Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Rend Your Hearts and Not Your Garments

My brother died yesterday. No, not my brother by blood or marriage, but my brother in the priesthood. I have never met him, nor do I know anything about him personally, other than the fact that he was a priest in the Catholic Church, and because of that, he is my brother priest. You probably already read about it.

Fr. Jacques Hamel, while saying Mass in his parish in Normandy, France, was murdered by ISIS (Fox News article). There are a number of things that I could say to comment on this. In fact, I had a number of things on my mind yesterday when I first read about this event. I was very emotional at the time, and probably would have been a bit more "fire and brimstone" in my comments than is necessarily proper. "For we know him who said, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay.'" I celebrated Mass this morning with the intentions for Fr. Hamel; that is my place in this, not hatred. Hatred is what caused this; hatred will not solve it.

Just under 15 years ago, I had a conversation with a friend about the state of things in America. I had the opinion that the events of September 11, 2001 were a "warning sign" encouraging deeper faithfulness in the people of God. Similar types of things happened in past history. God would send a trial on His people and then give them time to get their act together. If they did, then they saw great blessings; if they did not, well those are some of the saddest pages of history. In that conversation, I said, "attacks on this nation, and eventually on the Church will only continue if we do not increase our penitence". My friend took issue and said I was "overreacting".

I certainly cannot predict the future (and I may be wrong in my assessment about what has occurred in the last 15 years as well), but things do not seem to be improving. Church attendance increased in the days after 9/11, and then quickly slipped back to a normal low. Christians (Catholic and Protestant) do not seem to be showing greater devotion to the Lord; rather, devotion seems to be decreasing. We are called to be "salt" and "light" and compromising our faith does not reflect either of those attributes.

The time is now to become passionate about our faith. It is time to pray fervently for the Church throughout the world, as well as for those in ISIS (and all others who are fueled by hatred) to be able to see their acts as God sees them. It is time for us to begin taking responsibility for our sins, and seek a greater love of God an neighbor. Like I said in my last post, let us work toward following the precepts of the Church, and realize that they are a bare minimum, not an "acceptable maximum".

Our devotion to the Lord cannot be a mere outward commitment. We should never obey the Lord merely so that we can look good to others. It should be the genuine passion of our hearts. Outward is important, but not at the cost of the inward life of faithfulness. Let us get our hearts in order. Let us get our families in order. Let us get our Churches in order. Let us make a commitment to do the hard work necessary to obey the Lord, and see what He may do in response. I end with an encouraging (and hopeful) passage from the prophet Joel:
“Yet even now,” says the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil. Who knows whether he will not turn and repent, and leave a blessing behind him, a cereal offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God? Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep and say, “Spare thy people, O LORD, and make not thy heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’” (Joel 2:12-17).

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Subduing Enemies

We read in the Psalms:
O that my people would listen to me, that Israel would walk in my ways! I would soon subdue their enemies, and turn my hand against their foes. Those who hate the LORD would cringe toward him, and their fate would last for ever (Psalm 81:13-14).
Today it often appears that those who are living in rebellion against God are getting the upper hand. It is easy to sit back, wring our hands, and say "why is this happening?" We can also do some serious thinking and look to see what God says about times like these. The Psalm quoted above is not given to frighten us, as much as it is given to encourage us. It tells us of God's promise to "defeat our enemies" if only we would listen to Him and follow the manner of life that He sets before us. The details of the "ways" of God are not the same today as they were 3000 years ago when that Psalm was written, but the basics have not changed.

It is these "basics", or we might call them "minimum requirements", that the Church has revealed unto us for our spiritual benefit. She has summarized them in what we call the Precepts of the Church. As the Psalm says, walking in the ways of the Lord (i.e. following the precepts as a bare minimum) will lead to victory. It will lead to the success of the gospel, the destruction of evil (both within and without the Church), and the glory of God.

At the heart of the matter is this truth: faithfulness to God leads to victory (even if we cannot see how), and unfaithfulness to God leads to defeat. What do we see right now going on in the world? Does the Catholic Church look mostly successful, or does she appear to be failing? Do we see evil increasing in the world, or diminishing? Although I see wonderful acts of goodness and righteousness every day, I cannot say that this is the overall trend of society. In fact, hatred, selfishness, and pride seem to be the predominant attitudes among most people that you meet today; read the news for just a couple minutes and you will see it (often in the reporters more than in the stories they are reporting!).

What then can we say? Can we say that we are genuinely working at being as faithful as God wants us to be? Can we say that God really does not care whether we obey, as long as we have good intentions? Can we say that there is no connection between the behavior of God's baptized people and the spread of evil in the world? Do not misunderstand me: I am not speaking about our direct acts of goodness upon society (e.g. the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, etc.) which do impact people around us in an obvious way, but rather the general goodness of our hearts and deeds.

Following the admonition in the Psalm above, here is what we can say: Catholics in general are not "listening to God" and we are not "walking in His ways". If we were, then evil would not be increasing at such astronomical rates as it is today. Yes, there are some who are living very devout and faithful lives, but it is apparently not enough for those who "hate the Lord" to be "subdued". This means that in some ways, the enemies of God are getting the upper hand, and that it is our lack of genuine and deep devotion to our Lord Jesus Christ that is causing this to happen.

What I am referring to is this: holiness in our homes, has an influence on society at large even when the two do not meet directly. It is like taking a pain reliever and not seeing how it actually makes the headache go away, but it does. When it comes to righteousness, it does have an influence because God said it will--regardless of whether we believe it or understand how it happens. In other words, more righteousness in the Church means more righteousness in the world, and that means that the enemies of God are conquered. Either by conversion, or elimination, it will happen.

So then, what are those "precepts" that I spoke of above, and how are we to implement them? The list is quite simple. In the Catechism (2042-2043) we read:
1) “You shall attend Mass on Sundays and on holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor”
2) “You shall confess your sins at least once a year.”
3) “You shall receive the sacrament of the Eucharist at least during the Easter season”
4) “You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church”
5) “You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church”
Ponder and think about these five "minimums" of holiness (we will see, at a later time, why some think there should be six). We will begin to unpackage them in more detail in future posts.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Why Dragons?

I like dragons, and have for a long time. Well, not in the same way that I like chocolate, or reading a good book, but it is correct to say that I like them. I would also have to say that I believe that "dragons" once existed. Maybe they were some creature that is now extinct, or maybe they were some breed of lizard that no one alive today has ever seen; I do not know for sure--and neither does anyone else, for none of us were around in the days when people claimed to have seen them. Yet, I like to believe that they did (or maybe "do") exist.

One of the reasons that I like them is that there is so much fascinating mythology about them (even excluding the demonic confusion that shows its ugly head in so many places). That is, however, only a small reason for my appreciation of dragons. I like dragons because they symbolize the victory of Christ. In the New Testament we are told often that Jesus conquered all the principalities and powers (e.g. Col 2:15), and that He overcame the devil and his demons (Heb 2:14, 1 Jn 3:8). Dragons (especially as seen in the beautiful paintings of St. George slaying the dragon), and gargoyles as well, were both used as symbols of that victorious power of Christ.

Many ask what the reason is that we see so many medieval Churches with these images on them. After all, the Church is supposed to be for the faithful people of God, and not for conquered demons; right? This is true, but the question we need to ask first is "what does Jesus do with the demons once He fully conquers them?" The reason that we see gargoyles and dragon-like statues on medieval Churches is because they were placed there to show that Jesus not only conquered them, He also used them as slaves (cf. 1 Peter 3:22), or "guard dogs" to protect His people and the Churches that they worshipped in ("you serve Me now, and here is your job from here on out").

Although dragons symbolize the ugly enemies of Christ, after they are conquered, they are used for Jesus' own purposes to bring glory to God. The entire idea is redemption. Either we are converted and become God's people, or not; yet we always serve His purpose in some way. Even Judas Iscariot, in all his betrayal, was still serving the purposes of a sovereign God. In Jesus plan of things, no one (and no "thing") is ever a complete waste.

Even C.S. Lewis (one of my favorite Anglican authors) used this same kind of symbolism. If you are one of the few that have actually not read his book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (no, the Hollywood corruption of the story does not count), then you simply must remedy that as soon as possible. The situation where Eustace Scrubb encounters a dragon, and what happens as a result follows this same theme of corruption and redemption that I have been speaking about (and it does so in a remarkably picturesque manner!).

So there you are. That is my explanation of why I like dragons. It should make even the casual observer see the providence of God in the fact that I was assigned as the priest for St. George Catholic Church. Currently in my living room there is a beautiful bronze 14 inch statue of St. George conquering the dragon; a reminder for all who visit that this is our calling as the baptized people of God. So what "dragons" have you conquered lately; either for your own good, or the good of someone else? What "dragons" has the Lord put in your life that you need to be dealing with? The Christian life (and most especially the Catholic life) is not for sissies who are unwilling to "fight the good fight of the soldier of the Lord".

This is what my ministry is all about: helping the people of God to slay their "dragons". This is what I pray that the parish of St. George Catholic Church will be about as well. This is why I have titled my blog "Beware Yon Dragons" (best said with a slight British accent). I write to point out "dragons", tell you to "beware of them" and help you to fight them off and conquer them. Finally, if you ever decide to come by my office sometime, I do not want you to be shocked--you may see a dragon or two there who have been conquered and subjected to Christ--but remember, I warned you beforehand.