Intentions of the Holy Father for April

Ecology and Justice. That governments may foster the protection of creation and the just distribution of natural resources.
Hope for the Sick. That the Risen Lord may fill with hope the hearts of those who are being tested by pain and sickness.

Ashes: The Christian in Lent

Ok, so I am going to try, briefly, to tie a few things together.

1. Every Christian is by baptism a priest, prophet, and king (or queen, as the case may be). That includes every man, woman, and child who has been claimed by Christ under those regenerating waters. What does this mean, though? I am going to strip away the rhetoric for once and (try to) get to the point.

1A. Christ is the Great High Priest, the Great Prophet, and the King of All Creation. In baptism, we are united with Him and become part of Him, and adopted brothers of His, and adopted sons and daughters of the Living God with whom He is One, and we through Him.

1B. A priest, fundamentally, is one who makes intercession to God and offers sacrifices to Him on behalf of the people, and gives to the people God's blessings. Every Christian is called to be a man or woman of prayer, especially for others, and of sacrifice, especially of our own bodies and wills. We offer these prayers and sacrifices, in imitation of Christ, on behalf of ourselves, our loved ones, and the world. Ordained priests serve this role in a particularly acute, sacramental way within the Church, and the whole Church (that's all the baptized!) serves this role within the world in a less crystalized, more day-to-day way.

1C. A prophet, fundamentally, is not one who tells the future (though he might), but one who speaks for God - "pro-pheme" in Greek, a "speaks-for." Christ came as the final, fullest revelation of God's love for us. In His own flesh, He (God) manifests His desire to be with us intimate in bodily union, a union accomplished first in baptism and then most perfectly in Eucharistic Communion. Jesus' very existence makes this will of God clear to us. His words announced what He and His Father are about. We Christians, sharing in the mission of our Master, our Friend (John 15:12-17, esp., 15:15), also must speak God's word. We must put priority on living it out though. We cannot wait to live it perfectly before we speak it, or else we'll never speak it. But the emphasis in our lives must be on prayerfully hearing God, digesting and living His voice, and then amplifying it to the world in our own deeds and words.

1D. A king (or queen), fundamentally, is not one who bosses around and tyrannizes, but one who has been given authority by God to make a patch of the world more like the Kingdom of Heaven. That's all of us. We all have a patch of the world over which we have influence or even authority: our homes, friends, work environments, students, neighborhoods - all of these to varying extents are within our reach, as it were. We are, like Jesus, to use what the Father has given us to make our area more like God would have it be. We are to use our abilities, influence, and authority firstly for service - never for lordliness (Mt 20:20-28). We are to heal hearts, serve the weak and poor, right wrongs, salvage relationships, make good use of resources - all to make the world more like the Kingdom.

1E. These three dimensions of Christ's life and of our life in Christ are called the Triple Munera, the Three Offices/Duties/Functions of Christ. The Church, His Mystical Body, shares in them - our ordained clergy firstly and in a particular, sacramental and directing-leadership sort of way - and all the rest of us in a general and raw-horsepower sort of way.

2. We have just begun Lent. During Lent we are commended to remember our sinfulness and God's mercy in a particularly acute way in order to prepare for the remembrance of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of our blessed Lord. The Church has three ways of life that are now more than ever to be lived out with diligence - prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

2A. Prayer is time spent opening our heart and lifting it toward union with God. It might be while we do something else, but like everything else, if we want to really get good at it (like all communication, it takes practice) we need to set aside time for it daily. Lent is an especially good time to adapt some new prayer discipline - a daily rosary or morning offering, weekly Stations of the Cross, something. Prayer is especially important for living our our priestly office, but also for our prophetic office, and even for our royal office. After all, if we are to govern as God would have us, we had better be listening to Him.

2B. Fasting is, broadly speaking, abstaining from some food, drink, (or other other pleasure) or food and drink in general. The Church's rule is minimal: on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday we must carry out a simple fast, which means we take no meat, only one full meal, and up to two other meals that combined are smaller than a meal, without any snacking in between. Only those who have reached adulthood and haven't yet reached old age are required to fast. Everyone else merely abstains from meat, and everyone abstains from meat on Fridays in Lent. Really, the Church encourages us to abstain from meat on all Fridays, or to do some other sacrifice instead. During Lent, we pick an additional Lenten abstinence or fast that can hopefully be a sacrifice we continue in altered form after Lent, something that will change our lives for the better, for the godlier. Fasting is especially important to the prophetic office because one who preaches the Word of God had better feed on it, and remember that it is his primary food (Mt 4:3-4). Because priests offer sacrifice, a sacrifice of our time and even of our own bodily needs and desires, is perhaps the most concrete way to sacrifice our will to God. But good kings also sacrifice to God because they know that they are not the real top-dog, but that God is.

2C. Almsgiving is giving to the poor. It should be a near daily way of life for Christians, something we plan into our budget and not just something we do if we have anything left over (who really ever does?). Living a Christian life, or working for the Church, is not a substitute for generosity to her poorest children. I used to work for the Church and was given a small salary, and did not give to the poor very much. I am very embarrassed of that now. I might have given something. I earn less now, because I am studying full time, but give a lot more than I did then (it is still not much, lol). Even homeless people can give a bit of change. At least I know now that I am doing what I can to support the Church (the tithe) and care for those in need (almsgiving, properly speaking). Almsgiving is especially important to our royal office as Christians because as Christian king-lets and queen-lets, we are not to lord our Christianity over others ("See how holy I am!") but to serve them. The neediest first. Almsgiving keeps us oriented in that direction.

2D. As per Matthew 6, we are not supposed to do these things SO THAT others can see them. But as per Matthew 5, we are also supposed to be a good example to glorify God by our good deeds. How do we reconcile these two things? We should do our good deeds as part of our ongoing interior conversion. The quieter the better, generally speaking. If, for the sake of another, it is useful to the other that he should know of a good deed of ours, then we may allow him to know. And we need not be ashamed of our good deeds, either, especially when we are doing them as part of a group activity of the Church, as part of a public gesture of the People of God. If you are as vainglorious as I am, then it is probably best to keep your personal good deeds as private, tucked inside your vest when possible. The whole idea is to lose ourselves a bit in the heart of God and in the needs of the world.

2E. For each of our disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, we should pick something that fulfills all four of the criteria that follow:

  1. It should be difficult. A challenge, people. Lent is not supposed to be easy, but a reminder of our weakness.

  2. It should be doable. Lent is not setting us up for failure, but setting us up to remember that we need God.

  3. It should be permissible. We must not do anything contrary to our real duties. A student cannot give up homework for Lent. Nice try, kids.

  4. It must be good. We can commit to going to Mass on Wednesday evenings. We can commit to giving up sweets. Mass is a good thing. Sweets are good things. We are supposed to be giving Jesus good gifts, whether we give him prayers or sacrifices or acts of love to his poor brethren. We must not give up fornicating. Fornicating is bad. We should have given that up ANYWAY. Although, frankly, I suppose Lent is a good time to do so if you haven't already. But give up sweets, too.
2F. And don't forget to go to confession before Easter. It is the solemn duty of a Christian to so. In fact, we call (confession) + (receiving holy communion during the Easter season) our "Easter duty," or the "Easter obligation." By secretly confessing our sins, we loudly proclaim not only our sinfulness (our true, current condition) but also the Lordship of Jesus. It's the only time of year that we are required to go to communion in order to maintain our communion with the Church. And to do so, we should prepare by going to confession. Especially if we haven't been in a while. If it kinda hurts, or you can think of ten reasons not to go, or you are scared - that's all pride and fear waging a spiritual warfare in your head to keep you from God. Don't listen. Just go to the priest and receive Jesus' mercy like the Bible tells us to (James 5:16 and John 20:23). You won't regret it.

Happy Lent!

Out of the Mouths of Babes

A friend of mine just shared this story with me. A twelve year old girl in Canada decides that for her persuasive speaking topic, she will speak against abortion.

Take two or three minutes to read the full story about what this kid had to deal with just to speak her mind (in the enlightened and free West).

Losing Your Life

Before I put up posts on the priesthood, prophecy, and kingship of the Christian lay faithful, I have a brief observation to make.

"For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?" (Mt 16:25-26).

Many people may prance through life happily doping themselves up and dodging reality. They might try to do things their own way, and then find diversions and medications to cover up the pain - TV, sex, drugs, exercise, career, whatever. But we Christians do not have that option. We will either give up Christ's way or give up our own way. We can try to play it both ways, to serve both God and Mammon, but we will end up hating one or the other (Mt 6:24). Something has to give way, and if we continue to serve Christ, but have a hard time dying to ourselves, then Christ will kill us.

That sounds horrible, but I mean it, though not as it might sound. What I mean is that as we cling to him, he will will continue to work on us, to cut out the sick and cancerous parts of our souls. If we are recalcitrant and backslide, it will take longer to die to ourselves, but as long as we keep clinging to Christ, He will keep killing us, peeling away the things that we use to hide from Him, to hide from reality.

When we have finished dying to ourselves, or maybe even as we learn to die to ourselves (oh God, bring it sooner), a new sort of Life begins to grow in us. That Life is Christ in us, the engine (if you will) by which we are propelled into an eternity of joy. But the old way of living has got to die first.

Mmm, mmm, good.

Ok, so I'll be the first to admit that it is a small thing. Very small. But I made myself an omelet this morning for brunch after Mass, and man, was it good. It was stuffed with onions sauteed with garlic in butter, as well as a sampling of fresh red onion bits, some excellent Peruvian olives, and Swiss cheese. The egg shell was thin and even, with some fresh black pepper worked into it. I ate the omelet with some hot wild berry tea, heavily sweetened. I sat by the window, and the sun is just getting strong enough again that through the glass it warmed my skin. In the background a particular string quartet by Mozart played on my stereo, and the third movement, a mournful (but not overwrought) adagio, washed around my mind. I alternated between the tea, the omelet, my Hebrew homework (which is getting to be enjoyable), feeling the sunshine, and listening to the strings. My heart was at rest in the hours following my communion at the morning's Mass.

It was a little bit of what the Israelites would call hashamayim. Heaven.

Anyone else had little foretastes of heaven lately? Feel free to share. We need to think about heaven more.

Casting Out Among Outcasts

Today's readings at Mass (Lv 13:1-2, 44-46, Ps 32:1-2, 5, 11, 1 Cor 10:31-11:1, Mk 1:40-45) have a very simple theme in common: outcasts and how we treat them. The first reading prescribes the ritual treatment of leprosy during a time in which a connection between disease and sin was presumed. For fear of disease and sin, the leper is to remain outside the wandering Israelites' camp, outside the oasis of civilization in a harsh world, until such time as their leprosy is cleared up. While the connection is not certain, it is not stupid, either. As evidence consider that many, but not all, who have cirrhosis of the liver have it from drinking too much. And just as some diseases are catching, so we can learn sins from each other as well. In the Gospel reading, St. Mark recounts our Lord's own trouble with leprosy. He did not catch the disease, but because he healed people with it, he came into such demand that he could not go into towns but had to stay outside in the wilderness. In an unexpected way, he took the consequences of the lepers' disease upon himself. This acceptance of their disease prefigures his acceptance of the sins of all humanity. It specifically prefigures his crucifixion on a barren hill outside Jerusalem.

"There are a lot of people in our world who are hurting," we were reminded by the recorded voice of the Archbishop this morning at every parish in the archdiocese. Some of these people are hurting because of sin, theirs or others'. Some of them are hurting because of dumb bad luck, as much as such a thing exists. Most people are hurting at least a little from both, and some people are hurting tremendously from both. And where there is one, especially the dumb-bad-luck, leprosy kind, we still instinctively assume that the other kind exists as well - that the person has sinned and brought it upon themselves. Homeless people must be either lazy or crazy, we assume - and oh, how our tightening economic straits might soon prove us wrong on this point! We don't want to "judge" HIV/AIDS patients, sure, but we don't want to touch them either, do we? How must that feel, to be looked at ten thousand times in a day, always with a frown, or a smirk, or with averted eyes - and never to be touched, or held, or kissed?

Jesus made no such assumptions, though. He simply went among them and did what He could (which was a lot!) to heal them when they came to Him. And He still does. We in the Church, incorporated by holy baptism into His mystical body and nourished on His Body and Blood, ought to do likewise. It takes some practice, to be sure, because our base instinct is to spend our time and energy on ourselves and to shrink from marred skin and open sores, both physical and spiritual. But remember our Lord's instructions to the fishermen who had thus far caught nothing: "Cast into the deep," (Lk 5:4). Those fishing instructions were nonsensical by the world's standards, but pulled in a catch that could only be seen as a manifestation of the power of God. Generosity of spirit, together with a gift of time and energy, both grounded in prayer and the sacraments, can do amazing, amazing things. If you'd like to see an example of this power of love, I recommend a visit with the Missionaries of Charity. In there houses people presumed about to die have been healed more by love than by medicine. The order founded by Mother Teresa to cast out into the deep, among the poorest of the poor, to those who are avoided by "civilized" folk. The Missionaries have a some houses here in DC: a hospice for poor people on Otis St NE and a soup kitchen and women's shelter on Wheeler Rd SE; and over 500 homes in 133 countries around the world.

The Church will continue to wake up and reclaim Her proper place in the world - priest, prophet, and king - only as much as we, Her children, do so. But what does it mean for the baptized person to be a priest, prophet, and king? I think I'll make that the subject of my next three posts.

Take It Easy, Chief

So I just opened up, on a lark, a little daily devotional I have from the Catholic Book Publishing Co. called Every Day Is a Gift. The reading for the day goes:

SCRIPTURE: "By patient endurance you will save your lives," Luke 21:19.

REFLECTION: "Practice patience toward everyone, and especially toward yourself. Never be disturbed because of your imperfections, but always get up bravely after a fall," St. Francis de Sales, Bishop and Doctor of the Church.

PRAYER: "God of Patience, let me endure my imperfections without rebellion. Help me to be patient with myself as well as with others."

My first thought was, "Whoa." That's because being gentle and patient, with others and with myself have been big on my mind lately. I have also been thinking about how patience with others and patience with myself are related. Yesterday those thoughts had been especially frequent on my mind.

My second thought was, "Well, wait a minute." After all, some people don't care about their imperfections and their vices, don't try to root them out, but rather seem very happy to have them. Should we encourage them to be more patient with themselves, or more aggressive against their sins?

My third thought was, "Ah!" I cannot make a whit's difference in whether somebody else takes his faults seriously enough. I cannot even really know whether he takes them seriously or not. I probably can't even gauge whether he merely seems to take them seriously when he is near me. I am biased. I either like him or not; I either share his faults or not. That affects how I see things. I am not God. Better to let others worry about whether they are too patient or not. For me, it is best just to try to get rid of my faults, and be patient with myself and with others when faults pop up.

The Sacrifice and the Body

In my Greek class we are reading the Gospels of John and Matthew this semester. We are just about finished with John, and yes, that's a LOT of Greek for new-ish students to read. Our professor pushes us hard, and throws facts, theories, and interpretations at us like you cannot believe. It's more like being force-fed too much chocolate cake than anything else: there is no time to chew on what you would enjoy if you had leisure to do so. I am trying to counter act this by rereading the relevant texts on my own at a more relaxed pace.

In class we are reading the Passion as recorded by St. John, and so I decided to savor it in adoration. I was enjoying chewing on (what is for now) my favorite Gospel, and felt my meditation was fruitful. The narrative is electrifying. I started looking around at the other folks in the Crypt Church of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. I was startled by a familiar sight: a big, athletic college student on his knees; an aging Latina woman on the same pew; some Africans or African-Americans; a couple religious sisters from Korea or maybe China; some more college students, some dressed like it, and others dressed more nicely, both young men and women in ample number; a few professor- or administrator-looking men and women; and more of the same representing probably about a hundred people. What leaped to my mind was the prediction of our blessed Lord: "Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself," (Jn 12:31-2).

How amazing is Jesus! He likewise brings to their knees both the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor, the local and the foreigner, workers and professors, the young and the old. Is there a nation whose people are not represented in the Catholic Church, the Mystical Body of Christ? And here was a cross-section of that Body, and indeed thus of the world, kneeling before the Body of her Lord. When our Lord spoke, I think it is most likely that He was predicting His ascension and the formation of the Church by the Holy Spirit's descent upon His disciples. That prediction kinda gets at a deeper spiritual principle, that God has a sort of magnetism or force of gravity that draws people toward Him. But here, before my eyes, that prediction was being fulfilled in a very particular way. As we the Church get back to basics, back to lifting up Jesus, all these people are being drawn toward Him, the Crucified and Resurrected Lord still present among us. The seek Him, to love Him, and to receive from Him what only He can give: a share in the blessed life of the Holy Trinity and all its implications: undying courage, friendship, love, healing, peace, joy, immortality.

The shared life of God is shared with us by means Jesus' body, sacrificed for us on Calvary. We partake in that sacrifice, as the Jews partook of the Passover Sacrifice, by eating the sacrificed One. Having shared Holy Communion with Jesus, we are united with each other and with Him in one seamless movement - the two unions cannot be separated, only distinguished. The Body whose consumption sanctifies us is adored, drawing out and deepening the sanctification, the communion. What happened on Calvary was once-and-for-all (Heb 7:27) because it is once-drawn-out-forever (Heb 9:11-14; 13:20). Because Christ sits eternally at the right of the Father (Heb 7:25; 8:1-2) offering His Resurrected Body and interceding for us, we as a people from all nations gather daily to recall the sacrifice and to adore the Body that saves us.

Even Demons Confess Him Lord... But Do We?

The readings for today, the Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Dt 18:15-20, Ps 95:1-2, 6-7, 7-9, 1 Cor 7:32-35, Mk 1:21-28), don't seem closely bound together at first. The riddle, though, is solved thus. The epistle, this one to the Corinthians, doesn't usually have a theme in common with the other readings, but is meant as general moral advice for any occasion. The first reading and the gospel reading are meant to have something to do with each other, and the psalm, usually a prayeful response to the first reading, is often the key. Such is the case today.

Moses, before leaving the Israelites to go to die in peace, tells them that they are right to fear seeing God's glory in person again, and that God will send them more prophets, whom they must obey. They must be careful not to heed (the Hebrew literally means "to hear the voice of") false prophets, though, or disaster can be expected. They emphatically assert that they will obey prophets to come in God's name. Of course, we who know the rest of the story know that God's own Chosen People do not in fact often obey God's own chosen prophets. In fact, they punish the prophets more often than they pay them any mind. Fast forward to the gospel reading from St. Mark's account. Jesus, the one about whom the prophets spoke, has finally come to His people. As they treated the prophets, they just give Him a hard time. But in the synagoge, demons obey Jesus.

Of course, they haven't any choice because they are completely under His power, whereas He very graciously leaves us our freedom to continue screwing things up almost indefinitely. But that's just my point. God, whom neither the Israelites (nor we) voluntarily obey very often is obeyed by demons. We are put to shame by the lowest creatures in the universe, who have sunk the furthest. Every sin we commit is an implicit denial of the lordship of Jesus Christ; contrast this with the demon who confessed that Jesus Christ is Lord (Mark 1:24). Of course the demon hated the fact of Jesus' lordship. We merely slyly avoid thinking about the question when we have a lust, passion, or greed to satisfy.

Now, I am not trying to make it like demons are better Christians than we Christians are. Far from it. But I am trying to keep us from being cocky. We Catholics, especially, who have fullness of Christian revelation, ought to be ashamed to call ourselves Christian when in morals and manner of living we are outdone by separated Christians, by non-Christians, even by pagans. Too often, we are triumphalistic instead. Many young Catholics, in our newfound zeal and (good) desire to reclaim and live anew the ancient Catholic faith that has so long fallen on deaf ears and hard hearts, use words like 'Protestant' as if they were cuss-words. That is not only uncharitable, but self-convicting. If Protestants are bad for having less truth, what are we who behave less charitably? If we would convince others of the goodness of the Christian faith as held by the Catholic Church, we might think about listening more closely to the heart of Christ.