Sunday, January 30, 2011

happiness 2.0

4th Sunday of Ordinary Time
30 January 2011
St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center at the University of Kansas
Daily Readings

Almost every scientist and philosopher agrees now that our universe has a beginning. The universe is neither necessary nor eternal. The universe is not God. It can be measured and a date can be given to its beginning. So far all efforts to show that the universe always existed or always will exist have failed. The most interesting debate currently, is between those smart people who postulate that the something of our universe arose out of the nothing of possibilities. Such agnostics point to the theoretical possibilites of billions of parallel universes to explain how such a statistically improbable universe like ours came from nothing. Theists instead say that it is takes less faith and is more reasonable actually to conclude that given the immense improbability of something coming from nothing, the beginning of the universe points to the action of a supernatural metaphysical intelligence that is the ground of all being.

Smart people likewise disagree on the moral universe. There are some who think the universe proposes a morality, a natural law, that can be agreed upon by human minds without reference to metaphysical universals or supernatural revelations. There are others who say that matter and energy while obeying physical laws have no capability of defining good and evil; as such, natural law must be grounded in divine law, a law that supersedes nature. Because of this we have a divergence between smart people who think that human actions while appearing to be free are ultimately determined by broader evolutionary laws, and those who find a radical spiritual freedom in man that is irreducible by nature.

Finally, there are smart people who argue that religion is the greatest problem in the world, for it distracts people from a real humanism that solves real problems in this real world, and those who while admitting that religions will always be filled with sinners, find in the contemplation of God's revelation of Himself, and obedience to God's commands, the most enduring hope for man understanding his deepest dignity, actualizing his greatest happiness, and realizing his greatest destiny.

Smart people will continue to debate these questions at the highest level. We should join them as much as we can, for such questions are always worth considering, and they pay great dividends for those who pursue better answers. The world will continue to be changed by smart people engaging such questions as well as they can, just as the world is changed by the honest debate between liberalism and conservatism, between capitalism and other economic systems, between democracy and others forms of government, between Christianity and other kinds of religion. The list can and does go on and on. The discussion goes on and on and on, like the rivalry between Mizzou and K-State and KU. Most of us have taken sides on many of these questions, and perhaps we're pretty sure of our position, and pretty sure we'll never understand how the other side thinks, just as we'll never fully understand how smart and good-hearted people can root for the Wildcats and the Tigers. Still, we know the discussions and the rivalries and the questions will persist, and human history will be written by how these questions play out.

The smartest people among us continue to make amazing discoveries and human knowledge grows at an exponential rate, so much so that college freshman today are the most anxious of any group of freshman in history, for you are going into debt so that one day you might find a way to be successful in a world that is changing faster than anyone can predict. Yet as much as human knowledge is progressing, an argument can be made that we are forgetting as much as we are learning. The great promise of progress gives way to discouragement when we see that we are not becoming better people. The science that can save lives can also be used to destroy lives. We have as much war, famine and persecution as ever. The same religions that produce saints are used as cover by suicide bombers. We have moved past the age of Enlightenment into the age of postmodernism, an age that desperately wants to hope but is devoid of new ideas on how to define and secure human happiness.

Happiness. This is Jesus' theme for tonight. What is happiness? Who is happy? Jesus on the surface in his beatitudes seems to try to trick his disciples, convincing them that misery now will pay off with happiness later. Yet contemplation of the beatitudes produces another payoff that goes beyond making an exclusive backroom bet or trade with our Lord. Jesus in pointing us toward heaven offers a transcendent happiness that can be lived from the inside out even as we try to realize a happiness that is delivered to man by the world from the outside in. In departing from the natural definition of happiness in such a radical way in the beatitudes, Jesus is proposing a transcendent happiness that begins not merely in a heaven far away from here, but a happiness that begins precisely where heaven and earth meet in the human heart.
So even as the fire rages on in the world, and the world is changed by human debates and struggles, between the smartest and the most powerful, and even as those of us with courage go into the world as Jesus taught us to redeem it by the bold proclamation of the Gospel to all people and nations, today's contemplation of the beatitudes command us to pay greater attention to how God desires to redeem the world from the inside out. Jesus chose to begin his mission with the weak of the world, with those who were sick in body and in spirit, and he never deviated from this mission until He had given His life like a lamb led to slaughter. Jesus never tried to win over the smartest, the most powerful or the most religious. He served the poor and defenseless, and gave his life like a lamb as a ransom for many, and in this He has changed the world more than any human person ever has. So St. Paul reminds us Jesus' disciples, that God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being may boast before God.

As much as the world is changed by exchanges between the richest, the most powerful, and the smartest, Jesus tells his disciples that the most enduring human progress is not achieved by these people, for too often we forget more than we learn, and too often we repeat the same mistakes, but man progresses most of all by those saints and heroes who pass over from earth to heaven in their hearts. Humankind only makes progress when that progess begins first in the human heart, in those who are not proud, who can weep for their friends, who want little for themselves, who work for justice, who know how to forgive and bring people together, who are single-hearted, and who offer their sufferings, and allow their blood to be shed, so that others may have life. This is where human happiness begins, deep within the heart of a human person who is capable of responding to Jesus' command to love others just as He first loves us.

In this week, we KU basketball fanatics will be changed more by praying for Thomas Robinson and his family, by mourning with him, and by supporting him as he moves through the grief and uncertainty of his situation to continue to sacrifice and to love and to become his greatest self despite having reasons not to. We will watch closely as Gabrielle Giffords in the coming months perhaps miraculously survives an unthinkably evil and senseless shooting, and pray God one day returns to the House floor to serve our country. More than any weather forecast or stock market report or debate about the origins of the universe, these stories and others like them, will continue to change the lives of real people like us as we watch people walk that line between earth and heaven drawn in the human heart, and we too seek the happiness that comes to those who are invited by Jesus tonight to cross over.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Paul and Mary

Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle
25 January 2011
St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center

Paul was a proud person before his conversion. If Mary was the most humble of all the apostles, the one who proclaimed that the Lord looked upon her lowliness, the one who was most ready to receive Jesus Christ, then Paul was the opposite. Paul and Mary represent the bookends of the apostles. One was perfectly humble and ready to receive Jesus. The other was perfectly proud and ready to persecute Him. One was chosen even before Jesus' birth, and carried Him in her womb. The other never met the Lord face to face, but only met Him after His ascension into heaven. Yet both became super-apostles, the apostles of the apostles, the apostles par excellence. Paul, because He eventually was called to outwork the other apostles in the mission of evangelization. Mary, because from her beginning she was to be the pattern of the apostolic Church, teaching us how to receive Jesus before being sent by Him. She too, like Paul, eventually outworked all the other apostles, eventually winning converts by the millions, most notably here in the Americas sixteen centuries after Her assumption. If there is any apostle who has brought the Gospel here to the Americas, it is Mary herself, and our Lady of Guadalupe is the apostle to the Americas.

The vocational stories of Mary and Paul could not be more different really, and yet their lives bear similar fruit. They are both zealous for the law of Moses, Mary by virtue of her Immaculate Conception lived the law of Moses even more perfectly and intensely than did Paul, whose life was based on enforcing righteous laws that preserved goodness, not only for himself but out of love for God and nation. It can easily be said that Paul loved the law to the point of neglect to the law-giver, and Paul would be the first to say that his conversion was from being a murderer to being an apostle, yet the zeal with which Paul lived the law of Moses was exactly what God desired for the preaching of the Gospel. The conversion of Paul is the greatest conversion in history; it is God's healing of pride and turning that extraordinary pride that Paul possessed into a zeal for souls that the rest of the apostles could never dream of imitating.

Paul ended upon proclaiming, as does Mary in her magnificat, that God looked upon his lowliness, his unworthiness, and began to love Paul and to heal Paul and to call Paul precisely beginning at that point where Paul was weakest, where because of his pride he did not yet know the love of God. Paul then like Mary boasted only of his lowliness, and teaches us to boast to others only of our weakness. Our proclamation to the world as Christians is not to show how the law of Christ has made us better than other people; even if it has, this is not the story that is to be proclaimed. No, our story is to proclaim with Paul the story of our conversion, of how Jesus Christ comes to visit us in our lowliness, how he has personally healed my sinfulness, and beginning with my weakness, has called me into His great apostolic mission.

Monday, January 24, 2011

March for Life 2011

Saturday marked the 38th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion in our country, and began a civil rights moment seeking to re-establish the right to life from conception to natural death ni this country. This movement, while doing incalculable good in the minds and hearts of Americans, and saving many lives, has yet to return the right to life to a right guaranteed by law. I have had the honor, as a post Roe v. Wade survivor, to march in Washington many times and to demonstrate before the Supreme Court, praying for the unborn, and speaking for the millions in my generation whose lives have been lost to abortion. I pray for what has been lost, commending all who have been hurt by abortion to the mercy of God, but perhaps even more, I pray for family life and for the virtue of chastity to be strengthened in our country. For the longer I am part of this battle for life, the more I see clearly that the battle must be won in the family if it is definitively to be won anywhere else. I preached on the feast of the Holy Family this year during the Christmas season, that unless we pass on to the next generation to ability to hear and to answer the call to sacramental marriage, as established by Christ and understood fully by the Church, then we are living without hope. For as the family goes, so goes the nation. I want to take this chance to honor all our seminarians, young people, their sponsors, and our Church, for standing up for life today in such a beautiful way as they March on Washington. I am with you in spirit and in prayer.

The event will probably be underreported, but it is awesome!

unforgivable sins

Monday of the 3rd Week in Ordinary Time
24 January 2011
St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center
Daily Readings

Most of us have encountered this biblical passage before about the unforgivable sin, but it appears so rarely in the Gospels that there can be large gaps between our meditation on what it really is. Over and over and over, we hear of Jesus forgiving sins, of his desiring that not one person be lost. This makes his words about the unforgivable sin all the more shocking to us. We are almost never ready to hear them. We might even say that they don't sound right coming from Jesus, almost as if he got up on the wrong side of the bed. Of course, we ascribe no such thing to Jesus nor to the Gospel authors. Jesus means what He says. Sins against the Holy Spirit truly are unforgivable.
The Catechism helps us to understand what Jesus must mean then. He doesn't mean just any blasphemy, but specifically a refusal to believe that the Holy Spirit can forgive sins. This makes sense in the context of today's Gospel. Even for Jesus, whose mission is to love sinners and to forgive every sin, there must be a sin, if our freedom is real and God respects our choices, that is unforgiveable. That sin against the Holy Spirit is a refusal to believe that forgiveness of sins is possible. This is a denial of the action of the Holy Spirit. In the Gospel, it is attributing the casting out of demons, and the forgiveness of sins, to the work of the devil, not the work of the Holy Spirit.
The unforgivable sin does not limit God's power nor His desire to forgive every sin. It preserves a correct anthropology of human freedom, and a correct understanding of salvation as something offered but something capable of being rejected by men who are made in God's image and likeness. Hell is a possibility not because God desires it, but because man can possibly desire it.
St. Frances de Sales is honored today for his zeal in defending the true faith agains the errors of the reformation. Along with great figures like St. Vincent de Paul and St. Jane Frances de Chantal, his special love for the poor, his expert defense of the true Church, and His zeal in teaching people how to live a devout life, saved the Church from losing many more souls, and helped Her to preserve the deposit of faith against all attackers. His example gives hope to all those who lament the endless splintering of Christianity, and who long to see the unity of Christ's Church which is a gift of the Holy Spirit working within Her.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

A bruised reed He will not break!

Baptism of the Lord
8/9 January 2011
St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center

The Church Fathers teach us that Jesus is not made holy by the waters that baptize him. He is already holy. Even John the Baptist knows this. He asks Jesus - what is the world are you doing? Holy people should baptize sinners, not sinners baptize holy ones. Yet Jesus' baptism was still necessary. He was not made holy by the water, but He made the water holy by allowing Himself to be baptized.

Jesus' first public act is not to perform some great sign. It is to allow something to be done to him. It is to accept his mission to be identified with sinners. In allowing something to be done to Him, Jesus shows Himself truly to be the son of Mary, who was not known for her great signs she worked, but for her great yes, her acceptance of a mission to let something be done to her according to His word. The name Jesus, which means the one who will save them from their sins, indicates Jesus' mission to prefer sinners, to love sinners, to be with sinners. Jesus does not need to be baptized, no more than he needs to die in punishment for sin, but He allows it to be done to him, to fulfill all righteousness, to fulfill the mission given Him by the Father to identify with sinners. Jesus' first public act mirrors His last and greatest public act. Although He is not a sinner nor will He ever be, He refuses to separate Himself from sinners, but prefers to be called a sinner Himself, even being spat on and mocked, so that sinners might have a chance once again to live. The prophet Isaiah tells us precisely the mission of Jesus. He will not discard a single sinner. A bruised reed He will never break. Rather He will allow Himself to be bruised out of love and in solidarity and in hope for sinners. Jesus the full revelation of God shows God's desire to save us rather than judge us. He is willing to be judged in our place. His baptism is a willing entering into his eventual suffering and death of the cross. Yet thankfully, the cross is not the end of the story. The story does not end in God's defeat, nor in ours. The appearance of the Holy Spirit at the baptism is a foreshadowing of the same Spirit that will raise Jesus from the dead.

The baptism of Jesus is the first full revelation of the Trinity, the central mystery of our Christian faith into which we were all baptized - Father, Son and Spirit. The Father declares that He is well pleased with His Son, and He sees the same in us who through baptism are members of His body and truly children of God. How easily do we believe the worst about ourselves, and fear the judgment of God, even knowing Jesus' great desire and mission to forgive us rather than to judge us? In my experience as a priest, most Christians dwell on their sinfulness much longer than they dwell on the dignity of their baptism. If only each one of us would hear the Father's voice at the beginning of every morning, before ever having a negative thought about ourselves. You are my beloved son. You are my beloved daughter, in whom I am well pleased. My brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus, this is the dignity of our baptism, and the sure gift of faith, to be able to hear and to trust this voice in the depths of our being. You are my beloved sons and daughters, in whom I am well pleased. If only we could believe in how much God delights in us His children, before He ever counts a sin against us, I believe we would be different. I'm not saying that ours sins don't matter, I'm just saying that we will be converted by love far more than we will ever be converted by the law.

As we celebrate the great baptism of Jesus, and recall the greatest day in each one of our lives, the day of our baptism, the day when something was done to us that changed us far more than anything we could or will ever do to change ourselves, let us make it our goal this year to live out the Christmas mystery that we finish celebrating today, and to know how many times and in so many ways that the Lord wants to come visit us and make us holy by His presence in the coming year. No one who has been baptized into the death of Christ should turn his life into a self-improvement project. If we have been baptized, we are dead to this world. Nothing has to go our way in this world for us to be perfectly happy. If we focus on life in this world, and only hang around Jesus in case He has a lucky winning ticket for eternal life waiting for us after death, then we have no need of baptism. Those who are baptized only care about eternal life, a life that is not measurable but consists in depth of relationship with a person who Himself is the way, the truth and the life. If we have been baptized, life is not about self-improvement, it is about the self-forgetfulness that is the special mission of those who belong to Christ. Christ didn't worry one second about self-improvement. I dare say He never made a New Year's resolution. His mission was self-forgetfulness. That is all. Our only resolution in the new year, the only one that really matters for those who have celebrated Christmas, is to allow Jesus to come and visit us always as surely as He did on the day of our baptism. The only thing that matters to a Christian is to remember and most of all to believe in the dignity that we have as children of God, and to not allow the world to steal this dignity away from us. I'm not saying it is wrong to try to lose weight, or save money, or work on relationships. That is all fine and good. But for the Christian something else is primary. It is to use the gift of faith given at baptism to allow God to say to you at each moment of your life - you are my beloved son or daughter. In you I am well pleased. If we receive this dignity and truly believe in God and in ourselves, then we may not be perfect as the world judges things, but we will be the priests, prophets and kings in Christ that is the full dignity of our baptism. If we do anything new this year, let us be priests who pray for each other, let us be prophets who allow God's light to shine in new areas of the world, let us be kings who create a world in which people can believe in God and in one another. Amen.