I find it interesting that most of us are rather comfortable with the word “vice.” We know exactly what it means. We read about it frequently in the newspapers. Our cities have vice squads and newspapers remind us that certain neighborhoods are filled with vice. On the other hand, virtue, the opposite of vice, is a word that leaves some of us a little uncomfortable. We describe a person as being a virtuous man or virtuous woman but we don’t know exactly what that means. When we use the word virtue, we are really referring to the fact that it is a quality in a person that provides a habitual and firm disposition to do good. Vice, of course, is the opposite.
During these holy days of Lent while we are trying to develop certain qualities in our spiritual life, such a patience and empathy, what we are really trying to do is to become virtuous in that or some other aspect of our journey towards God.
Earlier in the week, I mentioned the theological virtues. It seems somewhat less clear than the natural virtues, such as generosity, empathy, self-control, etc., etc. Natural virtues direct us towards some aspect of our day-to-day life in the natural area, whereas theological virtues are centered on God. When we call faith a theological virtue, we are saying that if we believe in God that we center our life on him and that the theological virtue of faith is one of our strongest underpinnings.
Tomorrow, let’s take a brief look at hope.
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We are almost halfway through the holy season of Lent. We are halfway finished with what is intended by the Church to be a six week time of spiritual exercises which involves efforts on our part to concentrate on the ultimate reality of our faith – God and our relationship with him.
When we are at prayer are we conscious of the fact that we are in his presence? Can we get our thoughts around the awesome reality that this Infinite Being loves each one of us personally and has invited us to eternal life sharing in his infinite majesty and joy?
Have we tried to systematically put prayer into our daily life over these last three weeks, and if we have failed somewhat, can we recommit ourselves to intense morning prayer and reflective evening prayers to close out the day and a constant effort to make sure that our emotions are controlled and we don’t inflict pain on our fellow travelers in life?
Potentially, Lent is a great spiritual gift. Let’s not fail to utilize it effectively.
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Most of us are very conscious of the interaction that we have with the people with whom we are sharing life. We talk, we communicate, we get angry, we step forward to help, we step back in shock. There are so many emotions and responses in the people around us and oddly enough if we stop to evaluate those relationships, we might put one or another under a good heading. We might even call one of them a virtue!
A virtue is simply the facility in doing a good thing easily as opposed to a vice, which is a tendency towards more easily doing something that was wrong. We think of ourselves as being patient, impatient, kind, hostile, generous, selfish, etc., etc. We are familiar with those expressions because they neatly tab all these actions that we have with others and we evaluate them as we look inside ourselves and try to see how we are doing in our moral journey.
Then out of the sky comes the theological virtues. I may be judging others on the basis of my own shortcomings, but I have to honestly admit that although while I am intellectually conscious of the theological virtues, they are not always at the top of my list as I examine my conscience; they are not always goals to which I set myself as I continue my Lenten journey. There are only three of them – faith, hope and charity. Tradition tells us that these three virtues of the foundation of all Christian moral activity are animated and give it special character. On the basis of our baptism, these virtues are infused by God into the souls of the faithful and they make us capable of acting as his children and meriting eternal life (Catholic Catechism #1813).
As a favor to myself, I am going to take a little time and begin to think about these three awesome gifts. I know that if I develop the virtue of faith, if I cling to the virtue of hope, and if I allow the virtue of charity to pass through me, my spiritual life will be greatly enhanced. I also know that if I neglect them, I will be spiritually damaged.
As we reach the midpoint of Lent, I would encourage you to do the same thing.
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Four years ago, the novel the Da Vinci Code was a runaway best seller. It set records everywhere and generated countless conversations. The novel…did you catch that…NOVEL fascinated readers but a large proportion of them evidently didn’t know the definition of “novel.” Time after time, I would receive telephone calls or people would meet me and ask me, “Bishop, is this all true?” I would have to remind them that it is a well written novel written for entertainment.
Since our collective memories are on the weak side, the Da Vinci Code is fading into oblivion but may soon be resurrected by the appearance of a new film coming out entitled “There Be Dragons.” This movie will endeavor to present the movement, Opus Dei, in a bright light and in a much more positive context. It is directed by Roland Joffé who describes himself as a wobbly agnostic. Joffé, however, is assisted in its production by two strong members of Opus Dei and their presence will certainly be of great influence in the movie.
Opus Dei began in Spain during that country’s civil war and it has always operated in a rather secretive and mysterious manner. It seems that most people who get to know it, experience it or had dealings with it react in one of two extreme ways. They are strongly supportive and see it as a great source of strength in the life of the Church, or they are horrified and withdrawn and see it as a manipulative church within the Church. Since the movie is being produced by people from both sides, it should be very interesting indeed.
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March 27th, Third Sunday of Lent
Today’s Gospel is an absolutely delightful story. A long excerpt from John’s fourth chapter is the fascinating story of Jesus passing through Samaria having an important conversation with a Samaritan woman at the town well. Violating the social rules and custom of the day, Jesus, a single Jewish male, asks the Samaritan woman for a drink. That brings on a marvelous conversation between the two in which the woman tries to artfully change the subject each time Jesus gently directs her towards being completely honest. This simple story, about which all of us are familiar, has many implicit meanings and values. One is the relationship between Jesus and women. Another is the relationship between ourselves and foreigners.
Next week we get another wonderful story, namely that of the man born blind. Don’t miss it!
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The new auxiliary bishop of San Francisco has gotten a considerable amount of good press of late and he certainly deserves it. I followed his work from a distance for several years and am very happy that the Holy See has elevated him to the episcopacy. His name is Robert W. McElroy and he has been a bishop for about six months. I was delighted to read a wonderful article by him that ran in America magazine three weeks ago on the subject of War Without End. Bishop McElroy rightly raises a serious and tragic issue, namely that the United States now seems able to absorb almost continuous warfare into its mode of operation. He points out that our extraordinarily large American economy combined with our modern weapons of destruction that minimize American deaths, plus the fact that we operate with a professional army, come together to make it possible for the great majority of the population to live their lives almost untouched by the agonizing suffering that always accompanies war.
Bishop McElroy rightly points out that a major national debate should have been developed once the administration and congressional supporters of the war ignored the promise of troop withdrawals scheduled for 2011 and instead reset their goal to three years later in 2014. Regretfully, the national reaction was DEAFENING SILENCE!
Roman Catholic moral theologians have given enormous thought and study to the issues of war and peace. Principles relating to “just war” have been clear for generations and those principles have been violated tragically in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These two wars have resulted in the deaths of thousands of young Americans and billions and billions in wealth have been dissipated but those costs have been minimal compared to what has been paid by the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. Their cities have been destroyed, their economies wrecked and hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives. Bishop McElroy strongly urges all Americans, but especially Roman Catholics, to shake off our lethargy and get involved with both prayer and political action to help lessen this development of a national attitude which seems content to tolerate war without end.
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As we move along in Lent, I would like to state again my personal feelings that it is a far better attempt to discipline ourselves to perfect an undeveloped virtue than to just make symbolic sacrifices of giving up something for Lent, like candy or movies. There is certainly nothing wrong with practicing self-denial about items which we thoroughly enjoy but for most of us that doesn’t get to the real heart of the issues for which the Church tries to develop a Lenten spirit. It would be far better to attempt to improve ourselves by developing one or another valuable virtue that we might not tend to think about too much. I would like to suggest the virtue of empathy.
Webster tells us that empathy is “the quality of being able to inject one’s own personality into the personality of another in order to understand him better.” It gives us the ability to share in another’s emotions or feelings and therefore to more clearly understand his or her pain.
As we rush through life taking care of our own individual responsibilities, we sometimes ignore very real pain and sorrow that is all around us. Each Lenten day, we could begin by examining our consciences as to whether or not we had opportunities to offer sympathy or support to a family member, a neighbor, a co-worker and let that chance slip by. Let’s resolve to do better today.
I thought of this issue after reading an article from the New York Times back in late January. It talked about the suffering and isolation that families experience when a member of the family, in a demented state, has gone on a killing spree. Some among us instinctively blame the family after one of these tragedies. We should be having the opposite response. Empathy, however, can be generated far this side of mass murder. It is also called for when a young man has just broken up with his girlfriend or an applicant to the local university is turned down by that school. We cannot help people effectively with pain and suffering in their lives if we are not conscious of that pain, conscious of that suffering. Empathy is a wonderful gift that helps both the person suffering and the one who is more conscious of that suffering.
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When I was a kid back in Houston going to All Saints grammar school in the late ‘30’s and early ‘40’s, my classmates and I often made martyrs of ourselves. We did not have to fast as the adults did. For 10 or 12 year old kids, we did things that were more difficult. We gave up candy! We gave up desserts! We gave up movies! We were told rightly that if we could practice discipline, giving up things that were good, we would have greater strength in giving up things that were bad. I am sure that this is basically true. However, I would like to urge a different approach to Lent for adults.
Instead of giving things up for 40 days, we should endeavor to practice positive virtues in those areas of our personal life where we are having difficulties. Is there any one of us who is not having difficulties in our personal life? Is there any one of us who does not have a tendency to live our lives in such a way that it makes life unnecessarily difficult for those around us? I think not!
Let’s try this on for size. Do we adequately practice the virtue of patience? Regretfully, most of us have a tendency to judge ourselves rather easily and be somewhat harsher on the people around us. Did you ever notice when you are driving down IH-35 that there are so many crazy and irresponsible drivers? We ourselves, of course, travel serenely down the same lane without ever failing to give signals or ride too close to the car ahead of us. We all love to hear interesting stories but older people aren’t getting many new ones and therefore tend to repeat themselves about that great thing that happened in 1948. Repeating those stories gives our older friends great pleasure. Instead of cutting them off by telling them that we have already heard it, we should just lean back and let them have the satisfaction of telling a special story even though we have already heard it six times.
The list of possibilities goes on and on and every single day is filled with them. Let’s give God a commitment to being more patient as our Lenten sacrifice.
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Once the President of the United States leaves public office, what is he to do with himself? If the last fifty years is any indication, it seems that there is almost an unwritten law as to how he should move forward. First, comes the book and then comes the library. Bush’s book, Decision Points, is now in the bookstores and the library is on its way. The former president has worked hard at selling the book and the first press run was for 750,000 copies. He gave media interviews to Oprah Winfrey, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Jay Leno, Matt Lauer, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, FOX, CNN and CBS. He said, “I want to sell books!”
I have not read the book but I did read a review by one of my heroes, Colman McCarthy (no relation regretfully) of the National Catholic Reporter. According to that McCarthy, nowhere in the book are there expressions of sorrow or remorse for the loss of life in Iraq and Afghanistan civilians. McCarthy alleges that Bush’s lack of sensitivity of American death as well and that in his eight years in office the president never attended a funeral at Arlington Cemetery!
The Iraq war may have been the worst tragedy in American history other than possibly our own Civil War. The country is devastated, unmanageable, no one knows how many Iraqi civilians were killed but certainly far more than 100,000. More than 5,000 young Americans lost their lives and 25,000 were wounded. Virtually everyone agrees that the war was a terrible, tragic mistake. May God forgive us.
President George Bush is still a young man and may live for many years. Let us pray that he can do something to be remembered by other than the agony of Iraq and those terrible statistics.
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Look at that crowd of demonstrators! Is that Cairo? Is that Tripoli? No, it’s downtown Madison, Wisconsin. That surging crowd of demonstrators at the state capital are school teachers struggling to protect their economic future. Governor Scott Walker wants to balance his state’s budget, a commendable goal, but he wants to accomplish it by slashing wages and benefits of state employees and eliminating their collective bargaining rights. Those efforts are being watched by other governors. The unions recognize that what they are dealing with is not just a budget shortfall in Madison but a determined effort by strong forces in our society to break the back of the labor union movement.
The high point of organized labor was in the 1950’s when a third of all American workers belonged to the unions. Today, that figure is less than 15%. Of those who are in unions, more than 50% of them are in the public employee unions. If these unions can be taken out, then what is left of the American labor movement will be but a shadow of its former self. It is the realization of this fact that has generated so much support from other union members and from the citizens at large. The recent CBS poll showed that Americans oppose cutting union organizing rights by more than two to one and that is one of the best signs for organized labor in many years.
With the decline of union membership, we have also seen a steady decline of the incomes of all workers in middle class employees in this country. If we match that with the concentration of wealth among the top 1% of earnings, it has reached levels not seen in almost 100 years. Peter Steinfels, reviewing the book Winner-Take-All Politics stated, “Our democracy has become the most economically unequal nation in the advanced world.” This did not happen by accident. Commonweal magazine reminds us in their online issue of February 28th, which will appear in print on March 11th, that “over the past three decades business and corporate interests has spent billions to limit taxation, constrained the reach of government, delegitimize unions and attack any effort to distribute the nation’s wealth more equitably. Institutions that used to look out for the welfare of the average American worker have disappeared or looked the other way – and that includes the Democratic Party. Is it any wonder that the average citizen is so alienated from the government or that the nation’s politics have become so bitter and confrontational.”
In my opinion, this downward trend is destructive not just for the individuals who are hurt by it, but for democracy itself. For the market to work in a free economy, workers must have a say in the decisions that affect them and their families well-being. The situation is so bad right now that it may well be that we will see a resurgence of union organizing efforts in this country.
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