Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Crisis of Christian Persecution

Bulletin Article
May 5, 2019

            As much of the world celebrated Easter, many people in Sri Lanka went into mourning, for the tragic church bombings that happened there. Sri Lanka is less than 10% Catholic, and this was clearly an act of Muslim terrorism aimed directly at Christians on the most holy day of the year.
            But sadly, this type of Christian persecution is not rare; in fact, it is becoming even more commonplace throughout the world. Even Newsweek magazine (no friend of Christianity), in a January article, admitted that “Christian persecution and genocide is worse now than in any time in history.” But we frequently do not hear about in the West.
            The media and many politicians seek to downplay the reality of Christian persecution. For example, as soon as the Sri Lanka bombings happened, Barack Obama tweeted that the bombings were “an attack on humanity” – wait, but wasn’t it almost exclusively targeted at Christians? He and Hillary Clinton would not even use the word “Christian”, preferring rather to call us “Easter worshippers” (…but we don’t worship Easter?...). Many simply do not want to recognize the blatant persecution that many of our Christian brothers and sisters must face to simply practice their Faith.
            Pew Research Center noted that in 144 countries in the world, Christians are the most targeted religion (consider that there are currently only 195 countries in the world today). Most of these Christian-hostile countries stretch from Saharan Africa through the Middle East. Very few Christians remain in Iraq, which used to be a bastion of Eastern Christianity. A couple months ago in Libya, a mass grave was discovered with the remains of over 30 Christians slaughtered for their Faith by Muslim extremists.
            Even more developed countries such as Bosnia discriminate against Christians for employment and public services.
            Of course two of the greatest offenders are China and North Korea. There are over one hundred million Christians in China, but most belong to the “underground” (non-state-sponsored) Churches. These Christians can be detained and put into work camps, their churches destroyed, their property seized. According to “Open Doors” (an organization whose mission is to serve persecuted Christians), North Korea is the most dangerous place to be a Christian, where those who hold to faith in Jesus are routinely imprisoned and executed.
            The driving force behind much of the persecution, particularly in Africa and Asia, is twofold. First, the rise of Islamic extremism, which takes literally the verses of the Qur’an regarding “infidels” (non-Muslims) such as “And slay them wherever ye catch them, and turn them out from where they have Turned you out; for tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter; but fight them not at the Sacred Mosque, unless they (first) fight you there; but if they fight you, slay them. Such is the reward of those who suppress faith. And fight them on until there is no more Tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah.” (Qur’an Suph 2:191-193).
            Second, though, is the rise of Eastern nationalism. Some countries view Christianity as a “western” import, a remnant of colonialism. Thus, they see expulsion of Christians and Christianity as a way to purify their people from Western influence.
            So what can we do about? Three things. First, pray for our brothers and sisters experiencing persecution. It should make us grateful to have the freedom of worship that we enjoy in America, and we must not forget to pray for courage and steadfastness of faith for those who suffer for their belief in Jesus. Second, raise awareness. Much of the Western World is deaf to the trials that our brothers and sisters in Christ undergo on a daily basis. We must be their voice to a West that does not want to acknowledge that persecution is real. Third, we must courageously live out our Faith and evangelize. In America there is a persecution too, but one of a more subtle kind. Christianity is often mocked by the media, derided by higher education, ignored by politicians. For Christianity to survive in the secular West, we must live our own faith with courage and invite others to come to know the Lord Jesus, too.
            Lord, be with those who have suffered for Your Name!

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Homily for Divine Mercy Sunday - April 28, 2019

Homily for Divine Mercy Sunday
April 28, 2019
Second Life

            Wouldn’t it be great to have nine lives, like a cat? Then we could go bungee jumping and skydiving and never have to worry, because even if something went wrong, we’d still have a few lives left. There are some video games like that, such as Call of Duty which is a military game, where if you mess up and accidentally get shot you get to “re-spawn” in ten seconds. That would be nice to have the option to re-spawn in real life!
            Unfortunately that’s not the case, because as the American prophet and rapper Drake once said, “YOLO” – aka, “You only live once.” We get one life to live; no do-overs in our physical life.
            But that is not true in the spiritual life, where we do get a second life…and a third…and a forty-fifth. This is what God’s mercy means – the slate gets wiped clean, we get remade new, innocence is restored.
            You will notice that there are two times in the Bible when it says that God breathes. The first time is with Adam. Into Adam’s nostrils, God breathes the breath of life, giving physical life to this creature made of dust. The second time is today, when Jesus breathes on His Apostles. In Hebrew the word for breath is “ru’ah” – the same word for spirit. So He breathes His Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, not to give them physical life as with Adam, but to restore the supernatural life of grace to a world that had died in sin.
            This is what mercy does. It takes those dead in sin and gives them a second life.
            The world thinks in terms of crime and punishment. Every crime must be atoned for; justice must be brought about. From the misdemeanor of a parking ticket to first-degree murder, every crime must have a punishment. A parking ticket deserves a twenty-five dollar fine. Murder deserves life in prison. And the person who committed the crime must pay the penalty – I cannot serve someone else’s jail sentence.
            But God does not think in terms of crime and punishment; He thinks in terms of sin and forgiveness. Our punishment for sin should have been death. But this is how God shows His love for us: that He has paid back the debt we owed. We can now walk away free, given a new life, a second chance – or for many of us, a hundredth chance – because mercy is that lavish.
            When someone goes on a long trip, it is customary for them to bring back a gift. You may have received those mugs that read, “Someone I know went to Disney World and all they brought back was this lousy mug!” Or something like that. When Jesus returned from His journey through the netherworld, He brought back a great gift – what was it? “Peace,” He says to His Apostles three times in today’s Gospel. He brings them peace – but there can be no peace if our consciences are troubled, if we are dead in sin. So He also brings mercy – the ability to forgive sins – knowing that this is the only way to have inner peace! Peace and mercy – much better than a mug or a tee-shirt!
            So on this Divine Mercy Sunday, how do we take advantage of these gifts of peace and mercy so that we too can have the supernatural life of grace restored to our soul? Fr. Michael Gaitley MIC has a very helpful acronym to help us accept and live in Christ’s mercy – it’s as easy as A-B-C.
A – Ask for mercy! We ask for mercy in Confession, and by daily begging the Lord’s forgiveness. As Jesus Himself revealed to St. Faustina, “The greater the sinner, the greater the right they have to My Mercy.” He went on to say, in the Diary of St. Faustina: “Souls that make an appeal to My mercy delight Me. To such souls I grant even more graces than they ask. I cannot punish even the greatest sinner if he makes an appeal to My compassion.” Jesus gets great delight in pouring out mercy to those who ask!
B – Be merciful to others. As Pope St. John Paul II said, “Mercy is love’s second name.” Mercy is about giving people what they do not deserve. So to the friend who abandoned you in the time of need, you don’t abandon them. To the brother or sister who annoy you, we treat them with greater kindness than necessary. To that person who did hurtful things to us, we forgive them even before they ask for it. We pray for those who have harmed us. If we wish to experience mercy, we must extend that mercy to others.
C – Completely trust in God’s mercy. A lot of times we can be so troubled by our past that we think of it constantly. It can be like a weight on our backs, a ball-and-chain that prevents us from being truly free. It is then that we must commit it to the ocean of God’s mercy. St. Augustine said, “Trust the past to God’s mercy, the present to His love, and the future to His providence.” We cast our burdens into the oceans of His mercy, knowing that He has removed our sins as far as the east is from the west.
My friends, Jesus’ gifts upon returning from the dead are peace and mercy. We can only have peace through mercy. And this mercy is so radical, lavish, amazing, that it can take a dead man and give him a second life.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Review of "Unplanned"

Bulletin Article – Palm Sunday (April 14, 2019)

I just returned from seeing the new movie, Unplanned, which has been heavily publicized in this parish and by many good pro-life Catholics. So here is my unofficial movie review!

Unplanned is based on the eponymous book by Abby Johnson, former director of a large Planned Parenthood facility in Texas. It tells the story of her entrance into the abortion industry as a young and impressionable college student, her rise through the organization, and how she was eventually converted to the pro-life cause as she was able to see a sonogram of the baby during an abortion. She is now a pro-life advocate, founding an organization called “And Then There Were None” which has helped over 500 women leave the abortion industry.

The movie itself received a (quite controversial) R-rating, but it was well-earned, in my opinion. The very first scene was the gut-wrenching visual of the abortion that changed her mind, complete with blood and screams of agony. There were several scenes like that featuring copious amounts of blood and aborted fetuses – it was, at times, difficult to watch, but at the same time it was never gratuitous and, I think, very well-done. A movie such as this should not gloss over the true horrors of abortion, and they portray the reality with a sober realism that communicates its subject matter with gravity and seriousness.

The acting was a mixed bag. Ashley Bratcher, who played Abby, did an excellent job of portraying someone who entered the abortion industry with the noblest of motives, as misguided as they were. It was refreshing to see the clinic workers portrayed, not as heartless monsters, but as human beings, with great complexity. Some were there because they genuinely wanted to help women, while others made it clear that they reveled in the abortions they performed. The pro-life contingent, too, were cast as delightfully complex and compassionate individuals Nevertheless, as is the case with many films by Pure Flix, there were also some clunkers as actors – most notably, in my opinion, the man who played Abby’s husband, Brooks Ryan, and some of the Coalition for Life members.

Cinematically, this was far, far better than I expected, and leagues ahead of their earlier films (they notably produced the infamous “God’s Not Dead” series which – and this is only an opinion, one may disagree if they wish – I think are among the worst movies ever made). Dialogue, camerawork, and pacing were all fairly crisp and well-done. I was very moved at several points by the anguished conversations of young girls contemplating abortion, and by the sincerity of the Coalition for Life members as they prayed behind a thick iron fence (symbolic of the true separation that so often occurs between both sides of this issue).

Two final comments. First, in a movie about such a serious topic, they selected several upbeat contemporary Christian songs as part of their soundtrack – completely out-of-place for such a somber topic. Seems every Christian movie needs a Matthew West tune in the middle just to make sure it appeals to the Evangelicals. Second, this is the problem with a Christian movie like Unplanned – it is completely marketed directly to Christians. How much of this movie was preaching to the choir? Will this movie change people’s minds about abortion, or will it only confirm the pro-life stances of those who have bought out theaters (as has happened around the country)? Which one was this movie intended to do? I could imagine that someone who is not pro-life would likely not even step into the theater (with a few exceptions, I’m sure). So, while it is a great and important movie that I believe every adult in America should see, it is also a movie that mostly only Christians will see because of its overt Christian overtones. Nevertheless, with all of its flaws, I would give it a solid 4/5 stars.

At the end of the movie, there is a great message of hope, however. Although nearly one-in-four women will have an abortion, there is hope and healing for those who have made this choice. The Sisters of Life in Stamford offer retreats of hope and healing after abortion, and the diocese offers one as well (called “Project Rachel”). There is no sin that God cannot forgive, so if you or a loved one has chosen an abortion, bring it to the Sacrament of God’s Mercy in Confession, and lay down that burden that you may have carried for years. If you are currently in a crisis pregnancy situation, Malta House or the Sisters of Life have resources to help – please reach out, and there will be only love and encouragement and practical support for you. Let us all continue to pray to end this scourge of abortion in our land!

Friday, April 12, 2019

Homily for Palm Sunday - April 14, 2019

Palm Sunday Homily
April 14, 2019
What More Could He Do?

             A mother called in to a Catholic radio show, distraught that her sixteen-year-old son refused to attend Mass. She said that he would tell her, "I believe in God, and He knows I love Him. But I don't have to go to Mass for him to know that."
The radio host, a devout Catholic man, told her to just do one thing the next time Sunday Mass rolled around. She was to point to the crucifix on his wall and ask a simple question: "What more does He need to do for you to attend Mass?"
What more does He need to do? He wanted to show you how much He loves you, so He allowed Himself to be beaten, whipped, spat upon, nailed to a Cross. What more does He need to do? He wanted you to spend eternity with Him so badly that He chose to be stripped naked, be slapped and have His beard plucked, have iron driven through His hands and feet, and spend six hours hanging from a tree, mocked by everyone. What more does He need to do? He thirsts for your love so much that He was willing to endure thirst, pain, agony, torture, and death so that you could be free from sin and brought close to the Lord. What more could He do?
The next time we are tempted to sin, or to miss Mass, or to be bored in prayer, or to complain about suffering, just look at the Cross – what more does He need to do to show you how you are loved, how you are free from the cost of sin, what your life must be about?
What more could He do? Nothing. He has given us everything.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Homily for Fifth Sunday of Lent - April 7, 2019

Homily for April 7, 2019
Fifth Sunday of Easter
All Is Rubbish

            A few years ago, I had the privilege of meeting a remarkable man by the name of Eric Mahl. Eric had had an incredible life – he was a starting lineman on the Cleveland Browns back in 2005. Talented, kind-hearted, he had everything a man could want. But something was missing. He already had a deep faith in God, but he sensed God calling him to give up the money and the fame to pursue the Lord in a deeper way. So he did – after one season in the NFL, he walked away from it all and became a hermit for three years, trying to discern God’s will. After that, he began to minister among the homeless in Cleveland – as a poor man himself, having given away literally all of his possessions. He has since begun a ministry to bring the Divine Mercy message to the poor. When I met him, I was struck by his joy – he gave away everything earthly, but gained everything heavenly. He and I played Frisbee together out in the parking lot of the Divine Mercy Shrine in Stockbridge, and he was sharing how free he felt, and you could see it – God shone forth from his eyes. Literally, he had counted everything as rubbish for the surpassing joy of knowing Christ.
            St. Paul tells us that he counts everything as rubbish – as trash, as garbage – compared to knowing and pursuing Christ. All that stuff we want – the nice body, the good looks, the bank account, the college scholarship – is about as worthless as the stuff in our dumpster compared to the riches of the Lord Jesus.
St. John Vianney once said, “If people did for God what they do for the world, how many great saints there would be!”
            And consider what people do for success in the world! To get a fit body, people will spend endless hours in a gym, picking things up and putting them down. People tell me prayer is boring to them, but to me there is nothing more boring than lifting barbells over and over and over again! Plus, they often drink these incredibly disgusting protein shakes and swear off donuts forever. All this for a body that is going to become worm food in seventy years!
            Or to earn a big bank account, people often work long hours – sixty, seventy hour weeks – at a job they may not like that much, fighting traffic on 95 all the way down into the city, missing their kids’ sports games and family time. People tell me Mass takes too much time but they certainly have no problem working seven days a week! And for what? To buy a nice Mazerati that is just going to rust in a decade?
Now don’t get me wrong – it isn’t sinful to work out, make money, or succeed in life. On the contrary, God wants you to use your gifts and talents for Him. But when they take the place of holiness as the goal of our lives, that’s when we must remember that, in the long run, riches and fame and pleasure isn’t worth much compared to knowing the Lord!
Why? Because our deepest desires aren’t to be rich or famous or good-looking or to have lots of fun. Our deepest desire is to be loved, and to have a meaningful life. And only God can love us perfectly, infinitely, unconditionally. The greatest meaning in our life, then, is to live our lives in love with Him.
I want to be like St. Paul! I want my life to be lived with reckless abandon, pursuing Christ with the same passion that the saints had! Athletes seek after physical perfection, sacrificing everything to have it; executives often seek after money with total dedication; rock stars want fame and fortune more than anything. I want Christ to become literally the only goal of my life – to know His love and to love Him in return!
But St. Paul is realistic. He goes on to say, “I haven’t quite attained that goal yet!” He recognizes that he does not pursue the Lord perfectly, it’s something he needs to grow in. But listen to his words: “I forget the past but strain forward to what lies ahead!” Daily he seeks to grow in Christian maturity and in holiness. He already possesses Christ, but not perfectly – that is a growth on a daily basis.
Likewise, if you love the Lord and are a disciple, you already possess Christ. But not yet perfectly! That’s the whole point of Lent – to rid ourselves of the distractions of this world so that through prayer, fasting, and generosity to the poor, we become less attached to the pleasures and money and popularity of this world, so we can be free to pursue Christ daily. All that other stuff – yeah, it’s rubbish, trash, garbage – compared to the treasure of knowing the depths of God’s love for us, and knowing that our life is about giving glory to Him.