Sunday, February 27, 2011

Even if a mother could forget


8th Sunday of Ordinary Time

St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center at the University of Kansas

27 February 2011

Even if a mother could forget, and be without tenderness for the child in her womb, I will never forget you. Please allow me to use these words from Isaiah, who was worried that He had been forgotten by God, to talk about abortion. Let me preface the remarks by saying that if you have had an abortion, or if you have been involved in an abortion as a father or as a family member or as a friend, that God has not abandoned you. He will never forget you, and His love for you is as strong today as ever. So if you have been injured by abortion, do not be afraid to come to confession if you haven't already, for the Lord's mercy awaits you there, and God will forgive you and make you whole again if you allow him to do so. I make remarks on abortion never to the shame of those who has been hurt by abortion, but so that no one may be afraid of God's mercy, so that many can be healed, and so that many people might be able to choose life today and tomorrow, and to choose it in the abundance that Christ offers it to us his disciples.

Some of you have been touched by abortion, but many others of you have not. Most of us, however, are personally involved in a culture that is promiscuous and contraceptive, and few of us are more than a few steps away in our personal lives from some kind of mistake, from perhaps being faced with an unplanned pregnancy, and the ensuing temptation to choose abortion. What is more, the reality is that only by fortunate circumstances are we here to worship God together today, for our right to life was protected at its beginning, not by law, but by our own mothers and families. So even if we are not sexually active ourselves, or involved in contraception, or have never been involved in an abortion, still we are survivors in a generation where abortion is legal. None of us can say that we have not been personally touched by abortion. When it is possible by law for a mother to forget the infant in her womb, society is deeply damaged, and each one of us personally as well.

In this homily, I will not talk of the struggle to restore legal protection to the unborn child, but of the virtue of chastity. This is a virtue that we all need, and need in abundance, a virtue that frees a human person in a unique way to live without the fear and anxiety that Jesus talks about in today's Gospel. It is because this virtue of chastity is so lacking in our culture, that reasonable people who have already been born think they must have the right to an abortion. It is because chastity is so underdeveloped as a virtue, that abortion will continue to be the defining civil rights issue of our generation. It is a battle that we cannot pass on to another generation to fix. It is our personal battle, and it is a battle that must be won today, beginning not only in congresses and coursts, but more fundamentally in the hearts and minds of those who know it is possible to live and to love in the most perfect and sacrificial and beautiful way.

I would like each one of us tonight, to recommit ourselves to cultivating that virtue of chastity in our lives, regardless of how pure or impure we are, regardless of what our habits or experiences are that we bring to Mass tonight. Let's all look back in our lives, to the innocence of our youth, to the time when we knew that we could and would love people in a most beautiful way, and together look forward to the end of our lives, forward to the day, pray God, of our own wedding, and recommit ourselves to what we want our lives to say and mean. Let's recommit ourselves to the virtue of chastity, no matter how difficult the re-conversion might be for us, so that we might restore the opportunity in our lives to make another person holy by the way that we love them.

Chastity at its minimum means training ourselves to habitually avoid the temptation to have sex outside of marriage, so that if we are called to marriage someday, a sacrament that is becoming less and less a possibility for many Catholics, we can hear and answer that call, and have a chance of meeting someone who can also make a sincere gift of themselves to us in return. Chastity at its minimum means training ourselves to learn from our mistakes and to not put ourselves in situation where we know we will fail. It is also a refusal to settle for mediocrity, to allow temptation to dominate our lives, but to continue despite failures to pick ourselves up and to learn from our mistakes and to try harder.

There are those however, in the culture around us, and the evil one who speaks inside of us, who will tell us that such a struggle for chastity is in vain. We might even be ridiculed for trying by certain friends, and the evil one can easily get us to hate ourselves for the things we have already done more than the sin we are trying to avoid, and many of our efforts to become chaste can seem rather futile. Chastity is not an easy virtue to cultivate, and so many give up and take the path of least resistance. Yet we give up to our own peril, if we settle for a diminished view of sexuality and of ourselves.

Chastity, if it is a real possibility for us, must be a virtue that we choose to train ourselves in, a virtue which requires effort on our part, but more importantly, chastity is a goodness, a habit, a virtue, that is ultimately spiritual. In this chastity is not only a goal to be achieved through our own efforts, it is something for which we are chosen. It is ultimately possible mostly because God right now wants to share with us his perfect chastity, the gift of his love, a divine love that defines the inner Trinitarian heart of God. He wants to share this perfection with us because He is deeply in love with us, his children. Even if a mother could forget, God will not forget us, and He will never stop wanting to pour his divine perfections, and his perfect chaste love, into the hearts of those who wish to receive it. Jesus when talking about our mission in life, to not merely be chaste but to participate in His mission of redeeming love, told those first disciples that it is not we that choose Him, but He who first chooses us, and appoints us to go out into the world, and to bear fruit that will remain. His great commandment to us is similar, love one another as I have first loved you.

Chastity at its most beautiful then, is much more than our choosing to be chaste even when we don't want to because we're afraid of what will happen if we aren't chaste. It is this, yes, but it is much more. Being chaste is a being chosen by God to first receive but then to give the very love through which the world was first created, and by which it is redeemed and made new again from the inside out. Our pure desire to build the virtue of chastity in our own lives reveals a great understanding on our part that we have an incomparable dignity as children of God, and our lives have meaning because we have been chosen to make the world holy again by the way that we love people. Chastity at its highest is being an instrument of the divine love that recreates the world in a more powerful way than any other economic, political or physical force.

When our Lord tells us not to be anxious in the Sermon on the Mount, and not to be worried about food or clothing, He is not telling us all to become Trappist monks, and to flee the world. No, He asks us to help him heal the world of its anxiety, by seeking first the Kingdom of God, and by teaching the world that God Himself through His Son takes away the ultimate anxiety that all of us have in wanting to be noticed and to be loved from the inside out. He asks us to welcome Him, and the workings of his divine love, into every aspect of our lives, especially those areas of our lives where we feel the most insecure. He asks us that if we feel insecure enough to have given up on the virtue of chastity, to not be afraid of His love, and to try inviting Him to share His perfections with us in the most intimate and personal areas of our lives.

As we are fed by the perfect love of Jesus made present, let us be saved from every mediocrity and discouragement in our battle to be chaste, and in our desire to free the world from the evils of our generation. As we allow God to make us Holy by pouring his love into our hearts tonight, let us see clearly how we are part of the solution in making the world holy once again, by the way that we love one another. Let us not be afraid to be chaste lovers, and to heal the world around us of its anxiety, as we seek first in our lives the Kingdom of God.

Monday, February 14, 2011

You already have what you need . . . .

Tuesday of the 6th Week of Ordinary Time I
St. Lawrence Catholic Center at the University of Kansas
15 February 2011
Daily Readings

Watch out for the leaven of Herod and the leaven of the Pharisees. Jesus lumps Herod and the Pharisees into a single sentence, even though the pair is outwardly very different. Herod represented the height of preoccupation with worldly things - power and wealth. The Pharisees represented the height of obsession with religious things, observing carefully the Mosaic law. Yet Jesus lumps them together. He says their leaven, their core motivation, is the same. He tells his own disciples to watch out.

The disciples were afraid of being chastised because they had forgotten to bring something that was needed, the loaf of bread. Jesus instead chastises them, not for forgetting to bring bread, but for continuing to have in their hearts the same fundamental question that poisoned the leaven of Herod and the Pharisees. The question is this: do I have what I need? Jesus recognizes both in Herod and in the Pharisees that this was the fundamental question of their hearts. Even though Herod lived this question is a secular way, and the Pharisees in a religious way, the fundamental question of their hearts, their leaven, was the same. Do I have what I need? Jesus chastises his disciples for worrying about the same thing.

Jesus rightly teaches that once you start asking this question, you never quite finish answering it. It is a question that destroys a human person, a leaven that does not allow a human person to be free or to flourish. For there is no end to the needs that a human person can identify, and no end to human desiring on this side of heaven. Once you start asking the question, do I have what I need, there is no way to stop. Consequently, even today we see many people who live in fear.

The leaven that Jesus wishes for his disciples is a question of how they are called to serve. In this country, JFK coined a phrase that has echoed through the centuries - ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. JFK was seeking to motivate patriotism so that America could compete again. Jesus' motivations are much deeper, but the question is similar. The fundamental question he wishes to be in the hearts of his disciples, is not whether they have what they need, but do they have an opportunity to serve? Jesus recalls the story of the loaves and fishes, to remind them that the correct question in that situation was not do we have what we need? No, the question was did we have an opportunity to give, to love, to serve others? The answer to that question was yes. So too in the redemption of the world, if every human person asks first whether he has what he needs, there will never be enough to go around. If instead, every human person seeks only an opportunity to love and to serve, then there will be superabundance. As Pope Benedict XVI said in his encyclical God is Love, charity grounds justice. Charity goes deeper than justice, and even when there is justice, with everyone having what they need, it never eliminates the human need to show charity.

We see this played out so often in the lives of real people. There are those who seem to have everything, and yet are unhappy, and those who seem to have nothing, who are eager to give away what little they have as fast as they can, needing only an opportunity to love. There are those who live in fear, like Herod and the Pharisees, and those who live in gratitude. The mere fact that there is something rather than nothing, that there is me rather than not me, is enough evidence to saints that they are known and loved, that they have already everything they need, that the only thing lacking ever in their lives is the next opportunity to give. On the other hand, the mere fact that there is something I could want that I do not yet have, is enough evidence for many to quit believing in God.

Jesus tells us to beware of the leaven in our hearts, the fundamental question of our lives. The first question we ask is usually the one we never stop asking.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

He's good, and that's what matters

6th Sunday of Ordinary Time
St. Lawrence Chapel at the University of Kansas
13 February 2011

Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. In a way, the Lord might as well be telling a sixth grade basketball team to go out and find a way to beat the mighty Kansas Jayhawks. Nobody knew the law better than the scribes and Pharisees. They were the lawyers, the law enforcement, and the best observers of the law. Nobody cared about the law of Moses, to which Jesus refers throughout today's Gospel, more than the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus, as he oftentimes does, puts before his disciples an impossible task, like 6th graders taking the court against the Jayhawks, but says there is a way for the impossible to become possible. As great as the scribes and Pharisees are, they have not resisted sin and observed the law to the point of shedding their own blood. They have not given 110% as coaches often say. So Jesus uses hyperbole to show the kind of effort to be righteous that his disciples must give. If necessary, they should gouge their eyes and cut off their hands, and when we see our own Lord stripped and beaten on the cross in order that he might fulfill all righteousness, we know that our Lord even when using hyperbole is telling us that we can always try harder.

Still, there is an aura of hyperbole and impossibility in today's Gospel that makes us want to search for its deeper meaning. Those sixth graders might go out on the court believing that they can win, and doing everything that they can think to do to beat the Jayhawks, but might never beat the experts, the pros. So also is our chance of exceeding the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees who care about the moral law more than the average Joe in the pew. In the moral life, trying to be perfect is like being those sixth graders trying to be the Jayhawks. And if we were advising ourselves, most of us would say that you don't beat the Jayhawks by playing harder, but by playing smarter. The best solution if you don't have the players to beat them is to recruit a player to help you, preferably the greatest player who ever played the game, a player who makes everyone around him better, a player who makes winning a real possibility again.

Jesus tells us to do impossible things, but he never commands that we do them alone. He tells his disciples that they must be perfect, as their heavenly Father is perfect, or they will not be worthy of the kingdom of heaven, while at the same time also telling them that without Him they can do nothing, and that no one approaches the perfect Father except through him. Jesus not only challenges his disciples to perfectly fulfill the moral law, to perfectly do good and avoid evil, even to the point of beating the pros, he more importantly tells them that he will be the captain of the team, that without him they really have no chance, but that with him all things are possible.

So while it is important for us to resist sin as much as we can, to renew the promises of our baptism to refuse to be mastered by sin, to hate our sins with a perfect hate, and to not allow the evil one to push us around and turn us into someone we never wanted to be, it is our relationship with the Lord who has the victory over sin that is most important. Those who want to be holy and successful in the moral life realize that every struggle in the moral life, doing good and avoiding evil, points to a more fundamental struggle in the spiritual life, a struggle to trust God, and to welcome him into every area of our lives. To exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees means trying harder, yes, even to the point of shedding our blood, but more importantly, it means allowing Christ who has already shed his blood, and his perfections to be more present to us, and to allow Him, the best player on our team, to do more in us and with us and through us.

There is no reason, then, for us to get frustrated with our weakness, with our own sinfulness. There is no reason for us to hate ourselves more than we hate our sins, which is what the evil one would like us to do. In our battle to be holy, of course we should be calling timeouts, making adjustments in our strategy, practicing harder, and drawing up new plays. But most of all, we should know that Christ Himself is on the bench ready for us to put him in play in the time and circumstances of our lives.

It is the spiritual life, a life of prayer, and a life of true discipleship that is most important. Through a spiritual life we tend to forget ourselves because we are truly following the Lord and are attentive to what he is doing. It is the spiritual life that allows for the greatest progress in the moral life, becoming the people we really want to be. In a sense, because Jesus always was, and is, and will be, the one who fulfills all righteousness, and because at every moment He is in conversation with His heavenly Father and fulfilling the will of His Heavenly Father, then it is not really up to us to find our own individual way to be perfect by our own power. It is a matter of plugging into his perfection, of our entering into something that is already being accomplished. It is a matter of allowing the Holy Spirit to overshadow us as it did Mary.

Mary then in the moral life, since she was sinless, is our pattern of holiness. She is our nearest example. We think of Mary not as one who had supernatural power over sin, although the gifts of the Holy Spirit made her incredibly strong. We do not think of her as always doing right when mere mortals would falter, although this is also true. We think of her instead as the lowly handmaiden of the Lord, who allows the Lord to help her, who allows the Lord to share his perfections with her because he loves her. We think of her as being placed in the middle of this incredible conversation and mission of love between the Father and the Son, and so she is full of grace, filled with the Holy Spirit, and she accomplished more by her fiat than the strongest scribe or Pharisee could ever accomplish by his willpower or attention to the law.

Let us move forward in this Eucharist toward being the people we deeply want to be, by realizing that our Lord Jesus is just as ready to fulfill all righteousness in us, by the power of his suffering, death and resurrection, as he was ready to fill the sinless heart of the virgin Mary. Unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, we are not fit to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Allowing yourself to be chosen

Friday of the 5th Week of Ordinary Time I
11 February 2011
Danforth Chapel at the University of Kansas
Optional Memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes
Daily Readings

Today's memorial and readings give us a chance to think about the difference between choosing and being chosen. One is greater than the other, but we usually get them backwards. Oftentimes, we think of holiness as choosing the good, and this is true in part, but it is more true to say that holiness is allowing the good to choose you. There is a big difference between Eve, who is seduced into choosing what is good only for herself, and Mary, who allowed goodness to choose her. There is a difference in using the freedom that makes us in God's image and likeness to determine goodness for yourself, and only yourself, and using that freedom to allow yourself to be chosen for a good that goes far beyond anything you might ever choose for yourself. There is a difference between Eve, who in eating the fruit of the tree dared to act like a god, and Mary, who in letting it be done unto Her according to His Word, was elevated above all the gods, and who is truly called the Mother of God.

So too our Lord's mission to redeem the world through sacrificial love was not a mission that He chose, but something He accepted in obedience, and His greatest act was foregoing His ability to save Himself from the cross, but saying to His Father not my will, but your will be done. In our Lord's cross we find the fullness of freedom, not in self-determination, but in allowing one's self to be chosen for a destiny and mission that is beyond one's self. The cross is always a more perfect symbol of love and freedom than any self-made man. So also in our vocation, Christ asks us to trust Him in obedience, and reminds us that as great as it is that we might choose Him, it is not we who choose Him, but He who chooses us, and gives us a mission in life that is greater than anything we could choose for ourselves.

People have been coming to Lourdes for 150 years now, to be healed of their illnesses to be sure, but perhaps moreso, to imitate Mary who was the greatest among mere men in allowing something to be done unto Her. Of all those cured of bodily illness at Lourdes, there are many others who have found there the ability to conform their own sufferings to the mystery of the Lord's cross, and to find through their disabilities and sufferings a greater freedom than they would have ever had without them. Though few who come to Lourdes would choose the heavy cross that they have to bear, it is there with Mary and Jesus that they allow themselves to be healed from the inside out, and allow themselves to be chosen to bear a fruit that goes beyond the understanding of the world. Like the deaf man and his friends who could not stop proclaiming not what they had done, but what God had done for them, so too Lourdes remains a profoundly joyful place, where those who have more reasons than us to distrust God nevertheless shame us by proclaiming what God has done for them. For God indeed looks upon us in our lowliness. He heals the brokenhearted. And for those who let it be done to them according to His word, He gives a peace that this world can never give.

Let us pray today for our Church, that Mary's appearance at Lourdes would continue to give comfort and hope to those chosen to participate in the redemptive sufferings of Christ, we pray

Let us pray for the world, that the most vulnerable among us would be protected and served by the strong, and that the dignity of human life would never be measured as much as it is celebrated, we pray

Let us pray for the mission of the St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center, to proclaim the goodness of the Lord and his healing power to those who suffering in mind, body or spirit at KU, we pray

Let us pray for those areas of the world torn by violence and discord, for a peaceful and just resolution in Egypt and in all areas of the world in need of reconciliation, we pray

Let us pray that following the pattern of Mary, that more people would be open to receiving from the Lord vocations to priesthood, the religious life, and to the sacrament of marriage, we pray to the Lord . . .

Let us remember those for whom we have promised to pray, especially the sick, the lonely and the doubtful, that our prayers may bring them healing, we pray . . .

Lord, through the powerful intercession of Our Lady of Lourdes, continue to give us hope and strength to endure whatever may come, for your greater glory and the salvation of souls. We make our prayers known to you also, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

It is not good for man to be alone

Thursday of the 5th Week of Ordinary Time I
St. Lawrence Chapel at the University of Kansas
10 February 2011
St. Scholastica, pray for us!
You get a sense from today's Gospel that Jesus needed a break, or a nap, or time to pray, but he couldn't escape notice. When approached by the Greek woman, he says what hits our ears as the rudest thing we have ever heard our Lord say. He tells the woman that she is cutting the line, that Greeks should be behind Jewish people in receiving His teaching and healing. The Greek woman's faith is more than up to this unique challenge by our Lord, and by her faith her daughter is healed of the demon.
Those called to the priesthood and religious life cut the line as well, skipping over a step that is natural and good for man, the call to marriage, so that they might participate as fully as they can already now in the eternal marriage of Christ to His Church. Taking nothing away from marriage, which remains as we see clearly in the reading for Genesis God's usual way of calling men and women to a good and holy life, those called to the priesthood in the western Church, and to religious life universally don't really skip over marriage, but sacrifice this natural good to attend to a supernatural call to spiritual marriage to the Church or to Christ Himself, respectively.
Just as a man and wife complement each other perfectly in a marriage, so in the Church, laity and religious complement each other perfectly. Families are the domestic Church, where vocations can be born and first heard and answered, and religious serve families by making present the eternal marriage of Christ to His Church in a way that enables sacramental marriage to remain a real possibility. The family provides the first setting where a person knows himself to be loved. Religious in turn give a witness to families that our deepest desire to be loved can only finally be answered in God alone.
It is marriage to God, perfectly celebrated and achieved in the wedding banquet of the Eucharist, that enables every vocation to be heard and answered in the Church. Today we celebrate St. Scholastica, the twin sister of St. Benedict, and champion her virginity for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. As the well-known legend about her testifies, even though her twin brother was famous for setting up a rule that allowed religious to pray and work in harmony, a rule that has always served the Church and civilization so well, still the greater of the twins could easily have been Scholastica, whose love for God even exceeded her brother's. Just as Mary's virtue exceeded that of all the other apostles, so also we celebrate the gift of women religious in the Church, who like St. Scholastica, show the true heart of the Church, and who show us how to allow God to love us into our true vocation to holiness, which is always a gift received from the Holy Spirit. If there is a vocation in the Church that we need the most, it is surely vocations to the religious life for women. Let us pray more for vocations to the religious life, especially for women, confident that their consecration will renew the Church in the most beautiful way possible.
Let us pray for the Church, especially for our Benedictine brothers and sisters, that as they celebrate today they will find strength to continue to serve the Church with fervent joy, we pray . . .
Let us pray for the world, that the monastic example set by the Benedictines will inspire people to allow their work to be inspired by prayer, we pray . . .
Let us pray that the Benedictines would be true to their charism to pray regularly for us and for the needs of the world, and celebrate the divine liturgy with great skill and devotion, we pray . .
Let us pray for the mission of the St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center to open the minds of all students at KU to the source of true and lasting Wisdom, we pray . . .
Let us pray in thanksgiving for the impending installation of KU alum Bishop Paul Coakley as the new archbishop of Oklahoma City tomorrow, we pray . . .
Let us pray for a greater openness to vocations to the priesthood and religious life, we pray to the Lord . . .
Let us pray for all those in need, and all those for whom we have promised to pray, especially the lonely, the sick and the doubtful, we pray to the Lord . . .
Heavenly Father, through the intercession of St. Scholastica, may we receive those things we need to serve you more joyfully in purity of heart. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Where is your heart?

Tuesday of the 5th Week in Ordinary Time
Optional Memorial for Josephine Bakhita, virgin, canonized 2000 by John Paul II
St. Lawrence Chapel at the University of Kansas
8 February 2011

Today we pray with one of the Church's newest saints, the patron saint of Sudan, Josephine Bakhita. Bakhita was the name give her by those Arab slave traders who bought and sold her as a young girl. It means fortunate, although Josephine in her early years was anything but. She was bought and sold by Arab slave traders five times, and branded over 140 times and abused constantly. Her body was covered with scars from the abuse. So horrible was her childhood, that this saint could not remember her birth name, nor what year she was born.

The fifth time she was sold, Bakhita was sold to an Italian family, who had to eventually flee Sudan and took their slave with them. When her Italian owners had to take an extended trip, they left her with a group of sisters, where Bakhita first learned of Christ. There Bakhita, after suffering at the hands of many masters, learned that the ultimate master, the Lord, was good, and that although the masters she had had mistreated her, she found in the wounds of Christ a master who had always loved her and who awaited her in heaven. She was baptized at age 21 and entered the convent, and received the name Josephine, and served the rest of her days in quiet and holy service and simplicity. She finally discovered that slavery was illegal both in Sudan and in Italy, and decided to use that freedom to become a religious. She was an incredible sister. When asked how she was, even when she suffered greatly at the end of her life, Josephine said . . .. as the Master wishes.

Pope Benedict XVI featured this incredible saint in paragraph 3 of his second encyclical Spe Salvi. He goes on at length about Josephine, offering this new saint to us as a modern model of what it means to live in hope of salvation. All the suffering that Josephine endured did not destroy her heart, which always hoped for a better master before she even met him who made heaven and earth, and who alone is the true Master. When she did meet him, she forgave her persecutors and lived a life of prayer and service. Nothing of what she suffered destroyed the hope of this incredible saint. She is now the patron saint of Sudan, which continues to endure unimaginable suffering, and a political struggle for religious freedom and self-governance. The Catholic heavy has south has voted to secede from the heavily Arab north, but no one knows how bloody and difficult and long the struggle will be for the impoverished south of Sudan. They need the prayers of their powerful saint, and ours as well.

Jesus tells us through his undressing of the Pharisees that our relationship with him must be heart speaking to heart. The life of St. Josephine Bakhita shows us what holiness is - it is not looking clean from the outside in, it is living with faith and in hope despite every reason to abandon these virtues. It is moving beyond our excuses and rationalizations to stay where we are, to move to where God can speak to us heart and heart, and help us to live in the pure hope for which St. Josephine is greatly honored.

We pray for the Church, especially for bishops and priests and leaders of the Church in southern Sudan, that they may lead their people through this difficult struggle for religious freedom and justice, we pray to the Lord

We pray for the world, especially for those who are persecuted, that they may not live without hope, and that their dignity as children of God will be respected, we pray to the Lord

We pray for the mission of the St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center, to bring the light of the Gospel to bear on the learning at the University of Kansas, we pray to the Lord

We pray that through the intercession of Josephine Bakhita, there may be an increase of vocations to the priesthood and religious life in our country, we pray to the Lord

We pray for all those for whom we have promised to pray, and those to whom we wish to offer the fruits of this Mass, especially, the lonely, the sick and the doubtful, we pray to the Lord

Heavenly Father, through the intercession of St. Josephine, listen attentively to the prayers of your faithful people, and help us to live with greater detachment from ourselves and with greater hope in seeing you face to face, we ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Salt and Light

5th Sunday of Ordinary Time
St. Lawrence Chapel at the University of Kansas
6 February 2011
Daily Readings

Within the next 10 years, if things keep going the way they are going, it will be just as likely that the person sitting next to you on plane will be agnostic as it is likely that he will be Catholic. Catholicism is holding steady in the US at around 20% of the population, neither growing nor declining at a great rate. Agnosticism is climbing exponentially, however, especially among former Catholics. Even with our pro-life pro-family position, and the influx of Hispanic Catholics here in the United States, our Catholic sacraments and conversion statistics are flat. We're not dying, but we're not thriving as well. For every place where the faith is doing well, there are places where we are getting crucified, so to speak.

There are tons of reasons for this, all of which are worth exploring, and many of which accuse the culture around us. Yet our Lord in tonight's Gospel I think wants his disciples to focus on themselves. Tonight I want to point the finger at those of us in the pews, those of us who practice our faith, and say something that needs to be said again and again. I know that most of us who go to Church regularly do not think we are part of the problem, that the people who aren't here are the problem, and in many ways, we are the good guys. But that is exactly what I want to speak about. We have to be more that the good guys, because just being the good guys (and gals) doesn't cut it anymore. It didn't in Jesus' time. It still doesn't make converts today. It just doesn't. The reason our Catholic faith is not thriving is that we have plenty of good guys and gals, and plenty of hypocrites and sinners too, but we have too few saints. There are not enough saints in our Church. I'm not here to say the problem is that we have too many sinners in the Church, although those seats are reliably taken. The problem is that there are too few saints. The reason agnosticism is climbing, the reason why our faith is so easy to ignore, the reason why most people see no particular advantage to being Catholic, is that most people have never met a saint, or they are not consistently around saints. Our faith is meant to build saints, not relatively good people. That is the only thing that distinguishes our faith, the making of saints. It is the only reason we exist, the only reason we should exist. Yes, the loss of religion says a lot about the people who are losing it, and they bear their share of the blame, but it always says more about us.

It's not just agnostics who have never met a saint. Most lukewarm Catholics have never met one either, or even if we have, we aren't around them enough, or we limit our exposure to them, or we ignore them, or there simply aren't enough of them. Most of all, we've lost our determination to become saints ourselves. Most of us eventually settle to be good compared to someone else, to rationalize and excuse ourselves into lukewarmness, comfort, and mediocrity. We can turn Christianity into a spectator sport. This not only fails to make converts to the Catholic faith, it is the surest way to kill our own faith.

I say that as sad as it is to see agnosticism growing around us, and so few Catholics living the full beauty of their faith, there might be God's will in all of this. Not that he desires a single soul to be lost, nor should we, but agnosticism may eventually be the means for Catholicism to find its heart again, for more souls to be saved, for us to realize that if our Church is not making saints, we should indeed fold up the tent. That is the challenge that agnosticism, indifference to God, proposes to us, and it is a worthy challenge. An argument can be made that it is better that agnosticism is growing instead of lukewarm Catholicism. Now I'll tell you why I say this. I say this because Jesus said it first. Jesus Christ tells his disciples after preaching the Sermon on the Mount that they are to be the salt of the earth, and the light of the world. They are to be different than those around them, not only from the outside in, but especially from the inside out. Jesus points to the unique dignity and opportunity that is given in the Catholic faith. He tells his disciples that they are to be uniquely the ones who preserve what is good for the future, who bring out the full flavor of human experience, who make barren those areas where evil tends to take root, and who show the world the full and incomparable dignity of man who may dare to use his freedom to participate in the divine love that made and redeemed the world, and the dignity of man as one who is called to participate in the divine life of God. Never will you see Jesus calling his disciples to be good people compared to others. No, he calls them to the highest of heights. He calls them to sanctity, to fullness, to transcendent goodness. When he tells them that they are to be salt and light, he calls them not just to be a good part of the world, but to be with him the co-redeemers of the world. He calls his disciples to be saints.

That agnostic who will sit next to you on the airplane tomorrow, and the next day, and ten years from now, deserves if he is sitting next to a Catholic, to be sitting next to a saint. At the very least, he deserves to be sitting next to a person who has not given up on being a saint. Most of us settle for sitting next to a person who is not annoying, who will just leave us alone, but beyond the categories of introversion and extroversion, and no matter what you level of etiquette and on a plane, if you are an agnostic and you meet a Catholic, you deserve to be meeting a saint, or someone who is pursuing sanctity with all his heart, and all his mind and all his strength.

The challenge of agnosticism is a good one that must be answered by the lives of real saints. The challenge to us by agnosticism is that you do not have to be religious to be a good person. There are many good people who do not go to Church, plenty of hypocrites who do go to Church, and many heroes who are not consciously motivated by their belief in God. These are the arguments we must meet, and meet by answering the call to holiness, or we should admit defeat, and fold up our tents. Beyond the anecdotal evidence that the Church is not producing enough saints to renew the faith, are the intellectual arguments that religion distracts people from solving real problems in the real world, that religion causes as many arguments as it resolves, and that religious people are of two kinds, those who are insecure about themselves, or those who are deceived into thinking that they can live and act for something outside of their own evolutionary self-interest.

The challenge of scientism is that human freedom is not transcendent or spiritual, but only works within the parameters of the world, so that even when a person claims he is acting for a higher purpose, he is really only acting for himself within a closed system governed by the principles of evolution. Scientists then want a more realistic version of morality where a man recognizes that acting morally is ultimately about utility, and the more we give up on religion, the more we can agree on a common baseline of morality and quit arguing about whose God is right. It is not in itself a worthless project.

But St. Paul answer this objection beautifully by pointing us to the cross. He says that I as a disciple of Jesus am not very smart, so you should not pay attention to my arguments, and I am not that good, so you should not pay attention to my goodness, for I am a sinner, but I come among you hoping that you pay attention only to Jesus Christ crucified. Whenever you are tempted to think you do not have to be religious to be good, whenever you think that science can provide a better baseline for morality than religion, then look at Jesus Christ crucified. Even though the creation of all the universe could not add one iota to God's glory, but He created it anyway, and even though the redemption of one sinner could add nothing to God's goodness, He redeemed us anyway. The cross speaks not of necessity, but of freedom and love that originate beyond the confines of the world. The cross speaks a wisdom that begins to answer the true questions of spirituality that found the moral life. Why is there something rather than nothing? Where is there me instead of not me? Is there someone that loves me more than I love myself, and loves me more than He loves Himself, and who loves me for my own sake to the point of forsaking Himself? Is there within me the possibility of loving someone more than I love myself, and of giving myself not because of anything I would receive back, but out of sheer love for the other?

These spiritual questions are the true ground of the moral life. It is not the goodness that is naturally found in the world, to which man is called according to the laws of nature. This is real goodness, but the goodness that founds the moral life is a goodness that man does not naturally discover in the world, but the goodness that first created the world, and a goodness that appeals to a freedom that is not confined to the laws of time and space, matter and energy. It is the goodness that is revealed most perfectly in the cross of Jesus Christ.

Pope Benedict reminds us that just as a scientist sees no end to the questions he can ask about the universe, the athlete never ceases to set new records that beforehand were thought impossible, and telling an engineer that something is impossible makes no impact on his desire to do it anyway, so it is saints who are drawn to strive for the goodness and holiness made present to us by the cross, who set the standards of morality of the world. Just as we are inspired not by people who do what is most reasonable, but people who never give up hope despite all the obstacles in their way, so also the baseline of the moral life is not set by the goodness that exists below us, but by the saints striving for the goodness that lies beyond us. Pope Benedict reminds us that unless the world has saints, striving to love God with all their heart, and mind and strength, that humanity will eventually forget what goodness is.

There is a good reason to be Catholic and not agnostic. Being Catholic is no guarantee of holiness, it doesn't automatically make you a better person, even though it may protect you from many evils it is not a golden ticket to heaven because you are better than someone else. No, being Catholic is the best chance to realize the best that is within us. It is our best chance to be a saint, and to be as Jesus has asked us to be, the salt of the earth, and the light of the world.