As we celebrate the forming of our nation, I’ve been reflecting over the principles upon which we were founded. One of the underlying ideas is the limited wisdom and trustworthiness of any one person. This is why we were set up with checks and balances, and freedom to express ourselves, even if our ideas are unpopular. This allows there to be a free exchange of ideas, and if we are wrong, there are countervoices to help bring us, or perhaps the community, closer to the truth. It is hard work. It requires patience and persistence. It require enough humility to accept that we do not see all truth ourselves, and some people we can’t stand might even have something to teach us. These virtues are key to the American way of life. This tug of war of ideas can lead to deeper truth and understanding than we can achieve on our own.
In 1924 the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on the lawn of St. Charles’ church. They couldn’t be bothered going through the process of sharing their concerns and debating ideas, seeking to shift thought in their direction. They sought to terrorize and intimidate. I think of that when I think of mobs destroying statues of the saints and of Jesus. I think of people getting fired, doxed, harassed, and attacked for having opinions that others disapprove of. This is fundamentally un-American, and fundamentally contrary to what it means to be human.
I watched a documentary on the American Revolution and it mentioned the Boston Massacre. The British soldiers who shot the American protestors were put on trial. John Adams was their defense attorney. He, of course, was one of the strongest voices for rebellion, but he believed it was critical that they uphold the principle of due process for the accused. He didn’t do a half-hearted job, either.
I think of the old quote (attributed to Voltaire, but some say was written by Beatrice Evelyn Hall): “I disapprove of what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.”
How we debate, deliberate, share ideas and handle disagreements will say a lot about how we honor what is best about America.
There is a teaching of Jesus that does not get talked about much, but I think it’s important (full disclosure: I think everything Jesus taught is important). I’m going to break one of the rules they taught me in theology and mention a Greek word: phronimos (wise, shrew, prudent, clever, cunning, crafty).
I first encountered the word in the parable of the dishonest steward in Luke 16:1-8. The parable is about a steward who is going to be fired, so he crafts for himself a retirement plan by calling in those in debt to his master and reducing the amount of their debts. This way they owed him a favor, and when he got canned, they would take him into their homes as a guest. “And the master commended that steward for being phronimos (v. 8).” Then Jesus says, “For the children of this world are more phronimos in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ public teaching begins with the Sermon on the Mount and ends with three parables about the last judgment. The Sermon on the Mount ends with the admonition that a man who is phronimos will build a house on rock rather than sand (Matt 7:24-27). The first of the parables about the judgement tell us that a bridesmaid who is phronimos will bring extra oil for her oil lamp (although nowadays she would bring extra batteries for her smart phone) (Matt 25:4).
Jesus also has some sayings that don’t use the word, but seem to be teaching something similar: “Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion? (See Luke 14:25-33).”
What really got my attention was “Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd (phronimos) as serpents and simple as doves (Matt 10:16).” What makes that even more interesting (at least to me) is that if you look at the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was popular at Jesus’ time (the Septuagint), in Genesis chapter we meet the serpent in the garden and learn that “the serpent was the most cunning (phronimos) of all the wild animals that the Lord God had made (Genesis 3:1).” I think Matthew’s readers would have immediately made the connection.
Why am I going through all this? I’m glad you asked. There is a lot of energy being expended in public discourse today that I don’t think is moving us forward. I want to move forward. Consider, for an internal combustion engine to move us forward, there have to be explosions (rapid burn of fuel). But that isn’t enough. The explosions have to be contained, first so that they are not destructive, and second so that energy can be channeled in a useful direction. There will always be some energy dissipated because of friction between the parts, but engineers who design the engines try to keep that to a minimum so that as much of the energy as possible may be channeled toward getting the work done.
It’s one thing to want something to happen (that is motivation). It’s another to be willing to do something about it. It is yet another thing for that something to be effective in moving us toward where we want to go. I suggest that being phronimos is about giving our efforts the best chance of moving forward.
Imagine, if you will, buying a car, but what they delivered was several crates with the
individual components and no instructions about how they fit together. I’m guessing you
would be less than thrilled. In the Great Adventure Bible Series, Jeff Cavins talks about
some people coming out of their religious education having a “heap of Catholicism.” They
know tidbits but have no idea why they matter.
One of the biggest occasions of this is the doctrine of the Trinity. Many people fought to
defend this doctrine for centuries. Basic Catholic religious education teaches this truth, and
we recite it in the creed on Sundays. But how many Catholics can explain why it matters?
How does this affect living the Christian life?
When we say “God is love” we are not just saying that God is loving, but that love is His
essence. The Father is eternally giving Himself in love to the Son, who is eternally
receiving and returning that love to the Father, and that love is so great it is Himself a
person, the Holy Spirit. Without creating anything, God is already the perfect community of
love, and has no need for anything, but love is fruitful, love is creative, so God created us
out of love. This defines for us the fullness of life: to receive love and give ourselves in
love. It also defines love: to give oneself. Jesus said there is no greater love than to give
one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13). In everyday practical terms it is to will the good of
another. The pursuit of holiness is both a personal and communal effort, and following
Jesus involves connecting to the community. To lose oneself in love is to become more
Christianity is not only the greatest love story that has ever been told, but the only love
story that could ever be told. The Lord Himself, with nothing to gain, paid the ultimate
price for us, and we didn’t deserve it. If Jesus is not God, that that means God sent
someone else to do His dirty work, and then Christianity is just another religion. If Jesus
didn’t really become human, that means He didn’t really pay the ultimate price, but just
Different starting points make everything different. The materialists believe that we are just
a collection of chemical reactions in a temporarily self-sustaining system. Personhood,
consciousness, and love are just byproducts of chemical reactions. Love will then often be
defined as a feeling that can come and go, rather than a decision. That is going to affect
how we view the value of individual lives and how we respond when we are disappointed
by other people. That will affect how we view the concept of life fully lived. If love served
pleasure, it might be seen as a good thing but if one were disappointed too often, it could be
discarded as a value. I read one Hindu thinker that said the Absolute reality was not
personal, and that personhood is a result of a lapse from the Absolute. To achieve perfect
oneness, one needs to lose one’s individuality. Those who believed in many gods
envisioned them fighting amongst each other. In such religions, being good is not necessary
so long as you keep your god happy and your god happens to be winning.
All these truths fit together into the ultimate story, and no doctrine is expendable. Whenever
people teach something contrary, it will always result in something less. No one will ever
come up with a story as good as the one God weaves. The Catholic faith is the greatest gift
we can give. Knowing how it all fits together and why it is so good, so beautiful and so true
is part of being ready to share it with the rest of the world. And the rest of the world needs a
lot of God’s call to love.
I’m going to bring up one of my least favorite topics in the whole wide world: the priest abuse scandal. A small percentage of priests did terrible, terrible harm, made far worse because priests have a sacred position of trust, and it was abused. Many times people in leadership positions were not effective in stopping them. It seems many were more concerned about protecting their friends and protecting the system than in protecting and helping victims, and that was as bad or worse than the original crime.
The priest who are trying our best to do what is right have been deeply angry, profoundly hurt, and bitterly disappointed.
Then came the moment when we had reached a tipping point, and something was ready to happen. The work was not perfect, but it was substantial. Much work was done to develop a transparent and accountable process for dealing with complains, one that would not allow things to get swept under the rug.
New practices were developed and new training was given. We put a lot of time and energy into making the Church a safe place and helping the Church to re-earn credibility. We learned practices that clarify what actions are innocent, and where the line is crossed. We learned to watch for signs that someone might be preparing to do something bad, actions that seem harmless, but are part of grooming victims and grooming families to give cover for crimes. This would also provide some protection against innocent people being accused because of misunderstandings or malicious accusations. We organized our buildings and our programs so that we could squeeze out any opportunity for a predator to act. It is not enough that everyone be safe; but people must also feel safe. Statistics are important, but they are not enough. They had to see in us that we were really trying to do it right. Priests also needed some confidence that if they did things right, people would have their back.
It has taken everyone’s cooperation. I said repeatedly, “We did not make this mess, but we must be a part of cleaning it up.”
It has also been necessary to challenge a culture that made things worse. Many priests, teachers, and people in leadership positions had absorbed some of secular society’s belief that sexual sins are no big deal and that the Church had been making too much fuss over them. This meant that when someone was tempted to do something horrible, they were not prepared to resist the temptation and take the danger seriously, possibly seeing a sign they needed help. Those who taught what they taught did not intend this, but consequences don’t care about intentions.
Some made it harder by using the situation for their own agendas, agendas that did not serve the protection of children. Some would condemn all priests or the whole Church. Some would treat every accusation or even rumor as a conviction.
It was essential not to let them drain the energy from the real work of solving the essential problems.
Imagine if, instead of doing all that, there had been a lot of hand-wringing, virtue signaling, and mouthing platitudes like “This must stop” and “We will no longer allow this” and nothing of substance was done. The moment would have been wasted, and nothing would have changed.
The horrific killing of George Floyd has cast a spotlight on another issue. A small percentage of police officers can do terrible damage. I have read that the guy who killed poor George had had seventeen complaints against him, but no action was taken. If that is true, it calls the question whether those in power were more interested in protecting their friends and protecting the institution than protecting the victims. I’m speaking carefully here, because I don’t have inside knowledge, but I do have questions.
How can people be confident that if they have an interaction with the police that their dignity will be respected and their safety protected? And if there are bad actors who violate their rights how can they be confident that they will be held accountable? How can police be confident that if they do things right, the community will have their back?
Can there be transparent standards that when there is an interaction between the police and a civilian, this is what the civilian should expect from the police, and this is what the police should expect from the civilian? Can there be a transparent process for complaints so if something goes wrong people know what they should expect? Can there be gatherings of local police and the local community so there is buy-in from all sides?
How can we all be more aware of how we perceive and misperceive each other? Perceptions can be are skewed by our experiences and stories. How can we have experiences and hear stories that will draw us together and not divide us? This problem seems to go deep, and the solution needs to be deep also. Can people share stories, experiences and concerns? Statistics are important but they are not enough. I don’t know about these issues; I just have questions. I’m desperately hoping that people who know more than I can build a path from here to where we need to go.
I have not heard one voice defending the killing of George Floyd. Not. One. Voice. The act was condemned by all sides. What if we start with what unites us? Please, please, let us not waste this moment.
St. Charles Borromeo was one of the great reformers of the Church at a time when the system had gone terribly wrong. He worked patiently, persistently, and selflessly, calling priests and bishops to get their act together and leading by example. He could have taken a much easier path. He chose not to. He didn’t make the mess, but he did a lot to clean it up. What will really help clean things up now?
This is the Solemnity of Pentecost the great feast of the Holy Spirit, the birthday of the Catholic
Church, one of the three biggest celebrations of the Church year. The story of Pentecost is in Acts
chapter 2, but the other readings in the lectionary give us a lot to flesh out the story.
We have a lot of choices for the first reading on the Vigil, but the most well-known one is the story
of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. It starts with people united, but then trying to attain heaven
by their own power (similar to the sin of Adam and Eve). Their pride winds up dividing them.
Their languages got confused and they couldn’t communicate anymore, so they dispersed. Such is
the power of sin. This is undone by the power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, which allowed
people of all different languages to understand each other. The Holy Spirit unites and heals
division. Such isthe power of the Holy Spirit.
There is more.
The other possible first readings for the vigil include Exodus 19, which shows God revealing
Himself in thunder and lightning, smoke and fire. Ezekiel 37 is the story of Ezekiel preaching to
the dried bones that came together, were covered with flesh and sinews, then came back to life.
This was a sign that the people of Israel, scattered by the exile, were considered dead as a people,
and God was going to bring them back home. Joel 3 talks about God pouring out His spirit “upon
all flesh. Your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young
men shall see visions; even upon the servants and the handmaids, in those days, I will pour out my
spirit.” No one is too humble to receive this gift. There is a sense that God is going to do great
things, greater than people would expect or imagine.
The second reading is Romans 8:22:27. St. Paul speaks of creation “groaning in labor pains (an
image used a number of times in the Bible, for example Romans 13:8 and John 16:21).” This
encouragement says to people that are going through overwhelmingly difficult times that the gift of
God will make it worth it.
The Gospel for the vigil is John 7:37-39, in which Jesus calls those who thirst to come to Him and
drink, and He will make rivers of living water flow from us (remember the conversation with the
woman at the well in John 4), and we are reminded that this refers to the Holy Spirit, which will
only be given after Jesus has been glorified. To a desert culture (in contrast to a dessert culture),
water was very powerfully seen as the power of life where there is otherwise death. Notice that this
speaks of us not only receiving this living water, but being a source of it for the world.
On Pentecost Sunday, the first reading is, of course, the story of Pentecost. The second reading is
the image of the Church being the Body of Christ, and we members of the Church are parts of this
body. We are connected, and share common traits (like needing a compatible blood type), but
must also be very different. It is very good that feet and livers are different. I’m not a biologist, but
I know they are not interchangeable. We, members of the Church, have all been given gifts from
God, and these gifts, though different, are all needed and valuable. Such is the power of the Holy
Finally, the Gospel is John 20:19-23, in which the Risen Jesus give the disciples the Holy Spirit to
enable them to forgive sins. I can’t imagine unity in the body without forgiveness. The Spirit that
unites us and makes us one is the one at work to heal sin and division. One of the signs that the
Holy Spirit is at work in our community is our ability to come together, work together, and get
along with each other. One of the signs that the community is not open to the work of the Holy Spirit is factions and divisions between people.
This should give us much food for thought on Pentecost, and I highly recommend taking some
time with some of these Scriptures. I also recommend Dove Bars.
And two extra notes:
With all that is happening now, I need to say that if people use others’ bad behavior to excuse their own bad behavior, things will not get better. We need them to get better. This is a time to build up and not tear down. Remember, two wrongs don’t make a right, but two Wrights make an airplane. Let us do what is Wright.
I am willing to learn from anyone who says something I find worth learning. I never expected to learn something prophetic from Wesley (no, not John Wesley, but Wesley from the Princess Bride): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1HnvQM465zM
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines racism as: “Unjust discrimination on the basis of a person’s race; a violation of human dignity, and a sin against justice (See section #1935).” A glance at history makes eminently clear that racism has caused huge amounts of harm for a very long time. The Catholic faith teaches (and modern science affirms) that we are all brothers and sisters.
I approach this topic with trepidation. There will be a lot of things that need to be said that I will not say, first because there is so much and I can only fit in a bit. More importantly, I don’t have the expertise or the experience. Much will have to be done by people who know much more than I. I do believe I should share a couple of thoughts for reflection. As with so many conversations these days, there seem to be people talking past each other, and I don’t see that we are moving toward making things better.
There has been some recent cases of white men killing black men, and their actions, so far as I know, have been universally condemned. This has ripped open a lot of pain and anger that people have about violence, especially in connection to law enforcement.
I’m currently listening to the book With All Due Respect by Nikki Haley. She tells the story of the Charleston Church shooting in 2015, and the pain that followed. The killer was arrested and convicted. It was found that he had expressed tremendous racial hatred. There was so much anger and pain after that. Haley tells of the challenge of bringing healing to the state and not let it be torn apart. Part what she did was remove the Confederate flag from the state capital. She said she knew a lot of people who proudly flew the Confederate flag that did not match the stereotype associated with it, but the flag was a great source of pain to a lot of people, and had to be dealt with. There were many legislators that opposed that move fervently, and she persuaded enough of them by sharing her own experience. She still carries some raw pain because as a little girl she had seen her father being humiliated because he was an immigrant from India and wore a turban. There is nothing like hearing someone’s experience and the pain it causes.
One of the most important things we can do for people is to hear their story of their pain and take it seriously. We don’t have to agree with their interpretation of what is happening, nor accept what they thing needs to be done, in order to hear their pain and take it seriously. We can disagree with a lot of things they think, but their pain is their pain, and it is real. I don’t think any progress can be made if people don’t have a sense that their pain is being heard and taken seriously. There have been many stories of people being humiliated because of their race, and even having their lives put at risk. It doesn’t have to happen very often to change the way they look at things. They have talked about being afraid for their children. An incident in the news can carry a lot more weight when they are already carrying this burden.
Where to go from there? Perhaps we can look more deeply at the way the human brain works. I would recommend two books by Malcolm Gladwell. He wrote a fascinating book called Blink. It is about how our brain makes some decisions without us being aware of it, much less how. Psychologists have known for decades that we are not completely objective, but Gladwell really drills down on it. One issue is how there is a test that shows how people will more easily associate goodness with one race and badness with another race, and we don’t even know it. We want to be on the watch for how we make some bad decisions based on this unconscious bias. Gladwell also wrote a book called Talking to Strangers in which he unpacks the complexity of forming perceptions about people we are meeting. He wraps the study in the story of Sandra Bland, a black woman who was on her way to a new and promising career and was stopped for a minor traffic violation. The conversation with the officer gradually deteriorated, and she was taken into custody. She committed suicide in jail. Gladwell’s book forms a basis for doing some analysis of what happened and why, as well as implications for training police, setting policy, and forming relationships between the law enforcement and the community. This sets a different tone for the discussion and gives some solid ideas to work with.
I want to live in a world where everyone’s dignity is respected and everyone feels safe and is safe. I’m hoping people who know more than I do and who are better positioned to act can do things that move us closer to there.
I can also pray.
Jesus speaks of sending another Advocate. The word is Paraclete, meaning comforter or
We find in Matthew 5:4 “Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
Looking in the Greek, we find it says that they will be paracleted. However, Bible scholars
say in the text here in John, the meaning is an advocate, one who speaks for another, as a
prophet speaks for God. Jesus, of course, was speaking about the will of the Father (in the
Gospel of John, we see very strongly that Jesus was about doing the will of the Father), and
so He speaks about sending another Advocate who will keep them (and us) on track with
There is a very powerful reason to believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in the Catholic
Church: If you look at our history, it is very clear that there have been times of deep
corruption, terrible leadership, and awful decisions. Reading Karl Adam’s book The Roots
of the Reformation, a short book with a lot of information, we see a very bad situation at the
end of the Middle Ages. If the Holy Spirit weren’t keeping the Church together, the Church
would have shut down centuries ago. It probably wouldn’t even have lasted ten years. In
Acts 5:34-39, a respected rabbi named Gamaliel gives some provocative thoughts along
those lines. Lots of folks tried to start movements, but it’s not that easy to keep them going
for millennia, especially when so many things go wrong.
The fullness of truth about God, and the meaning of what it is to be human, was revealed in
Jesus. We believe it makes no sense that God would give such a gift at one moment in time
and then allow it to be lost by human error and corruption. Jesus gave us the Holy Spirit to
preserve the truth in the Church. Given the messy history, how that is done is not simple.
First, there is arguing, lots of it. We see that in the first century there was a huge dispute
about whether justification (being in right relationship with God) comes from following the
Law of Moses or from faithfulness to Jesus. This was decided in the Council of Jerusalem
(see Acts 15), which laid the pattern for later councils that clarified teaching (think of the
Council of Nicea in 325, which gave us the bulk of the Nicean Creed). The Holy Spirit does
not make things neat and tidy, but keeps us from going off track.
Secondly, doctrine develops over time. The word “Trinity” is not in the Bible. The Canon
of Scripture is not listed in the inspired text in the Bible (the footnotes, table of contents,
and the like are not part of the inspired text). This has led to much confusion, with some
thinking that if it’s not explicit in the Bible it can’t be true and others thinking that we can
change whatever we want when fashion of thought changes. G. K. Chesterton talks about
development in these terms: “when we say that a puppy develops into a dog, we do not
mean that his growth is a gradual compromise with a cat; we mean that he becomes more
doggy and not less. Development is the expansion of all the possibilities and implications of
a doctrine, as there is time to distinguish them and draw them out…(from his book on
Thomas Aquinas).” The Second Vatican council’s Constitution on Divine Revelation puts it
a bit differently: “This tradition which comes from the apostles develops in the Church with
the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the
words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study
made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (cf. Lk. 2:19; 51), through the
intimate understanding of spiritual things they experience, and through the preaching of
those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the
centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of
divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her (Dei Verbum 8).”
G. K. Chesterton was asked why he became Catholic. His answer was simple: “Because it’s
true.” That’s my reason for remaining Catholic. Others might have different starting points,
but for me, everything else follows from that.
As we await Pentecost, let us ponder the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, in our work,
and in our history.
In our Gospel today, Jesus begins His farewell discourse, His last talk to the disciples
before he goes to be crucified. This will take chapters 14-16, and then there will be the
Great Priestly Prayer of chapter 17, in which He consecrates His Church. He starts with
“Do not let your hearts be troubled” and then says something strange. It is so familiar that I
didn’t think until recently how strange it is. When Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there
are many dwelling places…and if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again
and take you to myself, so that here I am you also may be (See John 14:1-3).” It leads to the
question, “Prepare how? Does heaven need work? What does He have to prepare?” Of
course, He will be preparing us. There is something else going on. Brant Pitre, in his book,
Jesus the Bridegroom, points out that this is what a bridegroom does. He gets betrothed,
then he goes and prepares a home for them (usually on his father’s estate), and then comes
and takes the bride to live there.
In the Gospel of John, we see John the Baptist introducing Jesus, and he uses two images to
describe Him: the Lamb of God, and the Bridegroom, and there will be subtle references to
these roles throughout the Gospel. John the Evangelist will bring these two together at the
end of the Book of Revelation in the Wedding of the Bride (the Church) and the Lamb.
Between the time when Jesus Ascends into heaven and the time when He comes back to get
us, to bring the relationship to its fullness, we are being prepared. That brings us to our
second reading, where St. Peter talks about us being living stones being built into a spiritual
house. The more familiar image is members of the Church being members of the Body of
Christ (1 Corinthians 12; Romans 12 and Ephesians 4), so we can take this opportunity to
linger over St. Peter’s image. “Come to him, a living stone, rejected by human beings but
chosen and precious in the sight of God, and, like living stones, let yourselves be built into
a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God
through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:4-5).”
In the course of doing church work, I’ve learned that some bricks are stronger and more
durable than others, and if you are unfortunate enough to have a church with low quality
bricks they will crumble relatively easily. I do believe that some stones are stronger than
others, and sandstone is not nearly as durable as granite. If we want our Church to be
durable, the first step is to be stronger stones, and that happens by deepening our
relationship with Christ. Any time we want to make a better world, the first step is always
to fall more deeply in love with Jesus. We can get so focused on things that need to be
done around us that we can forget that part, and we can become like sandstone that takes
itself for granite. We also remember that each stone is a small part of the building, so it is
less about us than about the purpose of the building.
This building is not just to sit there, but “offer spiritual sacrifices” and we are called to be a
“holy priesthood.” It is worth looking at this alongside a text from St. Paul: “I urge you
therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy
and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. Do not conform yourselves to this age but be
transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God,
what is good and pleasing and perfect (Romans 12:1-2).” According to our baptismal
priesthood we are called to offer sacrifice. Since there is only one sacrifice, the sacrifice of
Jesus on the cross that occurred once in history but whose power is eternal, our sacrifices
must be a participation in that action. This is done in the sacrifice of the Mass, and in the
sacrifice of our lives, as we give ourselves to service.
We see the call to service in the first reading from Acts 6, and call of the first deacons (the
word “deacon” comes from the Greek word for “servant”). This house becomes more of
what it is meant to be when no one in need is neglected, and when everyone’s gifts are fully
brought to service. Sometimes we do this better than others, but it is what we are always
Much to do to prepare for the final celebration.