Memorial of Saint Jerome, Priest and Doctor of the Church

Lectionary: 454

While they were all amazed at his every deed,
Jesus said to his disciples,
"Pay attention to what I am telling you.
The Son of Man is to be handed over to men."
But they did not understand this saying;
its meaning was hidden from them
so that they should not understand it,
and they were afraid to ask him about this saying.

How many times have I read this passage and never noticed Saint Luke's cryptic aside, " that they should not understand it?"

He echoes a familiar passage from Isaiah 6:
And (the Voice of the Lord) replied: Go and say to this people:
Listen carefully, but do not understand!
Look intently, but do not perceive! 
Make the heart of this people sluggish,
dull their ears and close their eyes;
Lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears,
and their heart understand,
and they turn and be healed.
“How long, O Lord?” I asked. And he replied:
Until the cities are desolate,
without inhabitants,
Houses, without people,
and the land is a desolate waste.
Until the LORD sends the people far away,
and great is the desolation in the midst of the land.
If there remain a tenth part in it,
then this in turn shall be laid waste;
As with a terebinth or an oak
whose trunk remains when its leaves have fallen.
Isaiah's mission certainly sounds dreadful. One may ask, as millions have, "Is that fair, that God would make our hearts sluggish, dulling our ears and closing our eyes lest we hear, understand and repent?" 
Certainly you and I live in the same world so familiar to Isaiah, "among a people of unclean lips." If they don't hear the voice of God it is largely because they don't want to. They've got other things on their mind. The name of God may be on their lips but He is far from their minds
But I think Saint Luke is bringing a very different interpretation to Isaiah's prophecy. The prophet foresees doom; Jesus prophecies his coming crucifixion. The siege and destruction of Jerusalem is the "crucifixion" of the Old Testament.  
Before it happened many devout souls believed it could not happen. "God" they said, "would never let that happen to us!" Just as Peter argued Jesus should never be crucified. 
Despite Jesus' prophesies the disciples were not prepared for his agony and death. They heard but did not hear; they saw but could not see. Even Peter, who boasted he would never abandon the Lord, turned and fled. 
The human spirit is never prepared for this catastrophe. People might form a "Cajun navy" to rescue people in Louisiana or Texas; they might utilize social media to facilitate relief operations; they might donate blood periodically, as I do, to help strangers: but no one is prepared for the destruction of God's temple, when the Father is silent, the Son is crucified and the Holy Spirit is still. 
In that hour the human being collapses. Even the elect will despair. 
No one knows what they will do on that day. We can only pray, "Spare O Lord your people" and "Lead us not into temptation." 

Feast of Saints Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, archangels

Lectionary: 647

I will give thanks to you, O LORD, with all my heart, for you have heard the words of my mouth;
in the presence of the angels I will sing your praise; I will worship at your holy temple
and give thanks to your name.

According to Louis Bouyer's classic study of the Eucharist from the earliest Christian centuries to this day, we have always joined the angels in their song of praise, "Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Hosts!" This is as true of the Eastern Orthodox churches as of the western Roman Church, despite the amazing variety of Eucharistic Prayers in our long history.
We can no more imagine heaven and the presence of God without angels than we can imagine no communion of saints.
In our day, when the secular sciences would populate the Universe with nothing more interesting than quasars, pulsars and black holes, we still hear the Universe singing God's praises with angelic voices. But instead of a "host of angels" we join "billions and billions" of angels, to use Carl Sagan's awe-stricken phrase.
The religious imagination has always peopled the universe with persons, both angels and demons; and we can think of no reason for God not to people the galaxies with angelic powers if God so chooses; even a multiverse is not beyond God's authority. 
Every book in the Bible speaks of angels. In the light of that testimony, it would be hard for a Christian to deny their existence with the secular argument that "They shouldn't exist;" or "There's no evidence of them." Angels don't leave much evidence, but then neither did the Native American who could travel through the southwestern desert without leaving a telltale trace of his passage. 
That some people can't imagine such boundless, all-encompassing authority cannot be used as an argument against it. 
A few weeks ago I visited a small natural history museum in Las Cruces, New Mexico. One display was dedicated to the Solar System. It consisted of a hollow glass sphere, perhaps four feet in diameter. At the press of a button the sphere lit up with a map of any planet and several moons in our System. The Earth could be viewed as a planet of water, carbon, vegetation or heat, depending on which struck the viewer's fancy. 
I looked at all of them. When I went to school fifty years ago, every classroom had a globe but we never saw anything like this one. How wonderful is human ingenuity, to create such a display! 
If human beings can discover such mysteries and create such wonders, how much more wonderful is the Lord who created us! 
Today's feast of the Archangels give Catholics another opportunity to ponder and rejoice in the Enormity of God's Goodness. 

Thursday of the Twenty-fifth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 452

Consider your ways!
You have sown much, but have brought in little;
you have eaten, but have not been satisfied;
You have drunk, but have not been exhilarated;
have clothed yourselves, but not been warmed;
And whoever earned wages
earned them for a bag with holes in it.

Christians are often accused of being idealistic. When we make suggestions as to how a family, business or government should proceed we're told, "That's not realistic." 
Indeed, idealism has deep roots in our ways of thinking. Communism, Nazism and fascism were idealistic. They constructed futuristic visions on the foundations of an idea, which proved to be absurd. Today's ideals -- equality, freedom, fraternity, (notions born of the French Revolution) -- are usually vague and often dangerous. 
Civil Rights and Women's Liberation describe ideals that seem within reach if people were only a bit more generous and a bit less fearful. Meanwhile, our worsening ecology demands attention. 
These movements spawn counter-movements to oppose them. Reactionaries describe a future which is patently absurd (e.g. an America without minorities) and yet some people believe in them. 
Philosophers tell us this "age of ideology" started with Descartes' cogito. "I think therefore I am." suggests that "I" am an idea; indeed the world is nothing but imagined ideas, malleable and contingent. I heard on NPR once that the whole universe is just numbers, consisting of zeroes and ones. 
Opposed to these idealists are the realists who claim a better grasp of reality. 
When the prophet Habakkuk challenged his fellow Israelites to begin rebuilding the Temple they replied, "The time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the LORD." African-Americans, women and homosexuals have met similar resistance. 
Not yet generally means, "Wait till I am dead, and then build your new world." Sometimes, in my unkindness, I have asked people who complained about the changes in the church, "Do we have to wait till your dead before we can make these changes?" 
Habakkuk challenged his contemporaries, "Look how your realistic policies are working for you! You have sown much, but reaped little. You have eaten but not been satisfied. You have drunk but not been exhilarated...." 
Or, as God said to Adam, "By the sweat of your brow you will reap thorns and thistle." 

The true realist does not ignore God's providential care. Or, to put it contrariwise, an atheist is idealistic; he tries to live in a world without God, a place that does not exist. 
Many Christians insist they cannot afford not to tithe. They must consecrate the first fruits of  their income to the Lord in order to survive. That disciplined discipleship steers them and their children away from consumerism with its habitual waste. They cannot afford recreational drugs, excessive alcohol or shopping sprees. They do not dream of winning the lottery or life on Easy Street. Those visions cannot come from God.
To maintain the discipline they must spend time in prayer and meditation, individually and as families, in the privacy of their homes and the public of their churches. This way of life is neither idealistic nor realistic. They have abandoned Descartes' vision for the promise of Jesus. 

Memorial of Saint Vincent de Paul, Priest

Lectionary: 451

Ezra prayed: "My God, I am too ashamed and confounded to raise my face to you, O my God, for our wicked deeds are heaped up above our heads and our guilt reaches up to heaven. From the time of our fathers even to this day great has been our guilt, and for our wicked deeds we have been delivered up, we and our kings and our priests, to the will of the kings of foreign lands, to the sword, to captivity, to pillage, and to disgrace, as is the case today.

The particular genius of the Jewish tradition, as Christians have received it, is their collective willingness to acknowledge their sins against God and make atonement for them. The Hebrew prophets saw in catastrophes like drought, famine and war the punishing hand of God. When hostile armies approached they urged all the people to atone for their sins before it was too late. Atonement came with righteous acts toward widows, orphans and aliens; and with religious ceremonies carefully executed. Neither should be neglected. 
Ezra's prayer in today's first reading reflects the "care" the people should take in their rituals. The priest Ezra does not speak only for himself; what would be the point of that? Rather, he speaks on behalf of the whole nation. 
The next chapter assures us, "While Ezra prayed and acknowledged their guilt, weeping and prostrate before the house of God, a very large assembly of Israelites gathered about him, men, women, and children; and the people wept profusely.
However, the footnotes in this translation (NABRE) suggest the reform didn't go as smoothly as promised. The non-Jewish wives did not agree to its terms. Perhaps the silence of the Bible about that reform's indifferent conclusion should remind us of how complicated repentance and atonement really are. 
Black Lives Matter has confronted Americans again with that conundrum. The dominant culture would like to believe the Civil War is over! But when historians still disagree about why the war was fought -- slavery or states rights -- we can hardly expect racism to have disappeared.
American Christians also disagree sharply about how we should regard our "fellow man." Many Americans are called "illegal aliens," with the implication that crossing man-made boundaries without a visa is immoral and sinful, even when the individual is seeking employment to support spouse, children and parents. Only some Christians, especially Catholics, are willing to defend the rights of immigrants. 
During the Civil War Christians of North and South hoped that the "baptism of blood" would purify the nation; but, after Appomattox racism persisted and slavery went underground, hiding under various legal pretexts. 
The indifferent conclusion of Ezra and Nehemiah's reform should at least remind us that we do penance daily. Once is never enough. Just as we bathe several times a week and eat several times a day, we must acknowledge our sins and repent seven times a day. We must continually ask the Lord, "What is the next step?" A chess master may know the next several moves against a weak opponent, but no one knows the next step toward a more perfect union
Black lives matter! Yes! They matter to me! Now what should I do? 

Tuesday of the Twenty-fifth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 450

"My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it."

People who worry about the future of marriage and family may be startled to hear today's gospel story about Jesus' relation to his own family. Clearly, he is not totally available to them. The story is told three times in the three synoptic gospels; scholars tell us the evangelists each have a slightly different take on it.

  • Saint Mark emphasizes Jesus' isolation. Everyone abandoned him, including the Roman authorities, the Jewish civil and religious authorities, Jewish partisans (zealots and Pharisees), his disciples and his family. Even God is tragically absent as Jesus' last cry for help goes unanswered. In that context it is no surprize that Jesus pays little attention to the arrival of his family; their intentions are hostile. 
  • Saint Matthew is especially concerned with the developing Church of his time, as it met new and unfamiliar challenges. One of them may have been the family of Jesus who expected special recognition in the community. If that is the case, then Jesus' statement simply dismisses those connections. Being kin to the Son of David means nothing; only faithful disciples have standing in the Church. 
  • Saint Luke shows more sympathy for the family of Jesus, especially for his mother. She appears at the beginning of both of his works, the Gospel and Acts. Luke doesn't accentuate Jesus' abandonment. In fact, there were sympathetic people, especially Simon of Cyrene who carried his cross; and the "women of Jerusalem" who wept for him, and stood at a distance wailing as he died. So in today's Lukan account, Jesus does not dismiss his mother and his family; he simply includes them among his disciples. 

With all that said, this story with its three renderings reminds us that the "family" of the Church is based not on blood ties but on faith. We may call one another brothers and sisters; we may refer to authorities as father and mother; but the Holy Spirit, and not blood ties, binds us together. In fact the local church that relies too heavily on kinship or nationality may lose its Christian identity. 
True disciples of Jesus orient all their relationships around him. Sometimes families are so hostile to the Church that the baptized must abandon their family. More often, husbands and wives realize that their relationship begins in their life of prayer. Not sexual desire, shared interests, compatibility, social expectation, financial dependence or their co-responsibility as parents can hold them together. Without the grace of discipleship there is no Sacrament of Marriage; this has become painfully obvious in our day.  
Discipleship in Jesus never opposes marriage or family but it gives these institutions a solid foundation in generous self-sacrifice. Husbands, wives and children who serve the Lord neither worship one another nor expect adulation from each other. The child realizes her parents are not "for me all the time" or "all about me." The parent does not hover over a child like a helicopter, desperate for the child's success and achievement. 
The Christian family, in the words of today's psalm, is "built as a city with compact unity"; they call to one another, "Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord."

Monday of the Twenty-fifth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 449

Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin and the priests and Levites–
everyone, that is, whom God had inspired to do so– prepared to go up to build the house of the LORD in Jerusalem. All their neighbors gave them help in every way,
with silver, gold, goods, and cattle,
and with many precious gifts besides all their free-will offerings.

This passage from the Book of Ezra recalls an incident which occurred long before Ezra or Nehemiah; and it prefigures the Day that must come someday. The former was the Hebrews' "despoiling" the Egyptians as they escaped four hundred years of bondage: 
And the Israelites did as Moses had commanded: they asked the Egyptians for articles of silver and gold and for clothing. Indeed the LORD had made the Egyptians so well-disposed toward the people that they let them have whatever they asked for. And so they despoiled the Egyptians.
The latter is the coming Judgement Day and the Bliss which must follow. The Testaments often promise God's people victory, vindication, and prosperity within sight of hostile nations. "Let the nations rage!" (Psalm 2)
The Book of Ezra describes a momentary glimpse of that heavenly day when the Persian emperor Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and their Babylonian friends lavished gifts upon them. 
We are granted such glimpses of heavenly bliss occasionally. Some are unexpected boons that fall upon us when everything seems right after a long period of trouble and anxiety. I think especially of Mary and Joseph finding Jesus in the temple "on the third day." The couple had suffered much anxiety as they searched among their friends and kin for the lost child. It was a long walk back to Jerusalem and only on the third day did they re-enter the gate and go directly to the Temple where, of course, they found him "listening to the elders and asking them questions."
Saint Luke uses that phrase, "the third day," to remind us of the Easter joy that was to follow. Their finding Jesus in the temple was a kind of Easter.
Other "glimpses of eternity" come during our religious ceremonies. These we can and should attend; they are the Bread of Heaven which sustains us through long difficult stretches of our life.
The repetition of words, gestures, songs and rites can seem boring to the inattentive; and especially to the untested. Those who have not experienced the healing, soothing power of prayer, who are accustomed to more entertaining fare to distract them from their otherwise vacuous existence, may not appreciate the food of angels. 
Many of the bored have little knowledge of our history. They do not realize the high cost of faith which has been paid in advance by our martyred ancestors. They are bewildered by stories of men and women who died because they recited the rosary, made the sign of the cross or genuflected before the Blessed Sacrament. They do not glimpse supreme blessings in routine prayers. 
But the Lord still blesses his Church in every age by gathering the faithful to prayer. If we forget God, the Holy Spirit does not forget us. The Spirit still holds before our eyes the image of the Crucified, recalling our past suffering and future Resurrection; and again we sit up and listen to the command of the Shema, "Hear, O Israel!" 

Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 133

Yet that I remain in the flesh
is more necessary for your benefit.

Today's Old Testament reading from the Prophet Isaiah and the Gospel of Saint Matthew remind us of God's sovereign authority over us. 
  • Isaiah says, For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. 
  • Saint Matthew's parable challenges us, "Are you envious because I am generous?'"
Given those readings I find Saint Paul's attitude all the more refreshing. He has found his place in God's service with his dedication to the well being of others. He is not cowed by God's sovereign majesty; nor does he make much of his own divine authority in the Church. 
Rather, although he is writing from prison and tempted to hope he might die in the wretched place and be delivered instantly into Paradise, he prefers release from prison that he might return to Philippi. 
In either case he is open to God's will. His fate doesn't matter that much to him; but, given his druthers he’druther be on the Gospel Road again. 
The great Italian poet Dante put it succinctly, "In his will is our peace." 
This gospel may sound sour to American ears. The Catholic Church has a history of championing workers’ rights to a living wage; and our sympathy may lie with those who labored the whole day in the hot sun and were paid no more than those who arrived in the cool of the evening.
We also have a tradition of challenging authority. In fact, we're supposed to be able to change our leadership with national, state and local elections. "Throw the bums out!" we say; although the bums are demonstrating a remarkable ability to stay in place.
The landowner in Saint Matthew's story won't even respond to the workers' complaints. He replies to only one man. He owes the workers nothing but what he has paid them. "Take what is yours and go!" he says with considerable contempt. The point of this parable is not God's contempt for his people. It is rather his generosity and freedom.
Precisely because the story is hard to swallow, it smacks us with God's sovereign freedom and superabundant generosity. We're not used to seeing such behavior; wealthy people are usually parsimonious; even their generosity is self-serving. The landowner in this story sneers at the whole lot of them. We need other stories to show us God's more genial side, and there are many in the scriptures.
Isaiah reminds us of God's sovereign freedom and strange ways when he says,
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
As high as the heavens are above the earth,
so high are my ways above your ways
and my thoughts above your thoughts.
This should remind us of Jesus’ rebuking Saint Peter, which we heard recently, “Get behind me, Satan! You are thinking not as God thinks but as men!”
I find it helpful to look at the universe around me when I think of God’s generosity. The  stars in the sky; the fruit on a tree; the sand on the seashore, the bugs in a swarm; the power of the wind: they speak of overwhelming abundance. If they are not infinite they are far beyond my counting. They are quite literally as high as the heavens are above the earth; and that measure seems to increase exponentially every time a scientist studies the data – which is also expanding exponentially!
So who am I to complain if I don’t get as much as I want? Do I have standing in God’s courtroom, especially when I cannot finish an inventory of the gifts I’ve been given? Saint Paul from his prison cell just wants to do more for the Lord. He knows intimately the Lord’s mercy for he has received the good as well as the bad. He never suffered a stress or misery which was not compensated, and he knew plenty of both.
Isaiah was told, “They will look but not see; listen but not hear.” This parable challenges us to open our eyes and see again God's generosity.

Memorial of "Padre Pio," Saint Pius of Pietrelcina, Priest

Lectionary: 448

I charge you before God, who gives life to all things, and before Christ Jesus, who gave testimony under Pontius Pilate for the noble confession, to keep the commandment without stain or reproach until the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ that the blessed and only ruler will make manifest at the proper time, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, and whom no human being has seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal power. Amen.

Closing his letter to Timothy, Saint Paul reminds him (and us) of where we stand in time; that is, between that moment when Jesus made his noble confession of faith before Pontius Pilate, and the "appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ." 
To be human we need a sense of where we are both geographically and chronologically. Rising from an unusually deep nap in mid-afternoon the first thing we ask is, "What time is it?" Most often, under normal circumstances, we know what time it is when we get up in the morning, take our lunch or retire at night. For as long as historians can remember people have kept track of the time. There are records of Romans complaining of living too much by the sundial! Rarely are we caught off guard and discover that time has slipped away.
Likewise, as Christians we want to know the time. Indeed some Christians have studied the scriptures like ancient magicians studying the entrails of chickens to determine when the Lord might make his long awaited appearance. They do this despite the specific teaching of Jesus:
“But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."
In today's teaching this chapter in time began with Jesus standing before Pilate and making his noble confession. Paul would remind us that we too must make our "noble confession" by keeping the commandments without stain or reproach. 
We stand under judgement all of the time; it is both God's judgement and our neighbors'. They're watching to see if we act like the Christians we pretend to be. Sometimes their notions are unrealistic or self-serving. Panhandlers may think we owe them charity if they see us coming from the church. 
But very often they are right! The human being has a sense of right and wrong and they know when we're doing wrong, even if they sympathize with our misbehavior. They might even show some compassion for our hypocrisy because they recognize it in themselves. 
But they want, need and deserve inspiration. Our non-Christian, non-practicing neighbors need to see married couples holding hands in public; parents and children enjoying one another; and volunteers committing themselves to works of mercy. They need to see spirited church ceremonies if they happen to look in on us on a Sunday morning. They need to see something attractive in our behavior. 
Our life of faith can fascinate our neighbors because we are fascinated by, and live always in the light of 
the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, and whom no human being has seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal power. Amen.

Friday of the Twenty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 447

Teach and urge these things.
Whoever teaches something different
and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ
and the religious teaching is conceited, understanding nothing,
and has a morbid disposition for arguments and verbal disputes.

In his First Letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul doesn't allow much room for honest disagreement. He considers his opponents "conceited, understanding nothing." In fact, he says, they have a "morbid disposition for arguments and verbal disputes."
I am, by the grace of God, not a theologian but from my position out here in the hinterland of theological disputation, I have sometimes heard, like distant thunder, an argument for the "right to disagree." "Honest people," it is said, "may have differing points of view."
I can understand that. Two people standing side by side and witnessing the same auto accident can offer quite different narratives of what happened. One may be a carpenter, the other a mother of toddlers. They have different skills for seeing what appears before their eyes. But if a traffic cop happens to see the incident, that interpretation will probably weigh the most in court.
Opinions, including theological and philosophical distinctions, do make a difference. Saint Paul brought his Pharisaic training to his ministry. Grounded in Jewish history and thought, familiar with the best writing of his time, working closely with forming Christian communities, and inspired by the Holy Spirit, he did not hesitate to use his authority to encourage and discourage.
He could see when people were being difficult for the sake of being difficult. These individuals permit their egos to get in the way of their own best interests and those of the community. It's not hard to detect ego; it smells and pollutes conversation. It is a tree that bears bad fruit. Pressed by conflict and defensive, it may appeal to a fictional "right to disagree."
The United States Constitution has been described as "godless." The authors and signers intentionally avoided the word God. And they granted enormous room for religious disagreement among citizens so long as they observe the law of the land. Given the broad agreement among Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, that law is a good thing; they did not foresee a religious challenge to the law. Even Christian pacifists could find a place to serve within a warlike society.
The Catholic Church has supported that document precisely because it permits Catholics to practice our faith without harassment from authorities, and because it permits us to compare and contrast various theological opinions. We can still condemn outright religious opinions that are contrary to our religious tradition.
Some Christian churches support the legal right of abortion; we don't buy it. Not only do we suspect the idea, we suspect the individualist impulses that demand it. They are hostile to our sacred institutions of marriage and family. We cannot support any fictional "right" to abortion. It flies in the face of God's mercy, with which we are intimately familiar.
Many Christian churches readily recognize divorce. It seems to them a compassionate response to the violence women endure within their own homes. Again, we smell a rat. If the vows of marriage mean nothing then Truth itself is threatened. A child of divorced parents must suspect everything they tell him. For that matter, divorce has not protected women from being sorely abused by their "lovers." They suffer more violence today than before divorce was introduced as a solution.
We wonder if the 19th century legislators who introduced divorce to the American way of life were not "conceited, understanding nothing." Perhaps, their motives were not compassion but being rid of troublesome wives.
The tent of "compassion" has become rather tattered as it shelters divorce, abortion and gay marriage. Ministering as I do in health care, I wonder if it's not a short cut to drug abuse as doctors use pharmacology to deal with troublesome patients.
Bad ideas are bad ideas, they corrupt even the mind of a good person. Saint Paul urged his disciples to avoid those who are conceited, understanding nothing, and have a morbid disposition for arguments and verbal disputes.
He urged them to trust his wisdom, experience and authority, even as they asked the Holy Spirit to enlighten their understanding. That Spirit which is confident, courageous, humble, generous and hospitable opens ways to communion that are closed to the opinionated.

Feast of Saint Matthew, Apostle and evangelist

Lectionary: 643

I, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace: one Body and one Spirit....

If the world around me, and everyone in it, were ideal my only problem would be me. My inner moods and dispositions would not conform to the wonderful place in which I live. I would simply be challenged to live in a manner worthy of the call which I have received, an invitation to conform to everyone else's behavior.
Sometimes I am convinced the only problem is me. If enough people are mad at me I am sure of it. And then I remember that others have problems too; and the world we live in is a mess. I am only another of God's problems.
Today we celebrate the Evangelist Matthew. Jesus sent him along with all the disciples into a mad, chaotic world of distressed persons and dysfunctional families with a bond of peace, the Holy Spirit.
This bond is strong and subtle. It can hold large congregations of quarrelsome people together and reassure isolated prisoners like Saint Paul that, "All shall be well; and all shall be well; and all manner of things shall be well."
The Apostle surely knew whereof he wrote when he urged the Ephesians to live "with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love." He felt that peaceful spirit even as he wondered if he would ever get out of prison, if he would eat another meal, be permitted to finish his letter, or be beaten by his guards.
There in that miserable place he knew the presence of Jesus who had also been imprisoned, beaten and finally executed. This cosmopolitan man, raised in comfort, educated in the best schools, conversant with the best people, familiar with capital cities and the highways that connected them was reassured by the Spirit that he was right where God wanted him.
He could not be bothered with theodicy, the modern question about the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God who seems to have lost control of the world. He could say what our African-American Christian neighbors living in a hostile nation, tell us over and over, "God is still in charge."
Even the hostility is a sign of God's sovereign authority.
Yes, the problem is me; but it's also all around me. And the Spirit of God still binds us together with all humility and gentleness.

Memorial of Saints Andrew Kim Tae-gŏn, Priest, and Paul Chŏng Ha-sang, and Companions, Martyrs

Lectionary: 445

Undeniably great is the mystery of devotion:
Who was manifested in the flesh,

vindicated in the spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed to the Gentiles,
believed in throughout the world,
taken up in glory.

This passage from Paul's first letter to Timothy is a poem or song celebrating the "mystery of devotion" who is Jesus. However, this mystery requires many names and deep reflection. If you think you know the Lord, you don't. If you acknowledge that you are known by the Lord and wish to remain in his company, you reflect some of the humble wisdom required of a disciple.
This mystery comes to us as a "manifested" word, "in the flesh." The word, of course, is an analogy which suggests the mystery; human beings speak words to one another; what God does is unspeakable in human terms but it's something like a word -- which we have heard and welcomed. But the word was a man who came to us in the flesh, a messenger from God, bringing peace, mercy, atonement, justice, communion and so forth.
However, the Word was crucified like any common criminal. He did not display any great authority or power while he lived among us; he did not persuade Roman emperors, their sycophant kings or their punishing armies to worship him. In fact he and his claim needed vindication. It was given by the Spirit.
You and I received that Spirit, but not everyone has. I often think of Saint Luke's "icon" which reveals the young virgin Mary and her matronly cousin Elizabeth greeting one another. These two know something in the Spirit that worldly powers cannot imagine. They are dancing for joy well beneath the radar that scans the earth for resistance or rebellion. Why would the emperor care if a couple of silly women are pregnant?
But we know and we dance for joy.
The mystery is seen by the angels, which are also invisible to earthly powers, and proclaimed to the Gentiles. The apostolic church never forgot its keen disappointment that the entire Jewish world did not receive the Word.
But he was "believed in throughout the world" by those whom God foreknew, even as he was taken up in glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.

Tuesday of the Twenty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time

My eyes are upon the faithful of the land,
that they may dwell with me.
He who walks in the way of integrity
shall be in my service.

Today's responsorial psalm picks up on the theme of leadership from 1 Timothy. Psalm 101 is one of the royal psalms, probably written for the grand ceremonies when a king was crowned or welcomed for a state visit.
In the selection above the king speaks, announcing his benevolent gaze upon the "faithful of the land" and his policy of employing in his service the "upright." The king of Judah, a descendant of David, the protector and sponsor of God's temple, sets the tone for just government.
It didn't always happen that way but the Jewish religion allowed critics of the government -- God's prophets -- ample freedom.
Of course, this being a divinely-inspired religion of human beings, the king found ways to influence the prophets, by special favors or outright threats. There were prophetic guilds in Judea just as there are religious communities in Catholicism; they could be devout or impious, zealous or lazy, intelligent or stupid, perspicacious or dull. Inevitably the question arose, "How do you know if a prophet is from God?" That too was the king's problem, which he and his capital city had to address.
Jewish kingship disappeared with the Babylonian exile and was never restored. Prophets remained and guided the people through the turbulent centuries that followed, but they too fell silent long before Jesus was born. The Jewish religion persisted with a restored priesthood in Jerusalem until 70 CE, and rabbis provide guidance to this day.
The new Christian religion adopted a different system of leadership as the apostolic missionaries disappeared. Bishops, deacons and presbyters led churches scattered throughout the Roman world, from Britain and Spain to India. The system was built around the Mass with the bishop presiding, the deacons providing physical and clerical assistance, and the presbyters acting as elders. In many cases the deacon had more authority than the presbyters but the bishop, representing both Jesus as high priest of the altar and the enthroned God the Father from his presider's chair, ruled the assembly.
During apostolic times the bishop might have been appointed and ordained by an apostle. After that halcyon era he would be elected by the presbyters and formally ordained by an assembly of neighboring bishops who laid hands on his head, thus ensuring the unity of the Church.
Given the external hostility of Roman authorities and the Jews, and the internal challenge of managing money and personnel, the bishop's job was never easy. Not then; not today. Many, like today's martyr Saint Januarius, were executed as reward for their zeal.
Anyone who wants the job probably wants it for all the wrong reasons. If he gets the job he will suffer even more for the inevitably disappointment; no amount of privilege can balance the misery.
Which is why we must pray for the leaders of our church, from the pope, through the cardinals, bishops, priests, deacons, catechists, ushers, greeters, readers, Eucharistic ministers down to the altar servers, not to mention virtually everyone else in these trying times. Amen.

Monday of the Twenty-fourth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 443

First of all, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity. This is good and pleasing to God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.

In recent years many critics have raised concern about the Church's support of the state. When Saint Paul urged Saint Timothy and his disciples to offer prayers for kings and all in authority, few authorities were even aware of their Christian subjects; they were so few.
By the time of Saint Augustine, the Church had become the official religion of the Roman Empire. Seeing the Empire disintegrating before his eyes, he wrote his City of God, a book-length essay that foresaw the rise of the Church to political eminence during the middle ages. There was no single state for many centuries but virtually all rulers in Europe claimed allegiance to the Catholic Church, even as they waged continual warfare with one another and the City of God, Rome.
Many Catholics, citing Augustine's work, believe the Church's greatest century was the 13th, when the pope and bishops had enormous political, financial, military, economic and social power. This, despite Pope Innocent II's recognition of an inner corruption and his promotion of the mendicant orders to reform the Church. More than ever before, Europe needed to hear of Jesus' poverty and helplessness.
By the dawn of the 20th century secular governments had regained authority and the Vatican empire was reduced to 110 acres; the Pope's influence, mostly moral. But it took a Second Vatican Council to recognize the rightness of that arrangement.
Throughout these many centuries we have found justification for our attitudes toward secular authority in today's passage from Saint Paul's letter to Timothy and a similar passage in his Letter to the Romans
The Church has an obvious preference for economic and political stability. We pray for our rulers because we want civil authorities, of whatever religious persuasion, to govern wisely and justly, and so to maintain peace. 
We have a long memory of injustice, both those we have suffered and those we have imposed upon others. The Magisterium might deny our support of racism, bigotry and persecution, maintaining as it does the purity of God's action within the Church, but we know that sinful societies, acting in fear and greed, fighting for stability and defending their prosperity, can do terrible things. Catholics recall the hostility we met arriving in the United States and we remember the Saint Bartholomew's Day massacre, which spawned such suspicion. We remember too, Catholic Spain's expulsion of Jews and Muslims in 1492. We're not innocent. 
Since Saint Paul wrote his letters to the Romans and to Saint Timothy, we have devised ways to select our governors and change our laws. The Apostle would have supposed God himself willed the Empire, it was so deeply entrenched and settled. We know we have the duty to support, criticise and challenge our governments. They are only secular institutions set up to serve a purpose.
Christian patriots are profoundly aware of their own sins and those of governments. They demand justice especially when it might cost them some measure of comfort or security. Habitually they make sacrifice and they don't mind asking the same of their authorities. 
The Lord himself sent us from Jerusalem to our native or adopted lands to be a blessing. We remain as staunch supporters of good government and fearless critics of corruption; and thus we contribute to God's work of building the Kingdom. 

Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 130

Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight. The vengeful will suffer the LORD's vengeance, for he remembers their sins in detail. Forgive your neighbor's injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.

Jesus tells us today a shocking-but-not-surprising story. We've all met people like this. Jesus ben Sirach says, they hug tightly wrath and anger.
Ignoring everything else, wrath, anger and the desire for revenge are their most prized possessions.
But they are also possessed by their diabolical possessions and cannot act reasonably.
People sometimes ask me about diabolical possession. Perhaps they've seen again the movie The Exorcist, or the History Channel has broadcast another of its pseudo-religious theories. After watching that outlandish entertainment they don't want to hear that most of us are possessed from time to time by passions of anger, fear, greed or lust. It's a very common experience and yet profoundly disturbing.
The servant in today's story has apparently been beyond the pale of reasonable behavior for a long time. He seems to believe he can actually pay back in full his overwhelming debt. Supposing he was competent to begin with, we might ask how did he get into this predicament. I met a very competent postmaster one time who lost his job when he gambled with government money. For a mere $700 his career and marriage were destroyed.
Perhaps the mean-spirited servant was always in over his head, but was clever enough to distract others from the obvious. I knew another fellow some years ago who was cruising the gay bars of the local city. No one suspected it despite certain obvious signs of his proclivity because he was habitually aggressive. Thrown on the defensive by his manner, we didn't ask what was he hiding. (The best defense is a good offense.) Finally the crisis erupted and the scales fell from our eyes.
Sinful behavior is insane behavior; it is the behavior of the diabolically possessed. They have given their lives over to a lesser god. They are owned by a master who is unworthy of love or trust.
But we all do it once in a while.
The real failure is not so much this fellow's incompetence, indebtedness or habitual denial; it is his lack of mercy. Shown extraordinary mercy, he shows no mercy.
Perhaps, despite his new freedom -- being forgiven and all -- he is still possessed by the humiliation of being found out. Spared of punishment, he must punish another man who owes him a pittance.
The Gospel of Saint Matthew makes much of mercy. In the Lord's Prayer we ask God to "forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us."
Jesus only comment on his Prayer follows directly,
"If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.
If we didn't get the message from Matthew 6 (the Sermon on the Mount) this story in Chapter 18 drives it home. Any Christian who expects mercy had better show it to others. Any Christian who thinks he has not already found overwhelming mercy had best look again.

Memorial of Saints Cornelius, Pope, and Cyprian, Bishop, Martyrs

Lectionary: 442

This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost.

In the twentieth century, philosophers and theologians began to pay more attention to the identity and experience of the individual person. A philosophy of existentialism was born. I have been laboriously reading Martin Heidegger's 415-page Being and Time for the past month and am now fifty pages into it. Perhaps on the third reading I'll begin to understand his teaching.
     Nevertheless, these philosophers and theologians are onto something. Like Saint Paul, they know that we cannot ignore personal experience. That may seem obvious, and it is; philosophers generally point out the obvious because we're obviously overlooking it! 
     If our thinking begins in personal experience, our communications are framed in traditional language and we assume others know what we're talking about, although they can only hear and understand from their own personal experience. 
     Saint Augustine pondered that mystery. How does a thought in my mind, he wondered, move through my words, mouth and breath to other ears and into their understanding? Does the word I use to mean this, mean this to them? Very often, if not more often than not, what I say is misunderstood. It is always a struggle, as the Captain said of Cool Hand Luke, "What we've got here is a failure to communicate."  
     So when Saint Paul wants to reassure his disciples of salvation, he begins with, "This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance!
     With the understanding this next statement is underlined and in bold, he declares. "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.How do we know that? "Of these (sinners) I am the foremost!" 
     If you believe his personal experience; if you accept his credibility, you will accept his doctrine about Jesus Christ. 
     It seems -- and I am no philosopher but it seems to me -- that the Church has sometimes tried to divorce personal testimony from the Truth. In other words, the doctrine is floating out there in the ethereal world of Reality, regardless of anyone's acceptance or belief. "You should believe it not because I said it but because it's true!" We might even add to our moral/ethical teaching, "Do as I say, not as I do." 
     Saint Paul knew better. He asked people first to believe in him; and secondly, to believe in his word. He was amazed and grateful when they "took it not as the word of men but as the Word of God."
     If they can't believe in us, they probably cannot believe in our word, even if it is the Word of God, the Truth
...for that reason I was mercifully treated, so that in me, as the foremost, Christ Jesus might display all his patience as an example for those who would come to believe in him for everlasting life.
Saint Paul moved from place to place throughout his career, but not so quickly that people didn't come to know him. He was not the itinerant preacher who gives a weekend mission in a parish, wowing the congregation with erudite oratory, and then moving on before they discover his dark side. He stayed for months and years at a time; they knew his irritability and impatience as well as his humility and zeal. He was apparently grounded in Galatia by a disgusting eye disease; and they tenderly cared for him. They believed in his gospel despite his frail human condition, and he never forgot their kindness.
     Today the Church celebrates the martyrs, Saints Cornelius and Cyprian and, once again, we are astonished by the testimony of our martyrs. Whatever their personal failings -- and we all have them -- they stood by their faith in Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit invites and challenges each of us to accept this as my personal credo, not as the word of men but as the word of God: 
"Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners."