with same sex attraction wrote me an email early this morning. With permission, I share these words with you:

“If I am not at Mass today I want to assure you that I am not at the Parade, despite not being ashamed of who I am. The best Parade of Pride is knowing the Beauty of the Trinity, and the real “Parade” of our congregation in procession to the Altar for Holy Communion to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus, and my feeling of real “Pride” knowing I was so blessed to be chosen to hear the words of the Son of God.”

As are we all.