Sunday, June 24, 2012

Free for All

Bonne fête à tous!

   The Nativity of St. John the Baptist   

June 24th is a big day for our neighbors to the north,
as the province of Québec celebrates la-Saint-Jean-Baptiste.
No one’s quite sure how John the Baptist
became so beloved among French Canadians.
Saint Joseph has been the official patron of what would become Canada
since the 1600’s…but his feast day is in March,
and it’s not the best time of the year to have a party.
So with John the Baptist’s birthday
happily coinciding with the start of summer,
I guess he was an obvious choice for a fun-loving people!
The early observances of the feast in Québec
carried over traditions from Europe:
lighting bonfires, for example, during the night preceding June 24th
one of the shortest nights of the year.
But the celebrations grew over time—
in particular, during the mid-1800’s.
Festive parades began to spring up,
often including a small boy 
dressed up as a young Saint John,
escorting a lamb through the town.
A flag was designed for the festivities,
which looks an awful lot 
like the provincial flag of Québec today,
except with a large image 
of Jesus’ Sacred Heart at its center.
(You can still see this flag 
in one of the stained glass windows
upstairs at Notre Dame.)
Everything, of course, led up to the celebration
of a solemn, sung High Mass 
in the principle church of each region.

But times have changed.
The stirring sermons of old began to be replaced
by patriotic speeches concerning national identity and pride.
The sung Masses in the churches faded away
as concerts and dancing sprang up in the parks.
The flag of fleur-de-lis still waves…
...but lacks the Sacred Heart.
And the parades continued…
...but without a little John the Baptist.
In fact, since a government decree of 1977,
June 24th is now officially known 
as La Fête nationale du Québec—
the National Holiday of Québec.
Even in name, 
it’s become a pretty thoroughly 
secular observance.

Faith, it seems, 
has gradually given way to politics.

This past Thursday, Catholics in the United States—
at the urging of our Bishops—
began observing a “Fortnight for Freedom,”
leading up to our own national holiday on the 4th of July.
Most people who’ve heard of it
have scratched their heads wondering,
“What in the world is a fortnight?”
That’s an old-fashioned word for fourteen days.
But we’d do much better during these two weeks
—in my opinion—to spend our time considering, 
“What is freedom?”
We live in an age 
that often confuses liberty with license.
Despite popular notions to the contrary,
everybody getting to do everything they want
is not the definition of democracy;
it’s the definition of anarchy—
a proven recipe for chaos.
A truly free people is governed not by the principles of majority rule,
but by the principles of the common good.
According to its founding documents,
our nation was intended to be one
where the law of the land is determined
not by what will help keep our elected officials in power,
but by what’s in accord with our human nature—
and our human nature, of course, is determined
by the God who made us.

The current troubled nature
of the relationship between faith and freedom
is not—though some who portray it so—
because religion is under violent political attack.
If that were the case,
then both the enemies of the Church and her plan for defense
would be abundantly clear.
The real danger we face today is one of neglect.
Many of the Catholic faithful in America
are—to put it bluntly—unfaithful.
They do not come to Mass with regularity;
they do not give Church teaching much influence over their lives;
they are overwhelmingly uneducated in the faith,
whether from lack of information or from misinformation.
Ignorance and apathy are the real enemies the Church now faces…
…and they are some of the most difficult to defeat
because they do not launch a full frontal assault,
but foster a slow, downward slide.

The goal of the prayer and penance, the education and action
that make up the current Fortnight for Freedom
isn’t that the U.S. become a Catholic nation,
nor even an explicitly Christian one.
This is not an attempt to impose our religious doctrines or discipline.
(A quick look around the world reveals
how such efforts regularly degenerate into violence.)
But what the Church hopes for American Catholics
is that we’ll make an honest examination of our national values:
how they’re established, and then how they’re expressed in law.
It’s a rather foolish—though frequently repeated—thing to say
that faith and politics must never meet.
We can’t give God sway—as he desires—of every aspect of our lives
and then make an exception for this one.
And I don’t think it’s too much to aim for
a respectful and reasoned dialogue between the two.

In the history of Israel,
prophets arose at the same time 
as did kings.
Even divinely anointed rulers 
had a tendency to forget
that their kingdom was to be governed by the law of God
rather than selfish human interests.
Prophets were appointed 
to remind kings of this.
Needless to say, 
it’s always been a tense relationship!
John the Baptist—
even from his birth—
arrives on the scene
as a prophet to the nations 
and a light for Israel:
preparing a way for the Lord 
who comes to set all people free.
But the freedom announced by John 
and won for us by Christ
is clearly not primarily 
a political reality—
not a matter of self-rule;
not the elimination of all government interference and restrictions.
The Baptist, after all, 
died at the hands of a puppet king,
and Jesus himself was sentenced 
under the laws of Roman occupation.
Thus the freedom for which 
we are to work and pray 
during these days
is not simply the ability to choose the manner in which we worship—
even whether we worship at all.

It’s an inner freedom—a freedom of conscience—
which naturally seeks outward expression:
the freedom to pursue the truth and live our lives according to it.
True religious liberty is not so much a matter of what we’re free from.
(Faith, you’ll remember, has generally best flourished
when it’s been most aggressively oppressed.).
No, true religious liberty is a matter of what we’re free for:
free for virtue; free to live by a higher law;
free to do good, and free to be good;
free to know God, and free to love and serve God in all things.
Such a freedom ought to always be protected by civil authorities…
…but even when it isn’t,
such a freedom can never really be taken away
because it’s part of our innate human dignity—
a freedom which has been granted,
not by the Constitution, but from above.

It is of this freedom that we—like Saint John the Baptist—
are called to be courageous prophets in the world today.

Unlike our neighbors in Québec,
our national holiday was never an explicitly religious one.
And it’s not the purpose of our Church to make it so.
But during this Fortnight for Freedom leading up to Independence Day, 
we are reminded of our duty as Catholics
to be a real force for good in our beloved country.
Following in the footsteps of Saint John the Baptist,
let us courageously seek and speak the truth
which alone has the power to set all people free.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Good Man

To all you Dads out there: a very happy Father's Day!

   Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

Robert Sargent Shriver died last year 
at the age of 95.
A devout Catholic, 
he had led a very full and noteworthy life:
he graduated from Yale 
and volunteered for the US Navy;
he married into the powerful Kennedy family 
and had five children;
he ran for Vice President
and served as American ambassador to France;
he was the founding director of the Peace Corps
and helped his wife, Eunice, 
start the Special Olympics.

His son, Mark, recalls that when his dad died
it seemed like everybody knew him,
and it also seemed that everybody—
from politicians to priests to trash collectors—
had the very same thing to say: “He was a good man.”

Mark Shriver has just written a memoir about his dad
with the unsurprising title,
A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver.
And in a recent interview about the book,
he takes the opportunity to reflect upon the difference
between being good and being great 
Great men and women, he says, because of their ambition
have lots of money, power, or prestige…
…but you probably wouldn’t want to have dinner 
or a drink with them.
They have accomplished remarkable things,
but they’re often not nice, and they don’t treat people right;
“when the lights are turned off and no one's paying attention,
they're not good."
Mark says that his father, on the other hand,
was as kind to the waitress at his favorite restaurant
and the guy at the airport ticket counter
as he was to presidents and cardinals and business executives.
Little wonder they all said the same: “He was a good man.”

Mark Shriver wrote his book because he wanted to figure out
just what was the secret to his father’s good life.
“What was the key to that life that he led?” he asks.
“That he was happily married for 56 years to the woman of his dreams,
that he raised five kids that all love him,
that he had countless friends.
He went to Mass on a daily basis,
yet he still did all of these great things,” Mark says.
“I think it really was his faith that gave him that foundation.”

In the gospel this Sunday, Jesus tells us two parables about seeds.
What a wise teacher Jesus is to use parables!
By teaching through such open-ended stories,
Jesus lets each of us apply them to our own lives,
and thus they remain just as vivid and relevant now
as when first spoken nearly 2,000 years ago.
So on this Father’s Day,
and in these final days leading up to graduation for the Class of 2012,
there is something to be learned from these parables of the seeds—
the scattered seeds that grow unseen to yield a rich harvest of grain;
the mustard seed which starts out so small a tiny bird can eat it,
but that has the potential to out forth large branches
in which many birds can make their home.  (cf. R. Bensen)

To all you dads: Be good men.
While your children and grandchildren may be rightly impressed
by the many great things you’re able to accomplish,
remember that it’s the small things you do, the good things,
that will matter most in the end.
Be good men, and be men of God.
Scatter seeds of faith in the hearts of your children—
something done best not with words alone,
or through show of brute strength,
but by your own good example.
Faith grows and sprouts in the Lord’s own time, we know not how.
But it needs to be cultivated and fertilized,
to be weeded and pruned.
Despite many impressions to the contrary,
religion is not “woman’s work.”
Your fatherhood, your goodness,
is meant to be a reflection of God’s own.
Whether you’re here in church or back at home,
off at work 
or casting into your favorite fishing hole,
in order for our Catholic faith 
to flourish and grow strong
in the hearts of generations to come,
we need your constant, courageous witness 
to that faith today.

And to our graduates:
You stand ready to turn the page 
on a new chapter in your lives.
There’s much excitement—
and a little fear, I’m sure—
about all that lies ahead.
Your minds are filled with dreams 
of doing great things.
Pursue those dreams!  Aim high!
But in your desire to do great and important things,
do not neglect to be good,
for to be good men and women
would be your greatest achievement of all.
Great people oftentimes forget their roots,
but good people stay in touch 
with their humble beginnings.
Allow the seeds of faith, the seeds of the kingdom,
which have already been sown within you—
no matter how small and insignificant they may now seem—
allow these seeds to sprout, to grow, and to ripen to harvest.
Keep close Christ and close to his Church,
wherever you go and whatever you do.
In that is the key to a good life,
for only God can take our littleness
and turn it into something both truly good and truly great.

As you might well imagine, 
in the high-powered Kennedy-Shriver family
there could be more pressure 
to be great than to be good.
“I think when you're surrounded by that culture,”
Mark recalled near the end of the interview,
“where you're trying to change the world,
or putting a man on the moon, 
or trying to defeat Communism,
for a kid that can be confusing 
because you can think,
'Wow, I've got to do something like that as well,'
and I definitely had those thoughts."
But by watching his father,
Mark Shriver learned that it’s often harder 
to be good than to be great.
"And that's what my dad did incredibly well,” he says,
balancing faith and family and friends
and doing something for the community.

You see, it’s not enough for any of us to strive for greatness.
God is calling us to something more—
God’s calling us to be good.
Lets each of us allow that small seed to grow.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Oh, Baby!

A parishioner from a former assignment sent me this earlier today...commenting that she'd probably have tried some of this stuff as a child.  Hysterical!


At War?

This isn't the first time Bill Press has pressed my buttons.  In response to his most recent column, I sent the following letter to the editor of our local paper, The Malone Telegram; it was published today.

To the Editor:

I write in response to Monday’s editorial by syndicated columnist Bill Press (“Nuns on the run—and on the bus”).

Please allow me to begin by saying that I have the utmost respect for the Catholic religious sisters and nuns of the United States. They were an essential component of my own educational experience from kindergarten all the way through post-graduate studies. I have also been blessed to serve with them in parish ministry and count a number among my most treasured friends. I know them, as a whole, to be women of deep faith, most generous with their gifts, and movingly compassionate. All Americans—and not just Catholics—owe a huge debt of gratitude to these courageous souls who educated the urban immigrant poor for generations, tended to bloody soldiers on the battlefields of Gettysburg, and marched at the front of the line in the civil rights movement. It would be very difficult to exaggerate their contributions to the overall good of our society.

But Mr. Press does manage to exaggerate a whole lot of things in his editorial—not to mention get many other things dead wrong.

Confusion abounds about the Vatican's recent announcement concerning the need for dialogue and intervention with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), a coordinating body that represents almost 80 percent of Catholic sisters in the U.S. Mr. Press’s words only serve to foster further misunderstanding. His comments about the lackluster work ethic of American Catholic priests and bishops, for example, are not only inaccurate based on my own experience, but exceedingly insulting. (I invite him to come and follow me around for a week and see if he might revise his opinion.) Personal attacks are a most cowardly—and ineffective—way to try and bolster one’s augment.

Bishop Leonard Blair of Stockton, California, was intimately involved in the doctrinal assessment of the LCWR that led to the recent announcement. The overwhelming amount of misinformation in both the Catholic and the secular press—and the manner in which it has been allowed to sway public opinion—led him to release a very helpful statement at the end of last week. It begins, “When you are in a position of leadership or authority, it is a great cross sometimes to know first hand the actual facts of the situation, and then have to listen to all the distortions and misrepresentation of the facts that are made in the public domain.” He goes on to share a side of the story with which Mr. Press—and many other reporters and commentators—seem to be completely unfamiliar. His full statement is available on YouTube; I encourage you to look for “Reality Check with Bishop Leonard P. Blair.”

The major thrust of Mr. Press’s critique seems to be that Catholic clergy are out of step with the mainline notions of American culture. To my understanding, that’s by-and-large right where we ought to be. After all, it’s not like Jesus was in lockstep with the prevailing customs and culture of his day—religious or otherwise. Why else would he have been crucified? Like Christ, the Church is called precisely to be countercultural: to challenge reigning assumptions; to propose another way of seeing; to encourage another, better way of living. If this flies in the face of societal norms (sexual matters seem to be Mr. Press’s hang up, much as he similarly impugns of the bishops), then it’s probably a sign that we’re on the right track.

The review of the policies and practices of the LCWR that the Vatican is now beginning is nothing new or unique. Several weeks ago, I spoke with a faculty member from an American seminary that had undergone a similar “investigation” just a few years back. This priest noted that there was much trepidation prior to the process, but that the end result was a seminary much stronger for having examined itself closely in ways with otherwise might have been avoided. He concluded that what had been at first feared turned out to be an overwhelmingly positive experience. I have spoken with sisters here in the North Country who are trying to see this current review of the LCWR in the very same light. I can only pray that such a wise and prudent perspective might prevail. No one is declaring “war” on anybody here, and creating an adversarial atmosphere only serves to make matters worse. The Church is at its best when in a constant state of reform. We can’t help make the world a better place if we’re not constantly striving to be better ourselves.

So if you run into a nun—and we’ve got some mighty fine ones right here in Malone—be sure to stop and thank her for her selfless work for the good of the Church and the good of the entire human family. Our society needs their faithful witness now as much as ever.

Rev. Joseph W. Giroux
Malone Catholic Parishes

Of course, in my twisted mind, the thought of going to war with nuns conjures up this sort of thing...

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Unique...Just Like Everybody Else

A few months back, the following strip got cut out from the Sunday comics and stuck up on the rectory fridge (we tend to do that with stuff that catches our eye or tickles out funny bone):

So my ears really perked up when I heard a portion of On Point on NPR in the car midmorning.  What was playing was a portion of a high school commencement address delivered in Wellesley, Massachusetts last Friday by English teacher David McCullough, Jr.  Well worth a listen, or a read--whichever your preference.  It's smart; it's funny; it'g got something to say even to those of us who aren't quite a member of the Class of 2012.

Dr. Wong, Dr. Keough, Mrs. Novogroski, Ms. Curran, members of the board of education, family and friends of the graduates, ladies and gentlemen of the Wellesley High School class of 2012, for the privilege of speaking to you this afternoon, I am honored and grateful.  Thank you.

So here we are… commencement… life’s great forward-looking ceremony.  (And don’t say, “What about weddings?”  Weddings are one-sided and insufficiently effective.  Weddings are bride-centric pageantry.  Other than conceding to a list of unreasonable demands, the groom just stands there.  No stately, hey-everybody-look-at-me procession.  No being given away.  No identity-changing pronouncement.  And can you imagine a television show dedicated to watching guys try on tuxedos?  Their fathers sitting there misty-eyed with joy and disbelief, their brothers lurking in the corner muttering with envy.  Left to men, weddings would be, after limits-testing procrastination, spontaneous, almost inadvertent… during halftime… on the way to the refrigerator.  And then there’s the frequency of failure: statistics tell us half of you will get divorced.  A winning percentage like that’ll get you last place in the American League East.  The Baltimore Orioles do better than weddings.)
But this ceremony… commencement… a commencement works every time.  From this day forward… truly… in sickness and in health, through financial fiascos, through midlife crises and passably attractive sales reps at trade shows in Cincinnati, through diminishing tolerance for annoyingness, through every difference, irreconcilable and otherwise, you will stay forever graduated from high school, you and your diploma as one, ‘til death do you part.
No, commencement is life’s great ceremonial beginning, with its own attendant and highly appropriate symbolism.  Fitting, for example, for this auspicious rite of passage, is where we find ourselves this afternoon, the venue.  Normally, I avoid clichés like the plague, wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole, but here we are on a literal level playing field.  That matters.  That says something.  And your ceremonial costume… shapeless, uniform, one-size-fits-all.  Whether male or female, tall or short, scholar or slacker, spray-tanned prom queen or intergalactic X-Box assassin, each of you is dressed, you’ll notice, exactly the same.  And your diploma… but for your name, exactly the same.
All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special.
You are not special.  You are not exceptional.
Contrary to what your u9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing special. 
Yes, you’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped. Yes, capable adults with other things to do have held you, kissed you, fed you, wiped your mouth, wiped your bottom, trained you, taught you, tutored you, coached you, listened to you, counseled you, encouraged you, consoled you and encouraged you again. You’ve been nudged, cajoled, wheedled and implored. You’ve been feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie. Yes, you have. And, certainly, we’ve been to your games, your plays, your recitals, your science fairs. Absolutely, smiles ignite when you walk into a room, and hundreds gasp with delight at your every tweet. Why, maybe you’ve even had your picture in the Townsman! And now you’ve conquered high school… and, indisputably, here we all have gathered for you, the pride and joy of this fine community, the first to emerge from that magnificent new building…

But do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.

The empirical evidence is everywhere, numbers even an English teacher can’t ignore. Newton, Natick, Nee… I am allowed to say Needham, yes? …that has to be two thousand high school graduates right there, give or take, and that’s just the neighborhood Ns. Across the country no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from more than 37,000 high schools. That’s 37,000 valedictorians… 37,000 class presidents… 92,000 harmonizing altos… 340,000 swaggering jocks… 2,185,967 pairs of Uggs. But why limit ourselves to high school? After all, you’re leaving it. So think about this: even if you’re one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you. Imagine standing somewhere over there on Washington Street on Marathon Monday and watching sixty-eight hundred yous go running by. And consider for a moment the bigger picture: your planet, I’ll remind you, is not the center of its solar system, your solar system is not the center of its galaxy, your galaxy is not the center of the universe. In fact, astrophysicists assure us the universe has no center; therefore, you cannot be it. Neither can Donald Trump… which someone should tell him… although that hair is quite a phenomenon.

“But, Dave,” you cry, “Walt Whitman tells me I’m my own version of perfection! Epictetus tells me I have the spark of Zeus!” And I don’t disagree. So that makes 6.8 billion examples of perfection, 6.8 billion sparks of Zeus. You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless. In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another–which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality — we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole. No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it… Now it’s “So what does this get me?” As a consequence, we cheapen worthy endeavors, and building a Guatemalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Bowdoin than the well-being of Guatemalans. It’s an epidemic — and in its way, not even dear old Wellesley High is immune… one of the best of the 37,000 nationwide, Wellesley High School… where good is no longer good enough, where a B is the new C, and the midlevel curriculum is called Advanced College Placement. And I hope you caught me when I said “one of the best.” I said “one of the best” so we can feel better about ourselves, so we can bask in a little easy distinction, however vague and unverifiable, and count ourselves among the elite, whoever they might be, and enjoy a perceived leg up on the perceived competition. But the phrase defies logic. By definition there can be only one best. You’re it or you’re not.

If you’ve learned anything in your years here I hope it’s that education should be for, rather than material advantage, the exhilaration of learning. You’ve learned, too, I hope, as Sophocles assured us, that wisdom is the chief element of happiness. (Second is ice cream… just an fyi) I also hope you’ve learned enough to recognize how little you know… how little you know now… at the moment… for today is just the beginning. It’s where you go from here that matters.

As you commence, then, and before you scatter to the winds, I urge you to do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance. Don’t bother with work you don’t believe in any more than you would a spouse you’re not crazy about, lest you too find yourself on the wrong side of a Baltimore Orioles comparison. Resist the easy comforts of complacency, the specious glitter of materialism, the narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction. Be worthy of your advantages. And read… read all the time… read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self-respect. Read as a nourishing staple of life. Develop and protect a moral sensibility and demonstrate the character to apply it. Dream big. Work hard. Think for yourself. Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might. And do so, please, with a sense of urgency, for every tick of the clock subtracts from fewer and fewer; and as surely as there are commencements there are cessations, and you’ll be in no condition to enjoy the ceremony attendant to that eventuality no matter how delightful the afternoon.

The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life, is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap because you’re a nice person or mommy ordered it from the caterer. You’ll note the founding fathers took pains to secure your inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness–quite an active verb, “pursuit”–which leaves, I should think, little time for lying around watching parrots rollerskate on Youtube. The first President Roosevelt, the old rough rider, advocated the strenuous life. Mr. Thoreau wanted to drive life into a corner, to live deep and suck out all the marrow. The poet Mary Oliver tells us to row, row into the swirl and roil. Locally, someone… I forget who… from time to time encourages young scholars to carpe the heck out of the diem. The point is the same: get busy, have at it. Don’t wait for inspiration or passion to find you. Get up, get out, explore, find it yourself, and grab hold with both hands. (Now, before you dash off and get your YOLO tattoo, let me point out the illogic of that trendy little expression–because you can and should live not merely once, but every day of your life. Rather than You Only Live Once, it should be You Live Only Once… but because YLOO doesn’t have the same ring, we shrug and decide it doesn’t matter.)

None of this day-seizing, though, this YLOOing, should be interpreted as license for self-indulgence. Like accolades ought to be, the fulfilled life is a consequence, a gratifying byproduct. It’s what happens when you’re thinking about more important things. Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you. Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly. Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them. And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.

Because everyone is.

Congratulations. Good luck. Make for yourselves, please, for your sake and for ours, extraordinary lives.

David McCullough 
(Text of the address found at The Swellesley Report)

Sunday, June 10, 2012


I've used this quote from Annie Dillard before (according to my records, also on Corpus Christi, back in 2007), but it's a great one, so it bears repeating.

   The Most Holy Body & Blood of Christ   B 

The Jerusalem Temple was the scene 
of daily animal sacrifices.
But one sacrifice in the course of the entire year
stood out above all the others.
On the annual Day of Atonement, and only on that day,
the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies—
the temple’s inner sanctum, 
where the Ark of the Covenant was kept—
to sprinkle a bull’s blood as a sin-offering 
for himself and for the people.
But before passing through the curtain,
the high priest had a rope tied around him
just in case, while he was in there,
he encountered God face-to-face and died;
then the other priests would be able to drag him out
without having to go into 
the sanctuary themselves.*  (cf. P. Feldmeier)

The Letter to the Hebrews 
builds on this potent imagery.
Jesus Christ is our great high priest.
And he stands on our behalf before the Divine Presence—
not drawing back the curtain of a temple made of stone,
but piercing the veil between heaven and earth.
To the Father, Christ offers—
in atonement for the sins of the world—
not the blood of bulls and goats,
but his own Precious Blood, beyond all price.
“This is my blood of the covenant,” 
he says at the Last Supper,
“which will be shed for many.”
By his perfect sacrifice, 
Jesus reveals that those who approach God
do not so much have to fear dying
as they should come expecting a new life.
While his own Passion 
was, indeed, quite gruesome, 
Christ offers us communion 
with his saving death and Resurrection
under the common appearance 
of bread and wine—
in the familiar, comfortable context of a meal.
We believe his blood becomes 
really and truly present for us…
…but there’s no gore, as at the temple.
I get enough smirks from you 
when I sprinkle you with holy water;
I can only imagine the reaction
if I were to sprinkle you with blood, 
as Moses did the twelve tribes!
In Jesus, the true Lamb,
Israel’s long history of bloody sacrifice is fulfilled.
Perpetuating his self-offering sacramentally in the Eucharist,
Christ has made God infinitely more approachable
than in the temple rites of old.

But this incredible approachability—
being able not only to see God and live,
but to hold him in our hands, to receive him as our food and drink—
while its one of the Eucharist’s greatest strengths,
is also one of its greatest liabilities.

American author Annie Dillard 
once observed
that most people 
set about going to church
in much the same way 
they would a pleasure cruise:
getting on board like tourists 
ready for the packaged excursion,
hoping to enjoy 
the program of entertainments,
if not also take in 
some lovely views along the way.

But Dillard finds this perspective 
most inappropriate.
To her mind, 
going to church 
should be a whole lot more
like heading out 
on an expedition to the North Pole.
If the words 
we dare to speak here are true,
and the rituals we enact 
have the capacity 
to do that which they claim,
then participating in the Mass
means embarking on 
a much more daring 
and dangerous journey.

Dillard writes:
On the whole, I do not find Christians…
sufficiently sensible to conditions. 
Does anyone have the foggiest idea
what sort of power we so blithely invoke? 
Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? 
The churches are children playing on the floor
with their chemistry sets,
mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. 
It is madness to wear ladies straw hats…to church;
we should all be wearing crash helmets. 
Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares;
they should lash us to our pews.  (Teaching a Stone to Talk)

How often do we stop to realize the lofty mysteries
which we are privileged to handle when we come to Mass?
Are we conscious of the staggering power we invoke—and unleash—
when we call upon the Lord at the altar?

We do not need all the studies that have been done
to convince us that many Catholics today
no longer believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist;
we can see it in our empty pews.
When—due to falling attendance—
Mass schedules change or churches close,
it’s hard for me to fathom why so many otherwise faithful folks
can’t make the switch to another time or another building
[though we’ve experienced that very thing right here in this parish].
I can understand the struggle of dealing with change…
…but how can Catholics choose to live without the Eucharist?
And if faith in this cornerstone of our religion had gotten so shaky,
then neither should we be surprised
that so many First Communions are also the last for quite awhile,
or that the Church is repeatedly rocked by scandals,
or that she’s rapidly loosing her voice—
losing her place as a moral authority
in the lives of individuals and of society.

All, however, is not gloom and doom. 
There are signs of hope.
The number of men studying for the priesthood in American seminaries
is on the rise.
In some parts of the country,
Catholics are building new churches rather than closing old ones.
Even right here at home,
when we took a headcount at all the Masses last weekend,
it was the highest attendance we’ve seen for an “ordinary” Sunday
in the past two years.
I’m not sure how to explain that…but it’s very encouraging!

Once upon a time,
this Sunday’s feast was marked by public processions.
I’ve seen old black-and-white pictures from my home parish
where thousands of Catholics on Corpus Christi
were prayerfully marching through the streets of Plattsburgh
accompanying their priest, who was carrying the Blessed Sacrament.
Even just seen in photographs, that makes quite an impression!
It unmistakably said to the entire community
that something very, VERY important was being celebrated.

It’s high time for us, once again, to take our faith out into the streets.

I, for one, am convinced
that if we could make our Catholic faith in the Eucharist
clear and credible,
then people would be crawling over each other to get to Mass.

So how do we do that?
We can begin by considering the manner in which we come to Mass.
(1) How we dress for church says something about what we believe.
I’ve more than once had people tell me after Mass
that they’re headed home to change into nicer clothes
for a party, or a meal out, or even to go shopping at the mall.
(2) Getting to Mass a little early and staying until Mass is truly ended
are other ways to show our faith in the Eucharist.
A retired priest I once worked with regularly announced:
“I should be the first one out of here!”
What are we rushing in from…or rushing off to?
(3) And how we approach the altar for Holy Communion
is another thing to consider.
We’ve gone from—just a few decades ago—
always receiving on the tongue and on one’s knees at the altar rail
to often being exceptionally casual
in the way we take the Sacred Host.
We should always handle the Lord’s Body
in the same way we would handle gold dust,
for it is, by far, more precious.

But the witness we give to our faith in the Eucharist
must also go well beyond these four walls.
I recently read a reflection online by an adult convert to Catholicism.
In his earlier days as a Protestant,
he hated Catholics for what he thought was our bad theology.
But after studying Catholicism carefully,
he ended up joining the Church precisely because of her doctrine:
teachings which made good sense to him—more than all the others.
But there’s a part of him, he confessed,
that still hates Catholics…even though he’s now one of them.
What he hates are the Church’s “robot dissidents”:
not those vocal Catholics who picket on the street corner
or write letters to the editor
because they take exception to some dogma or another;
what troubles him are—as he writes—
“those people who go [through] their life,
[sleepwalking]**—immune from Catholic teaching
and behaving in ways that the Church characterizes as gravely sinful,
but still calling themselves Catholic, [still] taking the Eucharist,
apparently oblivious to the logical inconsistency
between the two acts.”  (The Daily Eudemon, 10/27/08)

What we do here at Mass
must make a real difference in the rest of our life,
and how we lead the rest of our life
really and truly matters 
when it comes to what we do here.
Non-Catholics can see this about us;
we must recognize it about ourselves.

I am glad, as a priest today,
that I don’t need to tie a rope around myself
for fear that I should die
whenever approaching the presence of God on the altar.
But I look forward with great hope to that day
when Catholics are tempted 
to lash themselves to their pews
because, in the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ,
God has chosen to dwell right here in our midst
and they can’t even begin to imagine 
living apart from him.

*This story about the rope is not found in the Bible, and may be apocryphal...but it's still a great story.
**Author's original wordsomnambulist.   (Yes, I had to look it up, too!)