Sunday, September 30, 2012

In & Out

'Guess I was a little wound up this Sunday...but hopefully not too batty...

   Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

We had a bit of a problem 
with bats in the rectory over the summer.
Trying to figure out what we should do,
each of us three priests had a different approach.
Fr. Stitt—being a rather gentle soul—
first suggested that we trap the bats live
and take them away to return to nature…
…but no matter how far he took them,
they kept finding their way back.
Fr. Tom—having lost his patience with the little critters—
tried to shoot the bats down…but his aim wasn’t so good;
we lost a few windows, but not a single bat.
Finally—being the seasoned old pastor—I stepped in,
knowing exactly what ought to be done.
First, I baptized the bats, then I confirmed them.
Not a single one of them
has come anywhere near the church ever since!

That old joke (with a new twist) came to mind
as I had lunch Friday with some friends from out of town.
They shared that their new pastor has a policy:
if the kids and their parents in the Confirmation program
don’t go to church, then they won’t get confirmed.
They wanted my opinion…but that’s tricky a one.
Indeed, it’s pretty clear:
all Catholics—not just those preparing for another sacrament—
unless hindered by sickness or another serious obligation,
are bound by God’s law to attend Sunday Mass.
The Eucharist is absolutely foundational to who we are as Catholics.
If you’re not going to Mass,
why would you even care to be confirmed?
And yet—on the other hand—I’ve seen a few people over the years,
who started out with the intention
of only jumping through the hoops to get confirmed,
but who actually come around in the end
and become regulars at Mass when they hadn’t been before.

So…where do you draw the line?
That’s precisely the question—is it not?—
asked in the scriptures this Sunday.
Who’s in?  Who’s out?  
And who gets to say?

When it comes to drawing 
the lines around religion,
things don’t quite appear as black and white
as they may have seemed years ago.

Specifically, when it comes to the Catholic Church:
who’s in and who’s out?

Most are fairly sure about the Church’s relationship with non-Christians.
Yes, we have kinship in the one human family.
Yes, we respect and honor
all that is good and true about their way of life,
whatever their religious tradition—if they even have one at all.
But we do not share a common faith.
Now, that doesn’t mean they’re bad people.
And that doesn’t mean heaven’s closed to them.
But you can’t really be said to belong to the Church
when you don’t believe in its founder.

Then there are our Protestant and Orthodox brothers and sisters.
In recent decades there’s been a new emphasis
on all the things we share in common:
our belief in Jesus as the only Savior of the world;
our recognition of the Bible as the inspired word of God;
our one baptism into Christ.
There’s a whole lot that unites us.
But it’s becoming increasingly common to hear people say,
“Well, it’s pretty much all the same.”
We do a great disservice, my friends, to all involved
when we give in to that sort of thinking.
Because it’s not all the same.
Sure, we sing many of the same hymns,
decorate our churches in similar fashion,
and even dress up our clergy in near identical robes.
A growing number even use the word “catholic”
in their denomination’s name.
But we still disagree on some rather major things:
on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist;
on the role of the Pope as chief shepherd of the Church;
on some serious questions of modern day morality;
even on which books are found in the Bible.
It’s a blessing that we’re growing closer and cooperating more,
but we never help the cause by wallpapering over our differences.
We are in communion with each other…but only partially.

And then there are all the Catholics we have on the books,
but whom we rarely—if ever—see.
(We’ll look at those numbers in detail
when I present the parishes’ annual reports
near the end of Mass today.)
At a workshop I attended this past week
making preparations for the upcoming Year of Faith,
this group was referred to
as having been “sacramentalized but not evangelized.”
One of my professors in the seminary put it a little more bluntly:
he called them “baptized pagans.”
It’s a relatively unique problem to our age:
all these people who are technically Catholic,
but who don’t have much sense of what that means;
who think of themselves as part of the Church,
but don’t often find themselves inside a church;
who know a little something about Jesus,
but have yet to be really introduced to Jesus on a personal level.
It follows much the same pattern we see in marriage these days,
as the majority of our young people decide,
“Let’s start a sexual relationship, move in together
then have a few kids, maybe buy a house…
…and after all that we can talk about a wedding.”
The cart is put well before the horse!
We want all the benefits,
but without first making the commitment.
We know what effect this trend it having on marriage:
fewer and fewer people are bothering with it at all.
We mustn’t be surprised that it has much the same effect
as more and more Catholics are members
without ever truly being converted.

Where do you draw the line?
Who’s in?  Who’s out?  Who gets to decide?
Even when you’re dealing with something
as structured and carefully defined 
as the Catholic Church,
you see how very, very messy this can get!

In the midst of all this messiness,
Jesus teaches us two very clear lessons this Sunday.

The first: 
do not count anyone out too quickly.
Like Joshua had spoken to Moses,
so John speaks to Jesus 
on behalf of the other Apostles—
concerned about who’s in and who’s out.
Jesus’ words encourage caution:
no one can do genuine good
and at the same time be against his cause.
Those who do not now follow 
might yet become disciples;
their hanging out around the edges
might someday become real faith.
We wouldn’t want to chase them away
when there remains a chance to bring them in.

And the second lesson:
never underestimate the power of your example—
either for good or for ill.
One of the saddest things I hear in the confessional
is when young children come in
and confess having missed Sunday Mass.
The kids know where they’re supposed to be…
…but they can’t get here on their own.
Jesus has rather stern words
for those who cause his littlest followers to sin.
Let us lead by good example;
our presence here at Mass says so much all by itself.
And yet, we must do more than just show up!
If we hope to bring those on the margins
deeper into the life of the Church,
then we have to speak and act in a way that’s attractive.

If we Catholics are always complaining,
always tearing down one another or the clergy,
constantly hostile to this point of doctrine
or that aspect of the liturgy—
who’s going to want to be a part of that?
A kind smile, a warm handshake, a word of welcome—
like that simple cup of water mentioned by the Lord—
can go a long, long way toward bringing outsiders in.
If you’re happy to be here, if you’re happy to be a Catholic,
then make sure your face gets the message!
People will see it, and they’ll want what you’ve got.

Yes, we really had bats in the rectory this summer.
No, there were no guns involved!
But let’s all do what we can to make it the case around here
that the punch line of that joke is no longer funny.
Drawing our energy and our joy from the Eucharist,
let’s work at bringing everybody in and leaving nobody out,
that all those who have been baptized and confirmed
might join us regularly at Mass.
It is here, after all, that we Catholics belong
because we belong to Christ.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Peace is Flowing

Fr. Tom and I escaped late this afternoon for a little autumnal paddle on the Deer River Flow, about 15 miles south of Malone.  It was not my first time on this water, but it was for Fr. Tom...and it did not disappoint either one of us.

Sunday, September 23, 2012


   Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

Have you ever seen the reality TV show, Undercover Boss?
I remember watching the premier
a couple of years ago after the Super Bowl
and thinking, “This is going to be pretty good!”
In case you haven’t watched it, the premise is that the boss—
and we’re talking about the CEOs of restaurant chains,
major resort hotels, manufacturing companies,
cruise lines, even the mayor of Cincinnati—
all these executives go undercover, 
leaving their cushy corporate offices and disguising themselves
to work on the gritty front lines of their industries.

In that very first episode,
the president of 
a waste management business
gets himself “hired” 
by his own company 
at the ground level:
picking up garbage, 
sorting through recyclables,
even cleaning porta-potties.
(I suspect there are 
quite a few people
who’d like to see their boss 
clean a porta-pottie!)
He’s not much good 
at all this, however,
and finds himself getting fired 
for the first time in his life.
The idea, of course, is that these bosses,
by getting their own hands dirty,
will understand their company’s operations and employees
a whole lot better because of this experience…
…not to mention, by their misadventures,
get you to tune in week after week.

If you think about it,
the gospel could easily be renamed, Undercover God.
We profess in our Creed that Jesus Christ is the Son of God,
that he is “consubstantial with the Father”:
Jesus is of the same stuff as God.
And we also profess
that Jesus is “incarnate of the Virgin Mary”:
he’s of the same stuff as his human mother, 
the same stuff as us.
We believe that almighty God 
has come undercover as an ordinary man
to experience everything that we do—even death.

Jesus is trying to prepare his Apostles for this.
We’ve just heard him predict for a second time
that he will be betrayed, will suffer, and will die.
But notice how dense those Twelve seem to be.
True: Jesus hadn’t yet completely blown his cover;
they didn’t yet recognize his divinity.
And, true: they didn’t—as we do—
have the benefit of Easter,
didn’t yet know 
what “to rise on third day” really meant.
Nevertheless, isn’t it a bit alarming 
that the Lord’s inner circle—
when they hear 
of his impending Passion—
can only think about 
who’s most important among them?
They appear consumed 
by the jealousy and selfish ambition
of which St. James warns—
and which still cause 
such scandal and division to this day
when they’re found in the Church.

But maybe things 
are not as they would first seem.
given Jesus’ repeated talk of dying—
the Apostles are just doing 
the logical, practical thing
and trying to figure out 
who should be in charge when he’s gone.
That would certainly help to explain not only their behavior,
but Jesus’ response.

Jesus wants to be sure the Twelve understand
why he—though innocent—will be beset by the wicked.
They won’t have all the pieces until later, after his resurrection,
but he wants them to eventually grasp
that God really, truly came as man.
And so Jesus tells them that whoever aspires to first place
must be willing to take the last—
must do just as he did, and be an “undercover boss.”
As someone once insightfully put it,
“Jesus took the last place so utterly
that no one has ever been able 
to get it away from him.” (cf. H. Huvelin)

To drive his point home, Jesus pulls a child into the circle.
I cringe every time I read or hear this gospel passage,
because the child is referred to not as “him” or “her but “it.”
Our world is dehumanized enough;
must we refer to children in the same manner
as we would our possessions or our pets—
things to dispose of as we please?
But that’s what’s in the original Greek…
…because that was the place of children in society.
Legally, a young child was considered on par with a slave.
They were the first to suffer in the community
when it was struck by war, famine, or disease.
While we look at that child in Jesus’ arms
as a symbol of perfect innocence and utter humility,
the Apostles likely saw a symbol of complete powerlessness.
And yet, if we’re honest with ourselves…so it remains today:
almost eight million children die each year
before their fifth birthday due to poverty;
one hundred and fifteen thousand children
die before birth every day because of abortion.

For Jesus to embrace that little child
should capture our attention just as much
as if we discovered our boss 
picking up our trash at the curb.
Jesus presents those of us 
who would follow him
with the challenge to serve 
the very least in our midst:
those without power or status;
the unwanted and neglected, 
the abused and ignored;
the outcast, the sick, the sinner.
Such are the ones 
with whom Jesus most identifies—
not the popular 
nor the wealthy nor the strong.
Born in a borrowed manger, 
dying on a criminal’s cross:
thus did Jesus take the last place;
thus did God go undercover.
Are we willing to seek and to serve him there?
Because that, my friends, 
is where we’re sure to find him:

Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me;
and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.
We will soon receive God “undercover” in the Eucharist:
the Savior of the world under the appearance of bread and wine.
May his hidden presence in this Sacrament
open our eyes to recognize the Lord
when he’s hidden in our neighbor.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Heading Up

Fr. Stitt and I took advantage of this exceptionally lovely fall day to take an afternoon hike up nearby Owls Head Mountain...

The view from below

A cool cave halfway up the mountain
"I think I hear something...maybe a bear...or a dragon?"

The colorful view from above

Nearby Mountain View Lake and Indian Lake beyond

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Cardinal & Colbert

Friday night, Cardinal Timothy Dolan (Archbishop of New York) and Stephen Colbert (host of Comedy Central's The Colbert Report) spoke to 3,000 students at Fordham University on the intersection faithful and funny: "Humor, Joy, and the Spiritual Life."

While I'd just LOVE to see video of the proceedings (there was a press black out of the event, so no one's sure if such will ever surface) you can read the Cardinal's take, that of the NY Times, impressions of Fr. Jim Martin (who moderated the evening), and insights from yet another real live Jesuit.

Read on...and LOL.

P.S.  Now Zenit's talking about it, too...

Straw Man

A scene from today's Holy Harvest Festival...

I think Fr. Stitt should use this for the next vocations poster:
Become a priest...before we have to resort to this!


   Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

A Sunday School teacher asked her young students
to each share with the class one thing they knew about Jesus.
Bobby said, “Jesus was born in a manger.”
Susie said, “Jesus died on a cross.”
And then little Johnny said, “Jesus has a red pickup truck.”
Confused, the teacher asked, “And where did you learn that, Johnny?”
“From my Daddy,” he said. 
“The other day we were on the highway
when a red truck pulled out in front of us and my daddy yelled,
“Jesus, I wish you’d learn how to drive!”

Who do people say that I am?

Word was getting around about Jesus.
His miracles were drawing attention.
It was becoming harder for him 
to move about quietly.
Who do people say that I am?
Jesus is not taking an opinion poll here.
He’s not particularly concerned
about his reputation—
about whether people like him 
or approve of his message.
Who do people say that I am?
Jesus wants to know,
“Do they understand me?  
Do they ‘get’ it?
Or are they just going along with the crowd—
just coming out for a show?”

How about today?
Who do people say that Jesus is?
My friend’s son—when just a tike—
stood up on the pew during the homily at Mass and shouted,
“Don’t say that, Father!  That’s a bad word!”
The priest had simply spoken the name of Jesus.
How many young people today only know Jesus Christ as a cuss?
How many people take his holy name in vain…
…but don’t really know him?
We’ve reached a moment in history
when even decent, church-going Catholics—
not to mention all those we see only occasionally—
are rapidly losing touch with the One
who’s the very reason for our being here,
who’s at the heart of all we do and are.

I’m sure—by now—you’re catching on:
this isn’t a “feel good” homily;
it’s a rallying cry!

So…what do we do?

For the Church Universal,
our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI,
has declared a Year of Faith beginning October 11,
marking the fiftieth anniversary of the opening session
of the Second Vatican Council.
There are parts of the world—
Europe and the Americas, especially—
which were once essentially Christian,
but in which the faith is now dying out.
Many people today are Catholic in culture or name only.
The Pope is calling us to a “new evangelization”:
to be missionaries in our own backyards;
to stir back into flame the sparks of faith which have grown cold.

In the Diocese of Ogdensburg,
this Sunday marks the start of the 2012 Bishop’s Fund Appeal.
Yes, it is a fundraiser, and a crucial one
for many important programs across the North Country.
But it’s also a way for us Catholics in the region
to unite in a common cause—
to, quite literally, put our money where our mouth is
when it comes to sharing our faith.
It takes resources to do the work of the Church,
and we all need to work together.
Last year, just 372 households from our parishes
contributed to the Bishop’s Fund—less than eighteen percent.
I encourage all of our members to make a gift this year—
no matter how big or small.
If you did not receive information in the mail,
offering envelopes are available in the pews.
On behalf of the young people at Camp Guggenheim,
our seminarians training for the priesthood,
the poor, the sick, and the hungry aided by the Good Samaritan Fund,
and the tens of thousands of others who benefit from the Bishop’s Fund,
I thank you for your generosity.

Right here in the Malone Catholic Parishes,
we celebrate our fourth annual Holy Harvest Festival today.
As the seasons change,
we rejoice in the crops gathered in from local fields and gardens.
I do hope many of you will come and take part.
But more importantly,
there’s a holy harvest of souls out there that’s ripe for the picking.
By my best calculations,
our weekly Mass attendance has increased in the last year.
But even then, only about 20% of our registered parishioners
regularly come to church.
That’s not taking into account
the many Catholics who aren’t on our books,
or our many neighbors who are without a spiritual home,
who have yet to get to know Jesus.
Of course, if we expect a great harvest of souls,
we must first tend and cultivate our own.
Fr. Tom and I are now working on plans
for how our parishes will observe the upcoming Year of Faith;
watch for details in the months ahead.
But you don’t have to wait around for a special program
to start spreading the Good News.
We can’t expect others to know Jesus
if we—all of us!—don’t first get to know him better
and then make him better known.
Give a face to your faith,
and let your family and your coworkers,
your fellow students and your neighbors know
what a difference Christ makes in your life.

Who do people say that I am?  Who do you say that I am?

Being a Christian, being a Catholic,
means more than being “on the books,”
more than showing up at key moments,
even more than regularly coming to Mass.
Faith—true faith—requires taking action,
requires practice of what is preached.
That’s a challenge, since what we preach
isn’t all that popular these days.
Jesus knew well that he would be rejected and suffer.
And we, the Church—his Body and his Bride—
know well that we, too, will be rejected and suffer.
To follow Christ is to walk the way of his cross.
But the cross is not the end of the story.
The Son of Man will be killed, Jesus foretells,
and rise after three days.
And so we must be resolute, must not be deterred,
even when the going is tough,
even when the results are not yet as we’d hoped.
We as individual disciples, we as a Church,
must risk our lives in order to save them—
to think as God does, and not as worldly people do.
Our success cannot be measured in numbers—
whether people or dollars;
it is only measured in faithfulness.

A man recently wrote of his deceased father,
who’d been raised in the Church
but claimed in his later years to be an atheist.
And yet whenever he was working on something
and would hurt himself or was having great difficultly,
he’d holler, “Jesus Christ!”
“Gee, Dad,” his son would tease, “you say you don’t believe in God,
but you’re always calling out to him when you’re in trouble!”

We know that faith without works is dead.
So let’s put our faith to work!  
There’s plenty of work to do.