Monday, February 20, 2017


Listening to the radio one day, I heard my friend (who was the DJ at the local station) announce the next song, and then, rather than hearing the song begin, I heard silence; only a faint hum from the speakers. I waited about a full minute, and then quickly called her on the phone. "Did you forget to start the song?" After about a minute more of silence from the radio, she came on and said "So sorry about that couple minutes of dead air; we had a technical glitch here. We're back on track now, and here is the song you were expecting to hear."

Notice her terminology, "dead air". That is the way we think of it: "dead". Silence is not always appreciated today. I can think back a number of years when elevators, doctor's office waiting rooms, and a few other establishments were about the only places that you would hear piped in music (and that stuff was enough to cause waves of nausea). Much of the rest of the world was generally left peaceful (by comparison). Today, it is a different story. Now we have multiple video screens in the grocery store aisles, music over the loud speakers, and a flood of noise that is overwhelming. It is as though store owners think that we are unable to purchase their products unless we have a million noisy distractions to keep us from realizing we do not need most of the stuff they are forcing on us.

Silence is a forgotten beauty. Yes, most people still appreciate the silence of a quiet walk in the woods, or quietly watching a sunset, but that is a rarity rather a common event. Whether it is those who cannot go far without their ipod, those who are always watching or listening to something on their "smart" phone, or those who leave their radio on constantly in the car and the TV on constantly at home, we have been immersed in constant sounds.

This "noise inundation" is so much the case that when people come to the Mass they expect the same kind of thing. If the purification of the vessels after communion takes a minute or two, most people get fidgety if they do not have some music playing or the cantor singing something to them. This is not because it is "wrong" to have that moment be quiet. Rather, it is due, in most part, to the fact that we are so used to having "background noise" that silence almost seems like a bad thing; like "dead air". What are those moments of silence in the Mass supposed to be for? It may shock some people, but it is for personal prayer, meditation, and adoration. Those who refuse to engage during the Mass if there is a moment of silence are showing that they are not truly engaged in "active participation" in the first place (a vital requirement of the Second Vatican Council!).

This point is difficult to get across to modern day Catholics for two main reasons: first, we have become numb to the overwhelming flood of noise and entertainment that is constantly thrown at us; second, our spiritual disciplines have largely become flaccid. Put these two factors together and we find that people cannot "see the forest because of the trees"; or to put it another way, "they cannot recognize silence because their is so much noise". Let us look, therefore at a few extra sources to help us see the truth, goodness, and beauty of silence.

In the Catechism we are told that, "Sunday is a time for reflection, silence, cultivation of the mind, and meditation which furthers the growth of the Christian interior life." Interesting, is it not? We are not actually being told about the Mass, rather we are being told about the entire day of Sunday. It is supposed to be a day when we have some "silence", which grows our "Christian interior life". Here we are told that silence, in itself, has a value. It is not merely "dead air", but "living spirituality". That is quite a radical difference from our modern perspective. If Sunday as a whole should have some silence, then who are we to imagine that it is wrong to have some silence in the celebration of Mass itself?

When we are in the Mass, our every act, our every word, our every thought, should be directed toward the worship of God Almighty. That is what the Mass is all about: an interaction between God and man wherein He gives us His love, and we love Him in return. The Catechism further discusses what it means to "adore" God while in His presence. We are told that, "[a]doration is . . . respectful silence in the presence of . . . God." Those words should have great weight on our hearts: "respectful silence". In other words, the Church is telling us that there is such a thing as "DISrespectful silence". What would that look like? Let me fathom a guess: looking at your watch; checking your phone for a new text; heavy sighs; glancing around the Church to see what others are doing. These are forms of disrespectful silence. Respectful silence is, on the other hand, that genuine adoration that is given to Christ because of His amazing love for us, His unworthy servants.

It is not as though the Church made these ideas up, though. The wonderful truth about silence before God was stated many times in various ways in Scripture (both in the Old and New Testaments). One of the authors of the Psalms tells us of his devotion to God in terms of silent waiting (something very difficult for people who are used to instant foods and super fast download speeds). He says, "[f]or God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation (Psalm 62:1)." Silent waiting; an amazing concept when we live in a society that abhors "dead air".

In the prophet Zephaniah we find, not just an example, but an actual command. "Be silent before the Lord God! For the day of the Lord is at hand; the Lord has prepared a sacrifice and consecrated his guests (Zep 1:7)." The context of the verse cannot be more clear. When we approach God for the performance of sacrifice (as every Mass is), then we should recognize that there is need for some silence. It is hard for me to imagine that a brief five-second pause between the homily and the creed is sufficient to cover this (especially since the General Instruction for the Roman Missal says that this is merely for the purpose of reflecting upon the words of the homily!).

The prophet Habakkuk gives us another reference to the importance of silence in the context of worship. Although he does not use the word "presence" in this verse, the point cannot be missed. "But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him (Hab 2:20)." His temple from the Old Testament has been done away with, and will never return. His temple, now in the New Covenant, is every Church where the body of Christ is reserved in the tabernacle. When God is "in" the temple, there is a need for silence. This is not saying that we should never speak or sing when in Church. There are numerous references in Scripture that tell us of the need and importance of voices praising God. Yet, right along with that truth is the truth that silence has a place; it is a place where we cannot allow ourselves to be the center of attention, and we can allow God to speak to our individual souls.

This is not, however, only something that is to be practiced while here on Earth. Even Heaven itself recognizes the importance of silence. In the book of Revelation, there are numerous references that point to the actions of worship in Heaven (in fact, much of the book of Revelation is a description of what is going on in Heaven while there are trials here on Earth). There are millions of angels singing, there are people bowing prostrate before the Lord, there are creatures making testimony about God's greatness (all quite noisy events), and, there is one reference that specifically says that all in Heaven were silent for a time. "When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour (Rev 8:1)." Half an hour; ponder that for a moment! Have you ever been completely silent for 30 minutes except when sleeping? Certainly there are a number of ways to do this, but the best would be in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament (no prayers, no readings, just silence before God).

This brings me to my final point. At my Ordinariate community of St. George, in Republic, Missouri, we have times during the Mass where there is merely silence; part of the offertory, during communion, and during the purification of the vessels, there are times of extended silence. These are times when we intentionally do not have music playing, or a psalm being chanted. This is not because we are a small parish and do not have the means to develop a full choir or schola, it is because silence has value and beauty in itself. This is needed even more today than it was in days past when it was more common; precisely because of the noisiness of society (physically and spiritually). In God's house there is never "dead air"; there is "living silence", offered up for our spiritual benefit, and for God's glory.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Genuine Repentance

Imagine with me for a moment a priest sitting in the confessional, and after the penitent makes his confession, the priest has reason to believe that the penitent intends to return to the sin in the future. What is he supposed to do? Give the absolution and warn him not to give in to temptation? No. If there is a genuine doubt in the priest's mind he is supposed to delve more deeply into the situation with the person to be sure that he is truly penitent (hence the reason for the title "penitent").

Now imagine a deeper level of the problem. Imagine that the priest presses the individual, and he admits that he full well intends to return to the sin because his situation is different from others and God would understand. Now what is the priest supposed to do? At this point, Church law forbids the priest from granting an absolution (and if he does it is not valid).

Let us take this one step further. Imagine that the "penitent" (for want of a more accurate term at this point) is able to hide his intent to return to the sin, and the priest unknowingly grants an "absolution". Not only is that "absolution" not valid, but the "penitent" at that point remains in a state of grave sin, and were he to receive the Eucharist in that state, he would be deepening his sin.

Please note: The seal of confession binds me from disclosing anything told during the sacrament. Therefore the above situation is entirely made up, no matter how much it may be similar to any actual events either in my own ministry or that of any other priest.

What we are speaking about here is the necessity of genuine contrition. This means that the person who is making confession sincerely desires and intends to cease committing the sins that were confessed. If there is no intention to cease immediately (and not merely at some indeterminate time in the future), then the "penitent" is not truly penitent. We read in the old Catholic Encyclopedia: "Without sincere sorrow and purpose of amendment, confession avails nothing, the pronouncement of absolution is of no effect, and the guilt of the sinner is greater than before" (emphasis mine). Notice those words and do not gloss over them. If there is no "purpose of amendment" then the confession "avails nothing" and the absolution is not genuine.

The Catechism tells us that the sinner must have "the desire and resolution to change [his] life" or he is not truly seeking reconciliation, but merely a salve for his conscience. As much as our consciences need to have a genuine salve to heal them, that is not sufficient for the reception of God's forgiveness. We also read in the Catechism in another place, "without this [interior willingness to change one's life], such penances remain sterile and false". Sterile and false; in other words, ineffective and deceptive. This fits perfectly with what we all know: hypocrisy is a great evil. Yet, we also know that we can lie to ourselves and make our hypocrisy look acceptable (in our own eyes at least).

In fact, the Catechism also outlines for us the fact that there is a difference between interior repentance and an exterior repentance. It distinguishes the two in this way: "Interior repentance is a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed." Yes, one may fall back into the sin in a time of weakness, but that is not the same thing as saying "I know I will give in to this sin the next time the temptation arises, but please grant me an absolution now in case I die before the next time I commit the sin. After all, I have very good reasons to justify it."

Those who want an absolution, but who intend to commit the sin again at a later time, are comparable to those who just want to sweep things under the rug, rather than have them actually thrown away, but they are worse. Someone who sweeps something under a rug, does it to hide it, but I cannot imagine someone doing so in order to bring the dirt back out again and spread it on the floor! Who would do something like that? No one that I know of. I do not like sweeping things under the rug (someone always trips on them later!). Either we do so ourselves, or someone else does, and that means they suffer because of our sins. There are all kinds of excuses that people can come up with to return to a sin; "if I don't, they will mock me", "if I don't, he/she will be mad at me", "if I don't, I will lose money", "if I don't, I won't get sex", "if I don't, I will have to work harder." All of these excuses deny the final line in the traditional act of contrition: "I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to amend my life, and to do my penance. Amen."

In the sacrament of confession we are dealing with an eternal transaction, not merely a temporal covering that enables someone to feel good in spite of his impenitence. The sacrament of penance should never be used to allow one to receive communion so that next week we can say yes to the sin once again. I know these words are hard, and may be very challenging to some of my readers, but we are not discussing cookie recipes--we are talking about our eternal souls. We live in an age of compromise and self-centered pride, and these things have clouded our thinking to the point of where we are often unable to make a proper self-examination of our spiritual state. I encourage everyone to go to confession, and do so regularly (go the extra mile, and make it more often than the bare minimum of once a year!). I also, however, encourage you all to do some serious examination of heart and be sure that you are genuinely penitent--if not, then you know what to confess to the priest!

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Fix It Now!

"Father, I need your help!" He was almost frantic on the phone. A bad situation had occurred in his family, and they needed some advice as to how to deal with it. It was the middle of the night, so it took me a couple minutes to get ready, but I headed over there as quickly as I could. Suffice it to say, the situation was quite challenging, and I was glad to be able to provide some immediate advice to help out.

The next day, however, was when the real challenge came. He called again, and said "I don't want this to happen ever again; how do I fix this?" We sat down to discuss it later that afternoon. After a good deal of talking over the situation, I felt I had a good understanding of what the problems were. He asked again: "just tell me what to do to fix this". It was a hard question to answer because we were dealing with a family, not with a car. It was not like I could say "you need new brakes". We were dealing with relationships, personalities, and spiritual dynamics.

When I gave a brief outline of a way forward, his response was the last thing I wanted to hear at that moment. "Sorry, Father, I didn't mean I wanted something long and drawn out; I want to fix this today." I tried and tried to get the point across to him that there was no "easy fix" to a problem this complicated. It had to be dealt with through a series of different actions, and even then there was no guarantee. Needless to say, he did not like that. I wrote down the basic "plan of attack" and gave it to him. Things went from bad to worse in that household, and he told me months later that he never implemented the plan I suggested to him--too "involved" he said (!).

We live in an "instant" culture that expects everything to be repaired at a moment's notice. This is hard to avoid when we realize that t.v. has taught us that virtually all family problems can be solved in less than a half hour (and when not, they are solved in the "to be continued" episode next week). This is not how relations work, nor is it how our spirituality works. There are no lists in the Scriptures of "five easy steps for a great family" nor any "quick fixes" for relational problems. There are, however, numerous guidelines for parenting and marriage; there is the wisdom literature of the Old Testament; and, of course, there is the simple practice of penitence and the sacrament of confession.

Yet, that stuff all takes a long time to implement, and we want everything done quickly and with virtually no effort. "Just tell me how to fix this now!" We acknowledge the need for something to be done, but we are not content with a process. There is, of course, a reason that things are this way. We are fallen, and that means that our skulls are thick, and our hearts are hard. Jesus said "the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak"; and sometimes the spirit is weak as well (especially when we have bought into the idea that instant gratification is our God-given right!). This means that just like it takes time to create a beautiful work of art, it also takes time to re-create a human soul.

So how do you deal with problems? Do you look for the quickest way to solve it, or do you look for the way that will have the most long-lasting effects? Are you willing to do the harder work one time, rather than do the easy work (and have to repeat it over and over)? God has made us to seek after Him, and He has created us in this time-bound world. This means that things take time; and the best things take more time. How will you work on your marriage? your children's faith? your performance at work? your school assignments? If it is only a "fix it now" perspective, we might succeed, but probably not. If, however, it is a persevering and enduring perspective (one that is willing to work for the long haul), then God will stay with us, and that will help us stay with Him; forever.