Sunday, December 21, 2014

Behold, This is Christmas - Homily Notes for the 4th Sunday in Advent (B)

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, jack frost nipping at your nose… There have been candy canes in the classrooms and days of baking cookies. Music on the radio, untangling Christmas lights; Santa Claus, and maybe that treasured, quiet moment by the fireplace where you snuggle with your beloved as snow lightly falls. Ah, Christmas.

But this Advent season started with an exhortation to “stay awake” and to “watch”—exhortations that warned us of danger. The danger was that we might miss Christmas because of our busy-ness; today the danger is that we might miss it by making Christmas… sentimental. All of the Christmas trappings, lulling us to sleep, tempt us to see today’s visit from an Archangel as a kind of dream-sequence of blurred trees and soft voices. Yes, Christmas can become a kind of sentimental thing where, in the end, the baby Jesus is reduced to a precious moments doll that is “nice” and “cute” … but that is all.

Surely, there is more to Christmas than that.

The Final Battle

J.R.R. Tolkien, a Catholic author who lived through the First and Second World Wars and who was a daily communicant, wrote metaphorically about the Catholic life and its struggles through a series of fantasy books entitled The Lord of the Rings. These books, later adapted to film, drew from the entirety of the Catholic heritage (including the Old Testament) and told of battle after battle between men and goblins and other evils, battles that are waged around the ultimate of weapons (a ring of power) that could cover the world in a suffocating darkness. The books are the ultimate in the good-versus-evil genre.

For ancient Israel, this good-versus-evil battle played out literally through many wars with the nations surrounding her. Today’s reading, however, announces a time of peace—a peace that has come from God Himself. He says:

I have been with you wherever you went, and I have destroyed all your enemies before you.

A few of Israel’s victories had come when the Ark of the Covenant preceded her in battle. The Ark of the Covenant (think: Indiana Jones) was a sacred treasure of Israel that held the tablets of the Ten Commandments, the miraculous manna-bread from the desert, and the rod of Aaron that had turned the Nile to blood. The Lord overshadowed the Ark, as like a cloud, and wherever it went, there was the mighty God.

In this moment of remembrance, God makes a promise to David: He says:

I will give you rest from all your enemies.

From all your enemies. But what other enemies were there that had not been destroyed? Paul answers us when he says:

The final enemy to be destroyed is death.

This presumes that the enemy which has brought death—namely, the devil—will also be destroyed. This is precisely what begins to happens when Jesus dies on the Cross on “Good Friday.” On that day, the enemy-- not Jesus-- but the enemy is vanquished and the dawn of victory begins. Hence, we call Good Friday “good.” And on the third day, when dawn breaks the darkness, we see that Jesus, the Light of the World, is victorious.

In the ancient church, it was traditionally held that Good Friday happened on March 25th-- the same date of the Annunciation. 

The Secret of the Annunciation

J.R.R. Tolkien, realizing this historical fact, sees that there is a connection between Good Friday and the Annunciation. That is, if Good Friday is the day of victory, the Annunciation is the day that God paratroops behind enemy lines, all secret-ops like, and begins the final assault against the ancient tyrant of this world. Tolkien, therefore, orchestrates his book in such a way that the greatest victory and the destruction of evil—namely, the ring of power—happens on March 25th.

This changes everything.

The Annunciation is not just some nice Taster’s Choice moment between a humble Israelite girl and an distant angel. This is a secret council behind enemy lines wherein Gabriel reveals to Mary the secret weapon: Mary is to become the New Ark of the Covenant, the one who will proceed the New Israel, the Church, into the victorious battle against Satan. As the New Ark, she will not be carrying the Ten Commandments or the manna or the rod, but within her will dwell the very author of the Law, the very Bread of Life, the very Blood of Salvation, Jesus Christ, which the Old Ark and its contents prefigured.

In this moment, Mary is more than a poor peasant girl. The Archangel Gabriel greets her by saying, “Hail!” This is a crucial point. You see, Gabriel could have greeted Mary in the common tongue of Aramaic or Hebrew—shalom—but he says the Greek word “Chaire!”—Hail! This is an elevated greeting which means “rejoice” and whose root is the same for “grace.” Grace and joy are related. But more, this word, “Hail!” is a greeting for royalty. Kings and Queens are greeted in such ways—not peasant girls.

And so Mary ponders what this greeting may mean: how can she, so humble and poor, be greeted in such exalted ways?

It reminds me of Tolkien’s small, humble characters called Hobbits. Of them, he says “Even the smallest person can change the course of the world.” In Tolkien’s books, it is the smallest and most unnoticed who draws the wars to an end.


In this moment, Mary has a decision. Does she agree to this battle? Does she agree to this exalted vocation—a calling beyond anything anyone may have imagined for her? In this moment, God’s plan is laid out. All creation waits. Gabriel waits. What will she say?

In this moment, Mary’s YES will be like the falling of small stones that starts an avalanche in the mountains. Mary’s YES will conquer Eve’s NO. If Mary says yes, she will have obtained in that moment a victory more decisive than any battle waged on earth.

And so she says: Behold.

We have heard this word before. It means to see deeply, almost beyond appearances, and to the mysterious. Gabriel has said “Behold, Elizabeth has conceived…” See the mysterious at work!

Even on Good Friday, Pontius Pilate says, “Behold, the man.” See, your king! (Of course, the people respond not by beholding, but by shouting all the louder: Crucify Him!)

From the Cross on the same day, Jesus says to us, “Behold, your mother.” See… bring her into your home and to your heart! See the mysteries at work!

So, when Mary says “Behold!” her yes is so total that it echoes the very plan of God: His plan becomes her plan.

Nine months after that March 25th day, the world would celebrate Christmas.

Victory in Battle

Let us conclude with the last words of today’s Gospel. It says,

And the angel departed from her.

This may seem like a throw-away line, easily dismissed as a transition to the next part of the story. But it tells us something profound: after all of this is revealed and Mary says yes, the angel leaves and Mary is alone.

But she is not alone. While the world resumes its daily activities, within Mary is Jesus Himself. In the coming months, she would hold her belly and ponder upon the words Gabriel proclaimed to her: Hail, my queen … I have been with you wherever you went … I will give you rest from all your enemies…

Her interiority and her prayerful pondering will aid her when she hears the words of Simeon the priest-prophet when he tells her that a “sword will pierce your heart also”—swords that are used in battles. She will need to hear again and again in the depths of her heart the command to rejoice—that first command of the Gospel—as her Son is taken from her and scourged and crucified.  Yes, as the battle comes for her and her Son, Mary will find victory as she ponders about the Jesus that grows within her.

What can we take from this?

The Church wants us to consider this battle and this victory. Just like Mary who ponders, the Church once more ponders the Annunciation so as to prepare ourselves for Christmas. Even the opening prayer to today's Holy Mass is the very same prayer used on the feast day of the Annunciation!

So, Behold! Behold your Savior and His Mother in these last days before Christmas.

And let’s be honest: this is such a battle! Yes, it is such a battle to pray sometimes—especially when prayer can be dry or we’re tired. It is such a battle to not give up when we have so much else to do. Or, if we know we are to go to confession, it is so easy to say “not this year.” No! Fight! Battle! This is the year! This is the day! The victory is now. This is where we prove our valor—prove ourselves worthy of the victory that God brings us this Christmas. Prove that this isn’t just a sentimental holiday that ends in the Returns line at Target. Behold that this is the day in which the light breaks through the darkness and is victorious over it forever! This is Christmas. Behold!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

A Joyful Preparation - Homily for the 2nd Sunday in Advent (B)

(From Handel's Messiah. One of my favorite songs-- which literally sings the readings for today's Holy Mass....)

*               *               *                *              *               *              *                *

It was a dark time in Israel’s history. Long gone were the days of Moses and of David. Nearly lost from memory were the triumphant entry into the Promised Land and the days of peace and the joys of home in the Temple. All had been destroyed and Israel was enslaved again; her most noble of people taken in chains to the land of Babylon; her poor left behind. It was there, by the waters of Babylon, that Israel sat down and wept (Ps 137), the pain of being so far from the Lord, so deep, that she hung up her harps on the trees; unable to sing—for who can sing when there is no hope?

We’ve all been there. All of us have examined our life at one point or another and realized how far we are from good. I’ve been impatient. Or I’ve been impure. Or I’ve lost sight of what life is about and I’ve done the same silly thing over and over again. How can I ever get back what was lost? How can I move forward from here? (Because I want to do better. I want to be holy). And maybe for a time we are holy… but then we fall again. And the hope that we had… that hope seems lost.

The Return of the Exiles

To you, dear soul, our Lord speaks. “Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low; the rugged land shall be made a plain, the rough country, a broad valley.”

What does this mean? It means that the time of your exile is over! Those who walked in darkness shall see a great light. The captives in Babylon shall return home; those enslaved to sin shall be set free. For “Here is your God! Here comes with power the Lord God, who rules by his strong arm; here is his reward with him, his recompense before him. Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care.”

I imagine here, that Jesus is coming toward me; Jesus the Good Shepherd carrying the lost sheep on his shoulders-- that lost sheep who has so often been… me.

Yes, dear soul, there is hope!

From the Other Side of the Confessional

I feel like Isaiah today. Or St. John the Baptist. Proclaiming a day of jubilee, a season of hope, a time for forgiveness and of light.

One of the greatest privileges in my priesthood is to experience this moment of homecoming—when the exile returns to the Promised Land, when the Prodigal Son returns to the Father, the lost sheep carried home.

Second to the Holy Mass, there is no greater privilege than to be in the confessional when a soul comes in, a soul who has pondered walking through that door for years, debated it, pondered it, struggled with it, wondering what to say, ashamed to say what has been done. And then they come in and they kneel down, and they say “Father... Father, it has been so long…. And I’m sure I’ve broken every commandment in the book…”

And they don’t know how much I admire them in this moment, how much I admire their courage, and how joyful I am on the other side of the confessional: because the first of the exiles is returning, the lost sheep has been found, my son or daughter is home again! My child was dead! And is now alive!

Little does that soul know, as it is crying because of its sins, that I am crying too—but for joy!

A Hope Fulfilled

There is so much hope in that decision to go to confession. The soul that resolves to go has entered into that deep hope that believes the promises that our Lord gives will be fulfilled: that those who come to Him and repent will not perish, but will have eternal life in heaven. Yes, going to confession is one of the few places in this world where we actually obtain what it is we hope for. We hope for forgiveness, we hope for a new beginning—and this is exactly what we receive!

So, I want to make an appeal to you, dear soul, especially you who have been a long time away from the confessional. Come. The Lord does not delay his promise. He has been patient with you. But do not ignore this one fact, beloved: his delay is short and the day of the Lord will come like a thief. I want you to be prepared.

There are some who have forgotten how to come to confession. Do not be ashamed, the priest is there to help you. There are some who do not know where to begin; don’t worry, we will help you there too. (After all, I’ve been on that side of the confessional too). There are some who say, “Father, I’ve done the same things as I always do.”—to which I say,  thanks be to God you’ve only done the same old things and nothing new! In military terms, you’ve been holding the line. And thanks be to God for that! And our Lord is calling you too, because He wants to give you some victories now.

A Christmas Joy

Yes, brothers and sisters, there is a great joy in returning home. It is the joy of Christmas.

You see, this is why we celebrate Christmas. The people who dwelled in darkness were in darkness. They needed a Savior. We do too. We needed a Good Shepherd who would go in search for this little lost lamb and bring us home on his shoulders.

This is precisely why God became one of us. This is why we celebrate Christmas: our Savior has come—and come to free us from the exile of our sins!

As a priest, I am so honored that I get to participate in this.

[Some may wonder why we need a priest to be forgiven….  Consider Noah. God could have saved Noah’s family by Himself-- for God is God. But God used Noah. So too, God could have saved Israel on by Himself, but God sends Moses. And then David. And then the Prophets. And then the Apostles. Time after time, God asks weak, sinful men to be the conduit of grace. He could have done it Himself, but He asks us to come to the priest. This is where He has become one of us. Like at the manger, this is not where some would expect to find God. But this is precisely where He is!

So, let Jesus be Jesus.]

Yes, dear friends, that dark cave and manger where Jesus was born—that was the first confessional. We have been the animals, the ox and the ass, but now we come to Him asking for forgiveness.

This is the preparation that John proclaims, this is how we are to make His paths straight: to ask for forgiveness is the straightest way to His heart. And ours.

Today is a day of return—a season of hopeful jubilee. This is our joy. This is why we sing.

Joy to the World

And so, I want to sing to you another Christmas song that we typically associate with Christmas, but which I would like you to consider in light of the confessional. When a soul comes out of the confessional, they have been given new life and a new beginning, such that Jesus says the angels and saints rejoice—all of heaven and earth is in song-- when a sinner returns. So, when you come out of the confessional, you can sing this song—because it is for this very moment that Christ has come!
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
                        Let earth receive her King!
                        Let every heart prepare Him room.
                        And heaven and nature sing. And heaven and nature sing.
                        And heaven and nature sing!

On Wednesday night of this week, our parish will have ten priests for confession. Come to confession. And enjoy Christmas a couple weeks early!

(Visit the YouTube site and read the historical details of Joy to the World -- they are quite interesting! ... Summarized: Joy to the World was written firstly as a hymn singing about Jesus' Second Coming; what we sing is actually only the second half of the hymn; and the tune is taken from Handel's first few bars of... wait for it.... "Comfort Ye" and other selections of his "Messiah." So, there you go.)

Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Hopeful Watching - Homily for the First Sunday in Advent (B)

Be watchful! Be alert!

In the Gerber house, we have six nieces and nephews ranging in age from two months to ten years old. And during Thanksgiving, they were all running around as kids do. And we were at my aunt’s house where there are many breakable things. Thankfully, everyone and every thing survived—but not without several warnings of “watch out!” and “don’t run!”

But why were there warnings? Because there was danger.

We often don’t equate Advent and danger, but this is how Advent begins: with a warning to watch out and to be alert.

The question is, why? What’s the danger?

In a word: that we might miss Christmas.

Life Moves Pretty Fast...

This sounds impossible, especially since Christmas music is already on the radio and Christmas decorations have been on sale since July. I mean, how could we miss Christmas? There are so many Christmassy things going on: like putting up the tree and setting up for parties and wrapping presents and worrying about how we’re going to pay for all of this and having the in-laws over and then having to get that last-minute gift and having to drive to the mall and trying to find a parking spot and then walking through said crowded mall with that weird perfume mall smell while over the speakers we hear the Beatles playing “So this is Christmas,” which reminds us that we need to go to Mass; so we get cleaned up and dressed up and bundled up and we load the gifts and the kids into the car (which is totally the easiest thing to do, especially when one of the kids has misplaced Elsa or Ana or Olaf or whoever) and we head to the very-relaxing, totally no-stress-at-all-4pm-Grand-Central-Station-Christmas-Eve Mass where everybody is happy to give you a seat and where you’re happy to stay until the very end of Mass because you have nothing else to do that night because it’s Christmas and nobody misses Christmas.

Be watchful. Be alert.

Ferris Bueller, that wise sage, once put it this way: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Thanks, Ferris.

But he’s right. It is so easy to miss Christmas (and that’s so strange to say!). But it’s true. At the very first Christmas, on the hills overlooking Bethlehem, there were shepherds watching over their flocks—and in the village inn, there were people eating, drinking, and sleeping.

One of those groups misses Christmas. Why?

Because the people at the inn weren’t watching. They were totally busy and totally content and totally not in need of a savior. So, when Jesus knocked and the doors remained locked, Christmas came and went and life went on just as usual—but with more bills to pay. It would be like having two months of Christmas music on the radio and then, when Christmas comes, the radio stations turn off the Christmas music!

But it’s Christmas! How can we possibly return (and so quickly) to our past life! How can we be so worked up about our preparations for Christmas and yet have it mean so little? Unless… we’ve missed Christmas.

Advent at Christmas

Perhaps the Church stops singing the Gloria during Advent to alert us and to remind us that there was a time when the world had no reason to sing glorias: that there was a time when heaven was not open, when our hearts were irreconcilably hard, when there was no reason to watch—or to hope.

This gets to the heart of why Jesus tells us to watch. Not only that we might be vigilant so that we don’t miss his coming, but also that we might be hopeful for his arrival.

Hopefulness is an eagerness that longingly expects something good, even from the most unexpected of places.

The people at the inns missed Christmas not only because they were not vigilant, but also because they had lost hopefulness. In their worldly pursuits, they couldn’t see how something so small and so unexpected as a pregnant Mary and a poor Joseph could mean anything—much less, change their lives and bring a heavenly Christmas. And so the people at the inns shut the doors, not only to the inn, but to their hearts, politely telling Jesus to go somewhere else because there’s no room here. And closing the door, they return to their profoundly busy lives. And that is tragic, because the people missed the gifts that come with Christmas.

Advent at Holy Mass 

But, really, I’m not just talking about Christmas. I’m also talking about the Eucharist. At Holy Mass, a hopeful Catholic approaches the Eucharist with a deep expectation the he will receive a taste of that great Christmas joy precisely because he is receiving the same Jesus that is the cause of our joy at Christmas. And so, the hopeful Catholic will go through a mini Advent before every Holy Mass. Having arrived to Mass early, the Catholic will quietly prepare his soul for the coming of Christ through prayer and hopeful watching. Then, like the shepherds, having heard and sung with the angels in the Gloria at the beginning of Mass, he travels to Bethlehem with great hope and discovers the tiny baby in the manger: the small and humble Eucharist. There, the Catholic soul opens the doors to the inn of his heart and invites Jesus and His mother to dwell there. Because, for the hopeful soul, with every Eucharist, Christmas has come! And there are gifts to be had!

If only we would watch. If only we would be alert.

This requires vigilance—that kind of watchfulness which is on guard against a creeping hopelessness and subsequent busy-ness that tempts us to arrive late and to check-out early.

Advent and Heaven

Because this isn’t just about the Mass and preparation for Mass or about Christmas and our preparations for Christmas. It’s about heaven. Advent is about Jesus’ coming and being ready for Him. So, how we prepare for Mass is how we prepare for Christmas is how we prepare for heaven. And if we don’t stop, we could miss Him. The doors up there will be like the doors in here *point to heart*.

So, to prepare you for the Eucharist and for Christmas, I want to sing to you a song about heaven. You know it because it is a Christmas song, but it isn’t just about Christmas. It is about heaven and the Eucharist and about the joy and triumph of the saints who have been vigilant in keeping the doors of their hearts open and who have triumphed over the busy-ness of this life.

O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye, to Bethlehem.
Come and behold Him, born the king of angels.
O come let us adore Him. O come let us adore Him.
O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Ferguson - Homily for the Solemnity of Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

Please note: I am posting this on Sunday, November 23rd. A decision has yet to be made by the grand jury. Also, my audience in this homily includes many who once lived in Ferguson and other areas of north St. Louis.

A few weeks ago, Archbishop Carlson wrote a pastoral letter to all in the Archdiocese and he exhorted pastors to make the letter known either through the bulletin or by having it read aloud during the homily. At all of the weekend Masses here at St. Joe’s, we will be hearing the Archbishop’s letter. At the end of his letter, I will provide a few comments in light of today’s Solemnity of Christ the King.

The Archbishop’s letter is found here:

My comments that were said after the letter are written below:

I’m a young pup. I know that many of you have dealt with issues like this for some time and, because of that, you know a lot more from experience than I do. I’ve had many conversations with many of you about Ferguson, conversations where I am mostly listening. I’ve heard a lot of anger, sadness, fear, questions of why, a little apathy, and a growing fatigue: we’re all tired of being held hostage to the evil and the fear and anger that comes with it. I’ve felt many of the same things.

For my part, I am baffled by the near-total rejection of law: not only with regard to the lawlessness of the rioters who have already gathered here, but also because of the great suspicion that people have regarding the grand jury. Why has there been a rejection of the legal process itself?

Many reduce the issue to race and racism. I am sure there are many elements there, but that reduction is too easy and doesn’t explain many other issues at work here. Certainly, there are many socio-economic issues. But even then there are causes underlying those issues.

One of the issues, in my opinion, is the oversight regarding matters of fact and truth. So much has been reported about the reaction—but so little has been reported about the facts of the case and the facts of the community. Totally overlooked has been the fact that there are people in the community who thought that Michael Brown was a bully. Totally overlooked has been the fact that many first responders and their families have had to literally go into hiding. A little has been said about how businesses have been hurting there. But less has been said that there are many people in Ferguson—white and black alike—who are besides themselves, infuriated at what is going on. There are more, many more, people who are peaceful than people who are rioting.

When I started to think about how many facts and how much truth has been overlooked, I started to wonder. My wonder grew when I started to see a dramatic uptick in my confessional of people who were battling with temptations to anger, revenge, racism, fear, anxiety, doubt, and despair. I began to wonder whether larger powers were at work. Then, this week, I hear how the Occupy Movement and also the New Black Panthers and, just yesterday, the Communist Party, have all descended upon St. Louis. It is as though the powers of darkness are descending upon the city.

This is no longer about a man being shot in Ferguson.

This is about a proliferation of sin that is diabolical to its core. We’re dealing with pure, unadulterated sin—and I am convinced that the devil is behind it, manipulating the opportunity so as to destroy and enslave as much and as many as he can.

On this Solemnity of Christ the King, I beg Jesus to reign as king in our city and in our hearts. For our part, I know many of us are wondering what we can do. On one hand, we are told to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, etc. But I realize today that there is a deeper spiritual element to this. How many are hungry and thirsty for Jesus? How many are naked to the winds of evil? How many are imprisoned and sick by the slavery of sin? We don’t just need physical remedies—we need spiritual ones.

We hear about how there will be a separation between those who are good and those who are evil, a separation that shows who have lived as citizens of God’s kingdom and those who have lived as citizens of the devil’s. We hear how this will take place at the end of time.

But, brothers and sisters, the reality is: that separation begins to happen now. We show now whether we are a citizen of heaven or of hell. Yes, you can be angry because of what is going on—that kind of righteous anger. Yes, you can also be sad to see the old neighborhood being destroyed. You can be sad, you can be angry—BUT DO NOT SIN.

If you are angry, then turn to prayer. Do we not think that God is not angry over evil? His anger is held back for now and we live in an age of mercy. So we must do the same. See your brother as a captive of sin. Offer your anger as a sacrifice of prayer to free our brothers from their sins. Have your anger turn into zeal for God’s kingdom. You can be angry, but do not sin.

So let us pray. Let us pray for Jesus to reign in our city and in our hearts. Let us ask Him to be that shepherd who leads us through the valley of the shadow of death, where, by his side, I fear no evil. Deliver us, Lord, from every evil and grant us peace in our day. Lord, be our king! Reign in our world and in our hearts, Jesus!

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Parable of the Talents - Notes for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

This morning, we hear of a man about to go on a journey who calls together his servants and, to varying degrees, entrusts his possessions to them. Then he leaves. But “after a long time,” the man returns and sees what the servants have done. We hear how two of them do well with the master’s things and so receive greater responsibilities; but we hear of how one simply buried what he had been given. This servant is thrown outside where there is “wailing and grinding of teeth.”

Typically, this parable is used as an exhortation to use the talents God has given you. Use what you have been given or else face punishment.

The problem—as with pretty much any of Jesus’ parables—is that there is more to this parable than just this moral exhortation. And even this moral exhortation, as I just articulated it, is incomplete. It is based on things antecedent to it and which deepen it.

So, for example: what is a talent? In the reading, it says “The man gave… talents… to each [servant] according to his ability.” But if talents are simply abilities, then why are they given according to one’s ability? That doesn’t make sense.

So, again, what is a talent? Quite literally, a “talent” in Jesus’ day was a large sum of money—the equivalent of anywhere between three and sixteen years of wages. So, even the man with one talent is given quite a sum of money. And how much more so can be said of the servant who was given five talents (that’s as much as 80 years of wages)! This is the starting point of our understanding of the parable: the man has given his servants an extraordinarily large sum of money—more than the servants could ever make in their own lifetime.

At this point, we may ask: who is this man?

The Man in the Parable

We hear that this is a man who is “going on a journey.” Later, we hear that he returns “after a long time.” Is he a world traveler? Is he a king? And where is he going? And why does he return after a long time—and not a short one?

Here, it does well to remember another of Jesus’ parables. In this case, the Parable of the Good Samaritan. That parable is the key which unlocks this Parable of the Talents. In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the Good Samaritan is the one who helped a man who had been robbed. The Good Samaritan cares for him, takes him to an inn, pays the innkeeper a sum of money to care for the man, and then says to the steward there: “upon my return, I will repay you.”

That’s odd, because the Good Samaritan seems to be going on a journey too and, also, will be returning to repay this servant. The plot thickens…. Maybe they are the same person?

In the case of the Good Samaritan, the identity of the protagonist is often seen as us: we are to help those who are less fortunate. But what if it's not about us? What if the parable is firstly about Jesus? Read in that spirit, the Parable of the Good Samaritan makes even more sense: Jesus is the Good Samaritan who helps humanity after it had fallen victim to the robbers (the devil and his minions) and who heals us by the Sacraments (oil, wine, binding), and by the care of His Church (the inn)—which he will visit and reward accordingly upon his return at the end of time.

The same can be said of the man with the talents: it is Jesus: he who goes on a journey (Ascension into heaven) and will return after a long time (The Second Coming) and will repay his servants (us) at the end of time (The Last Judgment)—which, wonderfully enough, is exactly what he talks about in the following verses of the same passage!

Deeper Treasures of Talents 

But.... there is a problem. (Of course there is). Jesus was poor. He wasn’t a rich man who could possibly give a ton of money to his servants. Perhaps the literal meaning of the talents has a spiritual meaning to it.

So, let's look at what happens to the servants when their master returns. The good stewards are welcomed into “your master’s joy.” The bad stewards are thrown “into the darkness outside where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” This is the same language that Jesus uses when he talks about the weeds and the wheat in Matthew 14. There, just as here, the reward and the punishment are clearly meant to produce in us images of heaven and hell—we being the stewards who are judged… judged according to what we have been given and given in return.

But that seems harsh. No matter how extraordinarily large the monetary sum of the talents, it doesn't seem to be within the realm of justice to condemn a servant to an eternal hell for his poor stewardship of a finite treasure-- no matter how large.

Unless..... Unless the treasure isn't finite nor worldly.

Here is where we see what the talents really are: the talents are everything that God gives us about which He expects a return. The talents are more than just our abilities—the talents are every gift that God gives; namely, grace. Grace which is divine and infinite.

 This is why a moral exhortation to “use your talents,” by itself, runs a little flat for me: it focuses only on things that I can do—play the piano, teach kids, kick a soccer ball—while easily overlooking the grace accompanying. Even more, that simple exhortation misses out on many of the really, really big talents that our Lord has given us. For example:

-          how priests are given the power to incarnate Jesus in the Eucharist
-          how married couples literally become one and can bring forth life and image the Trinity
-          how the poor are literally Christ in the world
-          how the Holy Spirit literally pours the transforming life and love of God into our souls

The Talent of Love

You see, Jesus is telling this parable not simply as a moral exhortation. Don’t make this parable about you. This parable is firstly about Him: He is the good master who has given us, his servants, so many treasures! 

So, when we hear about feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, etc, don’t make it about you first. It is firstly about Jesus. For hasn't He fed us (and with his very body)? Hasn’t He quenched our thirst by his blood? Has He not clothed us, literally, but also spiritually with his grace?

Only when we see the all-surpassing love Our Lord has lavished upon us does the moral exhortation gain its true meaning: Jesus wants us to become Him: to do the same because, in doing the same, we become another Jesus to the world, a Jesus who loves—which, in turn, deepens our love for Him because we realize in those moments of empathy how profound his gifts to us really are. When it costs us, we realize what it cost Him.

And in this way, we see that love is catalytic: it builds; it grows; it increases. The more a person receives God’s love and gives God’s love, the more God fills that person with His love, expanding that person’s heart… lavishing that person with more and more with that priceless talent which is His love. And the person loves more and is filled more and loves more and is filled more.... 

This is why Jesus sums up the parable by saying:
For to everyone who has,
more will be given and he will grow rich;
but from the one who has not,
even what he has will be taken away.

Insert the word “love” at the end of the first three lines.
For to everyone who has [love]
more will be given and he will grow rich [in love];
but from the one who has not [love],
even what he has will be taken away.

That is the talent: love. That is what is given to us. And thus it also makes sense that our eternity is dependent upon it. Wailing and grinding of teeth to the wicked who knew not, who gave not, who buried Love. Rejoicing in heaven to those who embraced Love.

The Moral Exhortation

Now we can see the ultimate exhortation: do not bury Love out of fear! After all, what person (Jesus) lights a candle (you) and then places it under a bushel basket? Not Jesus!

Rather, “invest” the Love He gives you. Spend it. Use it.

Now, in light of our talents, we can hear the moral exhortations.

To priests: we bury our talent when we forget that we image Jesus! We bury the greatest treasure when we celebrate the Holy Mass without fervor or gravitas. Woe to us—we shall be thrown outside where there will be wailing! Rather, let us pour out our lives in love, walking in dignity and grace, celebrating the Sacraments in spirit and in truth!

To married couples: we bury our talent when we forget the miraculous bonds that are forged by the Marriage Covenant: spouses are one! We bury the greatest crowning of marriage when we refuse to have children. Woe to us—we shall be thrown outside where there will be grinding of teeth! Rather, let us offer our lives as a sacrifice of love, trusting in the Lord and pouring forth his mercy upon our families—and thus build up our world—for we are the foundational building block of society!

To all Catholics: if we have not love, we are nothing. See Jesus in the poor. As Mother Theresa once said: “When I serve the poor, it is not like I am serving Jesus. I am serving Jesus.” The Holy Spirit has been poured into our hearts. Of what are we to be afraid? The man, who thought he had little, buried his talent because of fear. Take courage, be not afraid!

The Final Judgment

In the end, there is one final talent that we will have to return to the Lord. And that talent is our life. Again, before we see the moral exhortation, see our Lord Jesus: to us, He gave His life.

If you give your life—a life He gave to you in love—then, at the time of His final visitation, He will bring you into His Presence, surrounded by the whole heavenly host, and rejoice with you, praising you, thanking you, and saying to you in total, infinite, and eternal love:

Well done, my good and faithful servant! Well done!

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Flipping Tables in Temples - Homily for the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica (32nd Sunday in OT)

The Lateran Basilica

This morning, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Dedication of the St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome. There is no saint called “St. John Lateran.” Rather, the church is named Lateran after the Roman hill upon which it is built; and it is named St. John for St. John the Baptist and for St. John the Evangelist. It is a beautiful church which I was blessed to be able to visit when I lived in Rome. Inside, you would find an awesome place of worship where not only many saints are buried, but above the high altar there is the very altar of wood where St. Peter would offer Holy Mass. Some believe it is also the table on which Jesus offered the Last Supper. It is a very holy and awesome place.

The Dedication of this Basilica—that is, the day of its formal consecration as a place of worship— is celebrated worldwide because of its importance to the Church. The dedication happened a few years after the Roman Emperor, Constantine, had conceded to Catholics the free exercise of their religion in 313AD, thus putting an end to two centuries of horrific martyrdom. Catholics could finally worship freely, gathered together in unity and in one place of worship. In thanksgiving and in praise to God, the basilica was originally named The Most Holy Savior. And for nearly 1,000 years, this is where the Pope resided (and not St. Peter’s as is the case today). 

All of these supernatural and historical realities attract hundreds of thousands of pilgrims—Catholic and non-Catholic alike—to encounter our Lord who dwells there.

The Purification of the Old Temple

What is interesting is that on this great feast, Our Lord proposes for us to consider the day in which he enters the Old Temple in Jerusalem and, in a zealous anger, flips over tables and drives out the worldly commerce. The connection with the feast day may seem clear enough: namely: that we are to be zealous for the worship places of God and treat them with reverence.

But there’s a problem.

When I hear this passage, I see an angry Jesus—an anger that seems out of character. Sure, it is justified, but it paints him as a reactionary, a socio-political revolutionary. Is this Jesus?

This week, I read part of the Second Volume of Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth book. And in this scholarly work, the Pope asks a very important question: namely: where in the Old Temple does this all take place? The answer is that it takes place in the Court of the Gentiles. This little detail is very important. The Court of the Gentiles was the outermost court where the non-Jewish people could worship. But given the Jewish people’s attitude towards the Gentiles, this outer court was not used very much and therefore was not considered to be important or holy—a kind of relic of the past that as a result could easily be turned into a place of commerce.

So, when Jesus comes in and drives the commerce from the Court of the Gentiles, not only is He reestablishing the overall Temple as a holy place, but He is also declaring that even this outermost part is holy. What's more: when he clears everything out, what he is doing is clearing a space for the Gentiles to worship and thus to become holy!

The zeal that Jesus has, therefore, is not only for the Temple, but also for His children.

The Dedication of the New Temple

Admittedly, this zeal seems too zealous for us. This is because our culture has separated loving from fighting. Our culture thinks the highest expression of love is tolerance and that love never has to flip over tables. But Jesus is showing us that when you love something, you sometimes have to fight for it. Here, Jesus is fighting for the Gentiles.

This is not a socio-political reactionary at work. This is a lover taking initiative and fighting for his beloved.

The irony is that this will ultimately become the charge that the Jewish people will bring against Jesus in order to crucify Him. Jesus knows this—which adds an even greater depth to what He is doing: not only does He know this will lead to His crucifixion, but by choosing to do this, Jesus is also consenting to the Cross. Flipping over tables, therefore, is not just of a zealous anger, but from a heart burning with a zealous love for us.

This is not out of character at all. It is this same zealous love that will give Him the patience to be silent in trial; it is this same zealous love that will give Him the strength to carry the Cross unto death. There, he will not be overthrowing tables, but the devil and that evil kingdom.

There, on the Cross, Jesus' side will be pierced and from it will flow blood and water, fulfilling the prophecy of Ezekiel and inaugurating the New Temple: a place of healing and of worship—which is exactly what happens after Jesus overthrows the tables in the Old Temple. Immediately after that moment, people come to Him and worship and are healed by Him. All obstacles have been cleared out and the New Temple is dedicated.

The Purification and Dedication of the Christian

What does this mean for us?

Paul says,
Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.

In other words, you have seen how zealous Jesus is about the Old Temple. How much more so is He zealous about you! He loves you and wants to overthrow the evil in you and establish in you a new reign of holiness in your life.

We often don’t think about this. I mean, there are some things that we say and do out in the world that we would never dare do here in church—because we know this place is holy. Jesus is saying to you: don’t do those profane things even “out there,” because YOU are a holy place. Don’t profane the church that you actually are!

And notice: when you receive the Eucharist today, Jesus will be entering into your temple. He comes to purify you, to clear out the sin in your life, to establish Himself as a place of worship within you, to remove what is profane and to make you holy.

And not only for your own sake, but so that you might become an attractive temple by which others enter into relationship with the Jesus that dwells in you, just as the many pilgrims come to St. John Lateran to encounter the God who dwells there.

People are not attracted to dilapidated and profaned basilicas. They are attracted by the beauty that comes with holiness. You are called to be holy, a holy temple, a dwelling of God—for your sake, for God’s sake, and for the sake of those whom God is calling to Himself through you. We must not be an obstacle like the commerce was in the Old Temple!

So, now we pray.

Jesus, purify me. Make me a temple of holiness; a temple that is purified of the profane; a temple which is dedicated to you alone. Help me to fight for my holiness with the same kind of zealous love that you have for me. Make me holy that I may be a worthy court where others may encounter you and worship you. Lord, purify me!

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Commemoration of All Souls - Homily for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Universal Experience of Death

It was a Sunday night. Game Five of the World Series was underway and the Giants were closing in on victory. During the fifth inning, there began a whisper in one of the dugouts, a whisper that made its way to the press box. We would hear that the whisper was about one of our own St. Louis Cardinals. Oscar Tavaras, a promising star for our team, had passed away. He was 21 years old. He and his girlfriend had died in a car crash in his native Dominican Republic. People were stunned. So was I.

Back here in St. Louis, two days later, on Tuesday evening, dusk and then the nightly darkness began to fill Busch Stadium. And just as the sun had set, a light grew in a corner of the stadium. The light revealed the green of the grass and the homerun wall and the chalk of the foul ball line. Everything was dark but this corner: right field: the field where Oscar had played—and where we all thought he would play again next year. We were mourning. We remember.

Every one of us has experienced the sadness and the loss and even the fear that comes from death. I still remember the day that my dad had died. I had been teaching at St. Patrick’s in Wentzville and I remember being called to the principal’s office. I had a phone call. It was my brother. I remember his voice and the exact words he said. I remember the shock and the fog while driving home. Sure, dad had his physical ailments in life, but his dying was unexpected. I remember coming back to the rectory later that night and crying. I knew dad died without the sacraments and without reconciling with many people. I remember praying to God that night in a way that I had never prayed before. I begged God for mercy. I pleaded for my dad’s soul.

More Than a Simple Remembering

This evening is the commemoration Mass for All Souls—for all those who have died: our family members, our friends, our neighbors, all. This Mass is more than just lights in right field; for while paying tribute and calling our dead to mind is a very good thing, it is all the more important we engage our loving will and to pray for them. The bonds of charity that had united us on earth continue to bind us to them—for love is stronger than death. Thus, it is not enough to simply not-forget them, we continue to actually serve them.

This might sound odd. But this is what Catholics do. It is what our ancestors in the Jewish faith did (which is mentioned in the book of Maccabees) and it is what our Catholic Church has done in every age since the beginning.

I will admit: most of our culture presumes that pretty much everyone is in heaven—or, at least, anyone that we care about. But if everyone is in heaven, it doesn’t make sense to pray for the dead; because by praying we mean to help them, and those in heaven have no need of our help, because they have been perfected in holiness and now enjoy eternal happiness. We celebrated those heavenly saints yesterday (All Saints Day) and we asked them to help us.

So, we are not praying for those souls. Likewise, we aren’t praying for those souls in hell, either; for, once a soul is in hell, there is nothing we can do for them.

So, if we are not praying for those souls who are in heaven or in hell, then who are we praying for?

A Fruitful Grieving

There is a third group of people: those who, at the time of their death, were in friendship with God, but who had not been totally perfected in the holiness God wanted for them or who, at their death, were still attached to something of this earth. (For even a thin string can keep a bird from flying). They died in friendship with God, so they will not go to hell. But they died without having become perfect, so they cannot yet enter heaven, because not one impurity can enter into the presence of God. Heaven is the absence of any imperfection, the absence of any sin or evil.

God, in his justice, could have simply cast this people into hell. But in his mercy, he has established a third place, a temporary place, where these impurities and imperfections are burned away by the fires of love. This place is called Purgatory.

This isn’t as foreign as we may think.

When God sends us the suffering of a cross here on earth, that is our opportunity to be purged and to be perfected in love for God and neighbor. Here on earth, we have the benefit of grace and the Sacraments and the intercession of saints to assist us in our sufferings—sufferings that we can offer for the salvation of our soul.  In a sense, sufferings in this life are the “half-off coupons.”

Purgatory is having to pay full price. There, the souls do not have the benefit of the Sacraments, nor do they possess the ability to offer their sufferings for their salvation. When they died, their choice of love had been cemented—that’s what death does—they cannot increase in love on their own.

But when we pray to God for them and offer sacrifices of love for them, then those souls can be increased, purified, in love. As we offer our prayers and our sufferings for the dead, the souls in purgatory are perfected until at last they enter heaven.

This is actually quite a beautiful teaching. What God has done by establishing purgatory is that He has established a continuing connection between us and our beloved dead. Knowing that we still love them, God has given us an opportunity to continue to express our love for them. Our love is expressed not only in tears and grieving, but we can express our love also in praying for them and offering our sufferings for them.

What a great response God has given to the needs of our human heart-- that our grieving can bear fruit! What a great gift of mercy! We have hope that our dead are in heaven, but we love and pray for them as though they are in purgatory. Lord, look with mercy and bring them home!

The Family and the Cemetery

Today’s Holy Mass inaugurates an entire month when we are particularly obliged to offer prayers and sacrifices for our dead. Here at St. Joseph’s, we are very blessed to have a cemetery next to our church. And perhaps you have passed by it a thousand times. Will you stop by today? Bring your son or your granddaughter; enter through its gates; and stand before a grave of a loved one or someone whom you do not know. Pray for that person. Pray for that soul who has been forgotten or who is in most need of God’s mercy. Yes, this requires faith for you to see that this person is still alive; and having believed, you now pray in love.

Truly, I am convinced that one of the joys of heaven is being welcomed by all of those souls who we helped to bring into heaven by our prayers.

St. Joseph Cemetery in Cottleville
Let us all be united in prayer for our dead, lifting them up to the Father at this Holy Sacrifice. It is likely that the person sitting next to you has buried a loved one—and maybe even this year. Say a prayer for their loved one who has passed away. Say a prayer for the person next to you.

Who knows. Maybe the person or the family sitting next to you will be the ones who will be praying some day for you. Maybe their son will be the priest that brings you last rites at the hour of your death. Maybe it will be their grandchildren who stand over your grave and lovingly ask the Father to have mercy on you and bring you peace.

Yes, brothers and sisters, our God has united us in love and therefore in prayer. In life. And in death.

And so we pray: Eternal rest grant to them, O Lord. And let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.

May the angels lead you into paradise, 
may the martyrs receive you 
in your coming, 
and may they guide you 
into the holy city, Jerusalem. 
May the chorus of angels receive you 
and with Lazarus once poor 
may you have eternal rest.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

A Radical New Horizon - Homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

So, the past couple of days I’ve been battling a nice little fever-flu-upper-sinus-congestion sort of thing (I’d like to thank my school kiddos for sharing). So, I hope that this makes sense today.

Today is one of those “duh” moments. Jesus tells us to love God and to love our neighbor. “Duh, Jesus.” This lead me to think (in between my medicated stupors): “why does Jesus give us this command?” I mean isn’t this self-evident? Why does He have to make this explicit?

As a I moaned about my fever, I quickly realized the answer.

My tendency is to be self-centered.

I’m not talking about being selfish. I’m talking about how at the center of all my experience is… me. I feel this or I feel that, I’m the one who is going through whatever it is I’m going through. And what’s more, in my mind I have an internal, sometimes hypnotizing monologue which is always analyzing and evaluating and interpreting things through the lens of… me.

So, for example: when I’m driving down the road, I can easily think that people are in my way. Or when I’m waiting in the incredibly slow line in the grocery store and someone is taking their time, I can judge them as inconsiderate because don’t they know that I’m in a hurry? You see how this goes.

What troubles me about my self-centeredness is that it is kind of my “default setting,” something that I tend to without even thinking about it. It takes no effort. It is easy and unconscious. *(This idea is not mine, but the idea of David Foster Wallace, published in a fantastic speech—and later, book—entitled “This Is Water.”)

The problem with my unconscious self-centeredness is that I can easily and unwittingly make my world small. I am limited by whatever is currently on my iPhone or my to-do list. I look down and engage myself in the “me” project and the self-centered world that I have constructed, a world that seeks my own pursuits, my own interests, my own comforts, my own life.

And for the most part, the greater world is fine with that because the world hums merrily along on the unconsciousness of people—selling me a whole list of goods focused on me to make me more “me” than I can possibly imagine me being.

(Hmm, that sounded like the fever talking…)

But it is true: Worship of myself is the easiest thing to do because I am at the center of my world. It is a default setting. It is unconscious.

And it is the most insidious kind of slavery -- because I can never worship me enough or fill me enough and so everybody else becomes an obstacle, a frustratingly maddening obstacle, to me.

Love, on the other hand, involves a kind of consciousness and attentiveness to the fact that there is a whole wild world outside of myself, a huge horizon extending beyond my interior monologue and my daily wants and needs.

The hardest part of life is choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of our default-setting, to become aware of a world outside of ourselves and to begin interpreting our experiences through the lens of others and, ultimately, through the lens of God.

Being conscious of this outside world is a prerequisite for love.

This brings us to Jesus and the Greatest Commandments in today’s Gospel. Self-centered me hears today’s Gospel and thinks, “Great, more moral exhortations. Something more I must do.” But when I hear the Gospel through the lens of God’s perspective, what I realize is that this Commandment is firstly a proclamation of liberation, a power that reveals to us an exciting world beyond ourselves: “love God and your neighbor! it’s an exciting world out there!”

It is important to note that when Jesus quotes this as the Greatest Commandment, he leaves out the previous line—a line which he presumes that we know. What did he leave out? “I am the Lord your God who freed you from slavery.” God wants to free us from the slavery of our small self-centered world and liberate us into a wild, cosmic, beautiful and exciting world where others love you and where God loves you more than you love yourself!

There is something also very peculiar about these Commands: they reveal something to us about God. Paradoxically, while God is at the center of all existence, God is not self-centered. He is creative. He extends Himself. He loves. So much so that He literally enters into our shoes.

So when Jesus calls us to love, to open our horizons and to extend ourselves in creativity to God and to neighbor, what Jesus is doing is inviting us into the very dynamic of God. In other words, we are being invited into the very nature of God and to become like Him (for God is love) and to become aware, for God is aware—so aware that he knows all the hairs on your head.

This is the radical proposition of the greatest commandment: God is not just commanding us to love—God is showing us how to become like Him.

What is wonderful about this is that, as we love God and neighbor, and as the horizon of our world is expanded, we receive the most basic truth of our very own existence: namely, that God loved you into being; that He is at the very center of you, closer to you than you are to yourself.

This leads us not to a Worship of Self, but to right worship: To Worship of God. And, more, it leads to a worship that then attends to others because, having encountered the God within me, I can begin to see that God dwells in others and that He loves them. God is in that car that just cut me off on the highway. God is loving that person who is taking forever in the grocery line.

Every moment, therefore, can become an occasion to love—and not just to love one’s neighbor. But to love the God who is there. Every moment can become an occasion to worship.

How are we to live this out on a day-to-day basis? How can we keep from falling back asleep into an unconscious self-centeredness that devolves into a self-Worship that is easily frustrated and inconvenienced by others?

When Jesus gives us the Greatest Commandment, he quotes the Shema. The Shema was the daily life-breath of Israel: they would repeat these words of love several times a day, always bringing them to mind so that they would never lose them from their heart.

They would repeat them as frequently as some of us check our iPhones. And therein is the difference. So often during our day we unconsciously practice a kind of self-worship that closes us in and makes us forget.

Jesus is giving us a plan to stay awake: several times a day, call this to mind. St. Francis de Sales would stop several times a day and say, “Let us recall that we are in the presence of God.”

We are in the presence of God.

Admittedly, to be so conscious of a wild, radical horizon beyond yourself—to be so awake is very tough to do. The self-centered will think this is a task that they have to do by themselves. Echo the worlds of the Psalmist: “I love you, Lord, my strength.”

The Lord is your strength. When you cannot love Him with all of your strength, call upon Him.

Ask the Holy Spirit to come into your heart, and into your mind and you soul, and to fill you with His strength. For this is something that you cannot do on your own.

You will have then begun to break free of that self-centered slavery. This is the Truth that will set you free.

God is here! Ask Him to give you the strength, that you may love!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Thoughts on the Extraordinary Synod

No homily this week (transitional deacon was preaching). But instead....

I am sure that by now you have heard about the Extraordinary Synod that had been going on in Rome during the past two weeks. It concluded today (Sunday) with a Mass to beatify Pope Paul VI, the Pope who had helped the Church during the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council. (Being “beatified” is the level before being “canonized”—that is, being declared a Saint).

At any rate, the Extraordinary Synod—the first one of its kind since 1985 (that one set the foundation for the Catechism of the Catholic Church which would be promulgated seven years later in 1992)—was called by Pope Francis to address the current state of marriage and family and, given whichever media outlet you listen, to change Church practice and, more, her doctrine. When the “halftime report” of this Synod was “put online” for mass consumption, there was at one and the same time jubilation and a lot of hyperventilating—both reactions coming from hearts and minds that believed that the Church would—and indeed, could—change.

There was also that usual modern arrogance that declared that this was the “first time there had been such division in the Church!—and at Her highest levels!” That arrogance, however, was clearly blind to St. Nicholas and the Arian heresy. (St. Nicholas—that candy-cane-toting saint that modern commercialism has painted him out to be—punched Arius in the face for the heresy which Arius was proclaiming and which had deceived over half—half!—of the Church’s bishops). So, when the media reported that winds of doctrinal change were blowing and that bishops and cardinals and even the Pope—that big softy, Pope Francis—were all fighting, I yawned and responded to one member of my flock: “Tell me when Burke punches Kasper in the face, then I might grow concerned.”

As the Extraordinary Synod closes today, and as confusion is seemingly renewed among faithful and unfaithful alike, I have come to the conclusion that I really pity those who listen to the media as the source for where the Church is going. On the one hand, I feel bad for those who got all worked up about whether or not their beloved Church was succumbing to the winds of change. Distracted by all the huffing and puffing (and, admittedly, the incoherence, ignorance, and downright sinfulness of a few leaders of the Church), many of the faithful forgot the words of Jesus Himself: “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” I would have us all hear that again. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” So what Jesus says about His Church and about Marriage will never change—even when heaven and earth do. Strange, thinking that marriage is more permanent. So, to those who were hyperventilating: get a good night sleep tonight.

At the same time, I feel bad for those who are wanting to be in the Church but who hope for her to change her teaching so that they can feel more welcome (read: not have to submit uncomfortable realities to objective judgment). I feel bad for them because, when they follow the media reports, they get all of their hopes worked up, only to have them crushed by reports like those from today that announce, with particular surprise (… still?) that “The Church hasn’t changed.” But there will be another meeting next year, we are reminded, so hold out: there is still another chance and the Church might just change then. This prolongation of a desire that will never be fulfilled is really rather cruel of the media. After all, of the 265 speeches that were given during the Synod, only 2 dealt with same-sex unions. Two. But what did everyone talk about?

Yes, the “halftime report” did insert a couple paragraphs on the matter—disproportionate to what was actually discussed in the meeting rooms—giving an already-antsy press the green-light to publish what might seem plausible. This report, published on the initiative of one who shall remain un-named in my post here, was not only dishonest in its portrayal of what was really going on behind the scenes, but also cruel: by muddying the waters of what was otherwise clear Church teaching, hopes were raised only to be crushed again by a media eager to do so.  

[UPDATE: The St. Louis Post-Dispatch had an article today that criticizes the Church for being too generous with granting annulments (read: what about the dignity of marriage?). Turn the page and the SAME PAPER wrote an Editorial that criticizes the Church for not recognizing divorce! Nice.]

We have seen this before. We saw it in 1968 when zealous, progressive-leaning theologians and media outlets promised that the Church was changing her teaching on contraception. We saw it at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) when a less-tech-savvy press (but still tech-savvy enough to get itself in trouble) created a narrative of what was really going on behind the scenes at the Council. This narrative, easily digested by those who did not know enough about what the Church taught and easily reinforced by equally ignorant progressivism, continues today and has really gone mainstream. It is called “The Spirit of Vatican II.” (Ask anyone who has worked in parish ministry and you’ll find someone who has encountered all kinds of false doctrine, morality, and liturgical worship imposed upon the faithful under the reasoning: “The Spirit of Vatican II”). Indeed, the Roman Catholic Church has still to recover from false narratives surrounding that Council-- not to mention the disaster which is contraception.

It is no surprise, then, that shortly after the “halftime report” of the Synod was made public, a whole host of Cardinals and Bishops began publishing reports and making statements of their own, saying: “hey, that was NOT what we talked about!” Knowing their history, many of the Cardinals and Bishops knew that they had to wrest the Truth from the grasp of the confusing—a history not just simply since Vatican II, but a history that echoes since The Garden. They know that Satan oftentimes does not sell us blatant lies. (He is the “subtle one,” remember?) All he needs to do is sow confusion… plausibility… just enough for us to believe that things have changed and what God has said was Gospel is not really Gospel anymore. It worked in the Garden. It still works today.

So, where do we go from here? I think it would do everyone much good to discuss what are the actual causes for hope when it comes to marriage and family. In other words, what is it about the Church’s teaching on marriage and family that is hopeful? This would require that we know the fundamentals here, which requires that the Church communicate even more clearly what it is that She teaches. Plausibility, after all, exists when things are obscure—or occult. So, given that there is so much mud out there about the matter, I am not surprised by what happened these past two weeks. I see this is as a great opportunity to learn (and, in some cases, re-learn) and delve deeper into the mystery—yes, mystery—of marriage and family and to see what the Church teaches and why what She teaches is amazing and beautiful and True.

However, given our society’s propensity to think that clear expressions of objective teachings are unkind and judgmental, this challenge will require a way of expressing such things with affection and love and beauty. Or, in other words, we must be able to answer the question: why is the Church teaching on marriage and family full of hope—even, and especially, for those who are divorced or same-sex-oriented?

And perhaps this is the first marriage to be considered: that of Love and Truth. Love and Truth cannot be divorced.

Of course, we didn’t really need a Synod to tell us that. Pope Benedict pointed this out five years ago. But methinks that as this Synod was going on, Pope Benedict was in the background, doing more by his hidden prayer than by the public hand-waving of those in the spotlight. And this gives me hope. Prayer is more productive than meetings anyway.