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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Homily for the Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Between the first reading from the book of Job and the Gospel reading from St. Mark, God is shown to us as an all-powerful being. Job is reminded that God alone has the power to control the seas, setting their limits and controlling their waves. Likewise, St. Mark shows Our Lord commanding the stormy seas to be calmed. It would be easy to see God as the deep voice thundering from the Heavens, striking people down with lightning, much like Zeus, the king of the gods in the Greek mythology.

As we see in the second reading, this is not the relationship that our God wants to have with us. St. Paul reminds us that God is a father who loves us so deeply that He protects us from even the power of our own sins. The Father's love is so strong that He was willing to give His Son, who He loved above all things in Heaven and on Earth, to die for us that we might love Him in return. This is the total self-giving love that God the Father has for us.

Of course, today we are celebrating Fathers' Day, that day we set aside each year to remember and honor our earthly fathers. It's good that we do set aside a day for fatherhood, as I think it's important that we take time to celebrate our fathers. For many of us, this is a day to thank them for the love and commitment which they've shown to us throughout our lives.

Celebrating Fathers' Day is especially important in a culture in which fatherhood is increasingly seen as unnecessary. More and more children are being born out-of-wedlock, and fewer and fewer couples are entering into the marriage covenant, with the children being left with the mother when the relationship breaks apart. I recently heard a statistic that 85% of youths in prison came from single-parent families without a father in their lives. In some places, especially low-income, inner-city neighborhoods, children are seen as the woman's problem and the father is completely out of their lives.

This is not the example that we are given by our Heavenly Father of what fatherhood should look like. God our Father gives to us a complete and total love, a love that truly desires the best for us, even if we do not understand or agree with what that might look like. In the same way, earthly fathers are challenged to put their families over their own desires and wants. Fathers are called to teach their children, to show them right from wrong, and to give them an example of how to live their lives and treat others with respect. They are challenged to give of themselves so completely that they are even willing to give up their lives to protect and care for their children. This is the total, self-giving love which fathers are called to have for their children, a love which we celebrate today on Fathers' Day.

This year, we have a second fatherhood which we are asked to remember. On Friday, the feast of the Sacred Heart, Pope Benedict proclaimed the Year for Priests, a year of prayer for priests and celebration of the ministerial priesthood. Like Fathers' Day for our earthly, physical fathers, we are called during this special year to remember those priests who have truly shown the spiritual fatherhood that is the nature of the priesthood.

While most priests are not fathers by birth, all priests are called to be spiritual fathers, who give the same self-giving love to the people they have been called to serve. The focus of any priest should not be on his needs and desires, but on what is best for the parishioners that he's called to both serve and lead. Sometimes that service and leadership might lead to making decisions that aren't popular, but priests are still called to make those decisions on behalf of the parishioners.

Priests are also called to teach and preach the saving love of God and show the example of loving God and loving our neighbors. We're called to join in celebrating joyful occasions, and to be a source of comfort in times of sorrow. In short, we are called to be fathers. It's not a coincidence that the spiritual fatherhood and the earthly fatherhood have similar job descriptions. Both draw from the example of God our Father in Heaven.

As we celebrate both Fathers' Day and the Year for Priests, may we remember and pray for our fathers, both earthly and spiritual, and may those called to be fathers show to their families the self-giving love which God the Father has for all of us.

Edit: fixed grammatical "oops".

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Homily for the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity

Today we're celebrating the feast that commemorates the greatest of all mysteries within Christianity, the Most Holy Trinity. This feast always brings up the question “How do you explain the Holy Trinity?” Most of us could probably come up with the traditional formulation “The Trinity is One God, Three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” if asked. OK, so we understand that, but what does that really mean? How do you explain what the formula really means?

This is a question that has plagued some of the greatest philosophers and theologians throughout the history of Christianity. Some of the greatest minds have dwelt long and hard on this issue. St. Thomas Aquinas dedicated a large chunk of the Summa Theologica, his master work, on the questions that surround the Trinity. Many people are familiar with St. Patrick's use of the three-leaf clover to demonstrate the relationship between the Trinity. An image called the Shield of the Trinity explains the relationship within the Trinity by use of a triangle.

While these images and reflections on the Trinity are attempts to help us to better grasp this great mystery, we still have to come to the realization that we are no closer to understanding the Trinity than we were when Jesus commanded His disciples to baptize “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” (Mt 28:19) The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that “the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in himself.” (CCC 234) If we get the Holy Trinity wrong, we get the whole of Christian belief wrong.

Throughout the history of the Church many people, theologians, philosophers, bishops, and priests, have spread false or confusing theories on the Holy Trinity, which caused division and even violence within the Church. Many heresies in the first centuries of the Church were caused by faulty understanding of the Trinity, and more than a few of the early councils of the Church were called to correct these poor theologies. Because of these heresies, the Church has declared specific formulas to express our belief in the Trinity. We proclaim these formulas as we recite the Nicene Creed at every Sunday Mass, but the Church is also aware that these formulations are likely just scratching the surface of what the Trinity truly is. As Christians, we need to trust in the Church's teachings on the Trinity, as we should trust and follow all that the Magisterium presents as authoritative, even if we don't understand those teachings completely.

Due to our inability to truly understand what the Trinity really means, any variation on the Church's teaching on the Trinity usually results in a complete denial of the relationships within the Trinity. Over the past three to four decades, it became fashionable among priests to stop using the names Father, Son and Holy Spirit for the Three Persons of the Trinity. Instead, these priests would use the terms Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, which describe what each person of the Trinity does for us. In place of a description of the relationship between the three persons, the new titles tell us the jobs that they do for us here on Earth.

Some priests even went so far as to use these terms in the Baptismal Rite, going against Our Lord's command that we heard in today's Gospel reading. Because these priests refused to baptize as Jesus commanded, they never actually performed the Sacrament of Baptism, but just made an unbaptized baby wet. It also caused a lot of heartache and anger when people were notified that the baptism needed to be performed once again, sometimes after many years. By not following the teachings of the Church, these priests caused great scandal among the faithful members of the Church.

Although we do not totally understand the Holy Trinity, One God in Three Persons, we are called to accept this mystery with deep faith in the revelation of Our Lord Jesus Christ as passed down through the Magisterium of the Church. May we have the faith to believe what we do not truly understand.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Stating the Truth with Charity

As Catholics, we have received the promise by Our Lord Jesus Christ that the Church contains the fullness of His truth, revealed to us through the Scriptures, Tradition, and the Magisterial teachings of the bishops in union with the Pope. As a priest, this is an area of great comfort to me, as I know that when I teach what the Church proclaims, I am teaching the Gospel that Christ gave to us.

There is a danger in this comforting promise of revealed truth, a danger that the anonymous nature of the Internet makes it more easy to fall into. This danger is being so sure of the truth that one loses all charity.

I was reminded of this last night as part of a discussion on Fr. John Zuhlsdorf's Z-Chat. The discussion was on modesty in dress, especially when attending Mass. We were trying to figure out a charitable way to encourage modesty, and were finding several good ways (parish provides blankets or robes, priest or ushers politely explain the necessity of modesty, etc.) when one participant kept "stirring the pot". She kept repeating that "Padre Pio would immediately have those dressed immodestly escorted out of the church," and was unwilling to consider any other option. Several of the moderators privately warned her of her behavior, which as being disruptive and arrogant. Finally, we had no choice but to remove her from the discussion, as she had left any sense of civility behind.

Now, was there anything wrong with what she said? No, she was right on. In the case of a woman who refuses to cover up after being warned about immodest dress, the appropriate action would be to ask her to leave. It might sound rude or prudish, but gross immodesty by women has a grave effect on men, and would represent a near occasion of sin for most men. In charity to the members of the congregation, it would be best for someone who is dressed immodestly to come back when they are dressed appropriately if they refuse to cover up when asked.

The problem the moderators had with this chat participant was the tone presented by her comments. Throughout the discussion, she became arrogant and belligerent. When asked to tone down her attitude, she would immediately fire back, "Show me what I said wrong?" She refused to admit that she had done anything wrong, but placed the blame at others.

I tell this story because it shows how not to state the truth. She was completely, 100% correct about the teachings of the Church, but there was no charity in her statements. Her viewpoint was that she was right, everyone else who disagreed was wrong, and since they're wrong, she had to force them to agree with her. This attitude will not spread the Gospel message of Christ, it will chase people away from it.

So, how do we spread the Gospel with charity? Is it possible to tell the truth in a way that won't turn someone away without watering it down? The answer to the second question is an unqualified 'yes'. Yes, it is very much possible to spread the truth without unnecessarily making someone angry or upset. The first step is coming to realization that we might have the truth presented by Christ, but we are imperfect beings that will get things wrong. We might not understand as well as we think. We might misrepresent the teachings through bad choices of words. We might allow our personal biases or failings to inadvertently color the teachings of the Church. However it happens, we cannot think for one second that we have any sense of infallibility.

Once we realize our own fallibility, we can be more open to understanding where the other person is coming from. They may be open to what we have to say, if we present it gently and with respect. If we cram it down their throats, they'll respond in kind. In physics, there is a principle: every action has an equal, but opposite, reaction. The same applies in conversations with others. If you're rude and arrogant, you'll get the same reaction. If you're kind and respectful, while not watering down the truth, you may find them more open to the discussion and learning from the truth. It's not a hard and fast rule as emotions frequently get involved, but "sugar catches more flies than vinegar". You get better results from presenting the truth with respect.

Going along with the fallibility of us mere mortals, it helps to have a healthy level of humility. Be ready to apologize for anything but the truth. If your tone makes them upset, take a deep breath and honestly apologize. If you use a bad choice of words or example, apologize for that. Don't apologize for the teachings of the Church, but be willing to apologize for anything you say or do that makes it more difficult for the truth to come through.

Throughout our conversations, we need to remember that not everyone is open to the Gospel at the moment you may be talking with them. You may seem to get nowhere and walk away discouraged, but if you keep a level head and treat the other person with respect, it will make a difference. Conversion story after conversion story of those who came home to the Catholic Church emphasize that there were frequently Catholics who spoke the truth with respect and love. The convert didn't agree at first, maybe even argued strongly against the Church, but over time the truth presented with love won them over.

We also need to live the Gospel if we're going to bring it to others. If we talk about how Jesus loves us and wants us to love our neighbors, but don't show that same love others in our daily lives, we will be rightfully written off as hypocrites. To love our neighbor means to desire the best for them, and we need to do this even to the point of total self-giving. Our example says far more than our words.

We live in a culture that is truly hungering for the truth, but needs to be led to it. Just as someone who is starving for food will choke if you try to shove a steak his throat, those to whom we proclaim the truth will choke on it if we present it with arrogance and self-righteousness.