Sunday, August 26, 2018

Will You Leave, Too?

   Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 
Have you ever set down the newspaper or turned off the evening news in the last few months and wondered, “What has happened to this country?  How did we end up like this?”

In 1831, French aristocrat and diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville made a nine-month tour of the United States, and wrote a landmark book about the experience—Democracy in America (1835/1840)—upon his return home to France.  De Tocqueville spoke highly of much that he’d seen in this still young nation, but also issued a strong, startling warning: that American democracy is dangerous.  Carefully considering our form of government, he saw within it strong tendencies toward individualism and consumerism.  He observed that it could cause our citizens to embrace thoughtless conformity, as well as to show disregard for both our past and our future.  Ultimately, he warns of a tyranny far worse than the one thrown off in 1776: either the despotism of the “nanny state,” which seeks to micromanage our personal lives in every detail, or mob rule.

Sounds just a little too familiar, doesn’t it?

But you see, de Tocqueville wasn’t really worried that this would ever actually come to pass. Can you guess why? Because—he observed—Americans are such religious people.  As long as they remain a people of faith—men and women of virtue, with their moral compass firmly set—he believed the United States would resist falling prey to these dangerous temptations.  This was not an idea original to him.  In 1798, Founding Father John Adams, while serving as our second President, wrote in a letter, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.  It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Take note of all our empty churches these days, and you begin to understand something of how we ended up like this.

We see a parallel circumstance in our first reading this Sunday.  We hear some of the last words of Joshua, who had been Moses’ right-hand-man during the long journey through the desert and took over the leadership of Israel after Moses’ death, guiding the twelve tribes across the Jordan River and—at long last—into the Promised Land.  Joshua was a holy man and righteous, but even under his capable leadership this young nation lost its way.  Once they got settled, they also got complacent: complacent in their observance of the covenant and its commands—their God-given “constitution,” if you will.  They began to make compromises with the surrounding nations, and compromises with the nations’ false gods.  Through their own fault, the land began to lose more and more of its promise.  But they were comfortable with this current state of affairs: it was still better than the dessert, you know, and good enough for now.

It’s against this background that we hear Joshua addressing the people, and pointing to their current moment of decision: will they serve the Lord, or serve these foreign gods? It’s bitterly ironic to hear the people answer, “Far be it from us to serve other gods!”  They’ve forgotten who they are.  They’ve forgotten whose they are.  They fail to recognize how they’ve ended up like this.

We see much the same parallel again in the scandals rocking the Catholic Church today.  And I’m afraid the situation is going to get much worse before it starts to get any better.  I intentionally say “scandals” in the plural because there are really three scandals all wrapped up together: (1) the despicable, disgusting crimes of the abuse of children by members of the clergy; (2) the failure of many priests and bishops to honor their promise of celibacy, engaging in ongoing sexual immorality—particularly with other men; and (3) the apparently systematic efforts of some in the hierarchy to cover these two things up.  It leaves Catholics across the nation and around the world asking, “What has happened to the Church?  How did we end up like this?”

I spent my recent vacation visiting many good friends—friends who span the entire spectrum of Catholicism: from those who try to get to Mass everyday, to those who try—with limited success—to get to church at least on Christmas.  Every one of them wanted to talk about the scandals.  Some were quick to point out the changes they think would set things straight: changes to the Church’s understanding of the priesthood, changes to the rules surrounding celibacy, changes to teachings on sexuality, changes to the structures of Church governance. One friend shared that she was approached by a professional colleague who pointedly asked, “How can you still call yourself a Catholic?”  (She struggled to answer.)  Another friend asked me, “Is there any way that you could remain a priest but sever all your ties to the Catholic Church?”  Her concern was for me: “Why should it fall to you—one of the good guys—to explain and defend all this stuff?  There’s so much good you could keep doing if you weren’t connected to all this corruption.”  Across the board, the folks I talked to were saddened, they were discouraged, they were angry.  I’m right there with them.

I can’t help but hear echoes of Jesus’ words in this Sunday’s gospel: “Are you going to leave, too?”  It’s kind of hard to argue with those who do.

Jesus asks this sad question at the end of his long discourse on the Bread of Life, from which we’ve been hearing for weeks now.  Many who had previously followed him heard this startling teaching on eating his flesh and drinking his blood, and decided it was just too much to take.  Notice how Jesus does not respond to their departure: he doesn’t chase them down saying, “I didn’t really mean it!  It was only a metaphor!” nor does he offer, “I’m sure we can make a few adjustments—take a few opinion polls—take into account what everyone’s thinking on the matter…”  Jesus does not compromise.  And he knows full well that those who can’t handle his doctrine of the Holy Eucharist certainly won’t endure that which will make this incredible gift possible: seeing him hanging dead on a cross, and his battered, wounded body risen from the dead.

As usual, it’s Peter who speaks up first: “Lord, to whom could we go?”  It might sound like he’s conceding that he’s run out of options: “Well, Jesus, I guess you’re the best we can do right now….” Look carefully, though, and you’ll see that what Peter is really saying is, “Jesus, you’re our only hope! No, I don’t understand everything, either.  I don’t understand how you yourself can be the Bread of Life.  I don’t understand all you’ve tried to teach us about your Father and his Kingdom.  But here’s what I do know: I know you.  I know that I love you.  And I know that you love me.  And I know that I can trust you.  Why would I look anywhere else?”

That, my friends, is where we’ve gotten off track.  That’s how we’ve gotten into this horrible mess.  Like the U.S. government, which continues to hold elections, vote on laws, and collect taxes, regardless of the ethics of those holding office, so the machinery of the Church has continued to turn: Masses are still being said, baptisms and funerals are celebrated, bills are paid and paperwork is filed…but we end up just going through the motions. Like Israel of old, we’ve made compromises with the world around us: instead of changing it, we’ve let it slowly change us.  We might have put in place the best policies and procedures conceivable, but they don’t matter one bit—as has become painfully clear—if our hearts just aren’t in it.  Being Catholic isn’t a matter of the things we do; it’s a matter of who we are.  We’ve forgotten—from the top down—who we are.  We’ve forgotten whose we are.  We’ve wandered away from Jesus.  That’s how the Church has ended up like this.

St. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, reminds us of who we really are.  He reminds us that the Church is meant to be Christ’s spotless, beautiful Bride—with wart or wrinkle of any kind…which means that the sins of any one of us disfigure all of us.  Paul reminds us that the Church is meant to be the mystical Body of Christ—we the members, Christ the head, in intimate, living union…which means that when one part of the body suffers, we all suffer together.  What does that say to us about walking away from this broken, compromised Church?  That it means filing for divorce, when it’s we ourselves who have been unfaithful.  It means amputation, and you know what happens when a limb or organ is cut off from the body: it rather quickly dies.

Fr. Henri Nouwen was a Dutch priest who authored many very popular spiritual books in his lifetime.  A few years after his death in 1996, a collection of letters to his godson was published.  Here’s what Nouwen wrote to Marc in one of them:

Listen to the church. I know that isn’t a popular bit of advice at a time and in a country where the church is often seen more as an obstacle in the way than as the way to Jesus. Nevertheless, I’m deeply convinced that the greatest spiritual danger for our times is the separation of Jesus from the church. The church is the body of the Lord. Without Jesus there can be no church; and without the church we cannot stay united with Jesus. I’ve yet to meet anyone who has come closer to Jesus by forsaking the church.
 from Letters to Marc about Jesus (2009)

The Church to which we belong is so much more than our American democracy.  It is not a merely social institution, created by common agreement of its members and changed at will.  No—the Church is of divineconstitution, our only sure connection to Jesus Christ by God’s own design.  Which means that the Church’s constitution is good—very good.  The question is: Are we good?  For the Church to be who she’s meant to be, we need to truly be good!

The crisis facing the Church right now isn’t “out there” somewhere, for the powers-that-be in Ogdensburg and Rome to take care of.  Weare the Church—all of us gathered here today.  Which means that these problems are our problems.  If the Church is going to be reformed, it’s only because we have been reformed—each and every one of us.  When Joshua realized that Israel was losing its way, he didn’t try to tweak the rules governing the entire people; instead, he made concrete changes much closer to home: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

So, what can we do? What difference can a lone Catholic in Malone make?  To begin with, we must recognize that we absolutely must do something.  There can be no more status quo, no more simply going through the motions. As I look to the future, I really see only two options before us: either to get serious, or to get out.  What does “getting serious” look like?  (1) For starters, it means we need to learn our faith.  The Catholic faith isn’t based on popular opinion, but on revealed truth. So dust off your Bible. Study the Catechism.  People are asking serious questions of us, and they deserve to get clear answers from us—and not just what any one of us happens to think on the matter. (2) We also need to fall in love with our faith—which is to fall in love with Jesus.  We need to speak to him daily—in fact, throughout the day—in prayer.  We need to regularly receive the sacraments—especially attending Mass on all Sundays and Holy Days, and getting to confession on a regular basis.  These sacraments are instruments of grace—and without grace we can’t become whom we’re called to be, we can’t become holy, we can’t become saints.  (3) Finally, we need to live our faith—both in public and in private.  That means knowing the moral law and obeying it.  That means going beyond casual acquaintance with the folks in the next pew and forming intentional community.  And that means reaching out to the weak, the questioning, and the suffering—in this time, above all to those souls unspeakably harmed by the evils wrought by the Church and her ministers.

It’s time for all of us to take personal responsibility for our Catholic faith and for the Catholic Church.  It’s time for us to hold one another accountable.

Does our Church need a complete overhaul?  No.  Besides—who are we to attempt to fix what God himself has established?  But what the Church does need is for us to remember who we are.  What the Church needs is for us to get back to our roots, to get back to basics.  What the Church needs is for us to get back to Jesus—to get close to Jesus, to stay close to Jesus.

After all, to whom else could we go?  You alone, Lord, have the words of everlasting life.  We are convinced, like St. Peter, and have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Holy One, the Only Begotten Son of God.  And Jesus—we and convinced and believe that you are here with us in these dark days: here in the Sacrament of your Body and Blood; here—however hard it may be to see right now—in your deeply wounded and shaken Church.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Explanation, Please

This homily was posted even later than usual. And you didn't see one the last two weeks: the first, because we had a visiting preacher speaking on behalf of the missions, and the second, because I never found the time to type it up. That's the thing: getting these online requires me to carve out 2 hours or so after the Masses...and I'm finding that more and more difficult to do. Which is to say, you'll be seeing these less frequently from me. When time allows, I'll put one up, but it won't be every Sunday. Some have recommended recording my homilies, which I will consider. Thanks for reading all these years, and for your kind feedback. Stay tuned for whatever comes next...

   Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

Last night, after dinner, I took Fr. Tojo down to the Franklin County Fair.  Our main goal was to get some fried bread dough for dessert.  But while we were there, I thought I should also give him his first taste of something uniquely American: the demolition derby.  On our way to the grandstand, I thought I ought to try to explain what he was about to behold…but how do you explain the demolition derby?  As I heard the words coming out of my mouth, it all sounded perfectly ridiculous.  (Deacon Nick told me this morning that I should have said, “From what I’ve heard, it’s just like driving in India.”)

How do you explain the demolition derby?

How do you explain the Catholic priesthood?

Today is the eighteenth anniversary of my ordination as a priest.  And the readings we have just heard are the very same ones that were proclaimed at my first Mass.  At the time, my attention was understandably focused on the gospel, as we hear again from Jesus’ discourse on the Bread of Life—certainly appropriate words when beginning a life of ministry centered on the Eucharist.

But these eighteen years later, I’m thinking I really should have paid more attention to the first reading.

From the First Book of Kings, we hear part of the story of Elijah—the greatest of the Old Testament prophets.  We find him hiding under a broom tree, praying for death.  Some context tells us why.  Elijah was at work during some very dark times.  God’s one chosen people had split into two different kingdoms—neither one of them faithful to the Lord’s covenant. They had made foreign alliances, rather than trusting in God’s protection.  They had crowned kings for themselves, instead of following God’s divine guidance.  And they were worshiping idols and many strange gods—forgetful of the one true God who had claimed them as his own.  

To gain God’s people back, Elijah had just won a spectacular and decisive victory over 400 heathen prophets at once—even calling down fire from heaven.  But rather than seeing great crowds turning back to the Lord, Elijah sees them turn and walk away.  And not only that, but the queen—Jezebel—who was rather fond of these false prophets and their false gods, has now vowed to kill him.

It’s little wonder we hear Elijah praying, “Enough!”  Later in the chapter, we hear God ask, “Why are you here, Elijah?”  And the prophet lays out exactly how he feels: “I have been most zealous for you, Lord God of hosts, since the sons of Israel have forsaken your covenant, torn down your altars, and slain your prophets with the sword, and I—I alone—am left, and now they seek to take my life.”

I have to admit: sometimes I feel that way, too.

Sure, every newly ordained priest is a bit naïve about just what he’s gotten himself into.  But I look back over these eighteen years and have to ask, “Who woulda thunk?”  When I was in the seminary, we hade about 125 active diocesan priests in the Diocese of Ogdensburg; today, we have about 50—and only 4 of those are younger than I am.  Who woulda thunk? Given my training, I expected—and with good reason—that I would soon enough end up teaching at Wadhams Hall. But a year-and-a-half into my priesthood, the seminary closed.  Who woulda thunk?

Who woulda thunk that at the tender age of 35 I’d be appointed the pastor of what was at the time the largest conglomeration of parishes in the diocese?  And who woulda thunk that in eight years here, I would have presided over the merger of those four parishes and the closure of two of our churches, and would now be preparing for by far the largest sale in diocesan history of a former church building?

Would woulda thunk that these years would be marked by so much scandal caused by Catholic clergy? Not once, but twice, have I had to announce to parishes that their pastor has been removed from priestly ministry for sexually abusing minors.  I’ve heard heart-wrenching tales directly from victims and their families—yes, even here in our own parish.  And now such scandal is erupting again.  You probably haven’t heard much about it yet, but you will (unless, of course, it gets swept under the rug again).  A retired archbishop—a cardinal!—has been brought down in disgrace.  In the last month or two, new stories of cover-ups and patterns of sexual sin among priests and bishops have arisen in a number of dioceses, a number of seminaries, in this country and around the world.  It’s painful.  It’s ugly.  It’s discouraging. Who woulda thunk?

St. Paul tells us this Sunday to do nothing that would grieve the Holy Spirit with whom we have been signed and sealed as God’s own.  Priests have been sealed twice, and bishop’s three times. How aggrieved must the Holy Spirit be at their heinously sinful behavior?

It kinda makes a guy want to go out and look for a broom tree.

So what’s a priest supposed to do?  He’s supposed to do what priests have always been supposed to do.  He needs to be holy.  That’s the only appropriate response to sin and corruption.  And he needs to be faithful—all the more so when infidelity is all around.  To be holy, to be faithful: that’s a vocation that is common to us all—the call to be saints—whether you’re in the pew or at the altar.  Our vocations depend on one another.  I cannot help you become holy and faithful if I am not those things first myself.

Holiness and fidelity take effort and discipline, to be sure.  But they also require more than our mere human strength.  We look again to Elijah.  What is he given when the task seems too difficult and the road ahead too long?  God sends him encouragement, in the form of an angel who tells him, “Get up! Keep going!”  And God also sends him food and drink, which are clearly no ordinary bread and water since they’re the fuel that allows him to walk 40 days and 40 nights to the Lord’s mountain.  We should note that the angel must insistently force Elijah to eat.  It would have been much easier for him to quit.  But God isn’t giving him an easy way out.  He sends Elijah back to his mission with the promise, “I am with you. And those who have remained faithful—however small their number—they’re with you, too.  I need you, they need you, to keep going.”

The Lord is still sending messages of encouragement under many disguises.  And he’s still feeding us, too—as he will again in a few moments here—with something way beyond ordinary bread: with his own person, with his own flesh, with very the Bread of Life.   The Holy Eucharist is the heart of Jesus Christ, God’s eternal love made mortal man, in a form that we can taste and see.  You see, with the Eucharist—as with all of priestly life and ministry—it all, always, comes down to love: Christ’s unconditional love for me, my less-than-perfect love for him, my real and true love for you.  That’s what keeps me going, despite it all.  And it not only keeps me going; it keeps me joyful.  The bottom of my chalice and paten are inscribed with words from Psalm 116: “How can I make a return to the Lord for all the good he has done for me?”  Yes, there’s much struggle, but there are far more graces and blessings. “I shall take the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.”  I continue to do so with joy.

So much has changed in the eighteen years since my ordination, but I am just as certain today as I was back then: that Jesus Christ himself called me to be his priest, and that I’m right where I’m supposed to be, trying my best to do what the Lord wants me to do.  That I still love being a Catholic priest even in the midst of so many challenges…makes even less sense than the demolition derby!

How do you explain the demolition derby?

How do you explain the priesthood?

Another way to ask the question: How do you explain love?

St. John Vianney is the patron saint of parish priests.  He, too, served Christ and his Church during some rather dark and difficult times.  In fact, on more than one occasion, he fled by night from his small parish in the French countryside, hoping to have taken refuge in a quiet monastery before his flock noticed that he was gone.  His scheme never worked.  Here’s how Fr. Vianney explained the priesthood:

“Only in heaven will [a priest] fully realize what he is.”

“Were we to fully realize what a priest is on earth, we would die: not of fright, but of love.”

“The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus.”

My friends, I ask you to please pray for me and for all of my brother priests.  Pray, too, for our seminarians and all who are discerning a vocation to the priesthood.  Pray that we will be faithful.  Pray that we will be holy.