Monday, October 26, 2020

Pope versus Pundit

Putting the pope’s controversy in context


Luke 13:10-17 Jesus was teaching in a synagogue on the sabbath. And a woman was there who for eighteen years had been crippled by a spirit; she was bent over, completely incapable of standing erect. When Jesus saw her, he called to her and said, “Woman, you are set free of your infirmity.” He laid his hands on her, and she at once stood up straight and glorified God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant that Jesus had cured on the sabbath, said to the crowd in reply, “There are six days when work should be done. Come on those days to be cured, not on the sabbath day.” The Lord said to him in reply, “Hypocrites! Does not each one of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger and lead it out for watering? This daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound for eighteen years now, ought she not to have been set free on the sabbath day from this bondage?” When he said this, all his adversaries were humiliated; and the whole crowd rejoiced at all the splendid deeds done by him.

Today’s gospel of Luke 13:10-17, where Jesus cures a crippled woman on the Sabbath, provides an opportunity to make a few comments about Pope Francis’ controversial statements in a movie released on Oct. 21 at the Rome Film Festival. It was a documentary film called “Francesco” (Italian for “Francis”), about Francis of Rome, not Francis of Assisi. The gospel of Luke presents Jesus performing a miracle clearly not in conformity with the Jewish laws of the day, especially “resting” on the Sabbath, based on the 3rd Commandment of the Decalogue. Hence, the leader of the synagogue complains: “There are six days when work should be done. Come on those days to be cured, not on the Sabbath day.” Jesus, however, fires back: “Hypocrites! Does not each one of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his ass and lead it out for watering? This daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound for eighteen years now, ought she not to have been set free on the Sabbath day from this bondage?”

The synagogue leader was right, but Jesus was more right. How so? The Jewish leader was appealing to the law of Moses, the 10 Commandments, but Jesus was coming to establish a higher law, without abolishing the former law but rather absorbing the former law. That is, Jesus had come to establish the law of love and mercy, the 8 Beatitudes, and he himself was its perfect embodiment. In other words, Jesus is the law of love on two legs.

And whenever anyone draws near to Jesus, they find the true “Sabbath rest” that Moses only saw from a distance, since he himself did not enter the Promised Land. Heb. 11:39 reads: “Yet all these [Abraham, Noah, Moses, etc.], though approved because of their faith, did not receive what had been promised.” This gospel passage seems to me one way to understand Pope Francis’ comments about the possibility of some recognition of people who live together – including (but not only) homosexual persons – that is, not abolishing the Church’s teaching on marriage but rather absorbing it into Jesus’ larger law of love, mercy and compassion.

Several people have emailed me in the past week concerned that the pope was changing the Church’s teaching on marriage or softening the Church’s stance on sexual acts only being proper in marriage and between husband and wife. One person sent me a Youtube video of a reporter summarizing the comments of Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Kazakhstan. The bishop pleaded with the pope to repent of his comments and he asked all Catholics to pray for the pope’s conversion back to the Catholic faith. Clearly, the pope’s comments are causing great consternation and even confusion throughout the Catholic community and worldwide. Perhaps a few facts will help dissipate some of the fog of fiction clouding this issue.

First, in a recent October 24 “America” magazine article, it was clear the pope had made his comments about recognizing “civil unions” not while he has been the pope, but while he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Obviously, what you say as an archbishop is very important, but not nearly as weighty as what words you utter as the successor of St. Peter. So, keep that in mind: the pope as pope, with his full authority as the Vicar of Christ, was not advocating for civil unions, much less a change in Church teaching on marriage, even though the documentary film portrayed it that way.

Secondly, the older I get and look back at my own personal history, with all its ups and downs, the more I appreciate the history of the Church, with all our communal ups and downs. I was recently reading about the disagreement between Pope St. Zosimus and St. Augustine in the 5th century. Pope Zosimus seemed a little soft on the Pelagian heresy that questioned if we really needed grace to do good works, and St. Augustine had to set the Catholic record straight. By the way, that is exactly why St. Augustine is called the “Doctor of Grace” because he defended the Church’s true teaching on the need for grace to do anything good. My point is that over the 2,000 year history of the Church there have been disagreements between popes and bishops; it has not always been a smooth road. But in the long-run the Holy Spirit is still guiding the Church down the ages.

Third, always consider the source of your information about current events. We sometimes naively think news outlets report the plain and simple truth, just the facts. We overlook the fact that people may have an agenda, and we are more liable to overlook their agenda because it happens to agree with our own agenda. Whoever agrees with what I think must be telling the truth, and everything else is “fake news.” Remember the news business is still a "business" and their objective is to make money (like all good businesses should), so they report the news in a way that will make you want to read more news. Fiction is far more entertaining than fact.

So, in summary, I think all the controversy over the pope’s comments – really the archbishop’s comments – is “much ado about nothing.” The Holy Spirit is still driving the bus. So, sit back, look out the window, and enjoy the ride.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Our First Freedom

Promoting religious liberty and Catholic schools


Today we arrive at our last but not least political topic prior to the election on November 3 – thanks be to God! Literally “thanks be to God” because we end with the twin topics of “religious liberty” and “Catholic schools,” two subjects soaked through and through with the sacred. The United States Catholic bishops, in their document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” wrote: “US policy should promote religious liberty vigorously, both at home and abroad: our first and most cherished freedom is rooted in the very dignity of the human person, a fundamental human right that knows no geographical boundaries.” In other words, even more “unalienable” than the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is the right to worship God according to one’s conscience. Religious liberty is our first freedom.

But not everyone cares that much about religious liberty or for that matter about religion itself. I heard about one scientist from an Ivy League university who decided to put God to the test recently. He said sarcastically: “Listen God – if you even exist – we have decided we don’t need you anymore. What you did in the past we can do better in the present. These days we can clone people, transplant organs, travel to other planets and many other things people previously thought were miracles.” To his shock and surprise, a booming voice came from the clouds: “If you believe you do not need me, let’s put your theory to the test. Let’s have a competition to see who can create a human being.” The stunned scientist quickly collected himself and agreed to the test. God declared they should do it like he did in the old days when he created Adam in the book of Genesis. “Fine,” said the scientist with a scoff. He bent down to scoop up a handful of dirt. But God said suddenly: “Stop! Get your own dirt.”

Sometimes you have to do a little digging in the dirt before you discover how much you need God. Paul Tillich, the 20th century philosopher of religion called God “the ground of being,” that is, God is the Ground we stand on, indeed, the Ground everything stands on. But just like we easily ignore the dirt and ground we walk on – sometimes even shaking the dust from our feet like modern science – so we can take God and religion for granted. As a consequence, we miss how religious liberty is “our first freedom.”

The Catholic bishops explain the importance of protecting religious liberty using these terms: “In the United States, religious freedom generally enjoys strong protection in our law and culture, but these protections are now in doubt.” The bishops give a concrete example, adding: “The long-standing tax-exemption of the Church has been explicitly called into question at the highest levels of government precisely because of her teaching on marriage.” Now, I agree that losing our tax-exempt status presents a real risk. But I believe a bigger risk is when we “exempt God” from daily life; when we think like the Ivy League scientist who scoffs he no longer needs God. In other words, we should protect religious liberty not because it is being attacked by atheists from the outside, but because it is being attacked by apathy from the inside. As the Pogo cartoon strip said: “We have met the enemy and the enemy is us.” The real enemy of religious liberty is not atheism but apathy.

Have you heard of the analogy of the frog in boiling water? If you put a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will naturally jump out. The water is too hot. But, if you put a frog into a pot of lukewarm water, and slowly raise the temperature very incrementally, the frog will not notice the gradually rising heat and will happily boil to death. I am convinced that modern-day Christians are like that frog and our modern culture is turning up the heat, one degree at a time, We don’t notice how our priorities are slowly changing so that God is no longer our greatest concern. We passionately protect our “freedom of speech,” our “freedom of the press,” our “freedom of assembly,” and ignore our “freedom of religion.” For many Americans Christians, religious liberty is not our first freedom; it is our last freedom.

When we see that the true threat to religious liberty emerges from the inside and not from the outside, we can also catch why Catholic schools are so critical, and also why they struggle to stay open, like St. Boniface here in Fort Smith that closed two years ago. It is not atheism that closes Catholic schools, but apathy. The bishops insisted: “Parents – the first and most important educators – have a fundamental right to choose the education best suited to the needs of their children, including public, private and religious schools.” In other words, schools are an extension of the educational responsibility that rests on the shoulders of parents; hence they should have the freedom of school choice. The real reason Catholic schools are critical is because when religion is rooted in the school curriculum, it eventually blossoms in the culture of future generations of Americans.

I will forever be grateful to Catholic schools for my priestly vocation. Through countless Masses – yes, I slept through many homilies – uncomfortable confessions, rosaries and May Crowning’s, Lenten Stations of the Cross, Friday fish sticks and cheese pizza, and the example of humble, holy priests, something finally clicked in me. What clicked? Catholic schools taught me there is more to life than meets the eye, because ultimately there is more to me than meets the eye. Catholic schools taught me I have a soul, a spiritual wellspring from which the rest of me is watered and grows. And that soul was a gift from God. When I realized that, I wanted to give that soul – and the rest of me – as a gift back to God, and so I became a priest. That is how Catholic schools taught me that religion is relevant and how religious liberty is our first freedom. That soul is something the scientist cannot see.

We have now touched on eight topics that every Catholic Christian should ponder before the presidential election. They are: (1) abortion and prolife, (2) racism, (3) marriage and LGBTQ community, (4) immigration, (5) the environment, (6) healthcare, (7) global solidarity, and last but not least, (8) religious liberty and Catholic schools. My homilies were not intended to unravel the tight knots of these issues, but only to help your conscience to see them under a spiritual light, the light of faith. The Catechism of the Catholic Church beautifully describes “conscience,” stating: “For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God…His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.” In other words, first form your conscience by prayer and study, and then obey the voice of your conscience when you vote. By the way, do you know which paragraph number describes conscience in the Catechism? It is number 1776, the year the United States became a nation. How blessed we are to live in a country that lets us live by our conscience. That is not a co-incidence; that is a God-incidence. And the scientist might have missed that, too.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

A Cold Calculation

Making the spiritual a priority over the material


Luke 12:13-21 Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” He replied to him, “Friend, who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator?” Then he said to the crowd, “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.” Then he told them a parable. “There was a rich man whose land produced a bountiful harvest. He asked himself, ‘What shall I do, for I do not have space to store my harvest?’ And he said, ‘This is what I shall do: I shall tear down my barns and build larger ones. There I shall store all my grain and other goods and I shall say to myself, “Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!”’ But God said to him, ‘You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?’ Thus will it be for the one who stores up treasure for himself but is not rich in what matters to God.”

Quite frequently people ask me, “Fr. John, why did you decide to become a priest?” I am always amazed by that question because once you understand what a priest is and what a priest does, the real question people should ask is, “Why would someone NOT want to be a priest?” Still, the original question is a good one, and I explain that part of my path to the priesthood consisted of a cold calculation. As a teenager I wanted to help people, and it seemed to me there are two basic ways to help others, namely, materially, by giving them food, shelter and clothing, like helping those folks standing on the street corner asking for material help.

On the other hand, you can help people spiritually by teaching them about Jesus, showing them love, joy, hope and peace in the Bible, and ultimately, giving them the grace of God in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. As I weighed these two ways to help people, both of which are good and important, I asked a further question: Which need lasts longer? Our material needs only last as long as we are kicking up dust on this earth, 80, 90 or 100 years. But our spiritual needs are eternal. We will always hunger and thirst for Jesus’ love. And clearly the vocation which is dedicated to bringing the best of the spiritual life to people is the Catholic priesthood. If all the people who help others spiritually are feeding others spiritual fare, then the Catholic priest is the gourmet chef, preparing the exquisite Eucharist.

Both the scriptures we read and the saints we venerate today invite us to make this cold calculation as well. That is, we should see how the spiritual outweighs the material, even though both are important. You keep bringing this poor priest dinner and I will keep feeding you with the Bread of Angels. In the gospel, a man asks Jesus to take sides in his dispute over an inheritance. Jesus answers him (and us): “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.” In other words, do not be so laser focused on material well-being that you forget your spiritual well-being.

St. Isaac Jogues, who came to evangelize the Native Iroquois and Huron Indians in Canada, had a burning desire to help people spiritually more than materially. Maybe that cold calculation is how he discerned his priestly vocation as a young man. He wrote in his diary these passionate lines: “My God it grieves me greatly that you are not known, that in this savage wilderness all have not been converted to you, that sin has not be driven from it.” Then St. Jogues adds this stirring line willing to die for Jesus: “My God, even if all the brutal tortures which prisoners in this region must endure should fall on me, I offer myself most willingly to them and I alone shall suffer them all.” In other words, St. Isaac Jogues, Jean de Brebeuf and their companions valued spiritual goods so highly they were willing to be entirely deprived of material goods, indeed, they were ready to be martyrs. The Christian life often consists of a cold calculation, a weighing of two goods, material and spiritual, and seeing which weighs more on the scales of eternity.

Let me draw one quick practical lesson from the foregoing reflection. I believe this is the primary reason that many bishops throughout the country have asked Catholics to return to Mass every Sunday, even in the face of the continuing pandemic of the coronavirus. Obviously, we need to be careful and practice all the safety protocols of wearing masks, washing hands, and keeping social distance. But at the same time we should not prize and value our earthly life so highly that we are willing to sacrifice eternal life. I fear that the longer people stay away from the sacraments, they more they lose their spiritual appetite for the gourmet meal of the Mass. There are people I have not seen at Mass since mid-March. Our Catholics are starving spiritually more than those people standing on the street corners holding signs asking for material help. When you miss Mass, you make a bad miscalculation.

Sometimes the Christian life consists in a cold calculation, a weighing of material and spiritual goods, and seeing which weighs more on the scales of eternity. So, from now on, don’t ask the question, “Fr. John, why did you become a priest?” Rather ask, “Why would anyone NOT want to become a priest?”

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Monday, October 19, 2020

Knights and Damsels

Seeing the U.S. as giver and receiver of global solidarity


Can you handle yet another homily on politics? Don’t worry, only two more to go. My preaching today will not be “political” as much as it will be “historical.” What does that mean? Well, I believe the best way to approach the subject of “global solidarity” is historically, that is, to see how often in the past other nations have come to the assistance of the United States, as well as us helping them. Solidarity, in other words, is not a one-way street. The United States has not only been the “benefactor” of global solidarity (the givers), we have frequently been its “beneficiary” (the recipients). At times we have been the “knight in shining armor,” while at other times we have been the “damsel in distress.”

Today’s homily is the seventh in a series of eight homilies dealing with difficult political issues prior to the presidential election. I have tried to provide a spiritual perspective as we have consider six topics so far, namely, (1) abortion and prolife, (2) racism, (3) marriage and the LGBTQ community, (4) immigration, (5) the environment, and (6) healthcare. Today we turn our attention to “global solidarity.” The United States Catholic bishops, in their document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship” wrote this: “The increasing interconnectedness of our world calls for a moral response, the virtue of solidarity.” They continue: “The United States has the responsibility to take the lead in addressing the scandal of poverty and underdevelopment. Our nation should help humanize globalization addressing its negative consequences and spreading its benefits, especially among the world’s poor” (Forming Consciences, 90).

If I may be so bold as to slightly correct our bishops, this “interconnectedness” is not as new or recent as they allege. Rather, “interconnectedness” (I prefer interdependence) has determined human history from its outset. Adam and Eve’s original sin trickles down to us and deprives us of grace. We depended on our first parents, and suffer for their sins, just as children suffer for the sins of their parents today. John Donne, the 17th century English poet, expressed global solidarity in his memorable “Meditation 17,” writing: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” The phrase “no man is an island” is a visual and vivid way of saying “global solidarity.”

I would like to describe global solidarity with the images of “knight in shining armor” and “damsel in distress.” The Catholic bishops of our country are asking the United States to be the knight in shining armor – a hero on the world stage – because much of the world today is suffering as the damsel in distress. When we look back at our history, however, we see how we have played the role of the damsel in distress as well, when we needed someone to save us. When we see how we depended on others yesterday, we can help those who depend on us today.

I am convinced that world wars have a way of showcasing mutual dependence among nations; wars are all about knights and damsels. I would like to outline briefly four wars in which we depended desperately on the aid and armies of other nations, and how they direly depended on us. World wars prove that, just like no man is an island, so no nation is an island either. Our first war was the Revolutionary War or the “War of Independence,” because we sought our independence from Great Britain. But war of “independence” is a misleading name because we were very much “dependent” on France and Spain to help us. We would not have gained our “independence” from Great Britain without our “dependence” on our allies and their armies. During the American Revolution, we were the “damsel in distress,” France and Germany were our “knights in shining armor.”

The two “great wars” were World War I and World War II, both of which you will remember the United States entered reluctantly. We didn’t want to be the hero, we wanted to stay home. In World War I, we fought alongside soldiers from England, France, Russia, Italy and Japan. In World War II our allies were Great Britain, Russia and China against Germany and Japan. In the two World Wars, therefore, the United States wore the mantle of the “knight in shining armor” saving Europe and Asia, the two “damsels in distress.” Japanese Admiral Yamamoto foresaw and feared American power and predicted: “I fear we have awakened a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve.” The U.S. bishops would like to awaken Americans today who are asleep to the plight of the poor around the world and fill us with the terrible resolve of “global solidarity,” and rescue modern-day damsels in distress.

The fourth war was the complicated “Cold War” that was fought on many fronts, most notably in Korea and Vietnam. In other words, we tried to rescue the democracy-loving people of Korea and Vietnam from Communist rule, but sadly saw only limited success. The knight does not always save the damsel. Today, North Korea is Communist and South Korea is a Democracy, one people and one peninsula divided by the 38thparallel. All of Vietnam is a Communist country. By the way, that is one reason so many Vietnamese fled their home after the fall of Siagon in 1975. Many even settled in Fort Smith. Sometimes the damsel in distress marries the knight in shining armor. Wars are all about knights and damsels.

May I share a note from my personal history? My family came to the United States 45 years ago, and we were definitely the “damsel in distress,” looking for a better life and brighter future. My parents sacrificed to send three children to Catholic schools, put us through college, and now they sponsors poor children in orphanages in India. They send money every year to a little girl named “Annie,” and she writes back with letters and sends pictures. I have pretty great parents, don’t I? But did you see what my parents did? They came as the damsel in distress, but now they help others as the knight in shining armor. They have accepted their role as “heroes” on the world’s stage.

The Catholic bishops summarize the notion of “global solidarity” stating: “Defending human life, building peace, combating poverty and despair, and protecting freedom and human rights are not only moral imperatives – they are wise national priorities that will make our nation and world safer” (Forming Consciences, 90). Why do we share global responsibility for one another? Because sometimes you are the “knight” and sometimes you are the “damsel.”

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Monday, October 12, 2020

Healthy Healthcare

Understanding Catholic criteria for healthcare reform


Can you believe we have already talked about five touchy topics as the presidential election looms large before us? Those topics were: (1) abortion and prolife, (2) racism, (3) marriage and the LGBTQ community, (4) immigration, and (5) the environment. In each homily I tried to advance the argument not by picking a political party or siding with a certain candidate, but by looking at the subject more spiritually, gazing through the eyes of faith. How should Catholic Christians consider these hot-button issues? In this sixth homily we turn our attention to the reform of healthcare.

Let me start with the story about the founding of a local Catholic hospital here in Fort Smith by the Sisters of Mercy. In 1853, Sr. Mary Theresa Farrell – by the way her bronze statue stands right outside our church in Gateway Park – led three other sisters from Ireland up the Arkansas River by steamboat. They immediately undertook the task of educating the poor and caring for the sick, a school and a hospital. During the Civil War, they did not ask if a sick soldier was from the North or from the South of the Mason Dixon Line, but cared for all regardless of uniform. The sisters saluted the wearer, not the uniform.

In 1905, that rich heritage of healthcare blossomed when they opened St. Edward Infirmary. But before they could break ground, they needed the blessing of the bishop. So, they promised him they would name the hospital for him if he gave them permission. Bishop Edward Fitzgerald was more than happy to oblige, and hence it was called St. Edward Hospital. They say it’s better to be lucky than good, but when you are an Irish nun, you’re both. St. Edward’s Hospital, like all Catholic hospitals, embodied everything that should be included in truly healthy healthcare.

You might remember in 2017 the United States Congress was debating either curtailing or entirely canceling the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as “Obamacare.” The Catholic bishops of our country wrote a letter to both the Senate and the House of Representatives outlining five principles that our elected officials should bear in mind and put into practice in order to reform healthcare. These five principles are applied robustly in Catholic hospitals, and we pray for their fuller implementation in healthcare throughout our country. What are these five principles of healthcare reform?

First, government sponsored healthcare should “respect human life and dignity.” The bishops state categorically: “The Bishops of the United States continue to reject the inclusion of abortion as part of a national healthcare benefit.” In other words, our tax dollars should not be used to fund abortions. Why not? Well, if public funds are funneled to abortions, then the taxpayer becomes “materially complicit” in the abortion, because we provide the material means to make the abortions possible. Now, the individual taxpayer may not be guilty of a grave sin, as long as he or she does not directly intend to pay taxes to provide abortions. Nonetheless, our tax dollars have created what the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls “structures of sin” that “lead their victims to do evil in their own turn” (Catechism, 1369). Put simply, the Catholic bishops are strongly opposed to healthcare that creates “structures of sin” that cause abortions.

The second principle the bishops urge is “honoring conscience rights.” They explain further: “Congress should expressly provide conscience protections as part of any healthcare plan for those who participate in the delivery or coverage of healthcare services.” Do you recall the “Hippocratic Oath” doctors take upon graduating from medical school? Part of that oath reads: “I will do no harm or injustice to [my patients]. Neither will I administer a poison to anybody when asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a course. Similarly, I will not give to a woman a pessary to cause abortion.” And now you know what a “pessary” is: it causes an abortion. The Hippocratic Oath was intended to strengthen a doctor’s conscience when they provided healthcare. Indeed, it was an oath they made to God. The U.S. bishops are asking Congress not to deaden that conscience but rather to defend it.

The third principle is “accessibility,” which the bishops articulate saying: “Healthcare is not a privilege, but a right and a requirement to protect the life and dignity of every person.” The bishops also add: “We have a responsibility to ensure that no one is left without the ability to see a doctor or get emergency care when needed.” This third principle reminds me of those courageous and self-sacrificing Sisters of Mercy who provided healthcare to all patients, Union soldiers as well as Confederate soldiers. Notice the sisters did not care what side of the border a patient was from in the Civil War – even though we were briefly two different countries: the United States of America and the Confederate States of America, which existed from 1861 to 1863. Likewise, the bishops beseech Congress to pass healthcare reform that allows hospitals and doctors to heal everyone without exception. Accessible means available to all.

The bishops describe the fourth principle as “affordability.” They write: “Many lower income families simply lack the resources to meet their healthcare expenses.” They continue: “For these families, substantial premiums and cost-sharing charges can serve as barriers to obtaining coverage or seeing a doctor.” This fourth principle of “affordability” sounds very similar to the previous principle of “accessibility” but they are distinct. Accessibility addresses discrimination, while affordability addresses destitution. The bishops are only asking us to follow the healing example of Jesus himself. In the gospel of Luke – who, by the way, was himself a physician – we read: “All those who had any that were sick with various diseases brought them to him; and he laid his hands on every one of them and healed them” (Lk. 4:40). Jesus healing ministry was always “accessible” and “affordable” and he is therefore the model of all healthy healthcare.

The fifth principle is perhaps the loftiest goal of all, but still necessary, namely, healthcare should be “comprehensive and high quality.” Our Catholic prelates persist: “Healthcare is much more than mere insurance.” They continue: “Limited access to minimal healthcare, particularly for poor and vulnerable people, including the undocumented, is not enough.” What does that mean? We are blessed to have several doctors here at Immaculate Conception Church. A couple of times when I was sick, they happily healed me. Several times at Mass, people have passed out (I think the deacons were preaching) and the doctors sprang into action, jumping over pews to get to the person first. Before the pandemic, we went to Honduras on mission trips, and our doctors gladly gave of their time, talent and treasure to heal the sick. I am so proud of all our doctors who provide “maximal” healthcare, not "minimal."

My friends, healthcare reform is not a simple issue with easy answers. But the Sisters of Mercy sure made it look easy when they arrived in Fort Smith over 150 years ago and cared for the sick. Those Sisters’ healthcare was truly “healthy” because it met all five principles the bishops enunciated: (1) they respected human life and dignity, (2) they honored the rights of conscience, (3) their care was accessible, (4) their care was affordable, and (5) their care was comprehensive and high quality. The bishops conclude their letter saying: “Our aim and our prayer is that this perspective will help make clear the likely impacts of the decisions you are about to debate in Congress.” And as I conclude this homily, it is my aim and my prayer that this homily will help make clear the likely impact of your vote this November.

Praised be Jesus Christ!


Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Priest Friends

Cherishing friends during the pandemic


Luke 10:38-42 Jesus entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak. Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” The Lord said to her in reply, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

One of life’s greatest pleasures that a priest rarely enjoys is close friendship, and that for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it is because most priests do not get married, so we do not enjoy the friendship and intimacy of a spouse. But that also has the beautiful blessing of keeping priests close to their mothers. Why? Simple: a priest’s mother does not have to compete with a daughter-in-law. Keep that in mind, mom, if your son starts thinking about being a priest. Priests are close to their mothers like Jesus was close to Mary.

Another cause of the lack of close companionship for priests is because we are moved from parish to parish, sometimes frequently. We hesitate, therefore, to get too close to people for fear we will have to leave them soon. Priest tend to keep people at arm’s length. And a third reason it is hard to be a priest’s friend is because he is a mystery to himself and therefore to others as well. A priest is neither fish nor fowl; he is in the world but not of the world; he is celibate but married to the Church. Archbishop Fulton Sheen characterized this conundrum saying: “It has been said of priests that, if they shoot golf under 80, there is something wrong with their priesthood; if they shoot golf over 80, there is something wrong with their golf.” A priest’s life is perfectly summarized by that ironic adage: “you cannot win for losing.” A priest is a sort of square circle, and it’s hard to be best friends with an enigma.

This is why Jesus’ close friendship with Martha, Mary and Lazarus was so remarkable and rare. These three siblings were best friends with the Eternal Enigma. Today’s gospel from Luke 10 shows one of the many instances Jesus visits his close friends Martha and Mary in Bethany, a small town about two miles east of Jerusalem. On this occasion in Luke 10, Jesus seems to scold Martha and praise Mary for “choosing the better part.” But this was not the only time our Lord lounged in Bethany.

In John 11, Jesus visits Martha and Mary shortly after Lazarus has died and performs the mighty miracle of raising their brother from the dead. But shockingly, even scandalously, do you recall how Jesus waited for Lazarus to die before he arrived in Bethany? We read in John 11:6, “So, when [Jesus] heard that [Lazarus] was ill, he remained for two days in the place where he was.” No wonder it’s hard to be best friends with a priest – sometimes they don’t show up until after your brother dies! The last time Jesus visits Bethany, with Lazarus redivivus present, was before his last Passover. On that occasion Mary took a jar of perfumed oil and anointed Jesus’ feet preparing him for his death and burial. It is hard to be best friends with a priest, especially when it is time to say goodbye to him.

My friends, one of the things this pandemic has highlighted is how precious close friends are. Many people have been stuck at home and unable to visit family and friends like they used to. Absence has made the heart grow fonder and taught us how much we need our friends, who add meaning and magic to our lives. We miss dinners together, tail-gaiting before games, camping with friends, etc. As you try to connect with family and friends, try to reach out to your priest friends as well. Maybe you are blessed to be like a modern-day Bethany for some modern-day priest, where he can come and rest from his apostolic activities.

But remember, he may not always come when you call him, even if your brother is deathly sick. A priest is a mystery to others because he is a mystery to himself. It’s hard to be best friends with an enigma. The main thing you have to keep an eye on is if his golf game is getting too good.

Praised be Jesus Christ!


Who You Trust

Becoming child-like and trusting in God


Matthew 11:25-30 - At that time Jesus exclaimed: “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike. Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him. “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

Everyone loves babies and small children, and babies, in turn, bring out the best in us. If you post a cute picture of your chubby baby with their fat rolls on Facebook, you immediately get 100 “likes,” and caring compliments. They also bring out the best in us because we know instinctively how vulnerable children are so our desire to provide for and protect them surges in our hearts. Dr. Janet Smith, a professor I had at the University of Dallas, calls having a baby “induced maturity.” Almost overnight new parents become more kind and patient and hard-working.

This is one reason why abortion is so abhorrent. Fear flattens all these good and godly instincts as we put ourselves above protecting the defenseless baby in the womb. Babies have to put their total trust in us adults, and abortion viciously violates that trust. Babies teach us to be more trusting; Satan teaches us to be more selfish.

In the gospel today, Jesus is also irresistibly drawn to the child-like. He exclaims: “I give praise to your Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike.” What precisely has God revealed to the “childlike” and hidden from “the learned and the wise”? Well, we see it every time we gaze at a picture of a vulnerable, defenseless baby or small child, namely, trust. Children trust in adults and ultimately they trust in God because they have to; adults, on the other hand, too often just trust in ourselves. We trust in our smarts, we trust in our money, we trust in our good-looks, we trust in our strength, and the last One we truly trust is God himself.

But when young parents have their own baby, they discover their own need for God, in a word, they experience “induced maturity.” That is the point when many young Catholics start to go back to church. They may still not be entirely convinced they themselves need God, but at least they can see their baby needs God in his or her life, and they are back on the right road. Eventually, we all learn that we could not raise our little pinky finger without the help of God. Total trust in God is what is revealed to the childlike and hidden from the learned and the wise.

October 5 is the feast of St. Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun who promoted the devotion to the Divine Mercy. In 1931, while praying in her convent cell, Jesus appeared to her wearing a white tunic and with red and pale blue rays coming from his heart. He said to her: “Paint an image according to the pattern you see, with the signature ‘Jesus, I trust in you’.” Jesus continued: “I desire that this image be venerated, first in your chapel, and then throughout the world. I promise that the soul that will venerate this image will not perish.”

That image was unfurled on the fascade of St. Peter’s Basilica for all the world to see and venerate on April 30, 2000 when Sr. Faustina was canonized a saint by Pope St. John Paul II, who you will recall was himself from Poland. If you want to become a saint, “it’s not what you know, but who you know.” And all the saints know Jesus, and more importantly, the saints trust in Jesus. Why? Because all the saints have learned to be like little children, indeed babies, who are vulnerable and defenseless, and so put their total trust in Jesus.

My friends, on the feast of St. Faustina, we should ask ourselves: who do I trust? The currency of our country says: “In God we trust.” But is our real trust in our money or in our Maker? Perhaps we should ponder why we are attracted so irresistibly to those pictures of chubby babies on Facebook. Maybe they can teach us to trust in Jesus, like St. Faustina did. Because at the end of our lives, it will not matter what you know, but only who you know, and more precisely, who you trust.

Praised be Jesus Christ!