Dear Folks,We have all been told that life is not fair. This phrase has been used in various ways. Some say it to say they don’t care that your rights and your dignity are getting violated. It can alsobe an acceptance of the complexity of life. There are many factors that affect our lives that we did not choose, and it seems that sometimes we get handed the dirty end of the stick. Other people seem to have it easier, and we see people giving them slack like they don’t seem to give us. Ever had that feeling?Our Gospel today (Matthew 20:1-16a) deals with the issue of envy, and people who seem to be handed a better deal. This is a common problem in life, and in the early Christian community there was the issue of pagans who became Christian. Some of the Jewish Christians were perhaps thinking, “We have been doing the hard work of trying to follow God’s commandments for generations while these people have been worshipping false gods and practicing drunken, perverted debauchery all this time, and now in the Church they are equal to us? What gives?” You know how we human beings get. St. Paul was dealing with that question in Romans, and he said, “But who indeed are you, ahuman being to talk back to God? Will what is made say to its maker, ‘Why have you created me so?’ Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make out of the samelump one vessel for a noble purpose and another for an ignoble one (Romans 9:20-21)?” St. Paul is remembering the text “Yet, Lord, you are our father; we are the clay and you ourpotter: we are all the work of your hand (Isaiah 64:7).”
But how we perceive things doesn’t give the whole picture. I think life is like running an obstacle course with a backpack. We can feel how heavy our own backpack is, but we don’tknow how heavy everyone else’s is. We can perhaps make an educated guess by how they look, but we might be horribly wrong. At the end of the course we get to see how heavyeveryone’s backpack is, and there could be some surprises. We might find out that some people we thought weren’t trying very hard were actually carrying a much heavier load, andwere actually working harder than we were, even though they did not get as far as fast. Perhaps some people we envied for their situation were carrying a much heavier load thanwe thought. We might have thought that ours was one of the heaviest but find out that many had heavier. On the other hand, we might find that ours was heavier than a great manypeople’s, and we accomplished greater things than we thought.We know that sometimes it is a journey to accept that, and that can mean asking the very questions of God why He is doing what seems so wrong. Intellectually, we know He isright (always), but parts of our minds have not yet accepted that. We turn to the great school of prayer, the Psalms. We see “I will say to God, my rock: ‘Why do you forget me? Why must I go about mourning with the enemy oppressing me?’(Psalm 42:10).”Of course, the journey is to go from there to recognizing and rejoicing in God’s wisdom andprovidence. I suggest a meditation on Psalm 73 to follow that journey.The goal is to move more and more to embrace the situation we are given, and from here to do what we can to make things better, to be as faithful to God’s call as possible. The morewe are focused on that, the less and less we will worry about how our situation compares with others’ situations. That will save us time and energy. Growing in faith means realizing more and more that God knows what He is doing.Blessings,Fr. Jim
This is a call “Into the Breach.”
This is a call to all Catholic men. Our families need you. Our Church needs you. Our country needs you. This is a call to accept and exercise our manhood in the fullest and best sense. This is a call to the rising up of men for all that is dear to us, for this is a time of crisis.
The phrase “into the breach” is from Shakespeare, but first I want to mention a very important man who “stood in the breach” and saved a nation.
“They forgot the God who was their savior, who had done such great things in Egypt, such wonders in the land of Ham, such awesome deeds at the Red Sea. For this he said he would destroy them, but Moses, the man he had chosen, stood in the breach before him, to turn back his anger from destruction (Psalm 106:21-23).” See Exodus 32:11-14
And now, Shakespeare:
“King Henry: Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our English dead. In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man as modest stillness and humility; but when the blast of war blows in our ears, then imitate the action of the tiger; stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood…” Henry the Fifth Act 3, scene 1.
This is a call to battle, and we are being called to battle, but we must understand we are not now talking about guns or bombs.
“For, although we are in the flesh, we do not battle according to the flesh, for the weapons of our battle are not of flesh bet are enormously powerful, capable of destroying fortresses. We destroy arguments and every pretension raising itself against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive in obedience to Christ… (2Corinthian 10:3-6).”
“Finally, draw your strength from the Lord and from his mighty power. Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil. For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens. Therefore, put on the armor of God, that you may be able to resist on the evil day and, having done everything to hold your ground. So stand fast with your loins girded in truth, clothed with righteousness as a breastplate, and your feet shod in readiness for the gospel of peace. In all circumstances, hold faith as a shield, to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Ephesians 6:10-17).”
These are calls to battle, but not with physical weapons. There might be times we would have to use physical force to defend against unjust aggressors, but that is not how the big battle will be won. These short videos are about what it means to be a Catholic man, the kind of man that our loved ones need to go into the breach.
I challenge you to watch these, think about them. Think of one new thought they made you think. If you can, think of one new action they inspire you to do. Now share that with five other men?
Will you accept that challenge?
St. Benedict was born about 1500 years ago, just after the fall of the Roman Empire. Bishop Robert Barron recently streamed the story of St. Benedict in his “Pivotal Players” series and calls him “the most pivotal of all the pivotal players.” We remember St. Anthony of the Desert as the one who pioneered desert spirituality. St. Benedict made monasticism a workable system so that it would be strong enough to hold together civilization when civilization was literally collapsed around them. He wrote a rule that is still in use today, and that enabled monasteries to be great centers of learning, evangelization and service for centuries to come.
There were some characteristics of the rule that I think made it so successful:
Prayer: most important thing they did and nothing interfered
Work: not just a practical necessity, but a way of glorifying God Colossians 1:23 “Whatever you do, do from the heart, as for the Lord and not for others…”
Hospitality: kept them from becoming self-absorbed
Learning: preserved books, non-Christian and Christian
Stability: temptation always to be looking for something preferable, and whenever things get uncomfortable, run away.
Practical: though dedicated to eternal realities, must not neglect day to day issues. Though they dedicated themselves to eternal realities, they had to deal with practical problems.
While civilization fell down around them, they kept it going, and enabled human knowledge that would be preserved in the midst of the upheaval. They copied books that would otherwise be lost. They became innovators in agriculture, health care, and other areas. I would recommend “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization” for a fuller description of their contributions. This would not happen without the work of St. Benedict.
He is often portrayed with a cup that has a demon in it, and a raven with bread in his beak. This is from two stories about him. Once, monks who didn’t like his discipline put poison in his wine, but when he said the blessing, the cup shattered, and the Holy Spirit made him know what happened. Another time a wicked priest gave him some poisoned bread. He realized it, so he commanded his pet raven to take the bread and put it where no one would find it (sort of an inverse of 1 Kings 17:6). Whether these stories are true or not, they convey that he had to deal, not only with barbarians outside, but dysfunction in the Church inside.
As we look at the challenges we face today, outside and within the Church, I think we can draw some inspiration from St. Benedict.
We celebrate his feast day July 11.
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.
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.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and we have cause to feel sheepish.
In John 10, Jesus tells us He is the good shepherd. This chapter is well worth reading
completely. A good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. Some have pointed to this
text and suggested that priests should not be participating in the lockdown, but facing the
danger. It would be a different thing if we were just putting ourselves in danger, but if we
kept visiting people, we could be unknowingly infecting others. That is the truly dangerous
factor, how long we can be asymptomatic and contagious. There can (and will) be a lot of
conversation about where to draw that line, but it is not simple. Let us reflect on shepherds:
We all know Psalm 23, the great psalm about the Lord our shepherd. Reflecting on that
short text can give us a sense of what Jesus was talking about, what He does for us.
Isaiah 40:11 Tells of the shepherd’s tender care for the sheep as an image of God’s tender
care for His people (just what you would expect from Isaiah): “Like a shepherd he feeds his
flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, leading the ewes with
Isaiah 56:11; Jeremiah 3:15; 23:4; 50:6 talk about bad leaders of the Israelites who were
like bad shepherds, but the big example of that is in Ezekiel 34. It is worth reading in
entirety. If you only look up one of my references besides John 10, this would be the one to
read. In the Office of Readings (of the Liturgy of the Hours) there is a section in the fall
where we go for days with a chunk of this chapter as the first reading, and a message from
St. Augustine developing the concept further. Neither one pulls any punches. It usually
comes up pretty close to when we have the priests’ conference for the diocese (I think God
did that on purpose). It is a challenge for anyone in a leadership position.
One can also read: Luke 15:1-7 Parable of the lost sheep; John 21:15-19 Mandate to Peter:
if you love me, feed my lambs tend my sheep; Acts 20:25-35: St. Paul talking to the priests
of the church of Ephesus.
The image of the Lord as shepherd goes deep in the scriptures, and it is very apt. In ancient
Israel, shepherds were very common, and everyone was familiar with the concept.
Shepherds lead the sheep to food, water and shelter, and protect them from predators. The
sheep, left to themselves would tend to wander off and get in trouble.
We may pride ourselves on our independence and our common sense, but we need help and
we do tend to wander from what is good for us. In our better moments, we all know this to
In John 10:10, Jesus says, “A thief comes only to steal and laughter and destroy; I came so
that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” Those who seek to lead us into sin
(and that includes the voice of temptation within us) regularly tell us that to obey God is to
accept a diminished life, and sin will give us a fuller life. This is one of the most horrible
lies in the history of lies, and yet, it is so easy to believe. We tend to wander from the very
things that will make us the happiest. Sin leaves us with a life so much less than what it
could be and in the cruelest of prisons. That is what gives us cause to feel sheepish. Jesus
leads us to the fullest, most abundant life. We will see this image taken up again most
powerfully in Revelation 7:9-15.
Jesus said the sheep know the voice of the Good Shepherd, and that He will lead them and
they will find pasture. We can get to know His voice better by reading the Scriptures, by
spending time in His presence (including time spent with the Blessed Sacrament), and by
seeking His face in those in need.
We need a shepherd. Let us take some time to listen to His voice.