Memorial of Saint Bernard, Abbot and Doctor of the Church

A young man approached Jesus and said,
"Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?
...All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?"

We often consider Jesus' response to the young man. Let's take a minute to consider his questions.
He obviously came from a God-fearing, pious community, comprised of family, synagogue and neighbors. Accustomed to a disciplined life he recited his prayers several times a day, ate by kosher standards, rested on the Sabbath, associated with Jewish people, avoided contact with gentiles, and studied the Law and the Prophets with the rabbis in the synagogue. His imagination, contacts and world were contained within the Jewish culture of his time.
There was a time when, broadly speaking, many American Catholics lived in a similar fashion. Raised in large households with many siblings, they attended Catholic schools in predominantly Catholic neighborhoods, attended Mass every Sunday, abstained from meat on Friday, fasted during Lent and Advent, and took great pride in their American citizenship. Their churches and parochial schools were segregated by ethnicity -- Poles with Poles and Irish with Irish, etc. Their most salacious reading was the list of banned movies posted by the Legion of Decency. Many remained within that religious climate throughout their Catholic secondary schools; some, into their colleges and universities. Like Saint Matthew's young man, their imagination, contacts and world were contained by strict cultural norms.
There was, to be sure, mischief in both cultures, that of our Jewish student and of the American Catholic. We can suppose many American young "scholars" experimented with alcohol, cigarettes and "premarital" sex.
But there was also the question, "What must I do to gain eternal life?" The goal of Catholic education was to create saints; or, more simply, to go to heaven. Many older Catholic still believe that is the purpose of our religion. They can recite the catechism, "God made me to know, love and serve him in this world and to be with him in the next." When the young man asked Jesus, the Rabbi recited the standard answer, "You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery...."
But these two cultures, similar in so many ways, leave room for the same unrest; and some students will reply to Jesus, All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?"
The Catholic youth of our tradition, in the 1950's and the 2010's, is often encouraged to consider a religious vocation as a priest, deacon, sister or brother. They might also hear the invitation to chaste heterosexual marriage or chaste single life.
But there are more choices in our complex world that must be considered. Do they pursue an education and formation in business, military, government, academia, the arts, sports or sciences? How does the disciple of Jesus contribute to a culture that is sometimes hostile to religion and resolutely secular?
As we ponder these questions we realize the importance of a religious/spiritual infrastructure. No one lives alone; no one makes life style choices in isolation. The disciple of Jesus will always be an active member of a living Church.
And that brings us to Jesus' reply,
If you wish to be perfect, go,
sell what you have and give to the poor,
and you will have treasure in heaven.
Then come, follow me."
The community follows the Lord by renouncing a materialistic lifestyle and giving to the poor. When we build a church it should honor the Lord and not its rich benefactors. We invite the disenfranchised to join us in worship.
At one time, our responsibility to the poor was defined more simply -- we give to them and expect nothing of them. That one-sided generosity imitated our understanding of God who gives unconditionally and with superabundant, infinite resourcefulness. God is like the fruit tree which feeds the farmer who cultivates the tree, the bugs and worms which infest it, and the hungry earth which devours its fallen fruit. So long as we have plenty we can give plenty.
But there are problems with that paradigm. Donors, aware of the needs of the poor, overlook their own. If we would give to the poor, we do well to learn from the poor. Especially, they want a say in what kind of assistance is offered. Too often the wealthy give something useless out of their surplus. They don't ask,"What do you need?" or "How can I help you." They say, "Here is what you need; here is what I am willing to give you. Take it or leave it. I want no further contact with you." And, just as often, the poor want no further contact with that condescension.
The wealthy young man was seriously disappointed when he heard the Lord's invitation. He only wanted to touch base with the Rabbi and continue his spiritual quest with little actual change. Mostly he wanted Jesus' approval for the religious life he was already leading. Real sacrifice was not in the cards. Real trust in God for his material, emotional, and spiritual needs was not an option.
The Lord invited him to step out of his religious, safe and prosperous culture. He should meet the uncertainty of poverty. He could bring only his willingness. He would find a community defined not by status but by faith.
But he went away sad for he had many possessions.

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying,
"How can this man give us his flesh to eat?"

During this past Lent and again during the Easter season, I reflected on John 3:16 ("For God so loved the world...") and its reference to Genesis 22, the sacrifice of Isaac. Because we are created in the image and likeness of God, and that "likeness" is specifically our free will, God cannot save us by force. There is no power in heaven or earth that can deliver us from ourselves without our consent. Nor will a halfhearted "Yeah, okay, whatever you say" do.
Salvation depends upon a readiness like that of Abraham who, after a lifetime of knowing the Lord was ready to say, "Here I am!" immediately, in the very moment he heard God's voice. Even as he raised the knife, about to slay his son, driven by a passion bordering on madness, he could stop everything when the Lord shouted at him, "Abraham! Abraham!"
The Church recounts that story often because we understand it prefigures the Sacrifice of the Cross. Just as Abraham "so loved" the Lord that he would give his only beloved son, so does God love us. He has given his only beloved son. A parent would sooner kill himself than his only child, but that does not satisfy the Love of God. God demanded so much of Abraham because God would give more than he could afford; when he gave us his only begotten son.
We hear that same astonishing, radical, overwhelming offer in today's gospel from John 6. But this time it is Jesus who makes the offer, rather than the Father. The "Jews" are dumbfounded when they hear Jesus declare,
"I am the living bread that came down from heaven;
whoever eats this bread will live forever;
and the bread that I will give
is my flesh for the life of the world.
Is it possible that he will give his own flesh? They demand, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?"
We'll hear another response next Sunday, "This saying is hard; who can accept it?" It's interesting that they don't say, "This is madness!" or "A demon has possessed you!"
Rather, "This saying is too hard. Who can accept it?" It may or may not make sense but that's not the point. Their question is, "If I accept it what will it cost me?" "Who can accept it?" means, "What kind of person would be drawn into this statement, into this relationship with the Lord?"

Yesterday, we heard an answer, "Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the Kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these."
Of course, as Nicodemus realized, an adult cannot revert to infancy or childhood. We cannot forget our experience of disappointment and betrayal. We can only bring our memories with us when we come to the Lord. Abraham was not a foolish young man when he heard God's demand. We do not "forgive and forget." We remember and forgive.
The half-grown adult might say, "Yeah, okay, whatever you say." Confronted by a parent, teacher or police officer, realizing authority will have its way, this person submits to power. Many people believe there is no other authority but power.
The faithful Christian coming to the Lord as an adult with a lifetime of experience freely and completely chooses to give more than she can afford. There is no unspoken, "I have no choice." hidden behind this willingness. The response must be intentional, eager, willing, generous, courageous, joyful and complete.
But if not by force, power or coercion, how does one manage such a feat. Is there a switch somewhere in my heart that I can throw that will enable what naked aggression cannot accomplish? Is this like not forcing a jammed electronic device and waiting to discover it will click into place with no effort whatsoever?
Some people suppose they can save themselves by "will power." They will quit drinking alcohol, smoking or lusting by will power. But can the will force itself to do something it does not will to do? That makes no sense. 
I suppose we could call it love but that overused word means nothing anymore. If I prefer the word spirit it's in reference to the sublimely mysterious Trinity.  
Only the Spirit of God can make this happen in me. I am certainly not capable of such consent. But Jesus put it differently, "For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father." 
And so we pray and wait and watch expectantly as the Lord draw us into the life of the Trinity, as iron is drawn to a magnet. 

Saturday of the Nineteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 418

"Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the Kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these."

Given the power-oriented culture in which we live, with its belief that everyone should covet power, we need to hear Jesus' invitation to become like little children. 
In today's brief gospel we hear him rebuke the disciples who suppose "The Rabbi" had no time for children. Why would a powerful man want the attention of children? Why would he schmooze with toddlers when influential men are standing close by? They certainly had no interest in children. 
In a similar vein the Lord says we should be innocent like lambs and cunning as serpents. Perhaps that's what Pope Saint John XXIII meant when he said we should hear everything, say little and write nothing. Preschool children see everything, criticize little and write nothing. They are as innocent as lambs though they lack the cunning of serpents. 
Saint John urges us, 
"Beloved, do not trust every spirit but test the spirits to see whether they belong to God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.
Every impulse might be called a spirit. There are animal impulses like hunger and thirst, impatience and anger. There are emotional impulses like suspicion and fear. There are natural human reactions that avoid conflict and prefer harmony. 
And then there is the Holy Spirit which, moment by moment, counsels wait, speak, act, lead, follow or flee -- or any of a billion other possible courses of action. The child is subject to impulses, especially of pleasure and pain, satisfaction and disappointment; but the child of God is subject to God's Spirit. 
This is where the cunning of the serpent appears. We see this in the life of Jesus. Throughout his career he advanced toward Jerusalem, except when he backed away from it. He eagerly went about healing everyone who came to him, except when he moved on to the next town and village. Sometimes he called crowds of people together and sometimes he withdrew to solitude. He obeyed only his Father in Heaven, but he was subject to Mary and Joseph, to Annas and Caiphas, to Herod and Pontius Pilate. He did not hesitate to challenge his enemies but he silently endured their abuse as they arrested, condemned and led him to death. The Son of God listened continually and attentively to the Spirit of God. 
Our time is no less troubled and no more complex than that of Jesus. Every age is violent; every brilliant culture has its shadow. Throughout the ages the saints have preferred to listen to the Holy Spirit. They were often harassed by civil and ecclesial authorities and canonized by the same. As Jesus rebuked his contemporaries, 
Woe to you! You build the memorials of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. Consequently, you bear witness and give consent to the deeds of your ancestors, for they killed them and you do the building.
 The child of God is guided by the Spirit of God, who counsels when to speak and when to be silent, when to act and when to do nothing. The Spirit of God knows the time; and that the right thing in the wrong time is the wrong thing. During this troubled time when political, social and church authorities can only agree that everyone else is wrong, we beg the Lord to send us the Spirit of Jesus. 

Friday of the Nineteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Yet I will remember the covenant I made with you when you were a girl, and I will set up an everlasting covenant with you. Then you shall remember your conduct and be ashamed when I take your sisters, those older and younger than you, and give them to you as daughters, even though I am not bound by my covenant with you. For I will re-establish my covenant with you,
that you may know that I am the LORD...

(NB: This post was written before the grand jury in Pennsylvania published its findings.) 

Even in our decadent era, when most marriages do not survive until the death of one spouse, when most individuals have had several sexual partners before they marry, when a person is not considered promiscuous if he has less than six partners in one year, many people want and expect fidelity of their lovers, and complain if they don't get it. I suggested to one plaintiff, by way of helpful advice, "Outside the rules there are no rules;" but, obviously, I had no idea what I was talking about. Oddly, fidelity is still the expected standard, though apparently more honored in the breach than in observance. 
The complaints are not new, as the Bible attests. Husbands and wives have struggled to keep their relationships intact since the beginning. Nor are these hurt, angry feelings new; jealousy, envy and covetousness plague every generation. Since prehistoric times, fathers, uncles and brothers have guarded their womenfolk against predators -- except when they were the predators. The world, both secular and religious, is still shocked when a priest, bishop or cardinal is caught in transgression. Nor is it the hypocritical shock of Captain Louis Renault. They seem genuinely surprised! 
I once suggested to an eligible bachelor about to be married, "If you are propositioned by someone, reply, 'Thanks for the offer. I'll have my wife get back to you about that!" He didn't think it would be necessary but I supposed the word would get around pretty quick! 
The standard remains and our Catholic religion still demands it of our members. To abandon the principle, to declare it unrealistic, idealistic or unnatural, is to renounce faith in the Lord who regards his people as his spouse.
The Prophet Ezekiel knew his contemporaries would understand God's rage about their neglect of the Law of Moses, both its ritual and ethical standards, if he described the Lord as an angry, jealous lover. The destruction of Jerusalem, the loss of a homeland, the displacement of thousands of people, the carnage, waste and destruction: it all made sense if God's anger is like a betrayed husband. "He's gone insane!" they might say, "...and who wouldn't?" 
They had not supposed God could care so much! What was he losing by their haphazard religious observance, their neglect of widows and orphans, their cheating the gullible and their hostility to foreigners? They had assumed God should protect their sanctuary regardless of their infidelity? Isn't his love unconditional
Apparently not. Or at least not as we supposed it is.
There is a lesson there for today's generation; and it's not just about sexual integrity. A nation that regards itself as blessed and Christian should get the message. The ominous signs are clear. No one will be able to say they were not warned. 

Thursday of the Nineteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Son of man, you live in the midst of a rebellious house; they have eyes to see but do not see, and ears to hear but do not hear, for they are a rebellious house.

Older Catholics of my generation were formed by a fairly rigid sacramental tradition. We learned to examine our conscience based on the Ten Commandments. Each command was explicated with certain well-defined sins. These definitions supported parental, civil and ecclesial authorities. They frowned upon anything remotely sexual and did not hesitate to suspect passing thoughts or impulses as reprehensible. Accidental oversights or illness were no excuse for "mortal sins" like eating meat on Friday or missing Mass on Sunday. It was a good system for children, based on the threat of punishment and promise of reward; but few Catholics received much religious formation beyond the eighth grade. Once the maturing teens and young adults realized there were few rewards for good behavior and threats were idle, many shed the old guidelines like discarded clothes.
Where do we go from here?
As adults we realize it's not so easy to apply simple moral standards in a complex society. As voting citizens we make difficult choices, often between lesser evils. Opting out is not an option. As consumers we wonder if we must "Buy American," or should we choose the better price. Do we prefer the school where our children will meet minority groups or the schools with better paid, more qualified teachers? As parents do we hover over our children or let them fly on their own, learning from their mistakes and failures?
As adults we realize the "individual" is a myth, only a half-truth. The boundaries between persons are not clear; every personal decision affects other people. Every moral decision has consequences and some of them are unfortunate. We must often apologize for doing the right thing. We must often say, "I made the best choice with the information I had."
Today's gospel describes a scandalous situation. A powerful man has abused his power, violently mistreating an inferior and assuming he could get away with it. Sound familiar? He is punished mostly because he has already been publicly humiliated. But his throttling a fellow servant, we can suppose, was standard behavior for him. Like the CEOs whose sexual aggressions are now exposed, everyone knew what was going on behind the sovereign's back -- if he wasn't actually aware of it. When enough people were upset about the behavior and the unrest threatened to overturn the entire kingdom, the authority had to step in and execute a vengeful justice.
The steward violated common human decency for reasons apparent only to his troubled mind. He operated in an isolated world of his personal resentments, greed and stupidity. He had lost the ability to receive mercy and could not offer it to others. He had become a monster, a subspecies of humanity incapable of compassion -- despite his abilities, education and standing in society. Given the firestorm he had set in motion there was nothing to be done but to hand him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. Perhaps that public retribution would stabilize the ruler's tottering kingdom.
The moral of Jesus' parable is not hard to grasp. The story demonstrates the principle he has already taught us, one we recite many times a day, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."
By custom and habit, we examine our conscience and consider the mercy we have received. It should not take very much reflection to discover the continual, superabundant goodness of God in which we live and move and have our being  As I sit here on a sheltered porch on a morning in August I feel a gentle, cooling breeze on my ankles. It's lovely. One more blessing from God. 
Should we not have pity on our fellow servants, as God has pity on us?

Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun,
with the moon under her feet,
and on her head a crown of twelve stars.
She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth.

The Christian Church was born during a particularly traumatic moment of Jewish history. They had already suffered the destruction of Jerusalem twice, and the diaspora (dispersal) throughout the world. In 70ad Jerusalem was again visited by an army; this time, the Romans who leveled it again. Herod's temple is today nothing but a "wailing wall." Jews from India to Spain were shocked and saddened to learn of the catastrophe.
Meanwhile, a new kind of Jewish literature emerged, known as apocalyptic. It has been described as pessimistic as it spoke of an "end time" of widespread destruction and devastation. This genre had its roots in the colorful, cryptic writings of the Hebrew prophets from Amos onward. Prominent among the "signs" of doom were angels, omens in the sky, secret writings, virgins giving birth and catastrophes including earthquake, disease, famine and war.
Christian literature accepted the style of Jewish apocalyptic but changed it radically. Our apocalyptic is hopeful. The pregnant virgin may wail aloud in pain as she labors to give birth but her son will  rule all the nations with an iron rod. She may have to flee from the devouring dragon but she will find refuge in the wilderness where she has a place prepared by God.
The signs are ominous like the cross, which initially appears dreadful but is revealed as saving, liberating and joyous.
This Holy Spirit has inspired this apocalyptic tradition throughout our history. Especially during times of upheaval, when the future is uncertain and people suffer deep anxiety, we discover the reassuring presence of Mary. She appeared at Guadalupe as the Aztec empire collapsed and the Spanish empire supplanted it. Resembling a pregnant, mestizo girl she reassured the distressed natives that the Lord of Heaven heard their cry, even when the Spanish kings did not.
She has appeared in many places ever since, always with a word of reassurance. She speaks the word she heard from the Angel, "Do not be afraid." She adds her own words, "Do whatever he tells you." She might even chide us on occasion, "Am I not here, who am your mother?"
This "solemnity of the Assumption" refreshes us with the promise of eternal life. We who are baptized into Jesus are one in the Body of Christ with Mary and all the saints. As she has been assumed into heaven, so we shall follow.
Often, when someone very dear has died the bereaved wish they could go with them. Remaining in this world, we would readily depart to be with our loved ones. "A piece of me is here; the better part has gone."
We feel that same grief, hope and confidence in Mary's Assumption. Death cannot separate us from the Lord, his Mother or his Church. The times are troubled. After the optimism of the post-war years when new technologies and international accord promised prosperity even to the poorest nations, we realize that the good times have been unequally divided. The bright future has already passed. Billionaires decide our future, manipulating our options, preferences, desires, choices and votes.
In Revelation 12 we have seen the Blessed Virgin Mary delivered into the desert where she had a place prepared by God. If our bodies are still in this troubled world, our hearts are with her.

Memorial of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, Priest and Martyr

What is your opinion?
If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray,
will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills
and go in search of the stray?

In Saint Matthew's account of the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus begins with a question, "What is your opinion?" And then he asks, "Will the shepherd not leave the ninety-nine...?"
I wonder if the disciples didn't look at him, and then at each other, and then back at him; and perhaps one of them cautiously said, "No?"
It may be sad and unfortunate that one is lost but the dutiful shepherd cannot risk the loss of ninety-nine as he searches for that one. The shepherd's boss might raise hell if he heard about the shepherd abandoning his flock on a wild goose chase.
Jesus uses the metaphor of sheep and shepherding, of business. And the businessman or woman often has to make hard choices involving triage and risk assessment. It's all well and good to speak of ideals but in the real world there are wolves, lions and thieves; and they are watching for any opportunity when the shepherd's back is turned.
If one of the disciples were so bold as to disagree with Jesus' rhetorical parable, the Master might have pointed out that he's not talking about sheep. He's talking about the care of the Church, "In just the same way, it is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be lost.”
And so the disciples might ask and discuss among themselves how well the metaphor applies. Sheep are notoriously stupid. And congregations of Christians are not? Can ninety-nine be trusted to manage for themselves while the shepherd is away? Can they permit their pastor to seek the lost while their needs are neglected?
Or perhaps his care for the one actually addresses the real needs, as opposed to the felt needs they think they have. Catholic and Protestant pastors are often expected where their presence is not really necessary; their leadership is sought when the faithful are perfectly capable of thinking and acting for themselves. The pastor who oversteps his authority, micromanaging his congregation, does no one any favors.
The congregation should learn to respect one another and back one another while the pastor is away. They should support the operation which might result in a strayed member's return. They can spend their time preparing a welcome place at the table.
Pope Francis has reminded us that every Christian is a missionary. Some are sent to foreign lands; most are sent to their native lands to live and preach the gospel. So long as Christian congregations regard themselves only as sheep, waiting on the pastor's directives and deferring continually to him -- usually to "him!" -- they fail their obligation. Sheep are animals, slightly more intelligent than trees and fungus. Comparisons with human beings are interesting and perhaps revelatory, but seriously limited. Christians are women and men with intelligence, insight and a capacity for discerning God's will.
In "the real world" of which Jesus speaks, unlike the business world which is subject to the mechanical cycles of ebb and flow, the pastor pays attention to the Spirit of God. That Spirit often directs us in unexpected, unpromising ventures. In God's world it is difficult to assess plans or projects, failure or success. Doing the right thing might not succeed but those who risk it will have the assurance of the Holy Spirit; they suffer no regret. They will say, "It is better to have love and lost than never to have loved at all."