St. Joseph’s Catholic Church (Image: Grimes)
There are approximately 20,000 Roman Catholic parishes in the United States. In my early assignments as a priest, I traveled so much for the Church that I sometimes think that I have seen about half of them. They reflect every possible variation in architecture and design, size, location and neighborhood but there is something wonderful and mysterious about each and every one of them. I regret that the tradition that was strong when I was a kid seems to have gradually been lost and that is as you drive or walk in front of a church you bow your head and bless yourself with the sign of the cross. Why? Because we believe that on the other side of those doors Jesus of Nazareth is truly present in a very special way.
The parish is not a set of buildings. It is rather a community of faith and we live out our faith in many ways but most especially by those awesome moments of spirituality where we are touched, in contact with, close to and aided by the real presence of Jesus of Nazareth. At baptism, we are made his adopted brothers and sisters. At the Eucharist, we receive him as the nourishment for our souls as we continue our journey towards salvation. At the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we are lifted from our knees and told to go forward with confidence. When we marry the bond is not established merely by affection or by the law of the State of Texas but a bond is permanently made by our common faith in our Divine Lord. Finally, when the journey is over those who share our faith gather for the Last Anointing and they lift our lives, with all of its triumphs and defeats, towards God and present our life to him from whence we came and our salvation is at hand.
Yes, when we pass a church we should not be confused by the architecture. The building profoundly symbolizes the faith that brought it into existence – faith that is real, profound and calls for reverence.
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Prayer is an important part of a person’s religious and faith life. Prayer takes many forms, and we each utilize it in different ways. I have to admit that my favorite and most-used form is that of petition. I am frequently bringing various problems and difficulties to God’s attention, and indicating with great clarity what it is exactly that He should bring about—and on my time schedule, of course.
Seriously, though, prayer is an important word in the lives of most people who profess to have faith, but it is a word with a wide variety of meanings. In general, it is the way we manifest in our own personal lives how we do or want to relate to the God that we worship. Catholics have the reputation, not completely deserved, as praying constantly from formulas of prayer, such as the Lord’s Prayer, the Rosary, the Apostle’s Creed, and various types of novenas. This does not mean that Catholics do not also pray in a completely ad-libbed manner; it’s just that when they come together, there is a rich tradition of common prayer. Whether it’s 200 or 200,000 Catholics simultaneously uniting their voices in prayer, in my opinion that’s a beautiful manifestation of shared faith.
There are four basic forms of prayer: adoration, petition, thanksgiving and contrition. What must never be forgotten and always stressed is that prayer is conversation with God. Conversation! That conversation must be natural from the point of view of the person that is doing the praying. This opens up the need for personal, non-memorized prayer. I believe the only advantage of memorized prayer is making it easy to pray aloud together. We tend to get into a format that we’re comfortable with, and use it repeatedly. Instead, I think we should struggle to avoid that, and get back to the concept of an ongoing, personal conversation with our Lord.
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With the extraordinary feast of Pentecost approaching, I’ve been reflecting on the Holy Spirit, and how we in our lives go about spreading the Good News. Frankly, I believe that in our country, we tend to keep our practice of religion slightly out of sight, so that we don’t offend anybody or step on anybody’s toes…and I think that is a big mistake! Everyone has his or her own faith, own values, and ultimately their own religious beliefs. Our practice of our own faith does not automatically infringe on another person’s beliefs.
I have always said that religious arguments are pointless (because I have never seen one that changed the views of the participants). Openly demonstrating our faith and values, however, speaks volumes. Our own Pope Francis had a marvelous tweet (Twitter post) yesterday- he notes,”We cannot be part-time Christians! We should seek to live our faith at every moment of every day.”
I could not agree more. Let’s get busy!
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Do you want to hear something startling? Go back to yesterday’s readings and look at that excerpt from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.
“If any is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old order has passed away. Now all is new. All of this has been done by God.”
There you have it. We can read many books of theology and Christian asceticism, examine ourselves, constantly check ourselves against the teachings of Jesus but you have it all there in three sentences. Since the resurrection, the relationship between the human family and Almighty God has changed. Human weakness, human frailty still abound. People still stumble and fall but it is not the dreary situation prior to the resurrection. Now our world is filled with faith, hope and charity – faith which gives a true and profound understanding of reality of our relationship with God, hope which gives us a positive optimism about our ultimate union with God and charity which guides us in our dealings with each as we journey towards God.
Paul is not just talking into the wind. It is not that he says those wonderful sentences but seems disconnected from reality. Corinth was a sinful city. The Church in Corinth was a sinful Church and in the midst of that sinfulness and failure, we have Paul’s optimism boiling over.
As we move towards the end of Lent and endeavor to improve ourselves spiritually, it should not be seen as a heavy chore or difficult burden. When we realize that we are actually making progress, we should be thrilled that we are really forming, admittedly in a very limited sense, ourselves in the model of Jesus of Nazareth. Making progress in this area should be a source of joy and enthusiasm and not dreariness.
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There are so many things wrong in the world around us. Many of us tilt towards a negative frame of reference – the government is corrupt, the Church is inept, the doctors charge too much, taxes are too high, etc., etc. With that in mind, I would like to spotlight a few bright spots in the world around us. I think that when we do that it gives us a better and more clear focus on how the world is actually running along.
Let me touch briefly on mental illness. Many years ago, if your neighbor’s son broke his leg, that neighbor would be surrounded by sympathy and well-intentioned support. On the other hand, if it turned out that his wife was suffering some form of mental illness, the husband might confront a great wall of silence. People simply did not want to talk about mental illness – their own or someone else’s. We should all be happy to know that great progress has been made in this direction. There is much more to be done and the churches should get involved because they have the resources to really be of help.
One key, of course, is to develop within the structure of the local parish some form of parish social ministry. Such a group could work to form small support groups that could assist both the sick person and their family.
Today, the medical profession is more competent with the spiritual aspects of people who are burdened by mental illness. It used to be that doctors looked on these issues and spirituality as some type of defense mechanism that the sick person was developing. I am glad that there has now been established a National Catholic Partnership on Disabilities Council on Mental Illness. It is a long title but it means that many Catholics are organizing in a way to enable them to plug into the larger National Council on Mental Illness and therefore be more effective.
We need also to be conscious of the fact that there is widespread mental illness among people who do not see psychiatrists, do not talk to a doctor, have not been to a counselor and yet they are truly suffering. When we become conscious of one of our friends suffering that hardship, we need to be relaxed and free to discuss their faith with them and discuss the illness itself. It may very well be that we are the ones who the person needs to be able to talk about their faith in Jesus Christ and the pain in their mind. An excellent book was written by Sister Nancy Kehoe, a Sacred Heart Sister and clinical psychologist. She is the author of Wrestling with Our Inner Angels: Faith, Mental Illness and the Journey to Wholeness, published by Jossey-Bass.
Working together lessens pain and can help speed recovery.
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February 10th, Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Today’s readings present us with a scriptural foundation for the natural missionary thrust of the Church. The Church was brought into existence as a community of faith by the will of Jesus Christ. The Church holds tightly and courageously to that faith. From the very beginning our Lord made it known that it was not a treasure that was to be kept safely in a box. It was to be spread out into the world. “Go ye therefore into the whole world teaching them…”.
Who was to do that? Well, those who had been blessed with the faith, they have a responsibility having received that gift to attempt to share it. For this, let’s go back to today’s reading from the 6th chapter of Isaiah. Here we see Isaiah living through a dramatic vision, a scene in which he himself sees Yahweh, the Lord, and Isaiah is terrified. Isaiah admits his own unworthiness. Why should he receive such a gift? He cries out that he is unclean and he has unclean lips. Suddenly, an angel comes from Yahweh with a burning ember and touches the mouth of Isaiah and announces that this suffering has cleansed him of all guilt. Then the voice of the Lord says, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” Isaiah answers, “Here I am Lord. Send me.”
If you hold on to our holy Christian faith, have been baptized and formed in that faith, you have weaknesses that may block you from effectively transferring it to your brothers and sisters. However, don’t worry. You have been purified by the death and resurrection of the Lord. When you hear the voice of the Lord asking, “Whom shall I send?” you should consider answering with Isaiah. “Here I am Lord. Send me.”
If one of us worked for the president or for the governor, or I guess for that matter, even the mayor, one would ordinarily be very proud of that fact. How proud we should be and how enthusiastic we should be when we realize that when we are working for Jesus of Nazareth we are working for the Lord of the universe. It is not sinful pride. It is very reasonable and logical.
Let’s go to work!
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December 23rd, Fourth Sunday of Advent
It is so close. It is so very close and are we ready? This is not a question of rechecking the gift list. Readiness is looking inside ourselves and facing honestly the degree of faith that we have in Jesus Christ on his birth in Bethlehem, roughly 2,000 years ago, and the awesome beautiful scene of Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem where she would deliver the Messiah, the Savior of the human family.
On Saturdays in this space I always run a comment or two on Sunday’s Scripture readings, usually, but not always, the Gospel itself. In commenting on God’s word, one should maintain a certain timidity with no illusions about improving upon them. Today I won’t improve it. I will just quote a magnificent text by preparing us to celebrate Christmas Day. It is from the book of the Prophet Zephaniah.
“Shout for joy oh daughter of Zion. Sing joyfully oh Israel. Be glad and exalt with all your hearts oh daughter of Jerusalem. The Lord has removed the judgment against you. He has turned away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst. You have no further misfortune to fear. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem, Fear not oh Zion. Be not discouraged. The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a Mighty Savior. He will rejoice over you with gladness and renew you in his love. He will sing joyfully because of you as one who sings at festivals.” (Zephaniah 3:14-18)
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Virtually all committed Christians believe that God is revealed through his Divine Son, that there is a mysterious inner-life in the God-head that is beyond human comprehension. I am referring to the Trinity, the fact that while we believe with absolute confidence that there is only one God, we believe that there are relationships within God that for lack of better words we call “persons.” Those persons are the Father, the Son and the Spirit. Christian theology, always inadequate when faced with the infinite, has assigned works to each of these divine relationships but just because we say certain things does not mean that our inadequate verbal description depicts the reality that actually takes place or unfolds.
Christians believe that the third person of the Trinity is the Holy Spirit and it is God’s Spirit that makes us holy, draws us in faith, unites it with Jesus and guides us on into eternity. We think of God, the Father, as being the Creator, the Son as the Redeemer and the Holy Spirit as Sanctifier. And how does the Holy Spirit draw us towards holiness and sanctification? Again, the Christians use verbiage in an effort to get a mental handle on the thing, but as we use these words we must be constantly conscious of the fact that they are not actually adequate descriptions of the reality that we are pursuing.
The Holy Spirit draws us in faith to Jesus and to the Father through dispositions or tendencies of the soul that result from the Spirit’s actions around us. These are called “the gifts.” There is, of course, no limit to the generosity of God and so you can’t put a numerical limit on the Holy Spirit’s gifts. However, there is a long-standing tradition built on the teachings of St. Thomas that there are seven of them and they are wisdom, understanding, knowledge, piety, fortitude, counsel, and fear of the Lord. It is through these gifts that the Holy Spirit can direct the supernatural of the soul as much as the human reason through the virtues directs the moral life of the soul.
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As I have said before, most of us were very happy to get the election behind us. A major decision was made by the American people and with an agonizing process have chosen their leader for the next four years. We haven’t changed the extraordinarily high political content that appears day by day in our media. This election brings a new set of questions and working relationships. Various factors are speculating, jockeying, maneuvering to try and get themselves in the best possible position for this new chapter in American political life.
At this point, I am torn in two directions. I am a person of faith who believes that prayer influences the unfolding of the human story but I am also a fairly practical realistic and know the complex driving force that motivates the human condition. I have been praying for a few days that the leaders in our country will see that the last two years before November 6th were terribly counterproductive for the well-being of this nation. There are lots of names for it. Refusal to compromise, logjam, gridlock, Tea Party revolt, etc., etc. – regardless of the name used, it always meant the same thing. Congress of the United States was simply not able to function. When one realizes that the Congress is an essential component of the federal government, this means that a very important entity was more or less off on the side and that is a disastrous situation.
I am fervently praying that the leaders in Washington will see that theirs is a very special calling. They have to study, plan and decide important areas of life that will affect 300 million people and ultimately the entire world. I am praying that God will give them the wisdom to appreciate this, and when they move forward in good faith to make good plans and decisions that they will be open to God’s guidance. That is so reasonable that I cannot admit that I really being naïve. If, on the other hand, our leaders cannot put pettiness, selfishness and competitive destructiveness behind them, then I pray that the American people realize that they themselves must rise up with a sense of anger and frustration and make determined efforts to put into plan now that this impasse will not continue endlessly.
Onward to 2013.
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October 28th, Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Well, we are moving towards the end of the ecclesiastical year and the first Sunday of Advent is not too far away. A long period of thoughtful study that the Church puts in front of us under the heading of “Ordinary Sundays” in the year brings wonderful messages, ideas and dreams to each Sunday as we prepare to celebrate the Eucharist. Today is one of the best.
You know the story so well. A blind beggar by the side of the road, unable to be close to Jesus because of a large crowd, crying out desperately, “Son of David have pity on me.” The crowd begins to scold him telling him to keep quiet (the bureaucrats again!) He responds with more volume. Then Jesus said, “Call him over.” I love that sentence. Jesus of Nazareth, the second person of the Blessed Trinity, stands on a dusty roadside and says, “Call him over.” You know the rest. He begs for sight, he gets sight,and the crowd is moved realizing the need to follow after Jesus.
Retreat masters love this excerpt from Mark because it fits everyone who is attending the retreat. There is a blind man who cannot see. There is the beggar who has no resources. There is a faith that calls him to plead for help. And then again, there is that awesome response from Jesus to any person on the retreat – “Tell him to come over.” Which one of us does not suffer occasionally, frequently or even almost always from a spiritual blindness? Which one of us has the resources to provide for all of our needs? Which one of us is not a beggar when it comes to reaching out to the infinite powers of God.
It is not just a great story. It is a true story. We beggars should continue down the road. The Feast of Christ the King is not too far in the distance.
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