Friday, June 30, 2017

Twice Blest

Learning to practice both justice and mercy
Matthew 8:1-4 
When Jesus came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. And then a leper approached, did him homage, and said, "Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean." He stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, "I will do it. Be made clean." His leprosy was cleansed immediately. Then Jesus said to him, "See that you tell no one, but go show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them."

           Are you familiar with the Latin phrase, “quid pro quo”? Literally, it means “this for that” or “an equal exchange.” When I go to someone’s home for supper, I always offer to bless their home in exchange for supper, an example of “quid pro quo.” It seems deeply right to us that things not be handed out for free, but that fairness and justice should prevail. That’s why nobody liked Popeye’s friend Wimpy, who always walked around soliciting people saying, “I’ll gladly pay you back Tuesday for a hamburger today.” But everyone knew that Tuesday would never come for Wimpy. Inside we say, “That’s not fair!” because there is no free lunch. That’s the law of justice.

           But besides justice there is also mercy; a higher law. Shakespeare’s play called “The Merchant of Venice” is a study in the interaction of justice and mercy. Antonio, a merchant in Venice, borrows a large sum of money from Shylock, a Jewish money-lender. When Antonio defaults on the loan, Shylock takes him to court and demands his “pound of flesh,” which was the collateral Antonio promised to pay should he default. But Portia, an attorney, comes to Antonio’s aid and argues for mercy. She says in a soul-stirring soliloquy: “The quality of mercy is not strained; / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven / Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest; / It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” In other words, she asks Shylock to be the bigger person and let the debt go. Justice blesses once, but mercy blesses twice.

             In the gospel, Jesus teaches a lesson on how to balance both justice and mercy. A leper humbly asks for healing, saying, “Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.” Jesus seizes the opportunity to be merciful: “He stretched out his hand, touched him and said, ‘I do will it, be made clean’.” It’s almost like Wimpy asking for a hamburger and Jesus gives him the money gladly; knowing he’ll never be repaid on Tuesday. But also knowing the Jews’ calculating cunning, like Shylock the Jew in “The Merchant of Venice,” Jesus adds: “Go show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.” You see, Jesus lived by the law of mercy even though he lived among people who demanded justice, their pound of flesh; a quid pro quo. That’s why Jesus was always “twice blest.”

            My friends, which law do you tend to live under: that of mercy or that of justice? Of course, I think we should live under both.  That is, we should always seek to be fair and just, or “give another his due,” as St. Thomas Aquinas defined justice. After all, justice is a virtue and no one is excused from exercising it. However, we should also look for moments to be merciful. If it’s possible to forgive a loan you’ve given, don’t demand your pound of flesh; simply forgive it with a smile, as Shylock should have done. When someone says something slanderous or stinging, don’t hold a grudge until they apologize. Avoid the temptation to skewer them on social media.  Don’t wait for the other person to take the first step of reconciliation. Be the bigger person, and extend a little mercy rather than insist on the dictates of justice. Why? Justice blesses once, but mercy blesses twice.

             Portia added a little later in her speech: “Mercy is enthroned in the hearts of kings / It is an attribute of God himself; / And earthly power doth then show likest God’s / When mercy seasons justice.” In other words, justice makes us more like man, but mercy makes us more like God.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

The Old Hags

Learning to fear no one but ourselves
Matthew 10:26-33 
Jesus said to the Twelve: "Fear no one. Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known. What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light; what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father's knowledge. Even all the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. Everyone who acknowledges me before others I will acknowledge before my heavenly Father. But whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my heavenly Father."

          A preacher’s Sunday sermon was on the topic of “forgiving your enemies.” Toward the end of the service, he asked his congregation, “How many of you have forgiven your enemies?” About half held up their hands. He asked the question again, and since it was past lunchtime, about 80 percent held up their hands. He repeated his question a third time and all raised their hands, except one elderly lady. The preacher asked, “Mrs. Jones, are you not willing to forgive your enemies?” She smiled sweetly and said: “I don’t have any enemies.” The preacher was amazed: “Mrs. Jones, that’s very unusual. How old are you?” She answered, “I’m ninety three.” The preacher was delighted and asked, “Oh, Mrs. Jones, what a blessing you are to us all. Would you please come forward and share how someone can live so long and not have an enemy in the world?” The sweet little lady tottered down the aisle, faced the congregation, and said, “I out lived the old hags.” That’s one way to deal with your enemies: bury them.

          Let me ask you a similar question: who would you say is your greatest enemy? Some might say that Islamic terrorists are our enemies. Even if you wouldn’t say that, would the terrorists say that the United States is their greatest enemy? If you’ve experienced a divorce, you might say that your ex-spouse is your “enemy.” Not many, if any, divorces end on a positive note, high school sweet-hearts end up as bitter foes. Did you ever think that Christianity could be your enemy? Ask any teenager on Sunday morning who doesn’t want to get up and go to Mass, if Christianity feels like an enemy. Archbishop Fulton Sheen said that when Jesus first comes into your life, he comes as a “Disturber.” But after we have known him for some time, he becomes a “Friend.” We might all agree that the Devil is our enemy, but I’m afraid we have all but forgotten about him. You could probably add many more enemies to this list.

          But I would suggest to you another enemy we often miss, and this one is the most dangerous of all, namely, the enemy inside our selves. That is, we are our own worst enemy. An African proverb says: “If there is no enemy within, the enemy outside can do us no harm.” In other words, if you can tame yourself – your anger, your laziness, your lust, your greed, your pride, your jealousy, your ambition, in short, your ego – if you can tame these enemies within, then all the enemies outside of us will be infinitely easier to deal with. That sweet 93 year old lady said she had outlived “the old hags,” and we must outlive our enemies within. Our vices are the “old hags” we must bury.

           In the gospel today, Jesus says boldly, “Fear no one.” And it certainly sounds like he’s urging us not to fear any enemies. But a few verses later, he goes on to clarify that actually there is one we must fear, so he adds: “Be afraid of the one who can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna.” Now, who is that one? Well, most Scripture scholars say that refers to God, but that’s not the only interpretation. I believe “the one” can also refer to ourselves. How so? Well, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches this: “God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary” (Catechism, 1037). In other words, God does not condemn us to Gehenna (H. E. Double Hockey Sticks), but rather we choose Gehenna on our own. Now, why in the world would we do that? Well, because the enemies within were never defeated. President Franklin D. Roosevelt said: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  But he was wrong. Jesus would disagree; there is one that we must fear, ourselves. We are the greatest enemy we will ever face.

         Let me suggest three weapons you can use in this warfare against yourself. First, go to confession. And, by the way, when you’re in confession, just mention your own sins, not those of your spouse or your neighbor or coworker. In confession you kill the enemy within; the confessional is like a gas chamber for the ego – that’s why it’s often hard to breathe in there. The old you is dying. Second, pray the rosary daily. It can be hard to find the time, but we make time for what’s important to us, like scrolling social media. Instead, scroll the beads of your rosary. Mother Mary was the only person in history who completely vanquished the enemy within her – that why we call her “Immaculate Mary” sinless Mary – and she will help you to do the same with her mighty rosary. Weaponize your rosary. And third, don’t take yourself too seriously, that is, laugh at yourself. There’s nothing your ego hates more than being belittled by others, being the butt of a joke. Self-deprecating humor is a powerful weapon against your greatest enemy: YOU. Regular confession, daily rosary and laughing at yourself is how you can outlive the “old hags” inside yourself. And “if there is no enemy within, the enemy outside can do us no harm.”

          I love St. Philip Neri, who started the Oratorians. St. Philip prayed every day: “Lord, watch out for Philip today, he will betray you.” Phillip knew who the real enemy was. When people started to praise Philip for his holiness, he grew a beard and shaved half of it off, so people would laugh at him. Not only did St. Philip Neri know who his greatest enemy was, he also knew what weapons would vanquish him. He outlived the old hags long before he turned 93.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Born To Be Wild

Living in radical nonconformity with this world
Luke 1:57-66, 80 
          When the time arrived for Elizabeth to have her child she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her, and they rejoiced with her. When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child, they were going to call him Zechariah after his father, but his mother said in reply, "No. He will be called John." But they answered her, "There is no one among your relatives who has this name." So they made signs, asking his father what he wished him to be called. He asked for a tablet and wrote, "John is his name," and all were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke blessing God. Then fear came upon all their neighbors, and all these matters were discussed throughout the hill country of Judea. All who heard these things took them to heart, saying, "What, then, will this child be?" For surely the hand of the Lord was with him. The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel.

          In 1968, the year before I was born, the rock band Steppenwolf recorded a hit song called, “Born to be wild.” It was the first heavy metal song and ushered in an era of new music calling for a radical nonconformity with the world, symbolized by riding motorcycles, long beards, and tattoos. Do you remember the refrain? It goes: “Like a true nature’s child / We were born, born to be wild / We can climb so high / I never wanna die.” I believe we all go through that stage at some point in our lives, where we want to be radically counter-cultural, nonconformists. But eventually we return to be less wild and more “with it.”

           Today we celebrate the birthday of St. John the Baptist, and he’s the one, who like no one else, was truly “born to be wild.” What do I mean? His conception by Zachariah and Elizabeth is miraculous because they are advanced in age and Viagra had not been invented yet. His name – John – is radically nonconformist because no one else in his family has that name, and that was the custom at the time. And where does John spend his young adulthood years? The gospel answers: “The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation.” Steppenwolf sang: “A true nature’s child, born, born to be wild.”  That’s John the Baptist.

         But John did not live a radical life just for himself; he came to blaze a new trail that others should follow, through the waters of baptism. Of course, it would be at Jesus’ hands that baptism would achieve its full flower, but John showed that finding and following Jesus would require a radical nonconformity with this world. Romano Guardini exquisitely explains: “Since the memory of man water has been the dual symbol of life and death, womb and grave. Christ preserved the symbol, Christianizing it with the Holy Spirit. Thus baptism came into the world. From it the new man steps – into the new beginning in faith and grace.” But Guardini goes on to insist that baptism causes us to live differently from others, saying, “He who lives only in himself, in ‘the world,’ who has never ventured the step into the new existence, can see, hear, note the acts of one living in faith, but he will never understand their origin or purpose” (The Lord, 170-71). In other words, baptism beckons us to be “born (again) to be wild,” and with a far greater wildness than bikes, blues and barbecue. Baptism makes us radically non-conformed to this world, and simultaneously radically conformed to Christ.  Those always go hand-in-hand.

           If you’re looking for examples of those who are spiritually “born to be wild,” you don’t have to look very far. Just glance at our seminarian poster, and see men who, like John the Baptist, give up personal goals in order to achieve Jesus’ goal of ushering in the Kingdom of God: men like Dc. Stephen Elser. Or, think about people who suffer serious illnesses, like cancer, but carry their crosses with a smile: like Henry Udouj, Anne Danko, Bill Etzkorn, and Stacy Forsgren, who didn’t want people to know how sick she was. People who get up early for daily Mass at 7 a.m., instead of sleeping in, even during the dog days of summer. I mean, who does that?!  You do that.  But why do you do that? Because you have been baptized, and now you feel the call to be “born, born to be wild,” living a radical nonconformity with this world, a nonconformity from which we will never return to be less wild and simply “with it.”

            Today we extol the virtues of St. John the Baptist, and try to follow his example of finding and following Jesus by choosing to live our baptismal call to be counter-cultural and nonconformists. When we are born in baptism and become spiritual wild, we can “climb so high/ I never wanna die.”  We will live forever.  I just hope and pray St. John will forgive me for comparing him to Steppenwolf.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Seven Blessings

Praying with the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer
Matthew 6:7-15 
Jesus said to his disciples: "In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him. "This is how you are to pray: 'Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.' "If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions."

           In the Christian life, we come across many “sacred sevens” (lists of seven holy things). For instance, we find the seven sacraments, the seven deadly sins, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sorrows of Mother Mary, the seven days of creation, and of course, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In the gospel today, Jesus introduces us to another list of seven, but one that most people haven’t heard of, namely, in the Our Father. Did you know the Lord’s Prayer is comprised of seven petitions, seven requests we make of God? Listen to how the Catechism of the Catholic Church beautifully describes this in the fourth and final section on prayer. We read: “After we have placed ourselves in the presence of God our Father to adore and to love and to bless him, the Spirit of adoption stirs up in our hearts seven petitions, seven blessings” (Catechism, 2803). I highly recommend you read the whole section on the Our Father, but let me briefly touch on each of these seven petitions.

           The first petition asks, “Hallowed be Thy name.” “Hallowed” means “holy,” and we pray that God’s holy Name may never be defiled or taken in vain. This first petition corresponds to the second of the Ten Commandments, “Do not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain” (Exodus 20:7). If you’ve ever used God’s Name as a curse word, or as an expletive, this first petition is to help you keep God’s Name holy, “hallowed by thy name.”

           The second petition prays: “Thy kingdom come.” I frequently point out this second petition at funerals. I say, “The Kingdom has come for our beloved dead; we pray he or she stands before the King of kings today. That we, too, may be in the kingdom one day, we pray as Jesus taught us.” In other words, the second petition begs Jesus to return in glory at the end of time, and establish his kingdom definitively. And the sooner he returns the better, “Thy kingdom come.”

           The third petition is “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Have you ever wondered: what is God’s will? It’s simple: God wants us to be happy but God also wants us to be holy. Why does he also want us to be holy? Well, because God knows that we will never be really happy without also being really holy. And holiness always comes with a cross: an illness, the loss of a job, a broken friendship, a failed project, a divorce, people who hurt us. As Scott Hahn likes to say: “God loves us just the way we are, but he loves us too much to let us stay that way.” God’s will is for our happiness and our holiness, “Thy will be done.”

            The fourth petition asks: “Give us this day our daily bread.” The Catechism explains that this means certainly ask God for physical nourishment, but above all for spiritual sustenance. We read in the Catechism: “’Daily (epiousios) occurs nowhere else in the New Testament…Taken literally (epi-ousios: ‘super-essential’), it refers directly to the Bread of Life, the Body of Christ, the ‘medicine of immortality,’ without which we have no life within us” (Catechism, 2837). By the way, in case you’re wondering why you get up so early, and lose sleep, are barely awake, and stumble into daily Mass at 7 a.m., it’s to fulfill the fourth petition of the Our Father: “give us this day our daily (Eucharistic) Bread.”

          The fifth petition is the hardest in my book, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” This asks for God’s grace to forgive others not only with our lips, but with our hearts, which means not harboring hatred, or resentments, or past hurts. This is one of the biggest hurdles in marriage counseling: not bringing up past hurts, and that’s why Jesus included it as the fifth petition, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

          The sixth petition is “lead us not into temptation.” The Catechism explains that this verb “lead” means both don’t put us in the path of temptation, but also means give us the grace to overcome those temptations. Sometimes it’s only when we are tempted and tested that we grow. I give little tests in parish council meetings, and everyone else prays, “Lead us not into temptation” of Father John! But while temptations hold out the risk of failure, they are also the necessary condition for the reward of holiness, “lead us not into temptation.”
          The final petition requests: “Deliver us from evil.” This is s stark and sober reminder that evil exists. In our overly scientific and sanitized world, we can forget about evil, sin and Satan, and that’s exactly what the Devil wants. But Jesus wants us to remember the Evil One, and to ask the Father for the strength to overcome him, “deliver us from evil.”

           Next time you pray the Lord’s Prayer, pay close attention to these seven sacred petitions, almost as closely as you pay attention to the movie “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

Praised be Jesus Christ!

The Ask

Imitating the generosity of Jesus by enriching others
2 Corinthians 8:1-9
We want you to know, brothers and sisters, of the grace of God that has been given to the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, the abundance of their joy and their profound poverty overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For according to their means, I can testify, and beyond their means, spontaneously, they begged us insistently for the favor of taking part in the service to the holy ones, and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and to us through the will of God, so that we urged Titus that, as he had already begun, he should also complete for you this gracious act also. Now as you excel in every respect, in faith, discourse, knowledge, all earnestness, and in the love we have for you, may you excel in this gracious act also. I say this not by way of command, but to test the genuineness of your love by your concern for others. For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that for your sake he became poor although he was rich, so that by his poverty you might become rich.

          One of the hardest things for a priest to do – perhaps for anyone to do – is to ask people for money. In the fundraising business, this is simply called “the ask.” I sometimes get upset with the proliferation of people begging for money on the street corners. Then I realize I beg for money every Sunday when we pass the collection plate. What they do outside the church, I do inside the church. This is called “the ask.”

          One priest came up with a clever way to ask for money for his capital campaign. He said: “I’ve got good news: we have enough money for our campaign! But the bad news is that it’s still in your pockets.” Modern technology as made “the ask” a lot easier. You can now set up an account on a website called “GoFundMe” and wait for people to just give you money. I need to set up a “Feed Fr. John account.” On this website you can ask for help with medical bills and other personal needs. Barbara Garcia raised $73,810 after she lost her home in the 2013 Moore, OK tornado. But the best approach to “the ask” was what Fr. Jerome Kodell once said: “Don’t ask people for a specific amount, just ask people to be generous like Jesus.” In other words, the best ask is to appeal to people’s generosity.

          In the first reading today from second Corinthians, St. Paul, too, makes “the ask,” and invites people to be generous.  Paul writes: “I say this not by way of command, but to test the genuineness of your love by your concern for others.” Then St. Paul, like Fr. Jerome, reminds them now generous Jesus was: “For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that for your sake he became poor although he was rich, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” You see, Jesus’ generosity impoverished him because he had to step down from the glory of his Godhead to the humility of humanity.  But in exchange, he enriched us by elevating us from mere mortals to children of God. Jesus generosity is like a playground see-saw: when one goes down, you lift the other person up.
Today “ask” yourself (pun intended): how generous am I? Do I imitate the generosity of Jesus? And don’t limit yourself to monetary generosity. Sometimes it can be too easy to write a check and forget about the real need. Be generous, therefore, with your time and talent as well as with your treasure. Try to have the spirit of Nathan Hale, a spy for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. He was captured by the British and moments before being hanged, he famously said: “I regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” Nathan Hale was willing to ride that see-saw of Jesus’ generosity. He impoverished himself – by losing his life – while he enriched America – by giving us a patriot.

          Of course, when we impoverish ourselves to enrich others, we don’t really become poor at all. Indeed, we enjoy the greatest riches of all, we please our heavenly Father. C. S. Lewis wrote in perhaps his most celebrated essay, called “The Weight of Glory,” these stirring words: “To please God…to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness…to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son.” To please his Father was the richness that Jesus enjoyed when he emptied himself and gave away everything else and become poor, indeed when he became a slave. And that’s the richness you will enjoy, too, when you ride the see-saw of Jesus’ generosity.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Friday, June 16, 2017

Changing Diapers

Experiencing the spousal love of Jesus in the sacraments
Matthew 5:27-32 Jesus said to his disciples: "You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you,  everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into Gehenna. "It was also said, Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce. But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery."

           Sometimes people ask me why I decided to become a priest. Of course, there are the usual suspects that inspire a priestly vocation: helping others spiritually, feeling called by Jesus, and eating free in Mexican restaurants. But if I reflect a little more deeply on the mystery of my vocation, I find it was really the love of my parents that was the taproot of my call. How paradoxical that the love of my parents made me want to be a priest; you’d think seeing the love of two people would make a man want to enjoy the same love himself, and get married  Not necessarily.

            I really didn’t understand how my parents love inspired my priestly vocation until I read a book by Pope St. John Paul II called, Man and Woman He Created Them. There, the pope-saint wrote: “If we reflect deeply on this dimension, we have to conclude that all the sacraments of the Church find their prototype in some way in marriage as the primordial sacrament” (Man and Woman, 511). All that flowery philosophical language just means that marriage is the model of every sacrament because marriage reflects most fully how Jesus love us, that is, as a holy Husband and a sacred Spouse. So, when I become a priest – when I receive the sacrament of Holy Orders – my vocation is also to share the spousal love of Jesus for the Church, just like my parents showed the spousal love of Jesus to each other. And I thought I wanted to become a priest just so I wouldn’t have to change dirty diapers.

            In the gospel today, Jesus speaks clearly and categorically about marriage, and the impossibility of divorce; marriage is going to be a lot harder than just changing diapers. Jesus, the holy Husband says: “But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful), causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Why is Jesus so unequivocal and unbending about marriage? Doesn’t he see there can be situations that make marriage impossible to endure and that a divorce sometimes becomes necessary? Yes, Jesus knows all these things better than we do, because Jesus knows “what is in man” (John 2:24). He knows us because he made us. Nevertheless, Jesus has bestowed both a beautiful blessing and a back-breaking burden on every marriage: to be a sign and sacrament of his own spousal love. In other words, husbands and wife must love each other like Jesus loves, and sometimes that means changing diapers, and other times it means being nailed to a cross, which is exactly how a divorce feels. That’s why John Paul said marriage enjoys the exalted title of the “primordial sacrament.”

             In May, 2000, I completed my canon law degree and began working in the marriage tribunal, which deals mostly with annulment cases. It’s a very heart-wrenching ministry because you deal with heart-breaking cases, where couples didn’t hit the heights of being a primordial sacrament. I sometimes joke that working in the tribunal is like making lemonade: “When life throws you lemons, make lemonade.” But annulments do more than just make the most of a bad situation. Tribunal ministry is ultimately about healing and wholeness. Divorce is devastating, and a human heart feels like Humpty Dumpty, who all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put back together again. But Jesus is the King of kings ,and he is the Healer of Hearts. And through the annulment process, I’ve been blessed to see people who love like Jesus again; often they can love even better after the annulment than before, like a bone is stronger after a break than before. When their marriage is blessed by the Church, a couple feels Jesus’ spousal love again in the primordial sacrament.

          Why do people get married? They want to experience and exchange the love of Jesus. Why do people get ordained as a priest? They want to experience and exchange the love of Jesus. Sometimes you have to change poopy diapers, and sometimes you have to write poopy annulments. But always the love of Jesus is a lot better than making lemonade.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Holy Hijabs

Keeping our faces covered until the coming of Christ 
2 Corinthians 3:15—4:1, 3-6
Brothers and sisters: To this day, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over the hearts of the children of Israel, but whenever a person turns to the Lord the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit. Therefore, since we have this ministry through the mercy shown us, we are not discouraged. And even though our Gospel is veiled, it is veiled for those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this age has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, so that they may not see the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

           Do you know what a “hijab” is? It’s a head-covering worn by many Muslim women in public. I know it is sometimes viewed as a sign of subjugation of women by men, and that does definitely happen, and should be denounced. But there is a deeper metaphorical meaning of a hijab: it is to veil, or to protect, the holy and the sacred from the unholy or the profane. In other words, just as God and heaven are veiled – hidden – from the view of earth, so too are women veiled from the gaze of men. But notice, this is not because women are inferior to men but exactly the opposite, it’s because women are superior to men, like heaven is superior to earth.

            The Western world has an equivalent of a hijab as well: when a bride enters the church on her wedding day, she sometimes veils her face. Not only that, but some grooms are not permitted even to see the bride before the wedding. Now, are all these crazy customs to demonstrate the inferiority of the bride to the groom (and to everyone else), or to highlight her superiority? Well, just as the father of the bride, who has to pay for the wedding if the veil means his daughter is superior or inferior. 
Furthermore, we use veils in the Catholic Church to highlight holiness. Some churches cover the tabernacle with a veil, some cover the chalice and paten with a veil, some nuns wear a veil, even the Communion rail is a veil to distinguish the sanctuary (the heavenly and sacred) from the rest of the church (the worldly and the secular). All these veils denote a metaphorical but also metaphysical “line in the sand” to shield the sacred from the sinful, to protect women from men, to hide heaven from earth, to distinguish and delineate what is superior from what is inferior. That is, hijabs can be holy.

           In the first reading today, St. Paul devotes a few verses to talk about veils, too. The Apostles writes: “To this day, whenever Moses is read, a veil covers the hearts of the children of Israel, but whenever a person turns to the Lord the veil is removed.” In other words, with the coming of Christ in the Incarnation, the great veil between heaven and earth has been swept aside, and we get to sneak a peek into heaven when we see Jesus. Nevertheless, our vision is still veiled and clouded, heaven is still hidden from plain sight, and “we walk by faith not by sight,” as St. Paul will clarify two chapters later in 2 Corinthians 5:7.

            So we have to ask the question: when will the veil be completely removed, when we will get to see the Bride lift the veil, and see the Bride and Groom kiss? Well, that’s exactly what the last book of the Bible tells us. The Book of Revelation, or in Greek “Apocalypsis” literally means “unveiling of a bride.” In other words, the end of time and the end of history not only marks the coming of Christ, but also the unveiling of the Bride of Christ on her wedding day. Christ will return as the divine Groom, and the Church will be revealed as the Bride, holy and humble, and the glorious Groom will lift her veil and kiss her eternally.

          The Book of Revelation closes with the importuning and impatient Bride begging the Lord to return in glory. We read: “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’” (Rev. 22:17). Brides can’t wait for their wedding day. But until that day arrives, while we walk by faith and not by sight, the Bride of Christ, the Church, should walk with veiled face, humbly wearing a holy hijab. And by the way, that goes for men as well as for women.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Ministry of Death

Allowing death to teach us how to live
2 Corinthians 3:4-11 
Brothers and sisters: Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. Not that of ourselves we are qualified to take credit for anything as coming from us; rather, our qualification comes from God, who has indeed qualified us as ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life. Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, was so glorious that the children of Israel could not look intently at the face of Moses because of its glory that was going to fade, how much more will the ministry of the Spirit be glorious? For if the ministry of condemnation was glorious, the ministry of righteousness will abound much more in glory. Indeed, what was endowed with glory has come to have no glory in this respect because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was going to fade was glorious, how much more will what endures be glorious.

          One of the occupational hazards of being a priest is having to do funerals. If you’ve been wondering why I haven’t had morning Masses, it’s because I’ll have had seven funerals in two weeks. Two weeks ago, I had the funeral for the very sad passing of Stacy Forsgren, a young lady who left behind three young children. Last Monday was the funeral for Arthur Rideout, Sr., a man always ready with a compliment. He said I was very good-looking, so I really liked him. On Thursday, we had the funeral for Charlene Dean, a woman who was beautiful on the inside as well as the outside. On Monday (two days ago) was the funeral for Mary Ann Huck, who was 97 years old and had pretty much seen everything in life. Yesterday was Bill Etzkorn’s funeral, who always gave me “a Coke and a smile” when I took him Holy Communion on First Fridays. And next Monday will be the funeral for Blanche Tinder, another wonderful and faithful I.C. parishioner. I once heard it said that you know you’re getting old when you know more people in heaven than you do on earth. Well, I’ve gotten a lot older in the past two weeks. Whoever said that “funerals come in threes” never worked at I.C. Church. Another friend texted me and said, “Fr. John, you’re burying half the people in Fort Smith!” Funerals are a priest’s occupational hazard.

            But I’ve found that this occupational hazard can also be an occupational blessing. How so? Well, funerals don’t just make you think about death more, they can also surprisingly make you think about life more. Two life lessons have really hit me forcefully through all these funerals. First, I’ve learned that life can be short, like the life of Stacy Forsgren, so make the most of it; no one is guaranteed a long life. Don’t become so busy or caught up in the rat race that you don’t take time to stop and smell the roses. Visit your elderly parents, tell your spouse you truly love them by going on a “date night,” go fishing with your grandchildren, play cards with your family like Bill Etzkorn loved to do. Simply stop and be alive.

            Secondly, death reminds us that this life is not all there is, but we may look forward to the next life, hopefully in heaven, after we are purified and perfected in purgatory. I’ve had to counsel several terminally ill people who obviously have to think about death a lot. Sometimes the pain and suffering makes them wish for death, and they feel guilty for wanting to die. I suggest that they shouldn’t long for death so much as they should long for the after-life, and death is the doorway. It’s  subtle difference to desire the after-life rather than death, but it’s a significant one, and it can be spiritually rewarding.  In other words, death can be an occupational blessing by making us appreciate this life, and also by making us look forward to the next life.

             St. Paul writes to the Corinthians in his second letter: “If the ministry of death was so glorious…how much more will the ministry of the Spirit be glorious?” Clearly, that’s a mysterious thing to say, but maybe it means that priests who do a lot of the “ministry of death” (like funerals) shouldn’t forget that they likewise conduct a considerable amount of the “ministry of the Spirit,” who gives life both in this world and in the next. In other words, and very ironically, death itself become a great life lesson.

             Of course, the Knights of Columbus would not be surprised by any of this. Their motto is “tempus fugit, memento mori,” which means “time flies, remember death.” If you’re the pastor of Immaculate Conception Church, it’s impossible to forget it.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Assassins of God

Seeing the traces of the Trinity throughout creation
2 Corinthians 13:11-13 
Brothers and sisters, rejoice. Mend your ways, encourage one another, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the holy ones greet you. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

          Have you ever noticed how many things come in “three’s”? Here are just a few examples. There’s the “triple crown” of horse racing: the Belmont Stakes, the Preakness Stakes and the Kentucky Derby. The three-point shot in basketball has revolutionized the game, sometimes called a “trifecta” (a derivation of “perfecta”). Who can forget the great threesome of comedy, Larry, Moe and Curly, better known as “The Three Stooges”? Some of you look old enough to remember the famous “Rat Pack” of super actors, who were headed by the threesome of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr.  Even Sunday sermons should have three distinct parts: a beginning, a middle and an end. The actor-comedian, George Burns, once quipped: “The secret to a good sermon is that it should have a good beginning, a good ending, and they should be as close together as possible.”
But the highest threesome in nature is a human family. You have to have a father, a mother, and at least one child to constitute a family, and I say that with all due respect to those who cannot have children. Scott Hahn, the Presbyterian preacher-turned-Catholic theologian, says that in marriage a husband and wife become one flesh when they consummate their marriage, and that “one” is so real that nine months later you have to give it a name. In other words, not only is a child born, but a family is born when there are three persons.

         Why am I mentioning all these triples and threesomes? Well, I believe they are all “vestigia Dei” or in English, “traces of God” in the world. They are signs of God’s presence – that God is three in one (a Trinity) – all around us, if we only looked at the world with the eyes of faith. This is precisely what St. Patrick did in 5th century Ireland. He plucked a three-leaf clover and explained to the Irish people that just as you have three petals but only one clover, so, too, God is three Persons but only one God. That little three leaf clover was a “vestigia Dei,” almost like an ancient Triple Crown or the Rat Pack.

          Today’s Scripture readings provide more explicit testimony to the Holy Trinity. In St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he writes: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” You may have noticed that’s how the priest sometimes greets people at the beginning of Mass – that’s my favorite greeting. But there are other subtle signs of the Holy Trinity in the sacraments, more of these “vestigia Dei.” There are three readings of Scripture in the Mass: the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Gospel (when we stand). When you came into church, you dipped your fingers in holy water and made the Sign of the Cross, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” When a bishop blesses people at the end of Mass, he makes three crosses, not one like a poor priest does (if I did that, I would be firing blanks). These too are “vestigia Dei,” and it takes the eyes of faith to see them; otherwise, these Catholic gestures simply seem like superstitions or sorcery.  Do these signs in the sacraments make you think of God, or make you think Catholics are goofy?

           Let me give you two reasons why you should look hard for these vestigia Dei, especially for traces of the Trinity. First, because our search for God is more like a romantic adventure than a rational search, more like falling in love than writing a doctoral dissertation. All lovers first leave traces of their affection, instead of coming right out and sharing their heart. For example, they give a second glance in a crowded room; back in the old days a girl would “inadvertently drop” her handkerchief (today she would drop her cell phone); the boy would stutteringly state his over-rehearsed pick up line; the girl would feign no interest and play hard to get. In other words, the whole alluring and agonizing process of human courtship is scattered with “vestigia” of love, like bread crumbs leading one heart to another. Seek God, therefore, as a lover, not as a logician, and you’ll see the “vestigia amoris” (the traces of love) he has deliberately left for you: traces of the Trinity scattered throughout the world.
          Secondly, the last three centuries have seen a concentrated effort to erase and eradicate these “vestigia Dei” from human experience. I’ve recently been reading a book called The Drama of Atheistic Humanism by Henri de Lubac, where he says atheism is ironically the modern religion and wants to replace all other religions. He writes: “The phenomenon that has dominated the history of the mind during the last few centuries seems both more profound and more arbitrary…Man is getting rid of God in order to regain possession of the human greatness that, it seems to him, is being unwarrantably withheld by another. In God he is overthrowing an obstacle in order to gain his freedom” (The Drama, 24-25). In other words, philosophers like Fruerbach, Marx, Nietzsche and Comte want to convince us that these “vestigia Dei” are only our imagination, our minds playing tricks on us, and we’ll be happier and rise to the heights of greatness, only if we ignore them. Indeed, they want to go so far as to make us believe that God is not our best-Friend but rather our arch-Enemy. Therefore God should be killed. And that’s why Nietzsche brags, “We are the assassins of God” (The Drama, 50). And what is the assassin’s creed, how do they plan to kill God? They attempted to erase the “vestigia Dei” out of the world, so we would never find God.

         But there is one place God has left his trace that the atheists have overlooked, namely, in the human soul. St. Augustine taught that the Trinity is hidden in the three chief powers of the soul: the memory, the intellect and the will, and these too are “vestigia Dei.” The Doctor of Grace wrote: “But in these three, when the mind knows itself and loves itself, a trinity remains: the mind, love and knowledge” (On the Trinity, Bk. 8, Ch. 7).  You see, Fruerbach and Marx, Nietzsche and Comte tried to declare “God is dead,” but they did not count on the vestigia Dei God had left for them in their own hearts, and to kill God there they would have to kill themselves. Maybe that’s why in 1889, at the age of 44, Nietzsche suffered a mental breakdown from which he would never recover. Jesus will say to them as he said to the Sadducees: “God is a God of the living, not of the dead. You are greatly mistaken” (Mark 12:27).

Praised be Jesus Christ!

A King’s Secret

Giving God the glory for our accomplishments
Tobit 12:1, 5-15, 20 
Tobit called his son Tobiah and said to him, "Son, see to it that you give what is due to the man who made the journey with you; give him a bonus too." So he called Raphael and said, "Take as your wages half of all that you have brought back, and go in peace." Raphael called the two men aside privately and said to them: "Thank God! Give him the praise and the glory. Before all the living, acknowledge the many good things he has done for you, by blessing and extolling his name in song. Honor and proclaim God's deeds, and do not be slack in praising him. A king's secret it is prudent to keep, but the works of God are to be declared and made known. Praise them with due honor.

          I believe the older we get, the more inclined we are to give God the credit for our accomplishments. Some of you know that a lot better than I do. When we’re young, we think our success is due to our smarts, our strength, or our savvy. But later, we learn that all we did was God’s gift and made possible only by God’s grace. And therefore, it’s only right we should give him the glory.

           A case in point is Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. When he was merely 54 years old, Pope John Paul II named him the head of the Vatican department called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Cardinal Ratzinger’s role was to safeguard the authentic faith from possible threats or heresies. Some people who came into his cross-hairs nicknamed him “God’s Rottweiler,” because he had to correct them. These people portrayed him as arrogant and antagonistic, even though that was not the case. In his recent book, however, called Last Testament, Pope Benedict shows his true character as a very humble man. When asked how he learned so many languages, he replied: “It looks as if I know as many languages as God, but this is not the case.” And he explains that he learned some smattering of English by listening to “vinyl records.” Maybe someone can tell me after Mass what those are. I don’t think Pope Benedict ever took personal credit for his many talents and towering achievements, but as he has gotten older, he’s made that more explicit.
           In the first reading today, Tobit wants to give the Archangel Raphael credit for all the blessings he brought to their family. And I love Raphael’s reply. He says: “Thank God! Give him the praise and glory.” The heavenly messenger goes on to explain: “A king’s secret it is prudent to keep, but the works of God are to be declared and made known.” You see, all angels have “old souls” - they’re older than Methuselah, who lived to be 969 years old - and so they are keenly aware how God’s grace is the chief cause of their accomplishments. But the phrase I like is “a king’s secret it is prudent to keep.” I think that means we all are tempted to think of our ourselves as “kings and queens” and want others to praise us praise for our hard work and victories. But Raphael says, “Be humble, keep secret what you think you’ve done.” That’s exactly what Pope Benedict did in his last book, literally his Last Testament.  He didn’t want to be praised for speaking so many languages – which he actually does! – that’s how he kept the “king’s secret.”

          My friends, how old are you? Have you reached the age where you see how God’s grace has been the real agent of all your achievements? Or, even if you’re still young, do you have a “old soul” (like the angels) and see that everything is ultimately God’s gift? I cringe whenever I see an athlete gloat over his or her victory, as if they had done it all alone. On the other hand, I’m edified by those who give credit to their teammates, their coaches, and even the crowd for their wins. How do you react when someone compliments you for something you’ve done well? A friend of mine simply says, “Praise God,” like the Archangel Raphael did. On the other hand, how do you feel when people tease you, or point out your flaws, or criticize you, or call you “God’s Rottweiler”? To be sure those comments sting our egos and hurt our pride. But I would suggest to you that we should be very glad when that happens. Why? Well, because that’s the best way to know that you’ve kept “the king’s secret” safe.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Friday, June 9, 2017

The Burning Boulder

Being embraced by the arms of the Holy Spirit

John 7:37-39 
On the last and greatest day of the feast, Jesus stood up and exclaimed, "Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink. As Scripture says: Rivers of living water will flow from within him who believes in me." He said this in reference to the Spirit that those who came to believe in him were to receive. There was, of course, no Spirit yet, because Jesus had not yet been glorified.

           Two of the great Scriptural symbols of the Holy Spirit are “water” and “fire.” These two elements of water and fire speak especially loudly in a funeral Mass. Recently, I explained to some altar servers before a funeral: “I’ll need the holy water at the beginning, and the incense (fire) at the end. Now, to help you remember that, just think how we begin and end our Christian life. We begin with baptism in water and end in the fires of purgatory.” The altar servers eyes became round as saucers, and I quickly added, “I’m just kidding! I’m sure you’ll go straight to heaven.” Those poor kids are traumatized for life, but some traumas are good for the soul, if they’re caused by the Holy Spirit.

            I’ll never forget when I saw how fire and water can work together like a one-two punch; they are a formidable force. About 20 years ago I went to Honduras on a mission trip. One of our projects was to install a septic tank for the local hospital. Don’t ask what they used before the septic tank. Since they didn’t have any power equipment, the dug with shovels and hoes and picks a huge hole about 20 feet deep, 20 feet wide and 20 feet long. But in the middle of the hole was a huge rock about 8 feet in diameter. There was no way to haul it out of the hole and their tools were ineffective against the rock. You’ll be amazed at their solution. They started by digging around the base of the boulder and brought in wood from nearby trees and shrubs. They arranged the wood around the base of the rock and started a blazing fire. After the fire had heated the rock almost to the point where it was glowing red with heat, they brought buckets of cold sea water and splashed it on the burning boulder. Can you guess what happened to the rock? The clash of heat and cold cracked the seemingly impregnable rock into a hundred small pieces, which the people carried out with ease. And that’s how fire and water of the Holy Spirit work throughout our lives: cracking our hard hearts and hard heads, so God’s love can break through.

             In the gospel reading, Jesus describes the first of the these two symbols of the Holy Spirit, namely, the water. Our Lord declares: “Rivers of living water will flow from within him who believes in me.” And in case you didn’t catch the cause of the water, John makes Jesus’ meaning plain, adding: “He said this in reference to the Spirit that those who came to believe in him were to receive.” In other words, one of the primary symbols of the Holy Spirit in Scripture is “water.” In fact, every time you hear a reference to the spiritual meaning of water in the Old or New Testament it’s almost always a reference to the Holy Spirit. Read the Bible with that in mind, and you’ll get a lot of surplus value in the Scriptures.

             Secondly, have you ever noticed the magnificent stained-glass window above the north entry of the church? You’ve probably noticed it while the deacons were preaching some Sunday. (Just kidding.) Look closely at what hovers above the heads of Mother Mary and the eleven apostles. They are flames of fire. The Acts of the Apostles recounts what occurred on the day of Pentecost when the apostles were set on fire with the Spirit, ready to live and even die for Jesus. Like the fire and water burst the boulder in Honduras, so the fire and water of the Spirit bursts the fear in the apostles’ hearts and filled them with faith.

            Let me give you some modern examples of how the Holy Spirit – as holy water and sacred fire – crack open impregnable boulders to build up the kingdom. You can catch the work of the Spirit in every sacrament: baptism, Eucharist, confirmation, confessions, anointing of the sick, marriage and holy orders. At one point in each sacrament the minister will extend his hands over “the matter” of the sacraments – over the water or over bread and wine or over the sinner. That moment is called the “epiclesis” which is Greek and means “invocation” or “calling down from on high.” At that moment, the Holy Spirit descends on the elements, like fire and water, and breaks them open so God’s grace and burst forth into the world. At every epiclesis, remember how the Honduras burst that boulder.

             Another example is with people who have hard heads or hard hearts. Do you know anyone who’s especially stubborn or so set in their ways that it seems they’ll never change? I hate to mention this but sometimes it’s former Catholics who become the most virulent anti-Catholics. Do you have anyone in your family who has left the church and can’t stand to talk about Catholicism? After all, Martin Luther, who launched the Protestant Reformation, was a former Catholic monk. But no one is beyond God’s grace and returning to the Church. Fr. Benedict Groeschel, who has passed away recently, said he prays every day that the singer Madonna will change her life and become a cloistered Carmelite nun. Invoke the Holy Spirit on those you think may never change, and remember how the Hondurans burst that boulder.

           And lastly, I am convinced that the hardest head of all is the one that looks back in the mirror every morning when you brush your teeth or comb your hair. Why? Well, because are often blind to the boulders of our own sins. Psalm 19:12 states: “But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults.” In other words, there’s a “hidden hardness” inside of us that’s invisible to our eyes. That’s why it takes our whole life for the fire and water of the Holy Spirit to burst that boulder inside of us, like fire and water did in Honduras.

              Let me conclude with the words of Pope Francis, who said: “Christian identity, as the baptismal embrace which the Father gave us when we were little ones, makes us desire, as prodigal children…yet another embrace, that of the merciful Father who awaits us in glory” (Evengelii gaudium, 144). That’s basically what I was telling those altar servers: our lives are lived between these two great “embraces” – the water of baptism and the fires of purgatory. Water and Fire are like the two arms of the Holy Spirit, who hugs us tightly until he burst the boulder of our pride.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Strange Bedfellows

Accepting the allies that help us in times of trouble

Acts of the Apostles 25:13B-21
King Agrippa and Bernice arrived in Caesarea on a visit to Festus. Since they spent several days there, Festus referred Paul's case to the king, saying, "There is a man here left in custody by Felix. When I was in Jerusalem the chief priests and the elders of the Jews brought charges against him and demanded his condemnation. I answered them that it was not Roman practice to hand over an accused person before he has faced his accusers and had the opportunity to defend himself against their charge. So when they came together here, I made no delay; the next day I took my seat on the tribunal and ordered the man to be brought in. His accusers stood around him, but did not charge him with any of the crimes I suspected. Instead they had some issues with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus who had died but who Paul claimed was alive. Since I was at a loss how to investigate this controversy, I asked if he were willing to go to Jerusalem and there stand trial on these charges. And when Paul appealed that he be held in custody for the Emperor's decision, I ordered him held until I could send him to Caesar."

          There’s a curious but also classic phrase that I like a lot; it’s the phrase, “strange bedfellows.” I apologize for the slightly suggestive sense, but it originates in Shakespeare’s play “Tempest.” You know, if you quote Shakespeare or the Scriptures, everything is okay. The Bible or the Bard said it! We read in Tempest Act 2, Scene 2, “Alas, the storm is come again! My best way is to creep under his gabardine; there is no other shelter hereabout: misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.” A more modern rendering might be: “misery loves company.” When times are tough – when, “Alas, the storm comes again” – we are open to help from all quarters, and are not so picky about who is friend and who is foe.

           I’ll never forget a line uttered by Gandhi, the great leader of Indian independence. As he was rising in prominence an English clergyman came to offer his help to Gandhi. Bapu (Gandhi’s affectionate nickname) said to him: “When you are fighting in a just cause, people seem to pop up, like you, right out of the pavement. Even when it is dangerous.” And it would be dangerous indeed, right up to Gandhi’s assassination in 1948. But Gandhi was succored by strange bedfellows from all over the world, even from the British who had colonized India.

            In the first reading today, St. Paul also encounters an unlikely ally – a strange bedfellow – in King Agrippa. In Acts chapters 25 and 26, Paul makes his case before Agrippa and almost converts this Jewish monarch to Christianity. This the third time Paul recounts the extraordinary events on the road to Damascus in Acts.  After listening to Paul’s conversion story, Agrippa says to Paul, “You would soon persuade me to play the Christian.” And in private Agrippa adds: “This man (meaning Paul) is doing nothing at all that deserves death or imprisonment.” In other words, God sent a sympathetic if not strange bedfellow to Paul in his hour of need, when “Alas, the storm is come again!” Just like Gandhi said, people were popping up right out of the pavement to help Paul.
Today, try to be a little more open to strange bedfellows who may help you when, “Alas the storm is come again!” Sometimes we turn away from people simply because we see the color of their skin, or they speak with an accent (even priests), or because of where they live (the wrong side of the tracks), or maybe even their ethnic origin (they’re German or Irish or Italian), or maybe because someone is an undocumented alien here in the United States. We can write such people off without much thought.

          My parents have a Hispanic man who helps them do yard-work and some minor maintenance around the house. When they try to pay him, he turns them down. They have to force him to accept some money. His name is Agrippa, but do you know what my parents prefer to call him? They have dubbed him, “King Agrippa,” and they love him like family. It doesn’t matter to my parents if he’s hispanic or speaks broken English or has legal status or anything else external. They see his heart, and his heart is huge. That’s what St. Paul saw in the original King Agrippa, and that’s what he loved about him.

         My friends, don’t wait for the storm to come again to make you see who might be a strange bedfellow for you. Look below the surface and see the huge heart that beats beneath in every person, and love them. After all, the Bible and the Bard said so.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

You Speak Russian

Articulating the arguments of our enemies

Acts of the Apostles 22:30; 23:6-11 Wishing to determine the truth about why Paul was being accused by the Jews, the commander freed him and ordered the chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin to convene. Then he brought Paul down and made him stand before them. Paul was aware that some were Sadducees and some Pharisees, so he called out before the Sanhedrin, "My brothers, I am a Pharisee, the son of Pharisees; I am on trial for hope in the resurrection of the dead." When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and Sadducees, and the group became divided. For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection or angels or spirits, while the Pharisees acknowledge all three. A great uproar occurred, and some scribes belonging to the Pharisee party stood up and sharply argued, "We find nothing wrong with this man. Suppose a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?" The dispute was so serious that the commander, afraid that Paul would be torn to pieces by them, ordered his troops to go down and rescue Paul from their midst and take him into the compound.

         Many years ago I learned one of the most helpful skills in dealing with people from watching the movie “Hunt for Red October.” This skill can be summarized in the maxim, “Know your enemy.” In the movie, Captain Ramius, played by Sean Connery, is a Russian submarine commander, who takes a submarine armed with nuclear warheads and propels it toward the United States. He comes face to face with Jack Ryan and the battleship U.S.S. Dallas. In the tense scene where the two face-off, Captain Ramius makes a joke in Russian, which Ryan catches because he speaks Russian. Surprised, Ramius asks, “You speak Russian.” Ryan answers in Russian, “It is wise to know the ways of your enemy.” And Captain Ramius replies in English, “It is.” (Of course, Ramius spoke British English because he’s really James Bond.) In other words, both men had taken time to learn the ways of their enemy – by learning their language – and guess what happens? They’ve taken the first steps to become friends.

          Someone else who had mastered this skill was St. Thomas Aquinas and he put it on full display in his classic work Summa Theologica. Before he gave his own argument for the truths of the Catholic faith, he listed the three reasons why his enemies would disagree with him. He often stated their arguments more forcefully than they themselves did. When you take time to “know your enemy,” you disarm them, diffusing their hostility and animosity, and you take the first steps toward friendship. Just like Jack Ryan, St. Thomas Aquinas “spoke the language of his enemies,” and he sometimes made some surprising friends.

          In the first reading today, St. Paul uses this same skill to save his skin before the Sanhedrin. He is placed on trial before both the Sadducees and Pharisees. You’ll remember that before his conversion to Christianity, Paul was Saul, a devout and even deadly Pharisees who persecuted and punished Christians, putting them to death. Knowing his enemies well (because he was one of them), Paul declares: “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, the son of Pharisees. I am on trial for hope in the resurrection of the dead.” And a huge dispute broke out between the Pharisees and Sadducees because these two sects vehemently disagreed on that subject. And Paul goes free. But notice what the Pharisees say: “We find nothing wrong with this man.” In other words, not only has Paul saved his life, he has made a few friends, too. Why? Because Paul knew the ways of his enemy; he spoke their language.

            Today, try to think of who is your enemy, with whom you disagree, with whom you fight. If you’re a Democrat, you don’t like the Republicans; if you’re a Cleveland fan you don’t like Golden State; if you’re North Korea, you don’t like anybody! Of course, our enemies could be a lot closer to home: our spouse sometimes seems like an enemy, our parents seem to fight against us, and maybe even our next door neighbor is not so neighborly sometimes. Once you’ve identified your enemy, ask yourself: “Do I truly know my enemy?” That is, can you speak their language like Jack Ryan, or can you articulate their arguments like St. Thomas Aquinas? If you can master that skill – and it’s as hard as learning to speak Russian – not only will you be able to disarm your enemies, but you might even take the first faltering steps toward a new friendship. What you really realize, though, is that the real enemy was never the Pharisees, or the Russians or the Republicans, or your spouse, or your neighbor, or your parents, but only yourself: your pride, your prejudice, and your personal preferences. Speaking the language of your enemy helps you to see the real enemy was always within.

             St. Francis of Assisi also mastered this skill, and he summarized it in his famous “Prayer of Peace.” The Poverllo wrote: “O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek / to be consoled as to console, / to be understood as to understand, / to be loved as to love. / For it is in giving that we receive, / it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, / and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”  In other words, if you can understand your enemy, he might turn out to be your friend.

Praised be Jesus Christ!