Saturday, April 13, 2013

Discovering the Heart on the Left - Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Easter

There is a secret to the universe.

            If earth were to be visited by a Martian, our visitor would soon discover this secret. It would start as he examined us. He would see the human body and recognize that the body was made in duplicate: He would note the arm on the left and the arm on the right, the leg on the left and the leg on the right. How odd—it’s duplicated! He would even note the same number of fingers and the same number of toes, same on the right, same on the left. He would see twin eyes and twin ears, twin nostrils, and even twin lobes of the brain. Logically, he would take it as a law: man is in duplicate. And so, where he found a heart on one side, the Martian would logically deduce that there was another heart on the other side.
            And just then, where he most felt he was right, he would be wrong.
            “How odd,” he would say to himself once more, discovering that there is only one heart and that it is on the left. “How… mysterious.”
            The Catholic Faith shares in this same secret and it is seen in many of her teachings. We see it in the 10 Commandments, for example. To an outside observer, the 10 Commandments would be odd. Knowing the importance of God to the Catholic religion, and being logical, the observer would first note the symmetry of the two tablets on which the Commandments were written. He would expect them, then, to be divided down the middle: five commandments on one side, five on the other. But he’d soon discover that there’s three on one side and seven on the other. How odd.
Now, it would seem most logical that since God is most important and our duties to him are greatest, then the seven commandments on the one side would be entirely devoted to God while the other three would be for our dealings with neighbor. But we know that the opposite is true: God only commands three things pertaining to himself; the seven pertain to our neighbor. How odd!
            The outside observer could say the same about tithing. If things were completely logical and symmetric, then when the Lord asks us to give to others, we would expect that he would command that 50% be given to him and 50% given to our neighbor. Or, better for us, that 50% be given to God and others while we keep the other 50%. That would seem logical and fair. But God tells us to give 90-10. This strikes the observer as odd—because, once more, since God is most important and all that we have comes from him, the observer would be logical in thinking that God was asking us to give 90% to God. But here’s the oddity: the 90% goes to us. God just wants the 10. (Odder still, however, is how the 10% quickly feels like 90%).
            Yes, the whole host of the Church’s teaching has this paradox of being entirely logical and yet, like the human heart, an inch off to the left.
            Jesus is fully God and yet fully man. How odd!
            He fully died. And fully rose.
            Eucharist is fully Jesus’ body and blood, but not at all bread or wine—even though the appearances are fully so. Odd indeed!         

            Discovering these oddities for the first time is like a Martian that discovers that the human heart is not in duplicate, but just left of center. There is a mystery there that is not entirely logical. It is a secret irregularlity.

            Our world does not want to admit of the secret irregularities. It wants everything to be logical and clean and neat, fitting into a nice little system of fairness and equality. But the human body is itself an irregularity and inequality. Even the shape of the globe is irregular: it is not perfectly round, but mountainous here, flat there, and bulging at the equator, not equally dispersed with land and water.

            Only in the teachings of the Catholic Church do we see the marriage of clearly deduced and logical truths with the support of those truths that are oddly irregular—those truths that don’t make sense at first observation, but which require deeper investigation, like the human heart on the left side of the body and not the right.
            And only in the discovery of this grand secret, to expect the unexpected and to be rewarded for it, is there unparalleled joy. We see it in the Gospel today.           

John cries out “It is the Lord!” In this cry of joy, not only has he pointed out the reality of the resurrected Christ, he has also given the cry of anyone who has discovered the secret of the universe—like a Martian who discovers the mystery of the human heart.
            Peter’s response is classic. It is the response of anyone who discovers the beauty of the Catholic faith: he tears off everything and jumps in, going straight to the Lord. To the outside observer, this is very odd. Foolish, even. But that’s the secret irregularity of love. It is mostly logical, but sometimes foolish. Anyone in love knows this strange paradox.

            The problem with the world today in its quest for the neat and the clean, the systematic and the purely logical, the fair and the equitable, is that the world flattens the adventure and the romance in discovering things like the human heart, the resurrection, and heaven—not to mention love.
            I think of a couple examples.
            One would be this New Age, pantheistic spirituality that claims that God is everywhere and in everyone, equally dispersed throughout the universe, uniting everyone and everything. And the reason for this way of thinking is that it wants everyone to equally experience love on a great and mystical level. But it is love that pantheism and New Age spiritualism actually undermine. How so?
Well, precisely because pantheism sees everything as one, it does not allow for distinctions or separations. But distinctions and separations are required for love to be love. If everyone is one, then love is just love of that one self—and that’s not love. It’s selfishness. Spiritual individualism, which says it needs no organized religion, undermines love in that it says that love is just something spiritual, something done only with mind and heart. But anyone who has been in love knows that love needs lips in order to kiss. Organized religion gives that needed flesh so that we might kiss—and not just one another, but kiss Love Himself.

            The other example is the present day movement for equality. If it is true that the Catholic Church is simple about the simple truths, then it is also true that she is stubborn about the subtle truths. Yes, the Church will admit that a man has two hands, but she will not admit that obvious deduction that a man has two hearts. For while the man has two hands, he does not have two hearts. And it is this secret oddity: that whenever we feel there is something odd in Christian theology, we shall generally find that there is something odd in the truth.
            Like a heart being to the left and not the right, or the commandments being divided into three and seven, there is something odd about the Church’s teaching that marriage is only between a man and a woman. But that oddity does not mean that the teaching is not true. It just means that it is odd and, like discovering the heart is only one and on the left after a thorough deduction of the duplication of arms and legs, that such a discovery might be quite shocking when the oddity of the truth is discovered to be true. 

           That is all I will say about that specific topic, because it brings me to my last point in today’s homily. Many years ago, I nearly left the seminary, just as nearly as many nearly leave the Catholic Church. I doubted much, including my capabilities to be a priest. I knew for certain that I would suffer. And I doubted whether I really wanted to carry that Cross.
            But there was an oddity: while I doubted (what I thought) was everything, there was one thing that I did not doubt: namely, and strangely, my own doubt.
            Surely, I thought, I had deduced everything correctly. I had made no mistake. I see the left arm and the right arm, the left leg and the right leg, the eyes, the ears, … surely there are two hearts! Surely the fish are on this side of the boat!
            But I was surprised. I was terribly, wonderfully, and even frightfully surprised when I discovered that I was wrong. That the heart was left of center. That I was fishing on the wrong side of the boat and that I needed to cast my nets on the other side—on the side where the catch of fish and the heart of God could be found. It was on that side that I started asking the real questions:

            What if the Church is right about marriage?
            What if the Church is right about celibacy? (and how odd!)
            What if the Church is right about the confessional?
            And what if the Church is right about Jesus?—God being present here in this Eucharist?
            What if she were oddly, strangely, and wonderfully right?

            It was then that the Lord asked me, “Do you love me?” “Do you love me?” “Do you love me?” One for each of my denials. One for each of the Persons of the Trinity. One for each of the faculties I possess: mind, body, and soul. “Do you love me?”
            The questions weren’t firstly inviting me to promise to love. They were questions bringing me back to the beginnings of love, beginnings which began to be seen at the creation of the world. It was there that God looked at everything he created and found it very, very good. The question, “do you love me?,” then, wasn’t just a question of “do you promise?” but a question about God and his love. He was asking me: “Do you find what I have done here good? Do you like my creation and how I’ve ordered it? Notice how the heart is just to the left. Do you like how I’ve redeemed it all? What do you think?”

            I saw the heart on the left. I saw the rightness in doubting one’s doubt. I saw the resurrection of the dead and the glory of the Eucharist. I saw the Ten Commandments oddly shaped. I saw the world mountainously round. I saw man and woman united in a way no other two beings could be united. It was all very odd and, oddly, it was all very true.

            “O my God," I said, "it’s perfect. It’s stunningly and amazingly perfect….”

Friday, April 12, 2013

On Entitlements and Personal Responsibility: Homily to the Junior High

            The first reading is astounding today. Let’s hear it once again:

The community of believers was of one heart and mind,
and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own,
but they had everything in common….
There was no needy person among them,
for those who owned property or houses would sell them,
bring the proceeds of the sale,
and put them at the feet of the Apostles,
and they were distributed to each according to need.

This is amazing to me: there was no needy person among them. No needy person. And why? Because the community of believers was united. They were of one heart and mind. They were Catholics; they held themselves to be personally responsible for those around them. And so they shared and sold what they had in love for one another.

            My children, you are becoming of the age where you are learning more about the world and how it works. And there’s something that you should know about it before you go to high school.
And it’s this: the world thinks it is owed something. It’s called the Entitlement Culture.
            There are many people going around the world today thinking that they deserve this and that. That society owes them. Their rallying cry is “It’s not fair.” In today’s culture, our rights and our rewards are what are emphasized. “I have a right to free speech!” “I have a right to do this!” And since I’ve done my fair share, I should be rewarded!
Notice the subject of each of these sentences. It is not “you” or “me” or my neighbor. It is “I.” The self. That is where today’s culture is focused: on itself: what it can get, what it deserves to get, and what it believes it has a right to get. And when it doesn’t get what it wants, it cries like a baby, saying “It’s not fair!”

So let me tell you about what is not fair. A few years ago as I was preparing to become a priest, I lived in Mexico City. And next to Mexico City was sprawling area called Chalco. Pope John Paul II visited there when he was Pope and he called it one of the poorest areas in the world—poorer, even, than Calcutta where Mother Theresa was.
I went to Chalco. I saw the muddy roads and the dirt floors on which kids slept. I saw the crumbling concrete walls of “houses.” I saw where the kids went to school and I knew where the kids went afterwards: places where there wasn’t electricity or flushing toilets or even daily food. I look back on my brief time there and I see what is before me here and it’s night and day.
You go to school in a palace. This school is an absolute palace. You don’t have to worry about whether or not you’re going to have food today; we’re gonna feed you; we have enough for you. You don’t have to worry about where to go to the bathroom or how you’re going to get your next drink of water. You don’t have to worry about going to a school where you might get shot; you don’t have to go to a school with barbed-wire fences around it. No, this school has everything you need to live and to thrive.
In fact, if there is a place where you should be able to love your neighbor, this palace is it. This is one of the last places where you have to worry about yourself and your survival. And since worrying about yourself isn’t vital to your survival here, worrying about your neighbor should be so easy!
But we do worry about ourselves—what we look like, what people think of us, what technological things we do or do not have that could serve our social status—and we realize how quickly we fall into the trap of the Entitlement Culture. We focus on what we don’t have instead of what we do have.
So let me ask you: why are you entitled to an iPhone when there are kids your age who, through no fault of their own, are wondering at this moment where they are going to sleep tonight. What makes you better than them? Is that fair?
I’m not saying iPhones are bad. What I am saying, however, is that when we spend money on something that we don’t need, we are making a decision not to spend that money on something that is needed. We have decisions to make. And if we’re always choosing ourselves, it means that we are rarely choosing others.

Our culture has forgotten about its duties and responsibilities. The culture has forgotten that the world is bigger than our own ego. And we have a responsibility to that world. We are responsible for one another. We have a duty to take care of one another. We cannot go around thinking “I deserve this and I deserve that” because such thinking enslaves us to selfishness. And selfishness and love don’t go together. You can’t be both focused on yourself and love others at the same time.
Friends, hear me: entitlements and selfishness enslave us! And I love you all too much to send you out into the world thinking how wonderful you are without also telling you that you now have a duty!
And it is a duty. A self-less duty.

A few weeks ago, I was talking with some of the 8th grade parents about the upcoming Mystery Trip. And it’s gonna be a great Mystery Trip. But I was talking to the parents and I asked what they thought if the kids did some service in the middle of the trip or, at least, to donate some of the money to a good cause and not to spend it all on ourselves.
Someone said to me, “Father, these kids deserve a good mystery trip. They’ve worked hard all year and have given to the poor. They’ve earned this trip.” I don’t doubt that you have. I know you’ve worked hard.
But this made me think a few things. First, if we have not taught you that service is good and should be sought out at all times—and not just when you are doing a Confirmation project—then we have failed in our duty to teach you right. Isn’t it really true that it is in giving that we receive?
Doing service—no… Doing our duty… is something that we should do even if we get no reward from it. We do something kind not because we get a “thank you” for it, but because we know it is the right thing to do. And good people do the right things—no matter what happens afterwards.
You come here to school and do your work. Why should we reward you for something that you should already be doing? Why rewards for doing our duty? That’s the Entitlement Culture.
Awards don’t go to marines who clean their guns well. Awards go to marines who go beyond the call to duty and enter into the face of danger. Awards aren’t given to people who show up and do their job. Awards are given to people who go beyond their job description and contribute an achievement beyond they receive a paycheck for. That our culture gives awards for attendance and for virtues that we should, as Christians, be exhibiting bespeaks our culture’s fall from Christianity.

Yes, 8th grade, a Mystery Trip is not a reward for what you have done here at St. Joe’s. You receive a Mystery Trip because your parents love you. And that is—or, at least, it should be—the real reason.
Friends, if there should be someone who should receive a reward for what he did, it would be this guy *point to Jesus.* He went beyond his duty. Shouldn’t he receive the praise? Shouldn’t he receive our admiration and our emulation?
If the world was a fair world, then praise wouldn’t be given to us, it would be given to him! But it is unfair; so this hero is often forgotten. Praise is mumbled.

            A final thought: there is a fine line between entitlements and fulfilling one’s duty without expectation of reward.
            This past week, the Bishop of Wichita was made Bishop of Dubuque. I read into what this bishop had done in Wichita. Do you know what he did? He made Catholic education in Wichita free of charge. Practicing, active Catholics do not have to pay tuition to go to school.
            How is this possible? It is because each and every Catholic in that diocese sees it as their personal responsibility to give others a Catholic education. This is not an entitlement. This is our duty. We have a duty to pass on to others what has been bequeathed to us—and to pass it along all the better, with added shine and glory—not with added tarnish, stink, or destruction.
            Why can’t we do that here? Why can’t we all take personal responsibility not just for our own glorification, but for the glory of our neighbor?     

            Seventh and eighth grade: you are personally responsible for the person next to you and for the generations that come after you. If you become a slave to your selfishness and to the Entitlement Culture, then you will become precisely that: a sullen slave who finds life unfair.
            But if you recognize your duty and fulfill that call to personal responsibility, then you will be free. Yes, love is what frees us! Love is what frees us!
            Hear again that first reading:

The community of believers was of one heart and mind,
and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own,
but they had everything in common….
There was no needy person among them,
for those who owned property or houses would sell them,
bring the proceeds of the sale,
and put them at the feet of the Apostles,
and they were distributed to each according to need.

With great power the Apostles bore witness
to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus,
and great favor was accorded them all.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Pope Francis and the Winds of Change

Type into your Google search the words "Pope Francis breaks from tradition" and you'll discover a whole host of articles detailing the various "new" "innovations" that "break" "tradition" and "church law," chief among them his *gasp!* washing the feet of inmates/women/muslims at a local prison (because, if you're going to break tradition, go whole-hog, you know? Not just women, but muslims too!).

Ok. Stop hyperventalating, all of you-- on the right and on the left.

Without a doubt, Pope Francis has taken the world by storm and the media is enjoying the storyline-- the perennial storyline that sells: "Rogue so-and-so gives hard-boiled Church the what-for." It's the classic David vs. Goliath, 1980 USA vs Soviet Hockey, Main St. vs. Wall St; lukewarm laymen vs. big, bad Catholic Church storyline. The oddity to this storyline today is that the average guy is now the guy at the helm. Who knew that he could become Pope? Things like this just don't happen!

Just don't remind anyone about the storylilne leading up to President Obama's first Presidential election. "He's just like us! ... and he's erudite! Things like this just don't happen!"

Now, I don't want to rain on the media parade, nor on those that are really excited about Pope Francis. I'm happy for them. And I'm happy in general: we have a great Pope. And I mean that. And at the same time I recognize that there are many who are genuinely concerned about the Catholic Church and would like to see change-- whatever that change might be. I don't know the problems at the Vatican beyond what is reported on the media outlets. But I'm sure there are some; after all, do you know of an ecclesiastical office, local or otherwise, that can be described as a well-oiled machine? Nevertheless, I do have a healthy skepticism with regard to how media reports everything Vatican, while still hearing the pain and thoughts of those that believe something should be done. I just prefer a less reactionary approach in favor of a deliberate, prayerful method rooted in beseeching God's wisdom. That's just me.

So, while there is this wonderful feel-good story being spoon-fed to anyone who will take it, I do think that this storyline is inconsistent with reality. Yes, I think Pope Francis is not breaking from tradition, but doing exactly the opposite. 

(Shut your mouth!) I know.

Let's start from the beginning. In the beginning, Pope Francis is elected. He doesn't wear the finery; he doesn't give the big-arms-in-the-air greeting; he *gasp!* asks for everyone to pray for him. Does this constitute a break? I suppose, if I was superficial and If that was all that he did. But Pope Francis came out on the St. Peter's Basilica balcony, holding to tradition tightly in his hands. He wore the Papal white (tradition) being announced by the cardinals (tradition) in the way that popes are announced (tradition). He gave the salutary address (tradition), and in it he expressed his gratitude and respect for the previous Pope, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (tradition), and then gave the Papal Blessing (tradition)... in Latin (tradition). 

The next day, Pope Francis goes to the hotel and picks up his luggage and pays the bills. "Surely, that is a break from his predecessor!" .... Until we realize that Pope Benedict XVI did the exact same thing

"But, but..." I hear them say, "Pope Francis walks among the crowds." So did Pope Benedict. (I was there). 

"But, ... Pope Francis speaks about mercy and hope." Umm, did you not listen to Pope Benedict for the past eight years?

"Ok, but Pope Francis exhorts people to take care of the environment!" Yes, and Pope Benedict has a book on it.

Lest we forget: a mere ten days after being elected, Pope Francis visited Pope Emeritus Benedict and Francis urged Benedict to kneel next to him as he knelt, visibly displaying their unity. Pope Francis then started off his first Wednesday Audience, saying that he was "taking up the 'witness' from... Benedict XVI."

But let's return to that first day once more. On that first day, Pope Francis visited the graves of Martin Luther, Karl Marx, and other progressive voices the grave of Pope Pius V, who enforced the Council of Trent, reformed the Cistercians, and proclaimed the supremacy of the Holy See over temporal powers-- Pope Pius V who while battled hard against the Protestants and the Turks. (No tradition to see here, just keep moving along....)

Oh, come on, Father, Popes visiting the graves of past Popes has no real significance whatsoever!  Until you realize that Pope Benedict did the exact same thing, visiting the grave of Pope Celestine V-- the very same pope who was, until Pope Benedict, the last one to abdicate the papacy because of old age. Benedict did it twice, just in case we missed it the first time. That was obviously not significant.

I do find it interesting: what is it about Pope Benedict's abdication that was not a break in tradition? First time done in over 600 years, and we are focused on supposed breaks with tradition by Pope Francis? Ummm.... ?

Ok, so.... what else?

During the most Holy Week of the year, Pope Francis began his Palm Sunday homily reminiscing about the words of Pope Benedict, concluding the homily saying that he, Pope Francis, is “setting out on a journey… in the footsteps of Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI.” On Good Friday, Pope Francis referred again to Pope Benedict  in his homily. And now, just this week, Pope Francis announced that he is keeping the Year of Faith schedule that Pope Benedict had established.

So let's turn to the Holy Thursday washing of the feet of everyone-- and let's call it everyone-- not just "Francis washes the feet of women!" Let's call it for what it really was: he washed the feet of everyone. Men, Catholics, women, Muslims. All that was missing was an AIDS patient (whom he had washed in 2001).

Now, we are hearing that this was "the first time" for x, y, and z. But was it? Research the past and you will find that popes have not always washed the feet of those we expect them to wash. Pope Paul VI in 1974 washed the feet of 12 boys undergoing therapy for the effects of polio. Pope John Paul II, for the first six years of his pontificate, washed the feet of lay people. In 1980, for example, he washed the feet of elderly men, "including a group of homeless men living at a shelter run by the Missionaries of Charity... In 1983, he washed the feet of 12 young men from Italy's Boys Town, and in 1984, he washed 12 representatives of Rome parish youth groups."

But Pope Benedict XVI never did that, right? Wrong. In 2007, Pope Benedict went to the exact same prison that Pope Francis did-- Casal del Marmo-- meeting with the young detainees in the gym and celebrating Holy Mass there with them.

In this light, when I hear that Pope Francis washes the feet of women and Muslims, I am not shaken. Sure, I wondered why he was doing it. I wondered what it meant in light of the liturgical law that requires that it be men who have their feet washed. I wondered what it meant for the theological meaning of the Mandatum (the feet-washing rite): namely, that it is a symbolic ritual that recalls the institution of the priesthood and the mandatum-- mandate-- that the priests serve.

And then I got it: if we focus on the women aspect of this story, we miss the bigger aspect. And that comes when we couple this with the fact that Pope Francis washed the feet of Muslims. Both-- washing the feet of women and Muslims-- must be taken together in order to understand what Pope Francis is doing. He's not making a statement about women's ordination. If so, then we must also say that he is making a statement about Catholicism: namely, that it is just "as good" as Islam. But, in fact, by choosing those who are not even part of the Catholic faith-- namely, Muslims-- and are therefore not even eligible for ordination-- just like the women-- Pope Francis is highlighting the bigger aspect of the priesthood and the feet-washing rite: namely, that priests are servants to all.

Pope Francis IS keeping tradition by SHOWING that a priest is a servant who serves everyone. Now people ask: isn't Francis changing the symbolism of the Mandatum rite? I don't think so. First, we must recall that it is a new rite and an optional rite. Before this rite existed, the Institution of the Holy Priesthood was emphasized by the Gospel, the Homily, and the Eucharist in the Holy Thursday Mass. The WHOLE MASS focused on the Holy Priesthood. 

Sure, some would like Pope Francis to serve by being obedient to the liturgical law that demands that only men's feet be washed. But, Pope Francis is the Pope. He can highlight or even change liturgical law as he sees fit. But has he changed the law? No. Has he broken tradition? Actually, no. If one looks at liturgy and the life of charity as a unified whole, then no, Pope Francis has not broken tradition. In fact, I would argue that he has highlighted the priesthood even more-- if although he has made it more difficult to explain to parishioners why we are only washing the feet of men this Holy Thursday evening.

But the media would never highlight such continuity. Their focus is the rupture.

Hence, I am not surprised, but saddened, when I hear the headlines that "Pope Francis' foot-washing is the final straw for traditionalists." But I wonder aloud: how is this-- an optional rite added after the Second Vatican Council-- the final straw? He is not undermining the Sacred Priesthood. He is not undermining the Catholic Faith. Let's read this in context, after all: hadn't Pope Benedict extended such copious amounts of good will and reconciliation to traditionalists that not only were many traditionalists returning to the Church, but also that those laurels would still remain and thus survive one perceived disappointment? I mean, Benedict had everyone kneeling to receive communion, for heaven sakes! (Francis is doing the same, by the way). Yes, if traditionalists are leaving because of Francis' emphasis of the servitude found in the Mandatum and if they are leaving because of the media's narrative about it, not only are those traditionalists fickle and have bought into the media's narrative, but they were already gone-- or, at least, waiting for an excuse to leave. So much for "in good times and in bad."

And that's the thing. This isn't a bad time. Just wait until Pope Francis starts hitting the world between the eyes with hard talk that the liberal media will deplore and call divisive.

Remember the goal of the devil: to divide and conquer. Divide the pontificates of Pope Benedict and Pope Francis. Call it a break from tradition. Split the Church. Then the devil can declare: Mission accomplished.

But the devil is scared. He knows who the pope is..... 

And that's why he's striking hard now with this "wind of change" "break with tradition" BS-- so that, when the world sees Pope Francis as he is, the Church will already be divided. Easier pickings, then.

As for me, I'm clinging to my papa.