Tuesday, July 16, 2019

A Leisurely Read

Bulletin Column – July 21, 2019

            Well, the dog days of summer are upon us! And with that comes the time and the freedom to head out on vacation. Whether we’re going to Long Beach Island or a villa in Tuscany, rest and recreation is a critical part of what it means to be human…and to be holy.
            When I lived in Italy for a year, it used to drive me crazy to see the shops and churches closed for siesta! Every day from around 1pm-4pm, every store and office and church would close for the midday meal and nap. As one coming from the country of 24-hour Wal-Marts and 7-11 stores, I thought it was an insane idea – not to mention a bad business practice! – to close for three hours during prime shopping time! But there was something very profound – very human – in the midday siesta. It showed me that work was made for man, not man for work. Our American workaholism is not necessarily the best way to go!
            After all, God Himself rested on the Sabbath. He did not do this because He was tired (God does not get tired, after all), but to show us that WE needed to rest, since we are made in His Image. Jesus would often retire to the mountains alone for some prayer and rest, and He told His disciples to “come along and rest awhile.” (Mark 6:31).
            If you are shooting a bow and arrow, you cannot keep the bow pulled back at all times – it needs to be relaxed at times so it can work properly. Likewise, we cannot be “taut” at all times – we must relax so that we can reconnect with God and others.
            A German philosopher named Josef Pieper wrote a fascinating short book back in the 1940s called “Leisure: the Basis of Culture”. In it, he argues that human beings need free time so that we can truly come alive, be creative, and reconnect with God, ourselves, and others. Rather than seeing free time as just a luxury for the rich or as idleness for the lazy, he argues that leisure is part of what it means to be fundamentally human.
            But he defines leisure as something different from what modern men and women see it as. To Pieper, leisure is not going to Disneyland or binge-watching Netflix. Many of the things we do in our free time are nothing more than ways to alleviate boredom. Rather, he sees leisure as a time to contemplate, reflect, and experience transcendent goodness and beauty. So spending a quiet evening on your back deck with a glass of wine and your spouse is leisure; scrolling through Facebook for two hours is not. Hiking through a beautiful landscape with friends is leisure; going to a crazy electronica night club is not. Leisure should be about reflection and connection.
            To people deeply imbued in the culture of workaholism, leisure looks like a waste of time. “Why are you just sitting there?” they will cry out. “Do something productive!” But that’s precisely the point – doing nothing productive is giving our minds and bodies a chance to rest, to wander, to be creative, to rejoice in that which is most human. It reminds us that we were made for more than just being busy-bees on this earth; no, we were made for “eternal rest” in the presence of God. Leisure is a foretaste of that heavenly rest!
            But wait…I thought that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop”, as the saying goes? Yes, that is possible – but that is what makes leisure different from boredom. Boredom is a restlessness and a desire to do something; leisure is a restfulness in the presence of God. I once heard a great definition of prayer: “Prayer is wasting time with God” (Henri Nouwen). To the rest of the world, leisure looks like a waste of time. But Christians know the difference – it is in these times of rest and recreation that we can grow in holiness.
            So, my friends, enjoy! The summertime is the perfect time to slow down, rest, recreate, enjoy leisure, reconnect with God and family and friends.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Homily for Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time - July 14, 2019

Homily for July 14, 2019
Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Jesus the Savior

            Today’s parable can be read on two levels. The first level, the obvious one, is that the Lord is teaching us to love our neighbor, even if our neighbor is different from us. But some of the Church fathers, like Origen, Augustine, and Irenaeus, saw a deeper significance to this parable.
            The man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho is a symbol of humanity. Humanity was once united to God, symbolized by Jerusalem, where the Jews would worship the Lord. But humanity left this beautiful union with God through sin – choosing the pleasures of Jericho over the joy of Jerusalem.  Jericho, in Scripture, is always seen as a worldly, sinful place – when the Israelites were told to enter the Promised Land, the first thing God commanded them to do was destroy Jericho, lest the lust and greed and pride of that city corrupt them.
            As humanity journeyed away from God (Jerusalem) to the things of this world (Jericho), they were beaten up by robbers. And this is always the way it is with sin, isn’t it? Sin makes us miserable, leaves us in shame (naked) and spiritually sick (half-dead). The priest and the Levite pass by – a symbol of how the Law of Moses and all the sacrifices of the Old Testament could not heal us.
            Rather, it took an outsider – Jesus Christ, God-in-the-flesh, to take pity on us. He cleanses our wounds through Confession, lifts us up and brings us to a place of safety (the Church). He even pays the price for our redemption, as the Samaritan paid the innkeeper out of his own funds.
            This is the “Good News” of the Gospel! That we are forgiven, redeemed! What good would our lives have been if we weren’t redeemed? If we aren’t redeemed, then life is meaningless – just have as much fun as you can until you die. But we are redeemed, forgiven, healed, reconciled, and this is cause for rejoicing!
            As a kid, probably all of us broke something at some point. I can remember breaking one of my mom’s porcelain houses she collected, and of course my first (and thankfully only) car crash. We all know that “crisis moment”: when that ball sails through the window or we get out of the totaled sedan – and we often think, “Oh no, I screwed up! Dad’s gonna kill me for this! How am I ever going to pay for this?” But because of Jesus Christ, we can say, “Oh no, I screwed up! But I’m gonna call my Heavenly Father, because He will fix it and has already paid for it.” Your life, shattered by sin, broken by shame – He is able to fix it. That life that you crashed, He has already paid the price for a new one, on the Cross. This is why St. Paul declares in the second reading that “through Him, all things are reconciled to God, making peace through the Blood of His Cross.”
            And this message of hope is not just for huge sinners. If we haven’t fallen into serious sin, this too is an act of God’s mercy! In a Russian prison camp in the 1940s, one of the prisoners had been stealing bread. To put a stop to it – and to make an example – the commandant lined up all of the prisoners and told them that they would be shot at random until the thief confesses and turns himself in. There was dead silence in the camp – no one wanted to move. So the soldiers dragged a random man out of the lineup and shot him point-blank. Still, no one moved. The soldiers were about to pull another random prisoner out of the crowd when one of them stepped forward and pointed at his own chest. The guards were amazed, because this man was considered by all to be the most virtuous, sacrificial, even holy of the prisoners. He was always praying, sharing with others, taking care of the sick – was it really him who stole the bread? They ended up beating him so severely that he had to recover in the infirmary before rejoining his work crew. When he returned, the other prisoners said to him, “We know you did not steal the bread! You would never do such a thing!” He replied, “No, I did not steal it.” “Then why did you point to yourself when they were looking for the thief? You lied in saying you had done it!” He responded, “No, I did not lie. I pointed to my heart because I know that within my heart lies the capacity to do all evil. If it were not for God’s protecting grace, I would steal, lie, cheat, and fall into every kind of evil.”
            So this “good news” of Christ’s redemption is for everyone: for those who have had a sinful past, for those who still struggle with their sins, and even for those who have been preserved from sin by His grace. All of us stand in need of the redemption of Christ!
            Sometimes the media makes us think that Catholicism is all about just following certain rules and prohibitions. Many in the media would reduce our Faith to nothing but a few hot-button, controversial issues. But that would be missing the point – the whole point of our Faith is about what Jesus Christ has done for us in rescuing us from the Kingdom of Darkness by His death and resurrection. To see the Faith as nothing but rules and prohibitions and hot-button issues makes Catholicism into something depressing! As the American evangelist Billy Sunday once said, “Most men have just enough religion to make them miserable.” In other words, they are missing out on the heart of the Faith – which is what Jesus has done for us and what He offers us! This should bring us abundant joy!
            One final corollary: once we acknowledge what Jesus has done for us, we must make Him Lord of our lives. He is already the “firstborn of all creation, the image of the invisible God” as St. Paul puts it. But now He must also become our Lord, Lord of every aspect of our life. We follow Him, not to earn salvation, but in thanksgiving for the salvation He already earned for us. We don’t earn Heaven, we claim Heaven!
            My friends, this story of the Good Samaritan is about more than just our love for our neighbor. It’s also about God’s immense, sacrificial love for us. We can only love because He first loved us and redeemed us by His death on the Cross.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Immigration from a Catholic Perspective

Bulletin Column – July 14, 2019

            Recently we celebrated July 4, the day on which we give thanks for the freedom we enjoy as a country. In many ways, America represents a freedom that much of the world longs to enjoy. For this reason, we have always been a nation of immigrants, as people have flocked to our shores in search of a better life, a life of liberty and prosperity.
            But these past few years have been marked with contentious debate about immigration, pitting people like Donald Trump against people like Pope Francis. Some advocate for an exclusive nationalism, building a wall and closing borders. Others advocate for no restrictions, sanctuary cities, and welcoming the stranger. What is an American Catholic to do? What does our Church teach about immigration?
            Immigration is a complex issue because there are competing rights at stake. Catholic Social Teaching says that individuals on both sides of the issue have to balance their legitimate rights with the rights of the other.
            On one side, every country has a right to protect its borders. That’s the whole reason we have passports and armies – because we recognize that not everyone who wants to get into America is coming for the right reasons. Countries have a duty first to their own citizens – to protect them and to further their prosperity – before they consider the needs of others. This is akin to parents who must meet their own children’s needs before using their resources to help the homeless.
            On the other side, every human being has a right to food, water, safety and security, and a home. They have a right, then, to pursue these things elsewhere when their home countries become too impoverished or unsafe for them to remain there. Who among us would not want a better life for themselves and their family, when all around them is gangs and guerilla warfare and poverty?
            In addition, Catholic Social Teaching elucidates a principle called “solidarity” – meaning that we are not rugged individualists who only look out for ourselves. Rather, as Christians we ARE called to be our brother’s keeper. After all, Christ makes it clear in Matthew 25 that we will be judged on how we treat the poor, the stranger, the hungry, the sick – because how we treat them is how we treat the Lord. So, all of us cannot remain secure in our bubble and be uncompassionate to the sufferings of others, when it is possible for us to offer help to the suffering.
            With that said, what do we do about the current immigration crisis? This is a topic on which people of good will can disagree, because the Church does not advocate one specific approach over another. We have to balance the rights of the poor migrants with the rights of the country to protect its citizens.
            But in our country (and especially in our media), it is often presented that there are only two options: either build a wall, or welcome everybody. Yet, as St. Thomas Aquinas said, “Virtue is in the middle” – usually the correct answer is somewhere between these two extremes!
            So on this topic, I would advocate that we ought to seek a third option. Instead of building a wall, we rather reform our immigration system so that the path to citizenship becomes easier and quicker. We ought to give significantly more temporary (probationary) visas, so that people can become accustomed to living in this country, learn the language and the laws, and prove their character. We ought to have a zero-tolerance policy for violent crimes committed by people on visas: immediate deportation for those who commit them. We ought to offer more free ESL classes and social services to help with integration into American culture. Likewise, immigrants must seek to know the laws and language of their new country, and be willing to pay taxes and contribute to society – no more off-the-books employment, or other ways of circumventing the system.
            This topic is one that will be hotly debated for many more years, I imagine, and people with the best of intentions will still disagree. Nevertheless, our Catholic Social Teaching does give us principles to guide our decision-making, that we may seek to build a just and equitable society for all…immigrants included.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Technology: Master or Slave?

Bulletin Article – July 7, 2019

Recently I came across a disturbing video on Youtube from a few years back. It was a news report that Toyota recently came out in Japan with a pint-sized robot designed as a “synthetic baby companion”. Japan’s population is increasingly childless – births in the country have fallen by 50% in the last fifty years, and it currently has the lowest in the world at 1.44 children per woman. It’s a scary demographic – one which is being repeated over and over again in the world – but even scarier, to me, is that Toyota thinks a robot can replace a human being.

This robot, called Kirobo Mini, is outfitted with Artificial Intelligence (AI) which can mimic human conversation and moods. It is even billed as “providing comfort to those without children”. This makes me wonder – how much and how often have we replaced humanity with technology?

Those who know me know that I am a Luddite when it comes to technology. I do not own a smartphone, and I never will. I use Facebook but no other social media. Heck, I sometimes struggle to find the Yankee game on TV with the three remotes that it takes to operate the television. But the real reason that I do not participate in much technology is because I believe it can so often devolve into a substitute for real life and human interaction.

Now, technology as such is neutral. It is a tool that can be used for good or for ill. But it is also a tool that many of us – if not most of us – do not know how to control well. Instead, it controls us! How many times have we been out to eat only to look at another family at another table, their faces buried in their individual screens? When is the last time your family has had a family game night instead of everyone going to their TV or iPad after dinner? How many teens prefer to spend time gaming rather than playing sports or joining after-school activities?

In one Confirmation class I led, I challenged the kids to pray for ten minutes per day. One boy objected that he was too busy, he had no time. Later on in the conversation, he shared that he spent up to eleven hours per day on Fortnite. Wonder why he had no time to pray?

With all of our advances in technology, we need to ask the ethical question – is this leading to more human fulfillment, or less? Are we actually happier as a nation, or less, because of our technology? Is technology replacing our human interaction, our personal development, our spiritual life? A number of studies have shown a distressing link between iPhone usage and depression – the more a person is on their phone, the more they are likely to suffer from depression and anxiety.

This is going to sound like a screed against technology. And yes, that’s probably what it is, but it’s a polemic motivated by love and a desire to see all of us become the men and women God has created us to be. As we continue to advance along the ways of AI and further integrating technology into the way in which we live, we must constantly be alert to its dangers. No amount of technology can replace those things that authentically fulfill us – friendships, family, hobbies, being in nature, our relationship with God.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

The Two Ways

Bulletin Column for June 30, 2019
            Recently I read a short book that a parishioner had given me called “Don’t Let the Culture Raise Your Kids”. Written by Marcia Segelstein, she knows quite a bit about the culture, having worked for CBS News and as a columnist.
            But I found the book quite unsatisfying. It spoke at length about the many problems that our young people face in the culture: the all-pervasive Culture of Death, the hedonistic attitudes about sex, the omnipresent consumerism. The book is full of horror stories of how these cultural attitudes are being played out in schools, in the media (especially social media), and in families and neighborhoods across the country.
            But there was a large omission in the book: she did not address the fundamental worldview which produces such moral depravity.
            Why is it that it is so hard to dialogue with people who disagree with us? People who advance the pro-choice or pro-LGBT agendas; our family and friends who may be living questionable lifestyles; the mainstream media who promotes certain viewpoints to the exclusion of others – why can we not find common ground? Because there are two fundamentally different worldviews that people have which are diametrically opposed.
            The first worldview is one I will call the Traditional Christian worldview. This sees the universe as having been created by God and instilled with objective meaning and reality. Human beings are in His image and have a specific destiny (Heaven) and a specific way to attain that (holiness through union with Christ and living like Him). God has revealed truths about Himself, the universe, human beings and our destiny, through Scripture and passed down through unchanging tradition, since God and human nature does not change. God loves us, but calls us to a life of holiness and self-denial.
            The second worldview is one I will call the Modern Secular worldview. Those who hold this worldview believe that the universe as a random product of evolution. Human beings are a more advanced species but still essentially the same as animals. Their destiny is just to make the world a better place (usually defined as one where there is less suffering). Right and wrong, religion and truth, are nothing but cultural constructs that can be changed because all is subjective. If a modern secular believes in God, then He only exists to make us happy and to love us without judging.
            These two worldviews have very little in common. In many ways they are diametrically opposed on some fundamental questions: Did God have a hand in creating the universe, or was it mere chance? What does it mean to be human? What are humans’ relationship to creation? What is the value of human life, human relationships, human sexuality? What is the ultimate destiny of human beings? How should humans understand their relationship to God and His relationship to us? Did God reveal Himself, and are we bound by it? Is there objective reality at all, or is everything subjective? These questions, which are far more fundamental than the “hot-button” issues, is where our real disagreements lie.
            This is not to say that dialogue is impossible. It’s not impossible, but we need to hear the worldview beyond the issue. If our neighbor supports same-sex marriage, we cannot begin dialogue with that topic – first we must understand how deeply they believe in the Modern Secular worldview. If a family member chooses not to attend Mass, we should not always assume it is laziness – frequently it is because they have adopted the Modern Secular worldview.
            Indeed, all of us, living in America in 2019, should examine ourselves to see how much of the Modern Secular worldview we may have unintentionally imbibed.
            In sum, the mess that pervades our culture is deeper than just the hot-button issues. It stems from a fundamental flaw in our worldview, and the only way to correct it is to rectify that underlying cosmology. We do that through conversations and teaching others, but not so much on the issues themselves. Rather, we seek to share our Traditional Christian worldview which sees God and human beings in their proper order.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Holiness for All!

When I was a deacon, I was assigned to a certain parish in Baltimore as my pastoral assignment. When I arrived there, the permanent deacon who was assigned there took me out to lunch. Towards the end of lunch, he urged me to order dessert. I declined, joking that “I have two goals in life: to be a saint, and to be a thin priest – and I don’t know which one will be more difficult!”
            His reaction shocked me as he grew angry and his countenance darkened. “How arrogant of you!” he exclaimed. “You think that you can become a saint?”
            I was flabbergasted. “But doesn’t the Second Vatican Council teach us that we are all called to holiness?” I objected.
            He muttered a grudging agreement, but the rest of our meal was filled with tension.
            Recently the Australian Catholic apologist Matthew Kelly wrote a fantastic book called “The Biggest Lie in the History of Christianity”. According to him, the biggest lie is that we can’t be holy; that we’re not “saint material”. I hear that all the time, when Catholic joke about, “Oh, I hope to make it to Purgatory by the skin of my teeth.”
            Why not go all the way and seek to be a great saint? Why settle for mediocrity? We’d like to think the saints had some sort of mystical supernatural gifts – and sometimes some hagiographies (biographies of the saints) seem to put sanctity out-of-reach. For example, I remember reading that St. Catherine of Siena, as an infant, would fast on Wednesdays and Fridays by refusing to nurse at her mother’s breast (really? I find that hard to believe!). Or St. John Vianney, who used to fast on nothing but a single rotten potato per day and scourge himself using a whip until he bled (I definitely struggle keeping up with those acts of penance!). St. Rose Philipine Duschene used to pray for several hours each day (a heroic feat!). If this is what holiness consists in, then pretty much all of us will end up as spiritual runts, just because we like to surf the Internet and play sports and eat bratwurst.
            But what if holiness is something different? What if we didn’t have to imitate the saints’ extreme penances or prayer routine? I believe that you can be a saint just by living your life, and living your life for God (not necessarily living the life of the saint you most admire!).
            Matthew Kelly gives a great definition of holiness: holiness is becoming the best version of yourself. The best version of yourself! Holiness is you in your everyday life – as a mother, father, husband, wife, single person, high school student, retiree – with your specific gifts and talents (a passion for music, love for sports, great job working in business, sense of humor) – all given over to God. If you are married, seek to be the best husband or wife the world has ever seen. If you play soccer, do it all for the glory of God. If you have a good job, work at it with your whole being – not just for a paycheck but to truly better yourself and society. If we watch TV in recreation, we can make sure our shows lift us up and do not become a source of temptation. We strive to constantly overcome our sins and live a life of virtue. In all these things, cover it with prayer so that it may be God’s life in you.
            As Mother Teresa said, “Holiness is not the luxury of the few, but the simple duty of you and I.” How true that is! All of us are called to holiness in our everyday lives. We don’t need to imitate the external penances and prayers of the saints. Rather, we need to become our own saints by allowing God to be the King of every aspect of our life.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Homily for July 7, 2019 - Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for July 7, 2019
Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Christian Friendship

            Why did Jesus send out His disciples two-by-two? Doesn’t He know that He could cover twice as much ground, and preach to twice as many people if He just sent them out one-by-one? Yet the Lord realizes that we desperately need Christian friends if we are to become saints! There will be perils on this journey – Jesus Himself tells His disciples that they will be rejected, which would tempt them to lose faith if they did not have the support of their friend!
            Almost all saints became holy with the help of friends. Would we have a St. Clare if there wasn’t a Saint Francis? It was through the example and witness of his friend St. Ignatius that St. Francis Xavier converted and became a great missionary. St. Paul had his St. Barnabas, St. Augustine had his St. Ambrose. Saints often become saints with the help of devout friends!
            When I was a teen, one of my best friends was a fellow named Steven, who was a couple years younger than me. One day we were talking and I told him about how I just got my driver’s license. He was so excited for me and he said, “That’s great, Joe! Now you can get to daily Mass!” At the time I was not nearly as devout, so I probably looked at him strangely, but his response always stuck with me – he was concerned about my own growth in holiness, more than I was even concerned about it!
            And this is the value of Christian friendship – and why we all need good Christian friends. The spiritual life is a challenging endeavor – we are faced with temptations, discouragement, frustration – and we need brothers and sisters in the Lord who can encourage us and spur us onward. Scripture says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” – meaning that friendship can help to form us in holiness. A real friend will challenge us to grow, support us when we are weak, inspire us to greater virtue. Listen to these words from the Book of Ecclesiastes: “Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble. Likewise, two people lying close together can keep each other warm. But how can one be warm alone? A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken.” Friendship is so necessary for the Christian life!
            Have you ever watched those nature documentaries about life on the African savannah? The ones with the British guy narrating: “And here comes the lion, stalking his prey, moving in to take out the solitary wildebeest…” How do lions and tigers take down their prey? They have to isolate it. A herd of zebras is frightening to a lion, but if a lion is able to get one separated from the pack, then it becomes an easy lunch. Likewise, one of Satan’s biggest tactic is to isolate us. If we are cut off from Christian friendship, we become sitting ducks for the Evil One!
Unfortunately, genuine friendship is in short supply in today’s world. We have a thousand “Facebook friends” or Instagram followers, but not too many real friends with whom we can share our desire for holiness. So how do we develop and foster genuine Christian friendships? Three thoughts:
First, we must eliminate harmful friendships in our lives. Last fall a freshman at Trinity came into my office and plopped down on the couch with a heavy sigh. I asked him what was wrong and he just moaned, “Father Joseph, I’ve got to find new friends!” He recognized that his friends were not the kind of people that would not help him become the best version of himself! If our friends just want to party and get drunk and lead us into sin, we need to separate ourselves from them. In a very real way, we become like our friends. It says in the Book of Proverbs, “Walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm.”
Second, we must be intentional about finding Christian friendships. They don’t just happen! We must be willing to come to the Holy Name group for men or Walking with Purpose for women. If you’re a young adult, come to the young adult group here. We’ll be starting a youth group in the fall, so if you’re in middle school or high school you can find Christian friends there. Notice if a friend at work is wearing a cross, and ask them about it. Introduce yourself to the people sitting near you in church, who you see every week but have never spoken with! This past week someone was telling me that they love the 7:30am Mass because they can get in and out without ever having to talk to someone – what a shame! They are missing out on a great opportunity to develop Christian friendships! We must be intentional in seeking out Christian friendships – they don’t just happen!
Third, we must foster Christian friendships. Everyone in today’s world is so busy (or at least they like to think they are), and often friendships fall by the wayside. But what is more important – binge-watching the latest series on Netflix, or taking the time to pursue a relationship with others? The book of Sirach speaks about the value of friends: “A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter; he that has found one has found a treasure. There is nothing so precious as a faithful friend, and no scales can measure his excellence. A faithful friend is an elixir of life; and those who fear the Lord will find him.” We must take the time to cultivate and foster holy friendships. It takes sacrifice, but it is well-worth it.
My friends, Jesus purposely chose to send His disciples out two-by-two because He knew that we are not meant to make this Christian journey alone. Even Jesus had friends – Martha and Mary and Lazarus were among His closest companions, and at the Last Supper He said to His disciples, “I call you friends.” We desperately need Christian friendship in order to grow in holiness and to become the saints we are called to be!