Sunday, October 30, 2016

On the Election (31st Sunday per annum)

We stand a short time away from the end of another presidential election. For more than a year now, we have been bombarded with news about the political parties, the candidates, the issues, etc. Let’s face it: this has been one of the ugliest and the most drawn-out campaigns of our lives. I think it is safe to say that most of us want a do-over, because we do not like either of the major candidates. What is a Catholic to do in a time like this, in an election like this?
The first thing we must do is to tear down the apocalyptic tones that plague both sides. We’ve probably all heard it said from either side: if you elect that other person, this country will fall apart. But if we are honest with ourselves, we know that this country is already very far from the Judeo-Christian values of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers, and the election of either major candidate will not so radically change this country that either it will suddenly return to those values or abandon those values to the point of persecution. We Christians have already lost our stronghold here, and this election will not change that in either way. Our individual vote, at least on the national level, is not really as important as everyone tries to make it appear to be. But it still has an effect, not merely upon the government, but upon our eternal salvation.
Every action we commit in this world is a choice: a choice moving us towards heaven and eternal life or moving us towards hell and eternal damnation. The only true choice that we have ever been given is whether we will accept that God is King, that Jesus is Lord, that His will should be done, or whether we are King, we are Lord, and our will be done. Your vote carries with it serious consequences not merely for the future of the nation, but for the future of your salvation, for your vote indicates your support for everything a candidate believes and promises to accomplish during their time in office. The higher the office, the greater that responsibility becomes upon each one of us to make the best choice possible.
The Church, desirous of our salvation, teaches us how to be faithful not only to our civic responsibility but also to our responsibility to God to be faithful to His word, faithful to the promises we made to reject Satan and to live united to God. Our vote must reflect the beliefs of our faith because those beliefs are supposed to be the foundation of all our actions. We are meant to approach the polls not as Democrats or Republicans or independents, but as Catholics. There are indeed some things about which we can disagree: for instance, we can disagree about the best policy for aiding the poor or for how immigration should work, but we cannot disagree on the most fundamental teachings of our Catholic faith: the dignity and right to life for every human being, the proliferation of the Christian faith through religious liberty, the natural and supernatural union of man and woman in marriage, and so on. These beliefs cannot be compromised or dismissed when we decide who receives our vote.
The Church does not force us to vote, nor does she make us vote for a specific candidate. Each of us must make that decision for ourselves. Yet the Church, mindful of the goal of our faith, which is eternal life, teaches that to vote for a candidate because they hold positions contrary to our faith is to commit a mortal sin. This is called a mortal sin because, by our vote, we directly support an evil action against the will of the good God. The Church teaches us to choose the candidate who will give us the best opportunity to practice our faith both in church and in the public square. We won’t find a perfect candidate, but our political system is far from perfection.
How does this teaching of the Church translate into this election? We are faced with a few choices for president at least who are far from ideal. But there are some who are worse than others, and the worst of them all is the Democratic candidate for president, Hillary Clinton. She has continually declared her support for abortion even to nine months, for the normalization of homosexuality, for the subjugation of religious institutions and even churches to the policies of the government in contradiction to their constitutional right to express their religious belief. Beyond even this, her campaign has been active in suppressing the faithful Catholic voice in the public square and working to sabotage that voice through pseudo-Catholic organizations ran by her lackeys. Because of these positions contrary to the teachings of the Church and her antagonism towards our faith, I must warn you, as your spiritual father, that a vote for Hillary Clinton is a mortal sin, a sin which will lead to your damnation if you do not repent of it.
There is no way to justify as a Catholic voting for a candidate who has a long record of demonstrating her opposition to what we believe and profess each Sunday. There are other candidates on the ballot who hold positions far more accommodating to our faith than Mrs. Clinton, and we should look into each one of their platforms to see who will afford us the greatest opportunity to live as God commands us to live. Yet we may not find a candidate who fulfills this requirement, or none who are truly open to the practices of our faith. It is up to your conscience to decide if you can vote for any of those candidates or if you must refrain from casting a vote. But we cannot support the promotion of a candidate who desires to promote such grave evils as official government policy if she is elected to office.
We Catholics cannot remain blind to the seriousness of these actions. We need to start living not as members of political parties but as disciples of Jesus Christ, as children of God the Father, and our vote must reflect that. We need to be like Zacchaeus in our Gospel, coming down out of the sycamore tree to receive the mercy of God and to reject all our sinful ways, living in accord with the loving will of God. We need to praise God’s name not merely by words but by living an upright life in accord with what He knows is best for us.
We have 9 days before we can go to the polls. Let us do as Pope Francis recommended: let us study the issues well, let us pray fervently, then let us vote, having been informed by the Church and guided by our conscience. I have provided in the bulletin a prayer from the Knights of Columbus for our nation, and I implore each one of you to pray this prayer individually and as a family between now and Election Day. Our nation can change for the better, but it must happen first by the grace of God, and then by our cooperation with His grace and His will. Let us all pray that God may make us worthy of his calling, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in us and in our nation.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

On the Authority of the Church - 30th Sunday per annum

Exaltation and humility highlight our Gospel today. The classic understanding of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector points out that we are not to be exalted when we approach God, but rather to humble ourselves and to beg for forgiveness, mindful that it is by the grace of God won for us through the Passion of Christ that saves us, not our own actions alone or in themselves. Indeed, we are called to turn more quickly towards the Lord in our every need instead of boasting in our good works, as if we have done anything more than what we were supposed to do. But how can we humble ourselves more each day so that we may be exalted on the last day? Through our obedience to the Church.
Jesus Christ has not left us by ourselves to learn and follow the path of salvation, but He has established the Church so as to proclaim and teach this path necessary for all individuals. The Protestants will claim that our Lord left us only the Scriptures as our guide, yet this is not the case at all. After His Resurrection, Jesus gave His Holy Spirit to the Apostles and granted unto them the authority to teach in His name along with the power to confect the sacraments so necessary to salvation. The Sacred Scriptures came out of the teaching of the Apostles and serve as the divinely revealed source of the truths of our faith, but they are incapable by themselves of saving us, let alone sanctifying us on the pilgrimage of life.
The Catholic Church has been given the authority of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Son of Man, to teach and bear witness to the fullness of truth revealed to us by God through Christ. No other institution on earth can lay claim to such a divine constitution. This means that when the Catholic Church teaches, she does so not as any other earthly organization does, teaching out of interpretation or opinion, but she teaches with that same authority by which our Lord and Savior taught while He was personally present here on earth. Without the authority of the Church, we would be like the Protestants who seem to divide at ever-growing rates due to their differing interpretations of the Bible, incapable of lasting, permanent growth.
Why is this ecclesial authority so necessary? It is necessary so that we the faithful may come to know and understand the full truth of the Gospel and how this truth translates into our daily lives. The Church in matters of faith and morals does not make mere suggestions or opinions; she teaches what is to be believed and lived by every Catholic who claims the Church to be their religion. To be a Catholic is not to join a country club or political organization, but it is to give assent to all that is proclaimed and proposed by the Church as the Gospel truth. Ours is not to challenge or to deny, but to believe, to give assent, and to live it out each day.
This means that the Church will at times propose truths and teachings which will go against the wisdom of the day. In our own day, the Catholic Church stands almost alone against the growing secularism of the world which tries to deny a space for God in the public square. The Church remains firm in her beliefs against abortion, contraception, homosexual acts, abuse of minorities and the poor along with her proclamation of Jesus as Lord and King of Heaven and earth. But if the Church is to remain faithful to Christ, she must testify to the truth in season and out of season, not merely when it profits her.
If we are going to bear the label Catholic, then we must begin to listen to the Church in everything that she teaches, especially the hard truths that she proclaims. The Christian religion does not exist to make us feel good or to support the idea that we are good; the Christian religion exists to boldly proclaim the truth of Jesus Christ, the truth to which we are meant to conform our lives. Either we accept that everything the Church proposes is true, that it is to be believed, and that I must conform my life to that truth; or we deny the truth and form the superficial religion at the heart of the Pharisee in our Gospel today: the religion of self-righteousness that says I alone can judge what is right and true and good. Which shall we choose?
Brethren, the time has come for we Catholics to decide if we are really going to be Catholics faithful to the Church and her timeless teachings or if we are going to be faithful to the religion of self-assurance. We cannot exist in both circles: we shall love one and hate the other. Does the Creed really bear credence in our lives, or is it some empty words we proclaim once a week and let fall on deaf ears? Our entire lives will echo the truths that we believe, whether from Christ and His Church or from Me and the Church of Me. How do we want to be seen by Jesus the Just Judge when we stand before Him in judgment over our lives: as the Pharisee who bragged about His wrong belief or as the tax collector humbled to receive the Gospel truth and struggling to live it out? May we seek to be humbled by the truths of Christ and His Church so that we may receive the exaltation of that truth in everlasting life.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Participation in the Mass (28th Sunday per annum)

It sometimes takes an ordinary event to awaken us to the extraordinary. I think some of us want to think of God acting in a rather grand and obvious way, like the parting of the Red Sea. Yet God, more often than not, acts in the Scriptures in ordinary ways. We see this with Naaman in our first reading, who washes himself in the Jordan River so as to be cleansed of his leprosy. We see this with the ten lepers who are walking to the temple before they are healed along the way. But we also encounter this surprise of the extraordinary whenever we are present at the celebration of the sacraments.
The sacraments are not given to us in extraordinary ways, but they use rather ordinary items: water, bread, wine, oil. It is God’s way of humbling us in His use of these ordinary items to convey that extraordinary grace which is at the heart of each of the sacraments. Through water, we are cleansed of our spiritual leprosy which is sin. Through oil, we are anointed with the grace of healing and strength. And through bread and wine, we are given the spiritual food most necessary for our spiritual health. But this is not the only means whereby we encounter our extraordinary God.
We have seen through the past three weeks some of the various aspects of the Mass: as the spiritual worship of God’s People, as the rest for which our hearts yearn, and as the foretaste of that blessed place where we desire to dwell for all eternity. We have done this so as to understand this occasion at which we gather each Sunday in and out, this event that has probably become rather ordinary to most of us. Our considerations on the Mass are the beginning of our reconsideration of this rather ordinary event towards the extraordinary grace and presence of this moment.
These considerations should lead us towards a greater participation in the Mass, but that begs the question: how am I to participate in the Mass? How am I to enter into this worship, this rest, this foretaste of Heaven as God wants and as the Church has taught for her entire history? Our participation should first of all echo the actions of the Samaritan leper in our Gospel. Each one of us is like that leper, for we have all been cleansed by the blood of Christ from the spiritual leprosy of sin that had disfigured our souls. Each one of us has, like Naaman’s baby skin, been revived to spiritual youth before God. At the very least, we should thank God each and every Mass that He has forgiven us and continues to offer that forgiveness through His sacraments. But we can do more than that.
To participate in the Mass is to do more than to follow the motions of the congregation. It is also more than singing along. Our primary participation is not external but internal, not merely what our bodies our doing but what is happening within our souls. The singing of the Mass is a great part of our participation and offers a more elevated response to God, yet it is not merely in external, physical actions that we are called to enter into as we celebrate the sacred mysteries. Our internal disposition and participation is the key to all the other actions we do whenever we gather before the altar.
We must always be mindful that the Mass is not a spectator sport or a TV show, those things that make no demand of our mind or heart. One of the greatest complaints I hear from Catholics is that they don’t get anything from Mass. This is because we have not done the work we must do on our part. Our faith is like a seed: it can only grow through effort and work. If we do not water it and put it in the best soil, it will not grow to its full stature. We cannot sit back and enjoy the Mass like it’s a talk show; we must make the effort to enter into the mystery before us.
We do this through active listening: paying attention to the words of the Mass. The Church has 2000 years of experience in understanding what it means to worship and to adore God, and that comes to us through the language of the Mass. I fear that our use of our local language has made us lazy in paying attention to what the Church actually says. When we worshipped with the common Western tongue of Latin, we could join in with the prayers of the Church throughout time and space. But even with that great loss, our attention must be on what these words convey to us, why it is that we focus on such words as “sacrifice” and “worship” and “right and just”. Do not merely hear these words, but listen to them and reflect on them in your mind and heart, letting them shape your beliefs and transforming your lives. If need be, I recommend getting a missal to help you better appreciate and contemplate these words and actions as you attend Mass.
We also participate through our active praying: offering up our own prayers in union with the great prayer of the Mass. There is always something or someone to pray for: why not offer all of that up to God through the primary means He has given us? But we cannot focus only on the prayer of petition; we need to enter into the prayer of union, the prayer of the saints. The reason that the saints have flourished throughout the centuries is because of their great love for the Mass. All of the aspects of the Mass we have recently seen are from the saints who have been nourished and strengthened through this one act. It will do the same for us, but only if we let it, only if we try.
The better we pray the Mass, the greater we shall grow as individuals and as a parish. This will require changes out of us, but a change towards the greater and the better. God desires us to be with Him, and so He gives us this awe-inspiring gift of the Mass as the means of this union. Do not reject it! Do not ignore it! Make the effort to plumb the depths of these mysteries so as to be what you were made to be: a child of God, an image of Christ, a temple of the Holy Spirit. Let us not be afraid of change but seek to draw nearer to the Lord who desires not only our healing but our flourishing. Let us join the leper of the Gospel in praising God for our blessings at the Mass but also so that our faith may be increased so that we may also be saved and enter into the glories of eternal life.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Mass as Foretaste of Heaven (Part 3)

NB: This is the third in a series of sermons on the Mass, preached on the 27th Sunday per annum.

The angel showing St John the heavenly Jerusalem
Manuscript, 11th century
There are many days that we may sound like Habakkuk in our first reading: that we have cried out to the Lord due to the presence of evil, and yet it seems as if God does not hear or does not respond. The world seems to grow darker, and not just because of the change in the seasons. We feel pressed on all sides, from the militant attacks of Islam to the oppression of Western secularism. Where is God in these days? Why does He not answer us? Yet we find in two places the answers that we seek in our times of trial and difficulty.
Our readings encourages us to faith as one of those answers. In response to Habakkuk’s cry of woe, God tells the prophet that what the Lord has revealed shall come to pass, though it may not happen when the prophet desires. The divine plan of salvation works on God’s time, not ours, and we cannot rush it or advance it before the preordained moment. Nothing any of the prophets or ancient ones did before the birth of our Savior caused that birth to happen earlier. In the fullness of time Jesus was born, and not a moment too soon.
It is the same in our own day. We know that this world has an end date, the final hour when all shall be re-created and the divine judgment shall be wrought upon all souls, sending the good to eternal life and the bad to eternal punishment. We would like to see this happen now instead of waiting and enduring the hardships of our age, yet that may not be the divine plan for us. But Jesus offers us the gift of faith. He is not saying in our Gospel today that our faith must increase, as if we do not even possess the mustard seed-sized faith He mentions. What Jesus desires is for us to act in the faith we have received, no matter how large or small it may be. Our faith does not need to be increased, but it needs to be activated. If we believe, even if it is only in the few things we know and understand about God, we can persevere through the darkest of trials. And that leads to the second place where we can find the answer to this time of darkness.
What does it take to endure a long and arduous journey? It is knowing, even in some shadowy way, the destination at the end of the journey. The classic hero’s journey often does not have a definitive destination, but our hero is willing to endure whatever is thrown at him because he knows and believes in what he is fighting for. We Christians know in an intellectual sense what awaits at the end of our journey here on earth: the glorious splendor of Heaven. Yet we can lose sight of this goal amidst the temptations and trials that befall us. How do we keep ourselves single-minded in our earthly pilgrimage? Through our participation at the Mass.
We have been given the Mass as not only the primary act of worship to God, not only as the rest that strengthens our soul, but also as the foretaste of our experience in Heaven. I emphasize the word “foretaste”, for even the most splendid papal liturgies in Saint Peter’s Basilica cannot compare to the glory and majesty that we shall encounter in the halls of Heaven. Yet the Mass provides a glimpse, a pulling-back of the veil between Heaven and earth that allows us to perceive the reward of the saints.
We see this also spelled out by our patron Saint John in that awe-inspiring Book of Revelation. After outlining the final battle between the forces of good and evil, between the Lamb and the dragon, Saint John is given a vision of the new heavens and the new earth that shall endure forever after the terrifying last day of wrath and judgment. He calls it the heavenly Jerusalem, as did the Apostle in the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb 10:22-23). But John specifically points out how there is no temple in this celestial city, for God is worshipped no longer in shadows and images, but is really present among His people, and He will never be taken away.
This is the vision and the glory that is foreshadowed in the Mass. For each time we are gathered at Mass we do this not merely as a physical body, but we are united to that mystical body of the Church which occupies every age and the eternal age. We also do not merely participate in the liturgy which occurs now, but also in that final and eternal liturgy that is the reward of the just. When Jesus becomes really present to us in the Eucharist, we are brought to the wedding feast of the Lamb to His bride, that nuptial banquet that will never cease for those who have persevered in faith.
Let us take up the words of our psalm today, and seek to hear the voice of the Lord echoing to us through the Mass. Let our hearts not be hardened by the sin and sadness of the world, but let us remain faithful to God who is faithful to His word. Let us be aware of the eternal glories hidden in the Mass, of that beatific vision of God in which we will find our rest. Let us do as Saint Paul told Saint Timothy so long ago: “bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God” (2 Tim 1:8). Let us remain firm in the faith Jesus has given us so that we may join Him at the end of days in the glory that awaits His faithful ones.