Sunday, March 31, 2019

What Does Parish Devotion Look Like?

I once knew a man that some would say was "too devoted" to his wife. I could imagine other people saying that a man could never be "too devoted" since husbands are supposed to love their wives like Christ loved the Church. That is true, but even there we must make a qualification. Does Christ love the Church more than He loves His Heavenly Father? No. So, then, there is a necessary balance in this love. In the same way, the gentleman I am referring to showed signs of loving his wife, more than he loved the Lord; never a good thing. We all admit that we need to be devoted to certain things, but that means that our devotion must be properly balanced.

It is good to be devoted to your job, but not to the neglect of your family. It is good to be devoted to helping the poor, but not to the exclusion of devotion to Christ. In other words, there is a right level of devotion to anything. Obviously this implies that there is also a wrong level of devotion (which is not always "too little" devotion, but can also be "too much"). Priorities is the real issue here. Since, as Catholics, our Lord takes priority over everything, that should guide us in how we deal with everything else in life. One thing that this includes that not many are aware of is your devotion to your parish.

What does devotion to your parish look like? Some things would be obvious. A person who is devoted to their own parish will do their best to attend Mass there (rather than somewhere else), they will support their parish with both finances and efforts, and they will work to build relationships with other parishioners. For each of these areas, one can be "over devoted" or "under devoted". When someone is "under devoted" that is quite obvious to even the most casual observer. So then, what does "over devoted" look like?

If a person is "over devoted" he will think of his home parish as though it could never do anything wrong and presume that every action and decision at that parish will always be in full accord with what he himself wants. The surprising factor in this whole issue is that both "under devoted" and "over devoted" people will be quick to leave a parish and go elsewhere. The "under devoted" has little to no commitment so he easily just wanders off. The "over devoted", however, leaves for a different reason.

While the "under devoted" person presumes too little about his parish, the "over devoted" person presumes too much. The "over devoted" person somehow acquires an idealistic perspective that can look, on the surface, to be a balanced devotion. These people will usually engage in all three of the habits of devoted parishioners that I listed above, and they will usually seem to be very joyful in their commitment. At least until they start to doubt that everything is as perfect as they thought. Then their commitment begins to diminish because the "rose colored glasses have come off". 

I certainly could not presume to know anyone's heart perfectly, but I have known various people whose devotion was unbalanced, and the pattern is almost always the same for how they behave. The most troubling thing about those who are "over devoted" is that when they realize that their parish (or often, the parish priest) is not in perfect agreement with them, they will usually become the most negative and harsh parishioners in the parish. Some will even follow the protestant way and leave the parish because their misguided expectations are not met. 

Think about that last sentence for a minute. It is certainly possible that someone might make a mistake about the character of a parish. If you think a parish is fairly traditional, and it turns out they use "pop music" for the Mass, then it would appear you made a mistake. Other than those types of things, what do you "think a parish might be"? Every Catholic parish should "be" what it is supposed to be: a place on Earth where the Sacraments are made available to the faithful, and the historic faith of the Church is taught without compromise. If those are not the case, then it would be right to say "this is not what I thought". If you make more presumptions than that, then you may very well have been "over devoted" to something that you thought about the parish.

If anyone expects to find a parish where the people, or the priest, are always in agreement with them, then they do not genuinely understand the world we live in. Disagreements arise in many places. When a married couple disagrees about something, they are supposed to work it out, not divorce. Areas of disagreement are not something to avoid; in fact, God sometimes allows disagreements to rise up precisely to test us and see if we will work them out like mature Catholics. This is one of the reasons why I am a strong advocate of permanent assignments for priests -- it forces people to work out their problems rather than just wait until the priest leaves. Those who assume, or at least look for, perfect agreement in a parish are always the quickest to demonize any and all who have a different perspective. This is the very opposite of the mature response which says "we need to do the hard work to resolve this".

Those who take a balanced perspective and know that we will not always agree on the non-essentials, are able to deal with things as they arise and move past them with joy and grace. This is because they realize that unless it is a definable sin (either Church law, or God's law) then we must "let it go" (Romans 14:1-12). They are the ones who behave humbly towards others because they know that all Catholics are sinners on the road to Heaven. They practice humility and charity in all things (like St. Augustine insisted upon when there are non-essential issues over which people disagree). They also find it easier to accept differences because they give everyone the benefit of the doubt about their actions and motives. I sit and hear confessions every week, and I still do not presume that I understand why people do what they do.

So then, what does your devotion to your parish look like? Is it "under devoted"? Then realize the danger you are in. Is it "over devoted"? Then you must realize the greater danger you are in. Is it balanced? Then do not become haughty, but seek to maintain humility in all things and ask the Lord to help you to stand fast for the good of other parishioners. Wherever you are, the Church is God's means to teach us how to serve Him, and if we are not devoted to the Church, and especially our own home parish, then our devotion to the Lord is in danger as well.

Friday, March 29, 2019

The Work of Restoration

In preparation for St. George's new Church building I bought an old statue of the Blessed Virgin with a grotto (about 4' high) to put out by the front entrance. It took a lot of cleaning and preparation to get to the point of repainting it, but it is coming together quite well. There is a certain excitement to it, since before purchasing this it was apparently sitting in a garage, merely forgotten. There is also something quite emotive about it. I am driven to ponder this work as a work of love that is seeking to help others better see the Virgin Mary and thereby see her Son the Redeemer.

As I have mentioned before, as a protestant I thought very little about Mother Mary. Now I think about her frequently, and (I have to admit) I often get emotional just thinking about her motherly love and care for me. In my work to restore this statue, I have been struck by the fact that I am now "caring" for her (in a sense). I am doing a work to make sure that she is noticed and remembered by everyone who comes to St. George. I cleaned the statue, and am now in the process of painting it in order to beautify it.

This is exactly what I am doing in my work for the Church as well. I am cleaning up the dirt, adding some beauty, and trying my best to show it to the world so that they can come to love the Lord better. A couple of my sons have been helping at various points and they too put in quite a bit of "elbow grease" so that we can bring this statue back to its proper glory. I can think of times when I have approached a statue of the Virgin and with a brief prayer have reached up to touch her feet. For me it is a sign of "childlike" love reaching out to our spiritual mother.

Just touching the statue in that way is a sign of affection, but handling a statue in the work of restoration can almost seem somewhat disrespectful. Push, pull, bump, scrape and sand; it all seems like rough handed grunt work. Yet, like I said above, that is exactly what Church work is like. It is the effort to help people to fix their problems and overcome their sins, and get pointed in the right direction. Sometimes we have to push hard (like when there is an actual sin that they are working to overcome). At other times we need to be more gentle because not everyone is ready (cf. John 16:12) for all the truth (like with a behavior that is a problem, but has not yet become sinful). Distinguishing between actual sin, and "apparent sin" is always a challenge.

With restoring a statue, things can seem fairly straightforward. Patch the cracks, remove the loose paint, prepare the surface for the new paint; all very simple. That is not the case when we are working with real people though. Many times a problem may seem black and white on the surface, but down deep it is not always the case. I remember once having someone complain after Mass to me about a family whose children were extremely unruly. He thought it was as simple as "tell them not to let their children play while at Mass". Yes, on the surface it looked like the family was doing nothing to properly discipline their children, but I knew what was going on behind the scenes; I knew their situation and had been working to help them for quite a while.

In the work of restoration of people, there are many factors that have to be considered. There are many things that come into play that are not always obvious to the casual observer. The one good thing about that situation that I described in the previous paragraph was that the person who was concerned came to me to talk about it (he did not merely sit back, hold a grudge and spread gossip). I was able to speak to him and tell him "you don't have all the facts, please understand I am working with it". Yes it may have appeared to an uninformed person that those parents were not doing their job, but there was more to the situation than merely "sanding and repainting".

People are not statues. And while I believe that the Blessed Virgin appreciates the work that I am doing on restoring her statue, I also believe that she is praying for me as I seek to restore her spiritual children. She, as their mother, knows how to be gentle with them in order to help them along the path to holiness, and I am thankful to have her prayers for me as God's priest. Let us all recognize that those people sitting in the pew next to you are not "statues that need polishing" but people who need grace (which does not always look the way you expect). They are all God's people who are multi-faceted and are not as simple as it might appear from a limited amount of knowledge.

Monday, March 25, 2019

The Challenges of Married Priests

Occasionally, I receive emails regarding my blog posts; some encouraging, some less than. For those less than, I always consider their points and look to see how I can improve. For those who encourage, thank you -- you are in my prayers as well. The contrast between the two reminded me recently that even the clearest and most obvious things can be misunderstood. Even when I attempt to give someone the benefit of the doubt and presume that they do not really mean what they say, I am not always successful in communicating Catholic truth. Not only did these recent comments remind that I had not posted much recently, it gave me inspiration to move ahead with something I have been wanting to speak about for quite a while.

As I have said many times before, the family is under attack today, and one of the ways that attack comes is in the area of confusion. What I mean by this is that the devil is sowing confusion both about what the family is, and how it works. At the request of my Bishop, I have been writing a series of articles in the Ordinariate Observer (the official magazine of the Ordinariate) on the family. I have a deep concern for the restoration of the Catholic family (and not just because I am a married priest). The older I get, the more I see how hard it is for people to see God's purpose for the family and this leads me to want to work even harder to bring renewal to families.

Another realm of terrible confusion is the priesthood. Even aside from all the foolish reformulations of the priesthood ("manager", "spiritual psychologist", or "CEO"), there are many who are completely confused about what a priest really is. Sadly, even many priests are misled about what is involved in the calling to the priesthood. This makes it even harder to correct the problem since so many people are living with the assumption that what they were taught was correct, so when I try to point out authentic Catholic teaching, they often resist. People have been around confused priests for so long that many of them even think that the "error" is correct. It is an uphill battle.

Group together two often misunderstood issues, and you can guarantee that you will find even more potential for misunderstandings. In other words, when the Church chooses to allow a man who is married to become a priest, then there are likely going to be people who will have mistaken notions of what that balance is supposed to look like. I am sure that I have not encountered every single possible error in this regard, but I have seen quite a few. Recently I encountered one where someone took the protestant stance on pastoral ministry and claimed it was the Catholic position. I am not sure just what created the confusion but the individual really did not know how to deal with it.

Personally, I am not an advocate of opening the doors to a larger married priesthood, and I hope that they do not make any special allowances for more married priests any time in the near future (maybe 1000 years from now?). I have said this before, and nothing has changed for me. Not everyone is able to deal with how the married priesthood plays out in the parish setting. The wife and children of a priest are not "just like every other family". They are always viewed differently from the rest of the parish; many Catholics are not sure that a priest's wife and children are actually "human" (!). Yes, they generally have lives like other people do, but it is hard for parishioners to understand how to relate to them and often can take many years for someone who is accustomed only to celibate priests to grasp the whole dynamic.

Furthermore, how a priest relates to his flock when he has a family at home is very sensitive. He needs to be a father to the parish, and he can only do this if they see that he loves his family, but also that he will be there for the parishioners just as quickly and readily as a celibate priest. If the parish thinks his loyalties are divided, then he cannot minister well. It is something that takes time for some people to get used to, but everyone should know that it is not a "new" or a "liberal" thing. It is an old thing (really) and those today who wish to hijack the idea of married priests to encourage immoral changes in the priesthood are totally missing the idea. Those pushing in this direction really do not understand what they are asking for. Today's confusion about the family and priesthood is not the place or time to bring this about.

That relational aspect of a married priest with his people is a hard one to grasp. At times it can be tough to be both priest and dad to my own children; glory to God for giving me the grace to do so. Yet in learning the proper way to deal with this, it has shown me that the comparison of dad to priest is more similar than many people want it to be. Not everyone wants their priest to be a "father" in the sense that the Church encourages. They want someone to be a hired hand who says the Mass and never challenges them on anything. This is the protestant way of thinking (trust me, I have been there).

Just like parents should not be "friends" to their children, so also a priest should not be a "friend" to his parishioners (he can never play "favorites"). He should, as I said above, be a "father" to them; to lead them, help them, correct them, and teach them. Put those two roles together (physical parent, and spiritual father) and it is a tough balance to keep. I am not asking for sympathy here, merely explaining that although it is the same priesthood, it is a bit of a different calling for those few married men who are called to serve as priests. By the grace of God my wife and children "get it" (they have been around my ministry since I served as a protestant minister), but that does not mean that everyone under my pastoral care will automatically "get it" unless they have been able to spend time around me and my family.

It is not something that everyone experiences, but the Church has always had married priests (even at the times that it existed only in the Eastern Catholic Churches), so we cannot say it is wrong. We can, however, say that it is not the norm; and that means that it is not necessary for everyone to "get it" (just as many people just do not get why the Divine Worship form of the Mass is important). I speak here not just for my own behalf, but also for my brother priests who are married. I know their struggles and I pray that their parishioners will be patient with learning how to relate to them.

I speak this to help prevent any idealistic ideas about the married priesthood. It is not for everyone (I have often told my brother priests who are celibate, "you guys can do it on your own, God knew that I need a little extra help"). It is a challenge--one that I rejoice to have been given, and am thankful every day for being called to serve--for the priest, his family, and his parishioners. Let us pray for those who are ministered to by married priests, that they would respect the unique role that they have; for the married priests, that they would be faithful in all their calling; and especially for the Church, that she would not make any bad choices about the consideration of married priests in the future. We should never attempt to solve one problem by creating another.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Will You Reconcile?

For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. You have heard that it was said to the men of old, 'You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny (Matt 5:20-26).
Today's gospel reading is quite powerful. It essentially tells us "refusing to reconcile with those you are at odds with has eternal consequences". There are only a few things that Jesus says make a person subject to eternal Hell, and lack of reconciliation is one of them. This is why it is even stated in the Lord's prayer: "forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us"; and this is so important that Jesus even gives an essential commentary on it: if we do not forgive others, God will not forgive us. Hence, if the harsher issue (being sinned against) necessitates us granting forgiveness, then the lesser is even more so: if we merely are offended or upset by something that someone else has done, then we absolutely must reconcile.

We could take Jesus words lightly and say "I do not need to reconcile with him because he will never listen to me", but that is definitely not what the Lord says here. In fact, if we take His words at face value we are led to say that anyone who rejects a plea for reconciliation is most assuredly out of the grace of God. The encouragements in the first letter of John to "love our brother" have application here. It says that if we cannot love the brother we see, then we cannot love the God we do not see. In like fashion, if we refuse to reconcile with a brother, then we are also refusing reconciliation with God. This is why those who are impenitent about reconciliation are not allowed to receive communion.

The heart of this whole matter is love for neighbor, and this is seen in the stern warnings in this gospel reading about the evils of being angry. Love for our brethren means that we want to reconcile, and we will bend over backwards to accomplish it; not run away and avoid it. If someone takes to social media to spread their anger, then you can be fairly sure that they are not acting in love. In fact, Jesus says that slandering or attacking a brother makes one "liable to . . . hell". In other words, if you get angry with a brother or sister in Christ and you are going around speaking evil of him to others, you are in grave sin and your heart is infected with the pride of the devil himself. This is a very dangerous state to be in. In essence, Jesus is telling us that we must work out our disagreements clearly, quickly, peacefully, and humbly. Anything less is sinful.

Notice how the admonition toward the middle of the passage says if our brother has something against us, then we should go and reconcile. It is not clear in this scenario who has done something wrong, it is just a matter of whether someone has a "problem" with us. We are supposed to try our hardest to achieve reconciliation. There are certainly times when someone will have the desire to reconcile, and even plead with his "opponent" to sit down to work things out, and yet the other party refuses to do so. No one is held accountable for another's unwillingness, but we each must try to accomplish that reconciliation. Woe unto the one who refuses. This passage is clear in its point: those who do this will have to "pay" for their sins in some way.

What then, does reconciliation look like? Agreeing to part ways is not genuine reconciliation. It may be a peace measure (and it may not be!), but it is not actual reconciliation. When we reconcile with the Lord in the Sacrament of Confession, does the Lord tell us that afterward we must "go our separate ways" and not speak anymore? No. That is not reconciliation, that is more akin to divorce than anything else. If at the end of a disagreement the two parties are not even able to attend the same Church, then reconciliation has not occurred. We are commanded by our Lord to reconcile, and not allow anything to prevent our hearts from being willing to do so.

Reconciliation means coming together, forgiving where forgiveness is needed and finding a lasting peace between the parties. Would any one of us want to settle for anything less when it comes to reconciling with God? Of course not; and God is not willing to settle for anything less between His children. This is one of the reasons why my wife and I taught our children, from their youngest years, what the process of reconciliation looks like. They had to know, step by step, how to reconcile with a brother or sister whom they had wronged. We must be a "reconciling" people. This means a people who are willing to go to the Sacrament of Confession to reconcile with God, because we have already been reconciling with our brother.

So then, which are you? Are you one who is like the Pharisees that always "knew" they were right and everyone else was wrong? Are you one who looks down on your brothers and sisters who do not do what you want them to do? Are you one who holds a grudge and makes sure that everyone else knows about it? Or are you, rather, one who loves his brothers? Are you one who knows that his own eternal destiny depends on reconciliation; both with God and man? If you are the latter, and you realize you are in need of reconciliation, go now and make peace. It is the way of salvation in Christ.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Spiritual Migraines

What is a migraine? It is technically not a normal headache. There are many who think that a migraine is just a "really bad headache" (I have heard many use the word this way). In spite of the fact that a migraine does involve severe head pain, there is much more to it than that. I suffer from mild migraines (though I know some people who have them far worse than I do). Migraines are a symptom of a condition whereby the person experiences recurring "headaches" that are ordinarily accompanied by dizziness, nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, and which can often cause confusion.

It is debatable whether migraines should be termed a "condition" or a "disorder" or even a "disease". Whatever they are called, I am able to deal with them with over-the-counter medicines, though sometimes that does not do any good. A couple weeks ago I got slammed with one that was quite debilitating for a number of hours. It clouds the thinking process and makes me have to cancel appointments because there is no telling what I might agree to in that condition (it is a good thing I trust my wife and kids not to take advantage of me then!).

It is my firm opinion that many people in this day and age are suffering from a form of "spiritual migraines". Spiritually, they suffer pain (though they do not always know that is what it is), and it causes them to become confused and disoriented. Many of God's people seem to have lost the ability to think clearly about things. It is not uncommon for some Catholics to go from clear thinking one moment, to a muddle-headed confusion the next. I am often amazed at the errors that people fall for these days.

Take, for example, the arguments of those who are trying to promote the idea that sodomy is morally neutral (or even an actual "good"). If you really examine what they are saying, their arguments open the doors to all kinds of moral atrocities. Or, in another vein, consider the manner in which people twist the discussion of murdering the unborn into an issue of "health care" for the pregnant woman. Both of these are defended by arguments that are self-contradictory and self-destructive. A clear minded observer who understands basic logic can spot these problems. Yet, remarkably, there are numerous people who do not see this.

Sometimes when I get into conversations with people in public (the doctor's office waiting room, the line at the grocery store, etc.) I find them defending some of the most ridiculous points of opinion. A few times I actually tried to point out the illogical nature of what they were saying, but it quickly became evident that it was fruitless. People who accept and defend foolishness, are rarely able to see the foolishness itself. As it says in Holy Scripture, "A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion" (Pr 18:2).

Thus, as I said above, untold amounts of people are suffering from a spiritual migraine that has debilitated their thinking and made them unable to get their spiritual "bearings". They ignore things that are crucial for their spiritual well being (it is sometimes hard even to eat when suffering from a migraine), and at the same time they will often have a fit about things that are relatively minor (anything above a whisper can feel like a sledgehammer on the forehead to someone with a migraine). I know it is just a metaphor, but this gives a very good description of something that is plaguing the Church today: bad thinking.

Unfortunately, overcoming the condition of suffering from a spiritual migraine is not as easy as taking some medicine. It requires a long term and vigorous effort to change one's thinking pattern. The world wants us to be muddleheaded so that the devil can tell us how to think. If we have given in to this, even just a little bit, then our whole pattern of thinking needs to be renewed; we need what St. Paul referred to as the "transformation of the mind" (cf. Romans 12:1-2). If someone's mental process has been infected by the world, then he cannot clearly discern what is good and right--and the worst part about it is that those who have fallen into this error believe that their thinking is trustworthy (sin blinds us to itself). At least those who suffer from physical migraines know that they are suffering; that is the purpose of physical pain.

If someone you know suffers from spiritual migraines, then get them some help right away. Encourage them to realize the grave dangers of worldly thinking. There is spiritual pain that accompanies a spiritual migraine, but we have to point it out to them so that they can realize their problems are consequences of their bad decisions and not merely coincidental. Parents, help your children to learn wise thinking patterns, and if you see them heading down the road to worldly and lazy thinking, then train them in good godly wisdom. Let every one of us humble ourselves before the Lord and ask Him to help us see any foolishness that we have so that we can repent of it.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Starting Off Lent

To begin the day, I had too much on my schedule, but I was not sure what would have to be sacrificed. After all, it is Ash Wednesday and I have four Masses to say, all at different locations, and in three different counties. So that was the start, and from there things began to go wrong. I realized just before I left the house that I had not considered a vital aspect of the renovations of our new Church building and had to scramble to figure it out (as well as ask my dear wife to try to talk it through with me on the phone, with her at the new building and me 30 miles away at another parish).

One thing after another kept going awry through the entire morning. I wish to make it perfectly clear, however, that I am not complaining. Actually, just the opposite; I am praising. All these awful complications and mistakes that kept occurring were clearly the grace of God. I could even go so far as to say that I started Lent off wonderfully! Yes, there were various events that were unpleasant, but (by the grace of God) I did not fall into sin as a result of any of them, and I was given a fantastic opportunity to start Lent off on the right foot.

It was somewhere earlier this morning (I believe it was when I was racing out of the Veteran's Home to go back to the Church; I had brought everything for Mass, except the altar wine!) that the thought snuck into my head, "what a horrible way to start off my Lenten observance". Thankfully my guardian angel protected me from falling for that one. I recognized right away that this was not my own idea, but the temptation of the evil one. I turned immediately to the question of the hand of God; what is He doing in this?

It was at that point that I saw the exact opposite perspective from what the devil wanted to implant in my mind, "what a wonderful way to start off my Lenten observance". Consider this: no one was actually harmed by any of these problems; I was protected from falling into a sinful response to them; and every one of them made me go the Lord, the Blessed Virgin, and my patron saint in prayer. The last point is especially significant. I have no idea how much (or little) I would have spent praying this morning with having so many things that I needed to do (but, of course, the Lord knows). I do know, however, how much time I did spend in prayer; it was almost constant.

So in that way, I can say that I started off Lent with a spiritual boost. I was the recipient of a great grace from God that said "don't forget you need Me in all this; busy or not, you need to pray". And I did; thankfully. What will the rest of Lent be like? I do not deny that I hope it is a bit less hectic. At the same time, I also have to say that if it is hectic, then I have already received a grace to remember how to handle it.

How will you handle Lent this year? Will it just slide by and end up getting missed? Or, will you take advantage of every aspect of it by looking to see God behind every event (thus praying to Him in the midst of them all)? Lent could easily pass each of us by if we do not pay attention to it. Do not let anything keep you from receiving all the grace God has in store for you.