Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Sunday at the End of September

The end of September and beginning of October are marked by a series of memorials and commemorations that serve to highlight the catholicity of the Church. From the Bohemian ruler Wenceslaus and the Filipino layman Lawrence Ruiz (a husband and father) and his martyred companions from Japan (on September 28) to the great biblical scholar and Father of the Church Jerome (on September 30), the cloistered missionary-at-heart Thérèse of Liseux (on October 1) and Carthusian founder Bruno (on October 6), to the Indiana foundress Theodora Guerin (on October 3) and the Louisana pastor and missionary Francis Seelos (on October 5) to the beloved Francis of Assisi (October 4), these days (which also include celebrations of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael [September 29] and the Guardian Angels [October 2]) remind us that the possibility for true holiness isn’t limited to one way of life, gender, or historical epoch.

Saint Theodora Guerin (d. 1856)
The Foundress of the Indiana-based
Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods

In the First Letter to Timothy, Saint Paul wrote, “But you, man of God, pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness. Compete well for the faith. Lay hold of eternal life, to which you were called when you made the noble confession in the presence of many witnesses” (6:11-12). Paul was reminding his young coworker that his position within the Church demanded total dedication to God and a faithful witness to Christ. By calling him “man of God,” Paul is also highlighting the fact that Timothy shares the vocation of Moses and the prophets (cf. Deuteronomy 33:1; 1 Samuel 2:27; 1 Kings 12:22 and 13:1; 1 Timothy 1:12-20). Although few of us are bishops like Timothy (cf. 1 Timothy 1:3), each of us shares in the pastoral and prophetic work of the Church. Because of this, Paul’s admonition to Timothy is also addressed to each one of us—we must seek those things that are of God and “compete well for the faith,” that is, persevere in living out our individual, unique vocation of service to God and the Church. Paul, Timothy, and the saints mentioned above, understood that this dedication demands something of us—perhaps not the martyrdom of Wenceslaus and Lawrence Ruiz or a cloistered life like Thérèse—but that it also takes us outside of ourselves, empowering us to live for God and for others. 

Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man offers us an insight into what is required of us. In his encyclical Spes Salvi (“Saved in Hope”), Pope Emeritus Benedict wrote, “Jesus admonishes us through the image of a soul destroyed by arrogance and opulence, who has created an impassable chasm between himself and the poor man; the chasm of being trapped within material pleasures, the chasm of forgetting the other, of incapacity to love, which then becomes a burning and unquenchable thirst” (¶44).  

The saints, who have oriented their lives toward the Other, who have realized the fullness of humanity’s capacity for love, see in the “Lazaruses” of the world friends and brothers/sisters: “Created in the image of the one God and equally endowed with rational souls, all have the same nature and the same origin. Redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ, all are called to participate in the same divine beatitude: all enjoy the same dignity” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1934). But, this call to be with and for others isn’t mandate only for those who have been canonized or beatified—the Communion of Saints includes each of us, me and you, because, after all, “what is the Church if not the gathering of the saints?” (Saint Nicetas of Remesiana).  

Competing “well for the faith”—living our call to be disciples and to manifest the presence of Christ in the world—leaves no room for selfish ambition, apathy, complacency, or indifference to the plight of others (cf. Amos 6:1a, 4-7). This isn’t about political agendas, government budgets, or some radical/liberal ideology—this is about the Gospel which forms the starting point and is the focus of our faith.

Prayer for the Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time +
O God, who manifest your almighty power
above all by pardoning and showing mercy,
bestow, we pray, your grace abundantly upon us
and make those hastening to attain your promises
heirs to the treasures of heaven.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)


Sunday, September 22, 2013

God and Mammon: A Lesson in Stewardship

There is a well-known phrase that is often used as a sort of “proof text” against the vice of greed: “You cannot love both God and money.” At the surface, God and money aren’t incompatible. In fact, Saint Augustine even encouraged people to provide for their eternal happiness by using the goods of the earth (cf. Discourses 359, 10). But the parable of the dishonest steward, from which this quotation is adapted, doesn’t use the word “money” (which does appear in certain popular translations of Scripture). Rather, the word used in the parable is “mammon,” a Phoenician term for economic security and success in business. Reflecting on mammon, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said, “we might say that riches are shown as the idol  to which everything is sacrificed in order to attain one’s own material success; hence, this economic success becomes a person’s true god.”
The Dishonest Steward
from Evangelicae Historiae Imagines (1594)
More than just making an indictment of material wealth, Jesus is speaking out against those who have made financial security an idol that they are willing to serve at any cost. It was about this same tendency to idolize security and success-at-any-cost of which Amos (8:4-6) spoke:
Hear this, you who trample upon the needy
and destroy the poor of the land!
“When will the new moon be over,” you ask,
“that we may sell our grain,
and the sabbath, that we may display the wheat?
We will diminish the ephah,
add to the shekel,
and fix our scales for cheating!
We will buy the lowly for silver,
and the poor for a pair of sandals;
even the refuse of the wheat we will sell!”

There is within certain Christian groups a movement that espouses a theology that is often referred to as the “health and wealth gospel.” Essentially, this theology understands the Bible as a contract between God and humanity. And, in this view, if one has faith in God, God will, in turn, grant security and prosperity to the faithful. Alongside the financial dimensions of this theology is the belief that health is also a benefit of faith, with sickness and poverty being punishment for infidelity. 

One of the fundamental truths about God that movements such as this forget is that God is the God of the poor. Christ came among us for the sake of the poor, the sick, the alienated, and for all sinners. Any theology that presents God as favoring only the wealthy and healthy denies the reality of a God whose love for creation is so dynamic that it was incarnate in Jesus who, as Saint Paul reminds us, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness… he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8). 

Christians can never embrace any ideology that is opposed to a spirit of poverty or authentic generosity. The Readings for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time invite us to reflect on how we see ourselves in relation to others—do we see others as a means for our advancement and security, or are we willing to invest in others and put our wealth and resources to the best possible use? In other words, they challenge us to evaluate our stewardship of the gifts that have been entrusted to us by God and by society. The dishonest steward in the Gospel used his power to ensure his own safety and security; by focusing solely on his own welfare, he had offered his integrity and humanity at the altar of Mammon. We are called to more: "Above all, let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God's varied grace" (1 Peter 4:8-10).

A Prayer for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time +
O God, who founded all the commands on your sacred Law
upon love of you and of our neighbor,
grant that, by keeping you precepts,
we may merit to attain eternal life.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)


Sunday, September 8, 2013

Shots Heard 'Round the World

There have been moments in the history of faith, which is at the heart of the human story, in which women, men, and even children, have made decisions about the course or orientation of their lives that have changed history itself. Like that “shot heard ‘round the world” of April 19, 1775, marking the first military action of the American Revolution, certain acts have opened up new pathways and modes of faith that have forever shaped the lives of countless believers through the ages. 


The Calling of Saint Matthew
by Caravaggio

Some of these might seem quite simple, perhaps because we know the stories so well: Mary’s fiat (Luke 1:26-38), Saint Peter and Saint Andrew's decision to get out of their boat to follow the wandering Rabbi (Matthew 4:18-20), and Saint Matthew leaving his tax collecting post (cf. Matthew 9:9-13). Others seem, somehow, far away and remote to us: Saint Lawrence presenting the poor, the Church’s true treasure, to an emperor who would kill him; Saint Patrick’s decision to return to Ireland after escaping slavery; Saint Benedict abandoning his studies to live as a hermit outside of Rome; Saint Francis stripping off his clothes and family ties to stand naked in the square of Assisi; Saint Angela Merici bringing together a group of women in order to teach girls outside of the walls of a cloister; Saint Aloysius Gonzaga renouncing his titles and princely rank in order to become a Jesuit; Saint Vincent de Paul taking the place of a slave on a French galley; or Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton’s decision to enter the Catholic Church, despite society’s objections, and establish a new community of sisters, laying the foundation for Catholic education in America.  
Even contemporary figures, our modern “saints,” if you will, had moments in which they made a decision that marked a moment of conversion: Blessed Teresa of Calcutta asking permission from her religious superiors to begin working with the poor on her own; Dorothy Day’s recognition of the good work being done on behalf of the poor by the Catholic Church and her desire to unite herself to that work; Saint Maximilian Kolbe volunteering to take the place of a husband and father chosen to be executed by the Nazis; Thomas Merton’s decision to attend a Mass at Corpus Christi Church in Manhattan that marked a turning point on his journey to Catholicism and life as a Trappist monk; Martin Luther King’s trip to India in 1959 to learn about non-violent resistance; and Archbishop Oscar Romero’s decision to seek justice for his slain priest-friend and all the poor of El Salvador.  
Dorothy Day prior to her arrest participating
in a demonstration for workers' rights in 1973
in Delano, California. She was 76.

Regardless of when they lived or their title or state of life, these individuals demonstrated a willingness to make the Gospel the primary focus of their lives. And, they have something to say to us todayknowing the cost of discipleship, they willingly took on the burden of Faith and set out on a new way, taking the words of Christ at face value: “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26-27).
In these tense days, as people of good will around the world have come together in prayer and hope for peace in Syria and throughout the world, Pope Francis has reminded us that “There is no such thing as low-cost Christianity. Following Jesus means swimming against the tide, renouncing evil and selfishness” (Tweeted on September 6). These days call us to trust in Providence and to focus our attention on the common good and search for peace, asking for the grace of wisdom and discretion: “Who can know God’s counsel or who can conceive what the Lord intends? For the deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans… who ever knew your counsel, except you had given wisdom and sent your holy spirit from on high? And thus were the paths of those on earth made straight” (Wisdom 9:13, 17-18b). 
The Holy Father and the Church’s liturgy this Sunday remind us that, if we are to be true followers of Jesus, we must be willing to accept the responsibility that comes with discipleship, and part of that responsibility is a commitment to peace and justice, a dedication to building God’s Kingdom here and now. And so, we pray, we fast, and we give to the poor. Any one of those acts is good and noble. But, the question before each one of us is, “Where is my heart? To whom, or to what, does it belong?” If we continue to hold back, any words we speak or pray, the acts of penance we perform, and the gifts we share will always fall short and will never be what they might be, unless we act out of love for God and a spirit of gratitude for all that God has done for us.

A Prayer for the Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time +
O God,
by whom we are redeemed and receive adoption,
look graciously upon your beloved sons and daughters,
that those who believe in Christ
may receive true freedom
and an everlasting inheritance.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Martyrs of September

On September 2, the Church commemorates 191 martyrs, commonly known as the "Martyrs of September," who were killed in four prisons in Paris, France, between September 2 and 3, 1792.

The Massacre of the Priests by H. de la Charlerie
Following the promulgation of the 'Civil Constitution on the Clergy' by the National Constituent Assembly (the government of the first stages of the French Revolution) in 1790, any cleric who refused to deny Papal authority and affiliate with the state-sponsored church in France was imprisoned as a traitor. All religious communities were dissolved by the government on August 15, 1792. Later that month, the citizens of Paris heard rumors of a possible invasion of the city by the Duke of Brunswick and of a mass breakout of those in its prisons, where the hundreds of clerics who refused to take the oath of allegiance were being housed alongside common criminals. Enflamed by revolutionary zeal, and unchecked by government authority, mobs massacred more than fourteen hundred men and women in the space of only a few hours. Eyewitnesses reported that the imprisoned bishops, priests, and seminarians were the focus of particular aggression and treated with extraordinary cruelty. Among those killed were Jean-Marie du Lau, archbishop of Arles, Francois de la Rochefoucald, bishop of Beauvais, Ambrose Chevreux, the last Superior General of the Maurist Benedictines, and priests of several dioceses, along with members of the Jesuits, Vincentians, Sulpician Fathers, Eudists, Christian Brothers, and a number of other religious orders.

Honored as martyrs and beatified in 1926, this group of priests, religious, and seminarians, along with Blessed Charles-Regis de la Calmette, a layman, remind us that we, as members of the Church, are each called to defend the Church's freedom from those powers which would deny her freedom to teach, worship, and serve those in need, in the spirit of Christ. Their commitment to the Church and their willingness to offer their lives rather than deny her freedom testifies to their faith: "Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Trial, or distress, or persecution, or hunger, or nakedness, or danger, or the sword? As Scripture says: 'For your sake we are being slain all day long; we are looked upon as sheep to be slaughtered.' Yet in all this we are more than conquerors because of him who has loved us" (Romans 8:35-37).

A Prayer in Honor of the Martyrs of September +
May the sight of the great number 
of your holy Martyrs gladden us, O Lord, 
making our faith stronger 
and bringing us consolation
by the prayers of them all. 
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, 
who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
[from the "Common of Several Martyrs" in The Roman Missal]

 [Adapted from my book, From Season to Season: A Book of Saintly Wisdom (Abbey Press Publications, 2012)]

Sunday, September 1, 2013

A Place at the Table: Humility in Equality

The man who would be known to history simply as “Saint Louis” was born in 1214 and became King of France in 1226, when he was only twelve years old. In 1234, he married Margaret of Provence and the couple eventually had eleven children. Known for his spirit of penance and prayer, Louis was mindful of both the temporal and spiritual needs of his family and his people. During his lifetime he was well acquainted with Saint Thomas Aquinas and other learned men of his day, and under his rule France experienced a cultural and spiritual renewal. Louis is also remembered for the construction of La Sainte Chapelle in Paris, which he built to house the relic of the Crown of Thorns. 

In 1248, and again in 1270, Louis joined in the Crusades to the Holy Land. It was during his second Crusade that Louis contracted dysentery, dying at Tunis on August 25, 1270, as he made his way to a battle. His relics were returned France and enshrined at Saint-Denis, where many miracles have been reported. Saint Louis was canonized in 1297 and is honored one of the patron saints of France. 
St. Louis of France serving the poor.
In a letter to his son and successor, Philip, Louis wrote, “If the Lord grant you some prosperity, not only must you humbly thank him but take care not to become worse by boasting or in any other way, make sure, that is, that you do not come into conflict with God or offend him with his own gifts.” Saint Louis understood, and lived, the admonition of Sirach: “Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God. What is too sublime for you, seek not, into things beyond your strength, search not” (3:18, 20). Whether through serving the more than one hundred poor people who ate at the royal palace each day with his own hands, by endowing churches, religious communities, and schools, or through his dedication to his family, Louis understood the true relationship of power and humility: “Those who are in a position to help others will realize they themselves receive help; being able to help others is no mere achievement on their own. This duty is a grace… We recognize that we are not acting on the basis of any superiority or greater personal efficiency, but because the Lord has graciously enabled us to do so” (Pope Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est, 35).  

It is God who governs the world and who grants peace, not us individually or as nations. We must, however, do all we can, with the strength we have, because “the love of Christ urges us on” (2 Corinthians 5:14). The war in Syria, violence in Egypt, human rights violations in Russia and Africa (to name only two places out of so many), and violence in our own cities, towns, and families are all reminders that much work remains to be done in the cause of justice and peace.  

And yet, those things for which we hope are attainable. The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, “You have not approached that which could be touched and a blazing fire and gloomy darkness and storm and a trumpet blast and a voice speaking words such that those who heard begged no message be further addressed to them” (12:18-19). Rather, God has called us, in Christ, to share in the life of the Trinity and to invite others into the life of grace that has been made present to us, in the Holy Spirit. Recognizing all of this as gift, we also understand, like Saint Louis, that true strength  and honor found in humility and true humility is to see the needs of others before our own, because their needs are as real and important as mine or yours. 

At the banquet of the Kingdom of God (cf. Luke 14:1, 7-14), we are all equals—each of us, in our own way is poor, crippled, lame, and blind—and it is only in celebrating our equality before God, that we will discover the foundations of peace and justice that are the hallmarks of God’s Kingdom, present here and now.