Archive | January, 2012

Dual Citizenship

30 Jan

Even though it’s written on our souls rather than our passports, our true home is heaven. As God’s children by adoption (cf. Gal. 4:4-7), we are citizens of both the earthly kingdom and the heavenly kingdom.

There is one significant difference between our earthly citizenship and our heavenly citizenship. As citizens of this world, we strive to change the world for the better through our participation in human endeavors, great or small. We must be thermostats, not thermometers as we seek a cultural “climate change.”

Rather than conform to the world and simply reflect the secular mindset of the status quo, we are called to be counter-cultural agents of renewal and reconciliation (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17-20) as we strive to build a civilization of life and love. Our Lord calls us to be leaven in the world; just “fitting in” doesn’t quite cut it.

After all, as Catholics we have the advantage of the fullness of revealed truth. We also have a rich corpus of social teaching and a developed sense of the natural law that the Magisterium preserves from error–or social engineering. The Church’s urgent call to Catholic laity today is that we use these blessings to help transform the temporal order, including social, political, and economic realities, especially in the upcoming Year of Faith.

As citizens of heaven, though, we strive to allow the Lord to change us through our participation in the communion of saints. Continue reading

Will Shields and the Objective Superiority of Consecrated Life

25 Jan

As Pope John Paul II affirmed in his 1996 apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata (Consecrated Life), “Christian tradition has always spoken of the objective superiority of the consecrated life” (no. 18).

In today’s world, there is a built-in suspicion of any and all claims to objective truth. But in this particular case, even some faithful Catholics have difficulty accepting the truth that consecrated life, and also the sacred priesthood, are objectively higher callings than vocations to marriage or to the single life.

At the same time, Vatican II rightly emphasized the “universal call to holiness” of all baptized Christians. In other words, we’re all called to be saints, and we all therefore have a vital role to play in the Church’s mission. In that sense, all the baptized are “equal” and play a vital role in building up the Church.

So we need to balance, on the one hand, the “objective superiority” of consecrated life, and on the other hand, the “subjective superiority” of being faithful to our personal vocation in Christ, whatever it may be.

As a long-standing, diehard Kansas City Chiefs fan, I need to trot out my Will Shields analogy:

We all know that the quarterback is objectively the most important position in football. Quarterbacks handle the ball on every play. They are typically acclaimed when the team wins, and they are blamed when the team loses. Ask Matt Cassel. They make the most money, and they get to do most of the commercials, especially when they’re “6′5″ with laser-rocket arms” like Peyton Manning.

Meanwhile, offensive linemen do much of the grunt work in relative obscurity. They’re rarely noticed except when they commit a penalty or the defensive lineman they’re suppose to block crushes the quarterback.

Will Shields, a long-time offensive lineman for the Chiefs, retired a few years ago. He was named to the Pro Bowl about a dozen times (after awhile I lost count), and one day he will be enshrined among pro football’s elite in the Hall of Fame, having achieved a level of greatness on and off the field that very few quarterbacks have achieved. In fact, this year he is a semi-finalist for this honor, in his first year of eligibility.

In a real sense, he embraced his calling and used his gifts appropriately and well. Surely if he insisted on being a quarterback at 300+ pounds, he would never have had anywhere near the same level of success. The offensive line was his particular path to football immortality, and he fully embraced it.

Similarly, the “superior” vocation for any given individual is the one that the Lord has chosen for us. Fidelity to our own calling and gifts is our road to sanctity. We need to emphasize the personal vocation in Christ given to each and every Catholic at their Baptism, yet without denying the objective beauty, desirability, and yes, “superiority” of a life fully consecrated to Our Lord.

Together as a Church we have to come to a proper balance on all this, as the Church has many members, but is truly one Body.

A Word to the Verbose

24 Jan

My “guardian angel” left this quote from St. Francis de Sales on my desk a couple years ago, and it’s been there ever since. Since today is his feast day, I thought I would share it with our readers:

“The worst defect in talking is talking too much. Hence, in speech be brief and virtuous, brief and gentle, brief and simple, brief and charitable, brief and amiable.”

Okay, I get the message. (Don’t have to hit me over the head!) Need I look further for a New Year’s resolution?

Prayers for Life

23 Jan

There are now are two brand new texts for a Mass “For Giving Thanks to God for the Gift of Human Life.” As today marks the 39th anniversary of the tragic Roe v. Wade decision, with countless pilgrims gathering in Washington and throughout the country for “March for Life” and similar events, one of these special votive Masses would be especially appropriate today.

The opening prayer, or “collect,” for the first of these Masses beautifully expresses the prayer and aspirations of millions of pro-lifers:

God our Creator, we give thanks to you, who alone have the power to impart the breath of life as you form each of us in our mother’s womb; grant, we pray, that we, whom you have made stewards of creation, may remain faithful to this sacred trust and constant in safeguarding the dignity of every human life. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The collect for the other Mass is equally moving:

O God, who adorn creation with splendor and beauty and fashion human lives in your image and likeness, awaken in every heart reverence for the work of your hands, and renew among your people a readiness to nurture and sustain your precious gift of human life. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.



Laity on the Line

20 Jan

Today’s first reading at Mass, from 1 Samuel 24, provides us some important biblical insights as to how we are to treat our religious leaders. King Saul and his henchmen are hunting down David and his band of followers. Saul has fallen out of favor with the Lord and has unleashed a demonic quest to kill David. Just two chapters earlier, Saul put to death 85 priests simply because they gave comfort and assistance to David!

For his part, David has been a loyal subject. His defeat of Goliath and other military exploits, however, have only fueled Saul’s envy and malice. King Saul continues his relentless pursuit of David amidst rugged terrain.

In this scene, Saul wanders into a cave to “ease nature” (1 Sam. 24:4). David and his men, unbeknownst to Saul, happen to be hiding in another part of the cave. Here is David’s chance to bring down the wicked king who is doing everything in his power to kill him. David sneaks over to where Saul is and cuts off the end of Saul’s mantle, presumably as proof that he did have the opportunity to kill Saul if he had so chosen. But David quickly regrets doing that, and proceeds to give not only his followers, but all of us, some important lessons.

First, David refuses to harm Saul. Why? Because Saul is the “Lord’s anointed” (1 Sam. 24:7) and a father to him.

Second, David restrains his men and won’t permit them to harm Saul. This was a matter of principle, not tactics. And this loyalty isn’t merely a ploy to gain others’ esteem. When David later hears of Saul’s demise, he rends his garments, mourns, weeps, and fasts for his fallen king, and he even puts to death the young Amelekite man who gave the final death blow to Saul because he “desecrated the Lord’s anointed” (2 Sam 1:14-16).

Third, David addresses King Saul in a manner that reflects the respect owed to “the Lord’s anointed.” He calls him “my lord the king” (1 Sam. 24:9) and later as his father (1 Sam. 24:11). When he gets Saul’s attention, he bows with his face to the earth and shows him reverence. Saul’s manifest unworthiness does not deter David from showing honor to his lawful king.

Fourth, David speaks directly to the king, stating his case clearly and courageously. He is able to point to his impeccable record of loyalty to Saul as he implores him not to listen to those who seek his life. In the end, he places his trust in the Lord to judge the matter rightly, but reiterates that he will not raise his hand against Saul.

David’s words pierce Saul, who calls David his son and acknowledges that David is more righteous than he. Saul’s repentance is short-lived, and shortly thereafter he dies at the hands of the Philistines. David becomes the great king, from whose line would come the Savior of the world. Continue reading

MLKing the Holiday

16 Jan

As the father of two dark-skinned, biracial sons, I have mixed feelings about Martin Luther King Day.  How will I explain this annual celebration to them as they get older?

On the one hand, I have several misgivings about this relatively new holiday. After all, in his private life MLK was reportedly no saint, and surely the civil rights movement is bigger than any one individual–even one as formidable as Dr. King. And this at a time when we’re downsizing holidays, when even Lincoln and Washington no longer have their own holidays but rather get lumped together into Presidents’ Day.

Maybe instead of a new holiday we could have added a civil rights dimension to our Independence Day celebration, as finally all races in our land are “free at last.”

I guess I’m also a little frustrated about society’s encroachment on religious holy days. Sundays in our culture have become more of a sequel to Saturday than a day set aside for worship, family, and rest from one’s labors. I’m concerned about days of extraordinary religious significance, such as Good Friday, becoming more “ordinary,” and Holy Days of Obligation becoming such a lost cause that many Church leaders feel compelled to move them to Sundays, presumably because at least then there’s a better chance of getting people to show up for Mass.

I realize that’s a lot to put on MLK Day. But then there’s also the political agendas that are unmistakably linked to the celebration. In that regard, the day is quite PC. Just an hour ago, for example, I heard ESPN link the holiday to the “gay” rights movement. While most national holidays bring everyone together, MLK Day strikes some discordant notes, despite the worthy goal of celebrating the achievements of Dr. King.

Despite all that, since MLK Day is here to stay for the foreseeable future, I have chosen to enjoy the holiday, for four reasons:

(1) Hello! It’s a holiday!  Who wants to look a gift day off in the mouth?  While it’s not a Sunday, it’s still a fitting day for worship, rest, and relationship-building within the family. So this can be a really great day if we use it well.

(2) Okay, MLK was not a saint, but neither were most of our Founding Fathers, yet we rightly revere them for their role in the formation of our country. MLK did some courageous things that have had a lasting impact on our culture. The day gives us a chance to consider this impact and to see how much farther we need to travel to overcome racial divisions.

(3)  Even as we celebrate MLK Monday, we still must not lose sight of the holiday par excellence: Sunday, the Lord’s Day.  MLK Day is all day, not just 45 min. or an hour. So, too, our Sunday observance should be all day. How often do we forget that keeping the Lord’s Day holy goes beyond simply “getting to Mass,” important as that is? For more on that subject, click here. MLK Day and all secular holidays can teach us how to “rest” in the deepest sense, which could carry over into the way we look at Sundays and other holy days.

(4) Despite my sons’ African-American roots, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how little racism I’ve encountered. Sure, there’s the occasional ignorant comment, but for the most part–thanks in large part to MLK–my boys aren’t subjected to the bigotry that existed even in my youth. This day gives me, and all of us, a chance to reflect on the greater spiritual reality that nobody has to sit at the back of the bus, that nobody is a second-class citizen in the eyes of God. As St. Paul wrote: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27-28).

So let’s stay on message and “MLK” the holiday for all it’s worth!

An earlier version of this article appeared at Catholic Hour, the blog of My Catholic Faith Delivered.

Ordinary Time

13 Jan

Well, it’s finally over. While the world took their Christmas stuff down at midnight on the 25th, we held strong, our tree blazing straight through New Year’s and the whole week after. But now it’s officially over. Bye, bye Christmas, hello Ordinary Time. Though the color for Ordinary Time is green, what we see a lot of here in the absence of snow is muddy brown. It’s time to hunker down into winter, with nothing but Valentine’s Day to tide us over into Lent.

As we enter this season from Christmas, my thoughts have turned to the Holy Family’s long stretch of ordinary time. They had some absolutely amazing experiences that first Christmas, didn’t they? Visits from angels, a few long road trips, a huge star, visits from shepherds and Magi, prophesies from Simeon and Anna, royal gifts and stern warnings in dreams. Later, there would be more amazing things: healings and walking on water, huge crowds of followers, the conversion of sinners, controversy with authorities and of course a humiliating death and triumphant resurrection. But in between these two brief spans of years where God manifested himself very plainly were 30 years where he settled into life as any ordinary carpenter’s son.

Isn’t this how our lives are? We have very profound events in our lives: marriage, births, deaths, illnesses, graduations, milestone birthdays. We have profound religious experiences too: initial conversion s or reversions, intense retreat experiences, spiritual epiphanies, etc. But the majority of our lives are much more mundane. We settle into a routine of commuting, house cleaning, nose wiping, errands and carpool. Our spiritual lives take on a pattern too of daily prayer, grace before meals, Sunday Mass, monthly confession and whatever other practices we make part of our family’s religious life. There can be a temptation to become a little ho-hum about everything, or to live distractedly, always latching on to the next thrill, whether it be the next night out or the next retreat.

This is a serious thing, since the mundane makes us such a huge majority of our lives! It is also why I think God decided to make it such a big part of his own earthly life. He could easily have come as a conquering king, swishing down from heaven in grown-up form to save the day. He could have started his ministry that day in the Temple, when at 12 years old he was already blowing away the Rabbis. But he didn’t. Taking on our humanity meant taking on the vast expanse of years in simple, poverty-line family life. Everything Jesus touches turns to gold. That is why he chose to live a quiet, hidden life in Nazareth for those 30 years. It’s where his sanctifying work began. Not only did he begin suffering for us then through hard work, obedience to his parents and the humility of not being recognized as the creator of the universe, but he transformed those daily things so that they could sanctify us, too.

What will you do today? I will attempt to teach my son to add, read and know more about Jamestown and mountain habitats. I will likely change 2 or 3 poopy diapers and subject my children to baths. I will drop the kids off and head into work for afternoon meetings. I will make three meals and two snacks, give out several reminders, text back and forth with my husband and my mom. While I hope that these things are done with a smile, I will not be surprised if they are accompanied by whining and grumbling: by either me or my family. Therefore, the day will also likely contain several apologies. With my list or with yours, there is hidden grace. The grace of doing our duty with love.

So today as I run through my to-do list, I will try to steal away a moment to think about Mary making bread for the evening meal, going to the well for water, mending and washing clothes. I will think of Joseph who scraped by a living for his family by the sweat of his brow, and little Jesus, wisdom incarnate, doing his chores and memorizing his lessons. I will think of the inconceivable miracle living in that tiny Nazarene household and ask that family to help me see the miracle in mine, as well.

Getting Personal

12 Jan

Our Lord Jesus Christ calls each one of us to an intimate, personal relationship with Him. Unfortunately, some Catholics are uncomfortable with this “personal relationship” terminology.

Yet Christianity is not a mere moral code, ethnic club, or cultural phenomenon. Rather, at its very core is the acceptance of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as our personal Lord and Savior.

As we take positive steps to nurture this personal relationship, we must continually return to this fundamental point: It is God who initiates the relationship. God has first loved us, and our vocation is to respond to that love. And God does not merely initiate the relationship; He goes looking for us! That’s what the Incarnation–the Word becoming flesh–is all about.

This awesome truth helps us to see the Eucharist in a new light. Before we enter God’s world as His beloved children, He first enters ours. Since the pre-eminent way that God remains in our world is through the Holy Eucharist, then the Eucharist must give us important clues as to why Christ assumed human nature in the first place (see Catechism, nos. 456-60). The Eucharist points not so much to God’s “inaccessible transcendence” so much as it does to His “divine condescension.” The Eucharist is about God coming to us. Continue reading

Right Here, Right Now

10 Jan

I spent a couple wonderful years with a religious community in the 1980s as I was discerning a possible vocation to the priesthood and religious life. One day, they brought in a well-known retreat master to give the two dozen or so seminarians a day of recollection.

The first words of the priest to begin the day of recollection really startled me. He bluntly said, “None of you are called to the priesthood.” I looked around the room at all the postulants and said to myself, “Boy, Father Tom (the community’s vocation director) sures knows how to pick ‘em!”

The priest then explained that our vocation is “now,” that we must respond wholeheartedly to the Lord right here, right now by being holy seminarians. In five or six years, God willing, the bishop will lay hands on some of us, and then–and only then–would we truly be called to the priesthood.

As it turned out, I wasn’t one of the men called to become a priest. Yet, this important lesson has always stayed with me as a lay Catholic.

A crucial part of the lesson is to seek eternal life right now. This can be quite challenging given the pace of daily life in the world. Further, we already tend to think of eternity exclusively as the sequel to this life. In other words, we live our thirty or sixty or ninety years on this earth, and then only when we die does eternal life begin.

However, eternal life is a present reality. Sure, in this life “eternity” (literally a dimension outside of time) and temporality coexist, while only after we die will we experience eternal life in its fullness without the admixture of time. But make no mistake–there are seeds of eternity in us now. If there weren’t, we’d have no basis for believing that we will continue to experience life–the eternal, “abundant” life (Jn. 10:10)–after we die.

Scripture frequently presents eternal life as a present reality. For example, in John 17:3, Jesus says, “This is eternal life, to know You, the one true God, and Jesus Christ, whom He has sent.” He doesn’t say, “This will be eternal life . . .”

The present moment is the junction between time and eternity. The past and the future are real, but they are exclusively temporal realities and so they lack the dynamism of “right here, right now.” God’s grace, which plants and nourishes in us the seeds of eternal life, is encountered in the present moment as we strive to live in God’s presence and accept His sovereignty in our lives.

Scripture does present us the case of St. Dismas, the good thief who converted at the very end of his life so that “this day” he was with the Lord in paradise (see Lk. 23:43). However, we can’t presume that when we come to the end of our lives that we’ll have the time and proper disposition to accept our Lord’s invitation. That’s a future thing. God speaks to us right here, right now.

We do well, then, to heed the Psalmist’s words, “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts” (Ps. 95:7). Or, as St. Paul puts it, “Now is the acceptable time! Now is the day of salvation! (2 Cor. 6:2).

Or, as a retreat master once told a bunch of fledgling seminarians, “Vocation is now.”

God Is Greater Than Our Hearts

5 Jan

This week at Mass we’re being treated to readings from the First Letter of John. I thought today’s reading was especially inspiring, especially the second half of it:

“The way we came to know love was that he laid down his life for us; so we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If someone who has worldly means sees a brother in need and refuses him compassion, how can the love of God remain in him? Children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth.

“Now this is how we shall know that we belong to the truth and reassure our hearts before him in whatever our hearts condemn, for God is greater than our hearts and knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence in God” (1 Jn. 3:16-21).

Today is also the feast of St. John Neumann, not to be confused with the recently beatified John Henry Newman. This 19th-century immigrant priest became known as the Apostle of the Alleghenies, and he later became the Bishop of Philadelphia. While most saints lived long ago in far away places, St. John Neumann is very much part of our own cultural history. This was brought home to me when I lived in Ohio. I belonged to the St. John Neumann Knights of Columbus Council, and in our St. John Neumann adoration chapel, we actually had baptismal and marriage records signed by none other than this holy cleric!

St. John Neumann eventually became a U.S. citizen, and he was the first U.S. bishop to become a saint. Let’s take this opportunity to pray, through the intercession of St. John Neumann, for our own bishops and priests.

Speaking of bishops and Philadelphia, I was edified to read about Archbishop Charles Chaput’s plans to sell the palatial archbishop’s residence, which I think sends the right messages to his new flock in Philadelphia. Like Cardinal O’Malley in Boston, Archbishop Chaput is a Capuchin Franciscan, whose simplicity and poverty can be a breath of fresh air amidst the scandals and parish closures affecting those two major archdioceses.