Sunday, October 26, 2014

Loving my Neighbor in Truth

Our first reading today, from the Book of Exodus, drops us into the middle of the instructions that God is giving to his people at Mount Sinai. This section comes just shortly after the 10 Commandments, the foundational law for how we are to relate to one another and to God. But God knew that just giving the 10 Commandments without explanation wouldn't be enough, so in the Book of Exodus, the next several chapters after the 10 Commandments are devoted to God spelling out in more detail what these commandments meant. And in this section, God is making clear that my relationship with God is not simply between me and God, to the exclusion of everybody else, but rather my relationship with God requires me to have a deep and abiding care for my neighbor, and even for the stranger. So God tells the Israelites that they have to respect the strangers among them, because they were once strangers in Egypt. They have to love the widows and orphans, the most helpless in society, because such people always have a special place in God's heart, and to oppress them is to oppress God himself. What comes out time and time again is that my love of God absolutely requires that I love my neighbor.

Moses and the 10 Commandments
But the Israelites often got this confused, and they would start to weight and twist the various commandments so that it started to look like you could love God without really caring for your neighbor or the strangers among you. This is the situation that Jesus walked into and this is the situation he was trying to speak into today. The gospel this week continues the sharp dialogue and the debates between Jesus and the Pharisees. Last week the Pharisees tried to trap Jesus by asking him a question about taxes. This week they're trying to trap him by asking a question about commandments. There is an important lesson in this for us, because we, like the Pharisees, run the danger of weighting the commands and precepts of our God to suit our own purposes. But Jesus lays out priority number one and priority number two very clearly, and then everything has to be considered relative to those. First, you love God above else, and second, you love your neighbor just as much as we love yourself.

Love of God considered just in itself calls to mind our religious duty, our duty to attend Mass and to participate in the liturgical life of the Church. But it is incomplete without the second great commandment. Just to go to Church and worship God is incomplete if I ignore him in my neighbor. So I have to love my neighbor as myself too. To love my neighbor as myself completes the first commandment, it is not just an add-on to the first commandment.

If loving my neighbor is so important, if it in fact is a crucial part of loving God, then how do I do it? If this is so important, then it's something I want to get right. How do I love my neighbor? This important question has come up in Rome recently, at least implicitly. A couple weeks ago, various cardinals, bishops, and other experts gathered in Rome for what was called the Extraordinary Synod on the Family. A synod is a meeting of clergy and laity for a particular purpose, so basically, this was a meeting about how the Church addresses the challenges facing families in this day and age. If you followed this synod at all through the secular media, then you might have been led to think that this synod was entirely focused on how the Church reacts to homosexual couples and divorced and remarried couples. This couldn't be further from the truth. You may have been led to believe that there has been an earth-shattering shift in Catholic teaching on divorce or homosexuality. This couldn't be further from the truth. Never get your news about the Church from secular sources. They've been getting us wrong for decades and they continue to get us wrong today.

But what this synod was really about, and why we're talking about it today, is how we love our neighbor, no matter who they are or what position they find themselves in. And the thing we need to understand today is that if you love your neighbor, then you give them the truth, not lies. Truth comes from God, lies come from my own big fat ego that insists I know best. Truth can save your neighbor, lies do nothing more than make you feel good. So at this synod, the truth of marriage and family was affirmed once again: Marriage is forever, and if you are divorced and remarried outside the Church, you shouldn't receive Communion. Yet divorced people are still welcome in our Church. Marriage is between man and woman, protected and blessed by God as a sacrament for the good of the couple and their offspring, and yet people who experience same-sex attraction are still welcome in our Church.

If we love our neighbor as ourself, then we want to feed them with the truth, even when it at first sounds harsh. If I love my neighbor, then I have to tell him that if you're divorced and remarried outside the Church, you shouldn't receive Communion, and I have to tell him that the meaning of marriage is given by God, and not by us. If we don't love our neighbor, then we want to feed them with lies, like "Communion is cool if you're divorced and remarried," or "marry whoever you want as long as you're committed," because those lies make us feel good, it makes everybody like us, and no one is unhappy. But those lies don't draw my neighbor closer to God. Recently, the archbishop of Philadelphia, Archbishop Chaput, was asked his opinion of the synod, even though he wasn't there. He said something (skip to 57:00 to hear it from him) that sounds harsh but actually contains in it a very important truth. Regarding the Church's acceptance of people with same-sex attraction, Archbishop Chaput said, "We have deep respect for people with same-sex attraction, but we can’t pretend that they’re welcome on their own terms. None of us are welcome on our own terms in the Church; we’re welcome on Jesus’ terms. That’s what it means to be a Christian—you submit yourself to Jesus and his teaching, you don’t recreate your own body of spirituality."

The Good Samaritan
And lest we think that Archbishop Chaput is just some out-of-touch cleric who has no love in his heart, in that same speech he also said "If we ignore the poor, we will go to hell. If we blind ourselves to their suffering, we will go to hell. If we do nothing to ease their burdens; then we will go to hell. Ignoring the needs of the poor among us is the surest way to dig a chasm of heartlessness between ourselves and God, and ourselves and our neighbors." If we love God, and if we love him in our neighbor, no matter which neighbor it is, then Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, will bless your neighbor and you through the mutual exchange of love.

St. Paul lived these two commandments well, and so in our second reading today he is explaining what happened because he did so. Because he loved God and loved his neighbors, those to whom he preached started to imitate him. He said today "You know what sort of people we were among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord." Because Paul followed these two commandments, he stirred the faith of his followers into a living flame. He said later in the reading, "For from you the word of the Lord has sounded forth not only in Macedonia and in Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has gone forth." Because Paul followed these commandments, his followers recognized the love of God in him and couldn't help but spread that love to the whole world.

For ourselves, if we consider our love of God under these two aspects: love of God and love of neighbor, those around us will start to recognize God in us. If we are not cold, uncaring Christians, but rather Christians with a deep and honest care for the world, and for helping the world come to know Christ in truth, then this world, each and every one of our neighbors, will be attracted to the presence of Christ and Christ's truth they see in us.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Sign of Peace

So back in July, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (the Pope's people who help us understand why and how we worship in liturgy) issued a circular letter about the Sign of Peace at Mass. There had been a request that the Congregation study the Sign of Peace, possibly with an eye towards moving or changing it. The Congregation studied the rite and ultimately decided that it fits best where it currently is: right before the reception of Holy Communion. However, they did mention that we should "definitely avoid abuses" during the Sign of Peace. They then listed some of those abuses, found on page three of the primary document below (not the two page cover letter that accompanies it). The whole document is worth reading to understand this sometimes strange gesture, but if you want the meat then skip to page three.

PDF of the Congregation's Letter

The Congregation clearly highlights what they consider to be errors: priest or people leaving their places, the offering of congratulations or condolences instead of peace. It seems clear that the Sign of Peace is an important (but ultimately optional) rite, so it is worthy of our reflection so we don't make too much or too little of it. I think every week we simultaneously fall into both errors.

This is baseball, not the Sign of Peace
First, the error of excess (my term). Far too often we see the Sign of Peace become a liturgical time out, a 7th inning stretch as one friend put it, where we can collectively relax after 40 minutes of organized prayer. Then, it becomes the goal to see how many hands we can shake before the choir starts the Agnus Dei. If you don't get everybody within arms reach, you lose. My friends, the sign of peace is not a 7th inning stretch, it is not a cocktail hour where we chat and catch up with friends.

On the other hand, we have the error of insufficiency (again, my term). If our focus during the Sign of Peace is solely our friends and family, that's nice but it misses the point. Our focus should be on our enemies, those who have something against us. Our focus should be on people who in all likelihood aren't even at Mass with us. Jesus tells us "If you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift" (Mt 5:23-24). Before we approach the altar of the Lord, we need to be at peace with our brothers and sisters. That is the purpose of the Sign of Peace. Therefore, when we offer the Sign of Peace to those physically near us at Mass, we should do an interior self-check: Is there anyone who, if they offered me a sign of peace, I couldn't return the gesture and mean it? If the Husseins, the bin Ladens, the giants of evil in our day, walked into this church and wanted to be reconciled to God and to you, could you do it. If the one who has hurt you most deeply - the spouse, parent, or child who abandoned you, the friend who betrayed you - walked into your church and wanted to be reconciled, could you offer that person the Sign of Peace? If we don't pray about that during the Sign of Peace but instead focus on how many handshakes we can get in, then we have fallen into the error of insufficiency.

Peaceful, and they didn't even leave their pews
I would really like to see us as a Church focus on not losing our prayerful attitude during the Sign of Peace. Jesus Christ is physically present on the altar, and with Him the whole Trinity is mysteriously present, veiled in the bread and the wine. This is not the time to lose focus on Him. Rather, it is the time to make sure you are at peace with your brothers and sisters so that when Jesus moves to the only place more dignified than the altar-your soul-He may find a worthy dwelling place there.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Time and Identity

Jesus before Caiaphas
We have a gospel today where Jesus seems to be giving us tax advice, and we may be tempted to say, "Jesus, that's not really your area of expertise, why don't you just go back to telling us to be nice to each other." But Jesus is driving at an important point about how to properly order the world and put everything in its right place, so we should look deeper at it.

Our readings this time of the year come from near the end of Matthew's gospel and they seem to constantly involve confrontation with the Pharisees. Jesus is in Jerusalem, the time of his Passion is drawing nearer, and the Pharisees are becoming increasingly agitated by his teachings and the followers he's attracting. So now they're trying to trick him and trap him in legal arguments, and that's what we see today.

Today is interesting because we see enemies teaming up to try to bring down the Messiah. The gospel says that the Pharisees and the Herodians approached Jesus, now the Pharisees were the religious zealots, no fan of the Roman occupation, but the Herodians were supporters of Herod, the local governor ruling by Caesar's permission, and they were in power only by Caesar's favor. So the Pharisees and Herodians hated each other, but were willing to work together to bring down Jesus.

Their method today is to try to get him in trouble with either the Roman authorities or the Jewish crowds. If he speaks in favor of the tax, then he would appear to be in favor of the Roman invaders and so the crowds would turn on him, and if he speaks against the tax then the Romans would view him as a rebel and arrest him. Others with Jewish nationalistic tendencies who had opposed the tax before had been brutally executed, so they think they've got him for sure this time.

But Jesus is having none of their business, because their whole line of thinking misses the most important things. So Jesus asks them to show him a coin, and the Pharisees show him one. They're opposed to paying the tax, but apparently they're cool with carrying the money and using it for other purposes. Jesus cleverly avoids answering directly by pointing out that the coin belongs to the emperor in the first place so you might as well give it back, and then Jesus uses it as an opportunity to discuss one's duty to God. The danger for the Pharisees is that, in their dealings with the Romans, they were in danger of giving to God what belongs to Caesar and giving to Caesar what belongs to God. And for our purposes, Caesar represents the government or nation, basically secular society. So what belongs to Caesar, and what belongs to God? Jesus just tells us to give each their due, but then doesn't really explain what that is.

We know that God should get the first and the best of who we are and what we have. God gets our unconditional love and devotion, he gets our praise and our worship. These are things that we should not give to our country, at least not in the same way. Our country deserves our loyalty and support, but not an unconditional loyalty because our country is not infallible. As Christians, as followers of Jesus Christ, we are not wed to any single country, any single political party, or any system of government. We are pilgrims on this earth and so we are at home in none of these systems.

Where do we spend more time?
And yet, even while we recognize that we are pilgrims and that this is not our final home, our country often inspires in us a deeper devotion than our God does. So I want to use our relationship with our country as a way to think about our relationship with God. We willing to perform our basic duty of paying taxes regularly, no matter what and without thinking about it, yet sometimes we're ok to miss Mass, that most basic of duties to God, just because we're tired or we don't feel like it. If we get a speeding ticket or some other civil penalty, we pay it immediately, yet we consider once a year confession sufficient to atone for our sins against our God and Creator. We read the newspaper and watch the news channels, we spend a lot of time staying conversant on what's going on in the world, and yet we think our duty to God can be fulfilled in just one hour a week on Sunday because we think it's ok to drop our kids off at CCD but we certainly don't need any further education in our faith. Now, I am not condemning anybody! This is a call to attention for all of us. Consider whether God is calling you to be more involved in your parish, beyond just Sunday. Consider if just an hour a week is enough to sustain you on this pilgrim journey. Consider if your role in the Church, your efforts to be involved, should look more like your role in civil society.

When we recognize ourselves as pilgrims on this earth, we should start to ask questions about our identity, and what we place our identity in. We like to apply lots of labels to ourselves because they help us to form an identity and to feel at home in a group. This is not a bad thing. So if I were to ask you "What are you?", after you stare at me blankly for a time for such a strange question, you might start to tell me "I'm an American, I'm a Wyomingite, I'm a fan of this or that sports team," or you might tell me about your job. Like I said, none of these things are bad. Maybe you would say "I'm a husband or father or wife or mother." These are better answers. But how many of us would answer the question "What are you?" with "I'm a Christian" before we said anything else? I suspect that not many of us would. But if we give to God what belongs to God, if we give God our first and our best, then that has to include the most important part of our identity. We should find our identity primarily in God. We have to know and believe that:

I am a beloved son or daughter of God our Father, and that is my identity and the source of my worth. I am saved and redeemed by Jesus Christ and that is the source of my hope. I am filled with the Holy Spirit and that is the source of my inspiration.

So today, reflect on what belongs to God and what belongs to our country in your own life. Make sure that your primary identity is a Christian, the primary way that you think about what you are in this life. Render to God what belongs to him in this life, and that will prepare you to live with him forever in the next.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

White Mass

St. Luke
My homily from the White Mass our parish held last night:
We come here tonight to recognize the unique aspect of healing that was so important to Jesus' ministry. When we read the Gospels, as we have them proclaimed to us day after day and week after week, one of the most prominent things we see Jesus doing is healing people. When Jesus walked this earth, it became abundantly clear that he wasn't concerned only with their spiritual well-being, but he cared for their physical health as well. So many stories in our gospels show us Jesus healing someone who was sick, or bringing to life someone who had died, all just because they said, "Jesus, help me." Now, I think Jesus cared primarily for their spiritual health and eternal life, he died to give us eternal life, but he still cared deeply about the present situation of the people who surrounded him, and he still cares deeply for the us, and the sickness and disease that plagues our life down to the present day. He cared for people's health.
And you who work in health care, no matter what aspect, you who are gathered here have been called to participate in this special healing ministry of Jesus through the work you do in our world. Thank you for this work. Thank you for responding to the Lord's call to heal and to care for the sick and suffering of our world. This tradition of the White Mass (since white is the traditional, or at least stereotypical, color of doctors' and nurses' uniforms) started in about the 1930s with the Catholic Medical Association. It's held now because tomorrow is the feast of St. Luke, and St. Luke is the patron saint of doctors and physicians because tradition tells us that he himself was a doctor. The Catholic Medical Association and the White Mass is the culmination of a whole lot of ideas and realizations about health care, and I think the bottom line is this: inasmuch as the goal of health care is to give and restore life, the source of all health care, and the inspiration for all who work in it, must be God the Author of Life. Again, if the goal of health care is to give life, then the inspiration for all of it must be the Author of Life.
Tradition says Luke was a painter too
So what do we learn about our individual roles in health care if we turn to the Author of Life for instruction? Well if we turn to our gospel for this mass, we learn that Jesus is the one who sends. Just like Jesus sent the apostles to preach his word, he has sent you to to continue his healing in the world. And for the apostles, the instruction to carry no money, no sack, and no sandals was an invitation to trust the Father to provide. Similarly for you, as the Lord sends you out to heal, he invites you to trust him, because you are working in a very difficult field and so it is very important that you rely on God to help you with this work. Because he wants to help you, he wants to support you in this holy work that you do.
So for the Lord to support you, make sure you are on the Lord's side, make sure you are on the side of life. This past week, a story surfaced of a young newlywed woman who has a very painful terminal cancer, and so she announced her intention in a YouTube video of ending her life with prescription medicine in a matter of weeks. Most have praised her for this decision, calling it courageous, and only a few have recognized how far this has strayed from the Author of Life, and how far this misconstrued idea of a dignified death has strayed from the Jesus who suffered to the point of death for the ones he loved. Debates continue to rage in our country about abortion and contraception, they're commonly referred to as "rights," and few can recognize how far these ideas have strayed from the Author of Life. Once healthcare is working against life and the Author of Life, against Jesus who embraced suffering, then it can no longer be called care. I'm not sure what you call it, but once medicine seeks to work against life, it can't be called health care. These are big issues, and sometimes we may want to think they are far from us here in Sheridan, Wyoming, but I suspect they're closer than we'd like to admit. We who want to be Catholic have to be unconditionally and unapologetically pro-life. This world we live in today needs us to be pro-life.
So in your professions, in your beautiful and lofty callings, make sure you stay on the side of God, the Author of Life. And we in the Church are here to help you. Whether your profession calls you to deal with the really difficult issues I just mentioned, or whether your profession just leaves you feeling exhausted and worn out, we're here to help. Let us talk with you, let us pray with you. Your role is often times the role of Luke in our first reading from St. Paul. Paul in this letter is recounting the various people who have worked with him and have now left him. Demas left, Crescens, Titus, and Tychicus have all left him. Alexander the coppersmith did him a great harm. Don't know what that's all about. But Paul says "Luke is the only one with me." Often in the midst of the suffering that people experience when they come to you, they feel alone, and you are the only one with them. Let them see the love of Christ through the work that you do. Let them see, through the work that you do, that there is indeed a God and he does indeed love them, and through that you will perpetuate the healing ministry of Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Pilgrimage to Hawaii

I recently returned from a young adult pilgrimage to Hawaii that the Diocese of Cheyenne sponsored. 11 young (and young-in-spirit) adults traveled to Hawaii in order to follow in the footsteps of St. Damien of Moloka'i and St. Marianne Cope, who lived during  the mid 1800s. At that time, leprosy was devastating the native Hawaiians. It was thought that this disease was incurable and highly contagious, and so those with leprosey were forcibly isolated and sent to a colony where they would live and eventually die apart from society. Sts. Damien and Marianne worked at the leper colony on the island of Moloka'i when, during the mid 1800s, lepers were forcibly isolated. St. Damien, a missionary priest of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts was who was born in Belgium, volunteered to go to Moloka'i for a four month shift, but then he requested to stay because he fell in love with the people he met there. He worked at the colony on Moloka'i for 16 years before contracting leprosy himself and eventually dying from it. Towards the end of his life, Sr. Marianne Cope and other nuns joined him in his work and continued it after his death. So here are some picture highlights from the pilgrimage.

We were greeted with a typically beautiful view on our descent:

We celebrated Mass in the Cathedral of Honolulu, the very church where Father Damien was ordained a priest:

Through unexpected connections, we were able to visit the archives (not normally open to the public) of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts, Fr. Damien's order, and see relics and artifacts from his life. This first picture is the baptismal registry from his parish, St. Philomena's, and you can see his name (in his own writing) near the top right:

One of his chasubles:

And the source of Fr. Damien's strength, his Chalice:

We were able to visit the island of Moloka'i where the saints worked, which was breathtakingly gorgeous. We flew in really small planes for the half-hour plane ride to Moloka'i. The planes were so small it two of them to transport our group of 11.

The leper colony occupied only a small peninsula of Moloka'i, called Kalaupapa, which is geographically isolated by towering cliffs seen in this photo:

St. Philomena's, the parish Fr. Damien rebuilt and from which he operated:

Fr. Damien's grave next the church. Before his canonization, his body was moved to Belgium for more public veneration because the various state and federal authorities at play on Moloka'i make this site very difficult to access. Now, this grave contains a relic of his right hand, symbolic of him blessing and laboring for the colony. 

Shots from around Moloka'i

We also got to visit the Pearl Harbor memorial in Honolulu. Although we couldn't visit the USS Arizona memorial due to wind, we visited the USS Missouri, on whose decks the documents of surrender were signed which ended World War II. Here is a shot from the decks of the Missouri looking over at the Arizona memorial.

And we watched the football game between the University of Wyoming and the University of Hawaii. UW held the lead until the 4th quarter, at which point we gave up two touchdowns, the lead, and the game. Still, probably the only UW game I'll ever wear shorts and flip-flops to.

Overall, a pilgrimage with great people to a beautiful land to learn about some incredible saints.