Dear Folks, The Feast of the Ascension is a time to talk about mission. It is sort of the apostles’ graduation ceremony. To be Christian is to be on mission, and it is time to ask a very serious question. Consider, if you will, two models of Church: Catholics as customers vs Catholics as coworkers in mission. Catholics who function according to the customer model will think about church like any other consumer good, and it becomes about getting one’s preferences over all (Coke or Pepsi? Or maybe Dr. Pepper?). Improving the church becomes about how services can be provided as conveniently as possible. Volunteering in the church will be seen as extraordinary, not normal. Adult faith formation is seen as “for those who like that sort of thing” rather than a normal part of being a disciple. I believe it was Richard Neuhaus who said that many Catholics thought their only duty was to show up to be served. Things like faith formation and Christian service will be seen as extras to be sacrificed for the sake of “basic functions: keeping the buildings open and the Mass schedule. Such people may be more likely to quit if they don’t get things the way they think they should be. Catholics who see themselves as co-workers in mission are going to be focused on how the Church can better draw people to Jesus. They will ask more questions like how can we better draw outsiders to Jesus? How can we be leaven, salt, and light in the larger community? How can we inspire others to see the goodness, beauty, and truth about the Catholic faith? What reasons do the surrounding community have to be grateful we are here? Instead of asking “how much am I obligated to do?” the question is “How can I, with my circumstances, do as much as possible?” Some, given their situation, can only do a teeny bit, but if we do it with love, it is huge in God’s eyes. Learning more about the faith becomes urgent, so that we can better witness to it. There is an urgency to growing in holiness, so that God’s light will shine more brightly through us. There is an attentiveness to how we represent the faith community to others; we are God’s ambassadors. Such people will be more resilient when hard times come, when we lose things we are accustomed to, when being church grows difficult. Such people will not watch helplessly when things go bad but will build something better. Parents’ first mission is passing on the faith to their children, and if we believe the Gospel is true, then we believe that the faith is the most important gift they can give their children. Many parents have suffered the heartbreak of watching their grown-up children stop the practice of the faith. If they did the best they knew how to do at the time, they have nothing to be ashamed of. As they grieve for their disappointment, we turn our attention to how things can be made better. The task at hand is to become a church that better draws people to the faith. The data makes it clear that what was done in the past does not give them what they need. It will take all of us together to make that happen. So, this leads to the question: what is our model? How do we see ourselves? And, most importantly, how would Jesus want us to approach being Church? Blessings, Fr. Jim
Dear Folks, As we continue to celebrate Easter, we are reading a lot from the Acts of the Apostles. It is a continuation of the story of the Gospel of Luke, and the story of the early Church, and a wonderful picture of how to be an Easter people. This is what the first Christians did as a response to the resurrection and the descent of the Holy Spirit. In our first reading this week we see the early Church worked together as one body. They each cared, not just for themselves, but for the good of all the members of the Church. Soon we will see Christians helping others who were not members of their faith community. This was not something people did in the ancient world, and it made Christians stand out as different. It is one of the reasons many people decided they wanted to learn more about Christianity. It is a way of proclaiming the Gospel that not only gets people’s attention but earns a good deal of credibility. Right now, as I understand it, the Catholic Church does more to help those in need that any other organization. However, could we agree there is room to grow? As a rough guess, what would you figure is the proportion of our church’s resources that are dedicated to keeping the church itself going? Now, what proportion do you think is dedicated to helping people in need beyond our church? What proportion would Jesus want, if the church worked the way He would like it? Imagine a central database of opportunities to help those in need, so that everyone could find some need that would match their gifts, abilities, and circumstances. Some can do more, and some can do less, but if all one can do is a teeny amount, if it is done with love, it is huge in God’s eyes (Mark 12:41- 44; Luke 21:1-4). This will accomplish three things:
It will make Jesus happy (do we need another reason?)
It will proclaim the Gospel in a way that connects to people who are not impressed with institutions or rituals (at least, not impressed yet).
We will encounter Jesus personally in the people we serve (Matthew 25:31-46). We are called to do two things: encounter Jesus and share Jesus. The more we do those two things, the more we will flourish as church, the more we will flourish as disciples, and the more we will flourish as human beings. For the past year we have been playing defense. It is time for that to change. We will revisit the survey that had been taken. I will share the work that has been done as a result, some mistakes that I made and what is to be done in the future. One of the things that needs to improve is messaging. I am determined to do better with that myself, and everyone can play a role in making that happen. I believe there is much reason to approach the coming year with hope. Blessings, Fr. Jim
I have never thought it proper for me to use my position to endorse a particular politician. I have focused on teaching principles of Catholic social teaching, and thought that was not only more correct, but more effective. However, I do not believe that any faithful Catholic could object to this, and I think we all agree, there are many politicians who need prayer. Some people might get together and pray regularly for certain public officials who especially need it. Who knows what might happen. God clearly loves to take terrible sinners and make them great saints. https://www.catholic365.com/article/9502/6-sinnersturnedsaints-and-what-we-can-learn-from-them.html
Dear Folks, “Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd (clever/cunning/ crafty) as serpents and simple (innocent) as doves (Matthew 10:16).” The greater the evil that we fight, the more important to hold ourselves to a higher standard of behavior. On Amazon I saw a book called “In Defense of Looting” that apparently suggested that looting was an effective tactic of protest. (Wasn’t Amazon the group that de-platformed Parler? But they allow this?) If we say that our tactics are justified because our cause is so right and just, we want to remember that Everyone’s cause is right and just in their minds, and those tactics may be used for causes we don’t approve of. Many have pointed to those who defended the rioting last summer as making it easier for others to believe they should break into the capital. I highly recommend Ann Garrido’s book “Redeeming Conflict.” Her habit
4 is “Undo the knot of intention.” Good intentions do not guarantee good actions. The
scribes and Pharisees who opposed Jesus certainly thought of themselves as the good guys, but they lacked self-reflection. They had a mighty lens for seeing any hint of fault in others, but were blind to their own shortcomings, or dismissed them because they considered themselves so good. Of course, the Bible has some helpful stuff. Ephesians 4: 26 “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun set on your anger, and do not leave room for the devil.” James 1:19-20 reminds us to be “quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” and that our wrath “does not fulfill the righteousness of God.” Matthew 12:36: “You shall be held accountable for every idle word that you utter.” When we are about to say something or type something, imagine talking with Jesus on the last day and explaining how this comment is serving the kingdom and showing His goodness. Jesus was sometimes fierce, but He wasn’t mean for the sake of being mean, no matter how much someone deserved it. Jesus was very angry in Matthew 23, but he didn’t stay there; he moved to sadness and mourning for Jerusalem. Then He went to work. In Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” he says, “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action.” He knew that their efforts needed to be based on facts that would stand up to skeptical scrutiny. He did not just grab a few tidbits of information that seemed to support his narrative. He describes their purification like this: “We started having workshops on nonviolence and repeatedly asked ourselves the questions, ‘Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?’ and ‘Are you able to endure the ordeals of jail?’” This was disciplined and they held themselves to a very high standard. They showed their power not with physical force but by imitating Jesus. After the murder of George Floyd, there was a lot of consensus in this country, and a great moment to have some serious conversation about how to prevent such things in the future. There could have been serious steps taken so people could be confident that when they interact with the police their lives would be protected and their dignity respected, as well as the police being confident that if they do their jobs wrong there will be consequences and if they do their jobs right their superiors and the community will stand by them. Then there were riots night after night. The country was divided, and the moment was thrown away. That may be the greatest tragedy of all. I think we can heal as a nation. It will take a lot of self-examination. It will take many deciding to look beyond their anger at what is wrong, to some well thought out strategies for solving problems. It will require being clever as serpents and innocent as doves. Blessings, Fr. Jim
Dear Folks, This is Sanctity of Life Sunday. The biggest life issue now is, of course, the killing of unborn children. This stands out for three reasons:
The huge number of victims, tens of millions, many times that of any genocide that I know of.
It is direct killing of the innocent. That is different in kind from capital punishment, from killing in a just war, or from the indirect killing that accompanies many activities (driving carelessly is wrong, and has resulted in deaths, but it is not the same as directly intending to kill).
Proponents have set apart a group they classify as untermenchen (a term used in Germany in the early 20 th century, it referred to humans they consider lesser, and therefore not as entitled to protection). This has been done in the past to Native Americans, to Jews, to African Americans, and other groups. It is a tool used for the greatest human atrocities. Some have even referred to unborn children as “non-living fetal tissue.” Where is the science behind that? That said, it is essential that we not neglect other areas where the sanctity of life needs to be affirmed. Many see the lives of the elderly, the disabled and the infirm to be of less value, and advocate for euthanasia. We must recognize that their lives are precious, and not only protect them from being killed, but make sure they are not marginalized or forgotten. We have a constant need to care for the hungry, the homeless, and those trapped in poverty. There is room to disagree about how, but no room to say that it is not our problem. We must do something about human trafficking. I don’t know what, but we must do something. The Catholic Church has long accepted capital punishment as a proper tool of law enforcement, but, starting with Pope Saint John Paul II and continuing with Pope Francis, there has been a movement away. There is a strong body of thought that suggests it does not help deter crime, and with proper incarceration, it would not be necessary to protect people. I suggest we can be a better society if we hold precious even the lives of vicious murderers. That said, I have a very hard time being patient with those who say it is contradictory to oppose abortion and favor capital punishment. How come I never hear people saying that if we favor incarcerating criminals, we must therefore favor the legalization of kidnapping? Honestly. I recently listened to Daniel Goleman’s book Social Intelligence. He speaks of the “thingification” of other people, in which they are considered not in terms of their dignity, their needs, their thoughts or their feelings, but only how they affect us. They are seen not as people, but as things, as objects. Celeste Headlee in her excellent book We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations that Matter, mentions that studies show that empathy is on the decline. It is easy to figure that the widespread use of social media rather than personal contact makes things worse. The enormous use of pornography has to be a huge factor. I see a lot of conversation showing contempt for people who disagree. That can’t help. How do we build empathy in our society? Final thought: “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.” -Edmund Burke Blessings, Fr. Jim
Today we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord. If I understand correctly, the Feast of Epiphany used to mark the coming of the Magi, the Baptism of the Lord, and the miracle at Cana, and that marked the end of the Christmas season. It was apparently decided that the Baptism needed its own feast, and this marks the end of the Christmas season, so tomorrow we begin good old Ordinary Time. When Jesus was baptized, He was not, of course, repenting of sin. He was sanctifying baptism and it will be by the power of His pascal mystery that Christians will be born again in baptism. It begins His saving work: His life as a manual laborer is over, and now He is beginning the journey that leads to the Cross. He will refer to His death as a baptism (Mark 10:38; Luke 12:50) (see Catechism of the Catholic Church #536). John 3:5 says, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” The Church has always understood this to refer to baptism. Baptism has never been treated as a detail, and it is not an option or a matter of preference. In Jesus’ final commissioning of His disciples at the end of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus’ very concise instructions include baptizing as a core part of the work (Matthew 28:19 and Mark 16:16). This leads to a question: what about those who are sincere but were not baptized. What about children who died before baptism? This led to a theological theory called limbo. Although the Baltimore catechism taught limbo as if it were a fact, limbo has never been the official teaching of the Catholic Church. Pope Benedict finally laid it to rest and said it is not a part of the Catholic faith. We now understand John 3:5 to be a mandate on us but not a restriction on God. The God we have gotten to know in the New Testament is not about keeping people out of heaven because of something they couldn’t control of have not been properly taught. Unfortunately, in the meantime, many Catholics have come to see getting sacraments as the ultimate end of the faith (sometimes literally the end, when they drop out after getting confirmed because they are “done”). They have come to see the practice of the faith as a pale shadow of what it is meant to be. The great danger is of people being sacramentalized but not evangelized. They have helped convince a lot of other people that Catholicism is superficial, mechanical and legalistic. Seeing the fruits of this is one of the most heart-breaking things about being a priest. How should we look at sacraments? St. Paul sees baptism as something we must live out. “What then shall we say? Shall we persist in sin that grace may abound? Of course not! How can we who died to sin yet live in it? Or are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we might live in newness of life (Romans 6:1-4).” Our belonging to Jesus is meant to make all the difference. It is as drastic as dying. It is meant to be the controlling, defining reality in our lives, by which all other things find their meaning. We hand God our lives and invite Him to do whatever He chooses with us, holding nothing back. Our faith and our response to God is, of course, imperfect, but if our faith is real, our goal is nothing less than being completely His. Peter Kreeft’s book Jesus Shock gets deep into this. A question for 2021 is, “How are we living our baptism?” Blessings, Fr. Jim