Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Mass: As seen from heaven

On October 7, 2012 St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was declared a Doctor of the Church. She was the founding abbess of the Benedictine community in Bingen, Germany. As an abbess, she had a series of visions. In her sixth vision, called “Christ’s Sacrifice and the Church,” she was permitted to gaze at the Mass from the vantage point of heaven.

The value of this vision is that it gives us a peak behind the veil, as it were, into the Holy of Holies. Earthly in its outer garment and appearance, the Mass is eternal in essence. The mindfulness of its profound mysteries goes back to the first century. For instance, the Liturgy of St. James- which dates back to 60 A.D. –inspired awe and wonder among the early Christians as it pertained to the Sacred Mysteries. In fact, it has the priest earnestly praying before the altar, “God Almighty, Lord great in glory, who hast given to us an entrance into the Holy of Holies…we supplicate and invoke Your goodness, since we are fearful and trembling when about to stand at Your holy altar…”

This may strike the modern Catholic as odd because sometimes we have allowed our participation in the Mass to be mundane and routine. Still, the Mass, just as Scripture itself, is the work of God; the depths of which we can never plumb. However, with St. Hildegard of Bingen’s vision of the Mass, Catholics can begin to better appreciate what Christ brings to the soul at every celebration:

The Sixth Vision:

“And after these things I saw the Son of God hanging on the cross, and the aforementioned image of a woman coming forth like a bright radiance from the ancient counsel. By divine power she was led to Him, and raised herself upward so that she was sprinkled by the blood from His side; and thus, by the will of the Heavenly Father, she was joined with Him in happy betrothal and nobly dowered with His body and blood.

And I heard a voice from Heaven saying to Him: ‘May she, O Son, be your Bride for the restoration of My people; may she be a mother to them, regenerating souls through the salvation of the Spirit and water.’

And as that image grew in strength, I saw an altar, which she frequently approached, and there each time looked devotedly at her dowry and modestly showed it to the Heavenly Father and His angels. Hence, when a priest clad in sacred vestments approached that altar to celebrate the divine mysteries, I saw that a great calm light was brought to it from Heaven by angels and shone around the altar until the sacred was ended and the priest had withdrawn from it. And when the Gospel of peace had been recited and the offering to be consecrated had been placed upon the altar, and the priest sang the praise of Almighty God, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Hosts,’ which began the mystery of the sacred rites, Heaven was suddenly opened and a fiery and inestimable brilliance descended over that offering and irradiated it completely with light, as the sun illumines anything its rays shine through. And thus, illuminating it, the brilliance bore it on high into the secret places of Heaven and then replaced it on the altar, as a person draws in a breadth and lets it out again; and thus the offering was made true flesh and true blood, although in human sight it looked like bread and wine.

And while I looked at these things, suddenly there appeared before my eyes as if in a mirror the symbols of the Nativity, Passion and burial, Resurrection and Ascension of our Savior, God’s Only-Begotten, as they happened to the Son of God while He was on earth. But when the priest sang the song of the innocent Lamb, ‘O Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world,’ and prepared to take the Holy Communion himself, the fiery brilliance withdrew into Heaven; and as it closed I heard a voice from thence saying, ‘Eat and drink the body and blood of My Son to wipe out Eve’s transgression, so that you may be restored to the noble inheritance.’”

The divine glory embodied and expressed in the Mass gives us the answer why the Catholic Church, the Bride of Christ, is immortal. After all, the Eucharistic Host is the whole person of Christ as he existed throughout time and eternity. Through the offering of Him to God by the Church, souls were saved, demons routed, and a culture of life was built-up. And there is always a reason to hope because the Mass still is what it has always been. What it has done, by the power and majesty of God, it can do again!!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Path for the Clean and the Unclean

The first reading for the Mass on Monday, May 27, 2013 contains insights and answers to our shrinking churches and to the gradual decline of organized religion. A passage, from the book of Sirach, traces out the way back to God. Because it is the key to saving souls, it is likewise the answer for our hemorrhaging parishes. But what the bible mandates as the way back to God, many of today’s Catholic communities have made optional. And here I speak of repentance: the giving up and turning away from sin, especially mortal sin.

“To the penitent God provides a way back, he encourages those who are losing hope and has chosen for them the lot of truth. Return to him and give up sin, pray to the LORD and make your offenses few. Turn again to the Most High and away from your sin, hate intensely what he loathes, and know the justice and judgments of God, stand firm in the way set before you, in prayer to the Most High God...How great the mercy of the LORD, his forgiveness of those who return to him!” (Sirach 17:20-23, 24)

Not only Scripture, but nature gives us clues about the value of repentance. And quite often, our Lord draws upon the lessons agriculture affords us. For instance, every gardener and farmer knows that in order to reap a good harvest, weeds need to be uprooted. If weeds are allowed to remain when seeds are planted, the integrity of the crop is then compromised.

Moving from the natural to the spiritual, for the last fifty years we have been trying to make converts and form souls without insisting- like the Church has done for centuries –on repentance from sin. Keep in mind, conversion is a two-fold movement toward Christ and away from sin. Grace cannot take hold and do its work in the soul without a hatred and renunciation of sin. But many parishes have only focused on the need to embrace Christ without the corresponding duty to give up sexual sins such as cohabitation, contraception and adultery; just to name a few. As such, the seed of grace falls on rocky ground and souls easily fall away from grace.

Just as agricultural methods provide insights into the effective pastoral practices, Old Testament symbols prefigure New Testament realities. Circumcision, for instance, was a ritual applied to the male infant of eight days as a rite of initiation into the Old Covenant. But Christ inaugurated the Sacrament of Baptism to replace circumcision.

Another ritual in the Old Testament that traced out in symbolic fashion what was to be done in the New Testament, after the coming of Christ, is to separate the “unclean” from the “clean.” Any physical abnormality, blemish, deformity, blood, discharge of any kind and even contact with a human corpse was declared ritually “unclean.” But upon this declaration, a member of the religious community had to abstain from worship and fellowship for a certain period of time. While quarantined, the unclean member was to perform purification rites until the priest declared him or her “clean” again. For instance, in the book of Numbers and Leviticus it reads:

“The LORD said to Moses: ‘Order the Israelites to expel from camp every leper, and everyone suffering from a discharge, and everyone who has become unclean by contact with a corpse. Male and female alike, you shall compel them to go out of the camp; they are not to defile the camp in which I dwell.’" (Numbers 5:1-3) And a mother who had just given birth “shall not touch anything sacred nor enter the sanctuary till the days of her purification are fulfilled.” (Leviticus 12:4)

Now, this practice of religious exclusion possessed only symbolic value. In other words, that which was considered “unclean” was not actual sin. A physical deformity was not the cause of sin but neither did it have any spiritual effect upon the soul. And as for the purifications rites, it left the soul untouched. All of the Old Testament rituals did was forecast what was to come. But once Christ died for our sins and merited, for us, forgiveness from God, the rites became obsolete. This is exactly why the Letter to the Hebrews states the following:

“Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer offering for sin…[S]ince we have ‘a great priest over the house of God,’ let us approach with a sincere heart and in absolute trust, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water.” (Hebrews 10:18-22)

So what’s with all of the fuss in the Old Testament? Why have the Jewish people undergo rituals that had no effect upon the soul? Keep in mind that before Christ, the people of God and even the world to an extent, were on probation. Without the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, even the most loyal believers were mere servants of the Most High. They were not considered members of the household. But one very important service these Old Testament rituals performed was that they were a rehearsal for the good things to come.

In early Christianity and in the centuries to follow, the Catholic Church made repentance a prerequisite for receiving the Sacraments. The book of Sirach said, “Turn again to the Most High and away from your sin, hate intensely what he loathes…” The Church sustained this practice and perfected under the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Giving up sin and turning away from it was but first step in turning again towards the Lord. It is the condition upon which absolution by the priest is given. As Fulton Sheen would say, without a death to a lower level, we cannot arrive at a higher level of supernatural life. This was expected of every Catholic who wanted to following in the footsteps of Christ.

To be forgiven by God, contrition is necessary. But contrition is not just a movement of the heart, that is, a feeling of sorrow for one’s sins. No. Contrition must be followed with repentance in order for conversion to be genuine before the Lord. By mandating repentance, a clear distinction is made between holiness and sin. However, if repentance becomes optional- as it has in many parishes today –even the most serious of sins is perceived as being compatible with holiness. In other words, that which pleases God and that which offends God have existed side by side in the Church without the two being clearly separated. As such, what it means to be a good Catholic has never been less clear.

For centuries, the Church managed to separate- for all to see –the life of Christ from the life of sin. And when serious sin was committed by a Catholic, sin was left outside of the Church through repentance; sometimes public repentance. To forfeit serious sin was expected if one wanted to be a Catholic in good standing. And when obstinate sinners refused to repent, he or she was declared “unclean” and was “expelled from the camp.” This was so that the contagion sin would not be communicated to the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church. St. Augustine, in his Rule, puts it simply: “Should he refuse to perform his penance, and has not departed of his own accord, he must be cast out of your society. Nor is such treatment cruel, but merciful, for many must not be suffered to perish by the pestilent example of one.”

One may charge that expelling anyone from the Church- even if he refuses to repent- is unchristian and unloving. Quite the contrary! Our Lord, in no uncertain terms, laid down this pastoral mandate long before St. Augustine promulgated it in his Rule. Referring to obstinate sinners, he said, “If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.” (Mathew 18:17) That is, treat him as an "unclean." or as an outsider. This, no doubt, is reminiscent of what God told Moses in the book of Leviticus and the book of Numbers. But in this context, we are dealing with real moral and spiritual realities; not just ritualistic symbolism. “Unclean” members of the Church who refuse to be made “clean,” are to be made outsiders. If the Christians in Corinth suspected otherwise, St. Paul removed any doubts when he said: “I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people…But I now write to you not to associate with anyone named a brother, if he is immoral.” Then he adds: “Purge the evil person from your midst.” (I Corinthians 5: 9, 11, 13)

God has traced out a path that leads to him. He did this in the Old Testament for the express purpose that this same path would be traveled with the aid of the Spirit during the Christian era. For the longest time, that path was well trodden by the Catholic pastors. After all, our Lord Jesus, the Pastor of pastors, told his Church to take this path when confronted with serious sins and obstinate sinners. But recently, this path has been abandoned. The result is that Catholics have a hard time telling the difference between what is “unclean” and “clean.” Her local parishes shines less brightly because of it.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Gadgets and the value of boredom

Computers, smartphones and i-pods are great inventions, no doubt. In many respects, these gadgets allow us to multi-task; that is, to get a lot of things done that was nearly impossible a decade or two ago. But just as every strength has a corresponding weakness, it can be said that these modern inventions will relax creativity and deep thought among our younger generations.

I have kids and I see firsthand how they are becoming more dependent on these gadgets not only for basic necessities such as making phone calls on their phone or doing homework on their computer, but for recreational and entertainment purposes. For this reason, as a parent, I have chosen to regulate their use of them as I would regulate their consumption of candy.

As stated, technology brings many blessings to the table. However, I find that children are becoming more isolated from their families and even less creative in their ability to play. About fifty years ago, if you were to give a child a stick and a rock he would, without batting an eye, invent his own games. The field and the pond would easily be transformed into a playground.

But today if you tell a child to go outside and play he may give you a strange look. Or worse yet, he wouldn't know what to do. The reason for this is due to the fact that the fun is already pre-programed on the very gadgets he relies so heavily on. This is part of the reason why these things can be so addictive. An x-box, computer or an i-pod require very little work, imagination and initiative on the part of the child. Take these gadgets away and you are likely to witness a child protest that they are bored.

A question we might want to ask ourselves is: Do children experience any downtime anymore? Are they encouraged to just think? Even on family vacations in which a child used to stare out the window and dream about the future, today it is common for kids in the backseat to watch their own respective movies. One child is watching his movie on one DVD screen; another child is texting a friend miles away; and yet, another child is watching another movie on a different DVD screen.

It would seem that modern technology is alluring us all into our own little worlds; especially children. Indeed, the luxury for every family to watch their own movie or to do their own thing is far from being advantageous. If this tendency is left unchecked, I am afraid we will all be separated little islands. Continents will ceases to exist.

With that said, boredom is not such a bad thing anymore. I mean boredom is good for the soul because so few people can enjoy a moment of silence to think. It can spur creativity and great achievements. More importantly, in order for us to discover the purpose of our place in this world it is imperative that we are allowed to think without distractions.

If you're a parent, a good place to start is to deny yourself the compulsion to hop on the computer to check emails or to see who just texted you. I, to be sure, am a work in progress. But I am also finding that boredom (i.e. silence and being free of gadgets, television and radio) not only occasions thought and creativity, it also allows for self-examination and a more intimate communion with God. That's right. Knowledge of self and knowledge of God can only be had by thinking in silence. For this and many other reasons, boredom is not such a bad thing after all.

Three Principles of Meditation

Even at night I remember your name in observance of your law, LORD...How I love your law, Lord! I study it all day long.

-Psalm 119:55, 97

This post is an abridged version of  "Your Progress in Mental Prayer." Below are just a few basic principles of mental prayer or meditation.

Three Important Principles:

Meditation is nothing other than thinking about Christ, an aspect of his life or some spiritual truth. When a diamond specialist examines a diamond, he looks at all of its facets and sides. Shimmering different colors from each angle, the diamond reveals something new about itself as it is manually rotated under the light. Mental prayer essentially does the same thing. It considers some aspect of Christ's life or spiritual truth by looking at it and studying it. It then submits the many aspects of our life as we know it- with all of its disappointments and promises –to the Light of Christ so that the good and the bad may be seen for what they really are.

Nevertheless, the starting point or even the primary reason to meditate is not focus on the self but rather to immerse oneself in the life of Christ. It is only after his words and actions are considered do I move on to the contents of my own life. As such, the Christian who meditates accordingly has, within his possession, an unshakable standard by which to measure his life by. Incidentally, this leads us to the three principles or signposts of mental prayer:

a) Considerations: A consideration is a mental act in which the subject matter is “considered,” thought about or meditated on. The subject matter can be any part of Christ’s life, a Scripture passage or a spiritual truth taken up by a Saint. Of course, the most common expression of these spiritual considerations is when the rosary is prayed or when one reads Scripture. Again, like a diamond specialist, the one who meditates on the life of Christ should use the imagination by placing oneself in the scene or by asking questions or by drawing parallels to previously read Scripture passages. Don't just think about it and move on. Study the mystery or spiritual truth at hand. Probe it! Delve into it! Ask God questions! Whatever you do, do not be passive.

As it pertains to spiritual reading, the content should be relatively short. One reads not only to learn but to assimilate and retain the truths at hand.

b) Admiration: Meditation or spiritual reading has love for its purpose; not just knowledge. This is why it is important that the content of our meditation should lead us to admire Christ in a new and an inspiring way. This point cannot be overstated. Too many theologians or intellectual types within the Church become satisfied with mere knowledge. The more they know, the better off they are…so they think. No. As the spiritual classic. Imitation of Christ, reminds us: "It is better to love the Holy Trinity than to know how to define it." Although meditation is a vehicle of learning- aided by the Spirit’s gifts of knowledge, understanding and wisdom –still, the greatest of all virtues is love.

c) Resolution: The inspiration to love God and neighbor must have some concrete application or else it will not take hold in our lives. Resolutions must accompany my meditation or spiritual reading. The question we should ask ourselves is this: In practical terms, how can I act on these spiritual considerations today? Meditation without a resolution is like a soul without a body. It is nothing but a good thought or intention. Therefore, resolutions are the means through which spiritual truths become incarnate in our actions.

Personal Benefits of Meditation:

As stated previously, the goal of mental prayer is to think with the mind of Christ. Fr. Edward Leen wrote about this spiritual benefit by saying, "The final end of prayer, considered as a potent means for the development of God's life in the soul, is to emancipate us from natural habits or thought and affection and elevate us to a supernatural manner of thinking and willing, to change our natural outlook on life and things and to make it supernatural. The function of prayer aims at bridging over this infinite gulf; it aims at enabling us to enter into the mind of God and from that point of vantage to contemplate all created things and the mysteries of Faith."

With the mind of Christ, therefore, we can more easily detect our own sinfulness and the ulterior motives which often accompany our good deeds. Self-knowledge is intensified so that self-love can be brought to the fore. The words of Christ are then palpably felt: "Without me, you can do nothing." Far from feeling denigrated, the Christian, distrusting himself completely, is now in the position to put total trust in Christ. To be sure, a deep sense of peace and a feeling of liberation is but the happy result of acquiring this supernatural way of thinking. But first, the disease of self-love, as Fr. Leen puts it, needs to be weeded out of the garden. "Prayer," he continues, "properly carried out, will have as its effect the gradual revelation to the soul of this disease of self-love which so intimately penetrates the very fibers of its being as to pass unobserved by the person that does not lead an interior life."

One Benedictine said this about meditating on Scripture: "First comes the Word of God that addresses me, strikes me, challenges me, wounds me, and judges me, but also heals and frees me."
Seeing more imperfection within itself as the light of Christ increases, the soul seeks an antidote. And that antidote is meditation because it ushers in the spirit of sacrifice and the practice of self-denial which is but the substance of every virtue. It not only eradicates selfish motives but it increases our capacity to love. Again, to borrow from the wisdom of Fr. Edward Leen, an Irish priest whose writings flourished during the 1930's: "Prayer is a means to the acquisition and cultivation of the spirit of sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Now, when God finds this disposition in the soul, He hastens to communicate to it a participation more and more abundant of that Divine life of which the soul of Jesus is a limitless ocean."

All of the benefits of mental prayer lend themselves towards a greater awareness of God's presence in our daily lives. It enables us to live life to the full. And probably the most important fruit of mental prayer is that it prepares us, or should I say- "acclimates" us, to what we hope to enjoy as the beatific vision in heaven. As Fr. Leen said, "Anything 'unsaintly' is forever excluded from the presence of God, and it could no more exist there than could a dry twig in a blazing furnace." Hence, the life of glory in heaven is but the continuation of the life of grace on earth. Meditation is one very important instrument which secures this transition!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The God of Moore, OK

Immediately following the tornado in Moore, Oklahoma, an elderly woman was being interviewed by a reporter amidst the ruins. Recounting the frightful moments of the natural disaster, she humbly accepted the loss of her house but had wondered out loud where her dog had gone. Up to that moment, the dog had not been found yet. Moreover, her four legged companion seemed to be the only thing that could console her. At that moment, the reporter and the elderly woman heard a dog whimpering. They both turned around and then followed the sound to a crevice in the pile of rubble. It was her dog. Miraculously, he was okay.

However, in God’s providence, not every creature was spared death. In fact, the tornado claimed the lives of 24 people, 7 of them children. Plaza Towers Elementary School took a big hit. Two little girls who attended that school, Antonio and Emily, died holding each other. It was said that they were close friends. And in Antonio’s obituary, it read: "They were inseparable, even in their last moments, they held on to one another and followed each other into Heaven and they will never be alone." It is faith, more certain than empirical knowledge, which leads us to believe that the friendship of Antonio and Emily continues in the presence of God. That’s right. There are playgrounds in heaven.

As for the victims who remain in town of Moore, how does faith process the devastation? As the Plaza Towers Elementary School was being torn to pieces by the 200 plus mile per hour winds, a teacher called 911 for help. In the background of the audio you can hear children screaming while the teacher was trying to assure her students that they were going to be okay. Thankfully, the teacher made good on her promise. Still, according to a CNN report, 24 people died and 10,000 people were directly affected by the tornado. In addition, 2,400 homes were damaged or destroyed. Second to losing a loved one, losing a house- something so bound up with family memories and a sense of security –can cause quite a trauma to a family. Indeed, when your whole neighborhood has been leveled to the ground, the feeling of helplessness is acute. But God is not indifferent to such devastation.

The Lord, even prior to the Incarnation and the Passion of Christ, had entered into the human emotion of being utterly distressed and overwhelmed with loss. God chose, as an instrumentation of communicating his Word, these unwelcomed experiences of men. For instance, the prophet Habakkuk had witnessed the man-made destruction of his city, Jerusalem. He cried out: “Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery? Destruction and violence are before me…” (1:3) And in Psalm 18, we discover the sacred writer recollecting his terror: “The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of destruction terrified me.” (Psalm 18:5) His prophets, much like the survivors in Moore, had walked through the valley of death. They too were overcome with the devastation they saw.

The most famous of all cries to God- the cry of feeling abandoned by him -is taken from Psalm 22. In fact, Our Lord who, while dying on the Cross, quoted it in his own anguish when he said, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” But the same Psalm continues as if to register a complaint to the Lord: “Why so far from my call for help, from my cries of anguish? My God, I call by day, but you do not answer; by night, but I have no relief.” (Psalm 22: 2-3) In other words, “God, I know you to be good. Throughout my life you have been faithful. At every turn, you provided for my needs. But this pain and devastation has the appearance of being inconsistent with your goodness.” The question of “why?” is, ironically enough, based on faith in God’s providence.

Nevertheless, as if to see beyond the pain and the devastation, the same Psalm gives glory to God by exclaiming: “Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the glory of Israel. In you our fathers trusted; they trusted and you rescued them.” The same God who was trustworthy and good in the past, is equally trustworthy and good amid painful and perplexing circumstances. And although the aftermath of the tornado in the town of Moore left its victims utterly confounded and destitute, they too can trust that God is still good, loving and wise. As difficult as it sounds, the Lord in his infinite love and wisdom can easily redeem the loss and compensate for the pain. There is a reason, a reason that escapes us, but a reason nonetheless, why he allows such bad things to happen.

This is why the best answer to devastation and loss is the gift of faith. It alone points us beyond the sheer devastation our senses perceive. Faith is a theological virtue that assures that for every thorn that causes us to bleed on the outside, a beautiful rose will bloom and yield its scent from within. And it is these roses that will not only make life worth living, with all of its trials, but they serve as a foretaste of heaven. God allows pain but the consolation and strength he offers as a result is much greater. To be sure, it is the latter that carries us through the difficulties of life and onward towards heaven.

In the book, Trustful Surrender to Divine Providence, St. Claude de la Colombiere and Father Jean Baptiste Saint-Jure, gives us a glimpse as to what kind of light a person’s faith can shed in times of great difficulty:

“We ought to conform to God's will in all public calamities such as war, famine and pestilence, and reverence and adore His judgments with deep humility in the firm belief that, however severe they may seem, the God of infinite goodness would not send such disasters unless some great good were to result from them. Consider how many souls may be saved through tribulation which would otherwise be lost, how many persons through affliction are converted to God and die with sincere repentance for their sins. What may appear a scourge and punishment is often a sign of great grace and mercy…Let us therefore hasten to accept from His hand all that He sends us, and as a result of our trustful surrender He will either cause us to gain the greatest advantages from our misfortunes or else spare us them altogether….If we could discover the designs of Providence it is certain we would ardently long for the evils we are now so unwilling to suffer. We would rush forward to accept them with the utmost gratitude if we had a little faith and realized how much God loves us and has our interests at heart."

Through the gift of faith we can affirm, with the survivors, that God is still the God of Moore, OK; perhaps, even more so. After all, there are at least 10,000 people who need him now more than ever. And, as hard as it is to believe it, this same God will bring good out of this devastation. In the meantime, however, we just need to believe that the God of life is more powerful than the tornado that took away so many lives and so many homes. His providence is still to be trusted.

Friday, May 24, 2013

War, Veterans and Suicide

Reposting for Memorial Day: Originally entitled, "War Without Tears."

An update to this repost: According to a Department of Veteran Affairs 2012 study, just newly released, 22 veterans commit suicide every day.

War, Veterans and Suicide:

I had the privilege of providing care for senior citizens on a part-time basis. Two elderly men that I serve in particular are veterans of World War II. This is a privilege, in part, because World War II veterans are becoming scarcer. Many of them are getting up into their late eighties and early nineties.

I always found it curious that many veterans who witnessed military action in war- be it WWII, the Korean War, or the Vietnam War -did not like to talk about their experience in the years to follow. It just so happens that hospices give special training to chaplains and volunteers so that they can properly minister to dying veterans who have suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome. This special training is needed because there are two currents that run counter to each other in men who have to live with these disturbing memories:

The first is that there is a strong tendency not to talk about their war experiences; the very experiences that they have nightmares about; the very experiences that changed the way they related to family members. One gentleman that I provide services for stormed Normandy on D-Day in 1944 and made it as far as Hitler’s house in Austria. And the other gentlemen happened to arrive in Europe just when the "Battle of Bulge" had ended. Although he did not witness any action or killing, he was amongst those U.S. soldiers who did. Almost sixty years later he can still recall their faces. He said there were no smiles. No facial expressions of any kind. Indeed, these survivors of the great battle were virtual catatonic. Yet, statistics would suggest that many of them did not talk about it when they returned home.

Perhaps this is why the U.S. military has a high rate of suicide; at least higher than in other demographics or professions. One report stated that in the year 2010, 54 active-duty airmen in the Air Force committed suicide — 13 more than 2009 — the highest rate since 1993. That’s a lot! This leads us to the second current that runs strong in men who saw people die: The need to talk things out.

These two currents- moving in opposite directions –can cause considerable tension and confusion. You see, military personnel are trained to see beyond the hazards of war. Setting aside vulnerability and hence to rise above pain, suffering and the fear of danger are qualities that make for a successful military operation.

Yet, this manly stoicism and toughness (a noble trait and one that is ingrained in military training) naturally continues into everyday life. Nevertheless, the need to talk things out still remains. Indeed, verbally disclosing what is troubling us on the inside has great therapeutic value. But for men- especially veterans -showing any kind of vulnerability is a sign of weakness; one that betrays the duty to be strong. With this vulnerability, there exists the possibility of shedding tears or sobbing while recounting the horrible scenes they had witnessed.

And therein lies the rub.  It is why a veteran I used to work with shared with his wife the trauma he experienced in Vietnam a whopping fifteen years after they got married. She just could not understand why he waited so long to open up. What she did not take into account was that her husband was trained in the military- and to an extent, by the culture -to rise above his suffering in order to achieve an objective. What he wasn't trained to do is to talk things out, and in talking things out, make himself vulnerable to the emotions that it evokes.

These two contrary currents- the one to be strong and the other to seek help -are ever so pronounced in men. In order for the average boy to become a man, he has to break with his childhood vulnerabilities; more so than a female. For instance, children cry when they get hurt. They immediately seek help. And when women suffer, they, generally speaking, are not ashamed to cry and to seek help. On the other hand, it is often the case that a boy learns his masculine traits in his athletic activities. For instance, he is taught to “shake it off” when he gets hit in the shoulder with a ball. This, I should mention, is not a bad thing. This is how masculinity is fostered.

However, with every strength there is a corresponding weakness. And the weakness ever so discernible in males is the difficulty in reconciling these two contrary currents-- the one to be strong and the other to seek help. Unfortunately, the ability to be strong when called upon by his country, and the willingness to show vulnerability when in a personal crisis, can mean life or death, stability or instability for the veteran or military personnel.

There is a great need for men who are currently serving in the military, and those who have fought in a war, to not only talk things out but to interpret the traumatic circumstances surrounding death in the context of faith and eternity. And if such an individual happens to be Catholic, so much the better because the graces of the Sacraments and the Communion of the Saints are real forces for good in this respect. Through a good spiritual formation, Christ teaches men how to juggle opposites.  He teaches them how to be strong through weakness. As St. Paul said, "I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong." (II Corinthians 12:10)

Like a good soldier of the Faith, St. Paul knew that his strength was really Christ's strength. And the strength of Christ is most accessible when we have no illusions about our own strength. Such illusions are often dispelled during times of crisis, when we encounter our own weakness and limitations. It is then that divine strength is there for the taking.

This is what veterans and military personnel can learn from a soldier of Christ; that power is made perfect in weakness. Far from being a failure or less than a man, the men who served our country or who are currently serving our country in the military, need to know that human weakness is God's chosen instrument for new life. With new life comes a renewed strength.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Living the Moral Life: Beyond Narcissism

Narcissism and the Four Levels of Happiness:

Dr. Drew Pinsky, who is not known for being an advocate for traditional values, once said that for the first time in history the younger generations want to be famous more than they want to be rich. Historically, the most coveted vice was avarice; that is, the desire to become rich. But today’s commonly held desire to become famous is even more sinister. In fact, one can argue that fame breeds the worst vice of all, namely, narcissism. To become famous is to become a celebrity. And according to Dr. Drew, many celebrities struggle with narcissism.

Unfortunately, today’s entertainment- marketed to attract young people -puts a very high premium on becoming famous. It’s all about becoming a star, they say. Because of this, more and more young men and women only experience a superficial kind of happiness. According to Fr. Robert Spitzer, founder of the The Magis Center for Reason and Faith, there are four levels of happiness. The first two- laetus and felix –are the most commonly experienced levels of happiness. However, the third and fourth levels of happiness- beatitudo and sublime beatitudo –are becoming more rare.

The thing to note about narcissism and the first two levels of happiness is that they are ego-driven and sensual in nature. For this reason, they are fleeting and short-lived. But the tragedy of this shallow way of living life is that adverse circumstances can turn it upside down in a heartbeat. Perhaps, this is why the suicide rate has increased in recent years. The grave disorder of narcissism is that it is ill-adapted to the real world. Day to day circumstances, more often than not, will not cooperate with the narcissistic illusion that the world revolves around one individual. Soon or later, the brutal facts will confront that individual; rocking his or her world down to the core.

In any event, here are the four levels of happiness that Fr. Robert Spitzer identifies (in his own words):

1. Laetus: Happiness in a thing. Thus, "I see the linguini, I eat the linguini, it makes me feel good, I am happy." This kind of happiness is based on something external to the self, is short-lived and, on reflection, we do not consider that it is all there is to human happiness.

2. Felix: The happiness of comparative advantage. "I have more of this than X." "I am better at this than X." This kind of happiness results from competition with another person. The self is seen in terms of how we measure up to others. It has been called "the comparison game." Such happiness is rather unstable and, if one fails, can lead to unhappiness and sense of worthlessness. Exclusive pursuit tends to oppress others. Most people would not imagine a world as satisfactory if it was composed of only happiness #2 type people.

3. Beatitudo: (Beatitudo = happiness or blessedness). The happiness that comes from seeing the good in others and doing the good for others. It is, in essence, other-regarding action. Happiness #3 is, in some sense, at war with happiness #2. One cannot be at the same time in competition with someone else and doing the good for and seeing the good in them. Most people would prefer a world (community, family, relationships) structured around the pursuit of happiness #3 than entirely based in happiness #2. Happiness #3 is higher than happiness #2. The problem with #3 is that it is necessarily limited. We cannot be someone else's everything. For example, we or they, will die and if our happiness is contingent upon them, it dies with them. "There must be more than this."

4. Sublime Beatitudo: (sublime = "to lift up or elevate"). This category, the most difficult to describe, encompasses a reach for fullness and perfection of happiness. The fullness, therefore, of goodness, beauty, truth and love. So we recognize in this category, those things that are, in a sense, beyond what we are capable of doing purely on our own.

The fourth level of happiness, of course, has everything to do with God. It is, along with level three, the most fulfilling and durable form of happiness. And the reason for this is that a life based on the love of God and neighbor (as Christ teaches) is best adapted to the real world and to the needs of the soul who chooses this path.

Getting Beyond Level One and Two:

As stated in the previous article,  The Impact of Pentecost on Morality, if we are to get beyond a sensual-ego driven kind of existence, we need a new spirit and a new heart (cf. Ez. 36:25-27) With this, the baptized Christian can- if he chooses –aspire to live up to the high moral standards of Christ. But such an ascent requires a kind of death of the sensual and egoistic part of the self.

The question is: How do we get there? Sure, all of these truths are fine and good in the abstract but what are some practical ways to overcome the narcissist in each of us? Keep in mind that that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the soul needs the cooperation of the soul to do his work. To be sure, the Spirit of Christ not only inspires ideals, but he presses the soul onward toward practical resolutions. Fr. Robinson, author of Spiritual Combat Revisited, gives the rationale behind this: “This is not so much an effort to build up a series of virtues; no doubt spiritual exercises should have that effect; but even more so, progress in spirituality is intensely personal; it means growing in a more intimate union with Christ.”

Living a moral life that leads to a level three and level four happiness cannot be reduced to a program of "do’s and don’ts" apart from Christ. In fact, living the moral life flows from an intimate union with Christ. Try as they may, but when public institutions ignore this theological principle they will continue to fail in trying to create a just and moral society. No political or social program can substitute for a new spirit and a new heart given to us by God.

Although living the moral life cannot be reduced to following a set of moral precepts, the Saints give us plenty of tips on how to put it the moral life into effect; that is, once we received a new spirit and a new heart through baptism. Below are five tips:

1. The first cause of moral goodness: To pray to God throughout the day is to act on the First Cause of moral goodness. The Saints and the great monastics that made this world a better place because they knew the discipline of prayer. Do your best to pray- even if it is a short spontaneous prayer –in the morning before work, at noon (Angelus is good for this), at 3pm to commemorate our Lord’s death and in the evening. This will keep alive the presence of God throughout the day.

2. Acts of self-denial: The Eucharistic Sacrifice at the altar is the supreme act of love because it is the supreme act of self-denial. When we give up a little something here, and a little something there, we rehearse for the hour of our death. Indeed, at that hour we will have to say “good-bye” to all earthly goods. These penitential acts are a reminder that we are a people in exile; that this earth is not our abiding home.

It also trains the will to do acts of love for others. After all, is it not the case that the substance of love is sacrifice? Without sacrifice or without self-denial, love is impossible. Make little sacrifices throughout the day and say to Jesus: “I offer this up to you in gratitude for what you did for me on the Cross. May this sacrifice be a pleasing aroma to you and may it lead others to you.”

3. Better than you: People may mistake this tip as a form of self-loathing, but it is far from the case. As Fulton Sheen said, try to see the best in others and the worst in yourself. To foster this mindset it is important to daily examine ourselves; that is, to examine where we sinned and fell short throughout the day. Our Lord wants us to become small in our own estimation so that he can become big in our hearts and minds. Anyone who thinks too much of himself will hardly be a servant to others or even to God.

4. Bite your tongue: Do not lose your peace when others criticize you, especially when the criticism comes from those who are closest to you. St. Francis of Assisi said that to remain silent while you’re being criticized is worth more to God than ten days of fasting. There are plenty of people who are self-proclaimed sinners, but as soon as someone confirms it- that is, points out their faults –they become indignant and even irate. When loved ones remind us that we are imperfect, it is a service to our humility. And it occasions a step forward in holiness. Oh! I forgot to mention: It goes a long way in improving one's marriage.

5. Accept all things: Many fail to see long-term gains through short-term sacrifices; especially narcissistic people. Christianity renewed a dying pagan civilization precisely because it saw the value in suffering. The reason for this epiphany- which was wholly unique to Christianity –was that Christians worshipped crucified God. Furthermore, throughout his life, it was he who glorified poverty, chastity, martyrdom, the infirmed, the persecuted, and the outcasts of society. In other words, he taught us to see glory in lowliness and adversity.

To do the right thing, therefore, requires that we see beyond immediate pain and setbacks. In Scripture, it is illustrated over and over again that God uses setbacks, failure and even death to achieve his purpose. Our criterion for success is not the same of God’s. With this in mind, we can better accept all things as coming from his hand. Each day- with all of its favorable and unfavorable circumstances –contains the content of God’s will for us. We do not have to search for his will; it is given to us every day…in the circumstances of each moment. Many a good Catholic balks at this. Trust me. This is a teaching of the Saints. And it is one that leads to a peace of mind when we are afflicted.

There are more tips in living the moral life. But the five mentioned above- every single one of them –are prescribed by the Saints. They will help us to move well beyond the narcissistic (and the level one and two forms of happiness) tendencies that are becoming more prevalent in today’s society.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Impact of Pentecost on Morality

Before Christ cast his light upon the earth, the moral standards by which the pagan people lived were appalling. Even in the highly civilized Greco-Roman culture, infanticide was practiced, gladiator games (blood sports) were played to entertain the mob, sacred prostitutes “serviced” worshippers at pagan temples, slavery was an universal institution, the infirmed were left to fend for themselves and women, much like children, were second class citizens. And in other parts of the world, human sacrifice was a highly esteemed religious ritual. In fact, it was practiced in the Promised Land (or the land of Canaan) before the Israelites settled there around the year 1400 B.C. As the book of Wisdom recounts, “they [the Canaanites] celebrate either child-slaying sacrifices or clandestine mysteries, or frenzied carousals in unheard-of rites…” (14:23)

Fast-forward to the twenty-first century and we are beginning to see that a post-Christian world is not faring much better than its counterpart, namely, a pre-Christian world. The most recent Gosnell trials revealed that highly educated and “civilized” men are quite capable of the kind of barbarity that was common in ancient pagan civilization. I can go on and on about other inhumane practices that are becoming more socially acceptable in our nation. One such example that comes to mind is the push for euthanasia in our hospitals or to put it more bluntly, the medical practice of starving people to death. As Hilaire Belloc, a Catholic historian said, “That in the realm of morals one thing stands out, the unquestioned prevalence of cruelty in the unbaptized world. Cruelty will be the chief fruit in the moral field of the Modern Attack [i.e. secular-liberalism]…”

What proved to be ineffective in restoring morality in the ancient world is equally ineffective today. When immorality led to social disorder, the people naturally looked to State legislation for the answer. As for the elites of society, they believed that philosophy or intellectual enlightenment could fix the moral problems of the day. However, both institutions proved to be inadequate. Historically, by the time the State intervened to stem the tide of any social crisis, it was too late. Philosophy fared no better for it too did not provide enough people with adequate incentives for living morally nor did it give strength to live a moral life.

But something happened during the feast of Pentecost in the 33rd year of the first century. Pentecost, as celebrated by the Jews, was observed fifty days after the feast of Passover every year. The original Passover celebrated by Moses, as you may recall, was a meal that inaugurated the exodus out of Egypt. It was the beginning of the Hebrews liberation from slavery under the Pharaoh. However, fifty days later at Mt. Sinai, the Lord God gave his people the Ten Commandments. This juxtaposition of liberation and the giving of God’s law was purposeful. It was meant to convey the truth that real liberation- spiritual and moral liberation –comes through God’s Word (or God’s law). But the divine law was, in Moses’ time, only an image of the Real Thing. In other words, it was only traced out and inscribed stone tablets. However, 1400 years later, when the Holy Spirit descended on Mary and the Apostles, the Real Thing was at last made available to the world. The Real Thing was none other than the Holy Spirit. He is the living, breathing Law of God.

This is the key to living the moral life. This is the key to restoring morality in our society. We will not find it in legislation or the communication of ideas alone, but rather it has everything to do with getting a new heart from God. The reason why the unbaptized world was cruel and why immorality ran rampant, like Belloc said, was because people had stony hearts. About five to six hundred years before Christ, the Lord spoke through the prophet Ezekiel. He said that help was on the way; that the heartless and cruel world would one day receive a new infusion of moral energy. The Lord said,

“I will sprinkle clean water upon you to cleanse you from all your impurities, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts. I will put my spirit within you and make you live by my statutes, careful to observe my decrees.” (Ezekiel 36:25-27)

It is interesting to note that Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as the “finger of God.” Man writes with his pen, but God writes with his finger. In reprimanding the Pharisees for their unbelief, our Lord said: “But if it is by the finger of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” (Luke 11:18) Perhaps, this conjures up an image in the Old Testament when the Ten Commandments were inscribed on stone. It was said that the Lord used his finger to write them: “When the LORD had finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the commandments, the stone tablets inscribed by God's own finger.” (Ex. 31:18)  But with the coming of the Holy Spirit, God’s law no longer has to be exterior to the baptized person. Instead, it is written on his heart by God himself.

Perhaps this is why Christ raised the demands of the moral law in the Sermon on the Mount. He said before- under the Old Testament law -it was wrong to commit adultery; but under his law it is wrong to even think about it. He goes on. Before it was said: Thou shall not kill. But now he tells us to not even be angry with others. Before it was said: Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce; but under his law divorcing one's wife- when the marriage is lawful -causes her to commit adultery and when one marries a divorced woman commits adultery. Before it was written, love your neighbor and hate your enemy; but in order to be a follower of Christ one must love his enemies and pray for those who persecute them. And then he adds: If anyone should press you into one mile for service, go with him for two miles. Christ sets the high moral standard precisely because he was willing give us the means to fulfill it.

As for the means, it is only by receiving a new spirit and a new heart that we can hope to live- as individuals and as a society –a truly moral life. It is as if the Lord wanted to make our souls into his own home as a precondition for entering his.  In other words, he wants to live with us, in our hearts, so that we can abide with him in heaven. And as he increases in our hearts- day by day –we are being acclimated to our future home. As St. Paul said, "But as it is written, ‘What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him,’ this God has revealed to us through the Spirit.” With this hope, we spare no effort in being the best we can possibly be for the Lord.

When all is said and done: State legislation, education or any man-made program can never reproduce what the Holy Spirit has done for the dignity of human life and the common good of society. Nothing can replace him giving each person- young or old -a new spirit and a new heart through the waters of baptism. After all, it is only by receiving a new spirit and a new heart by God that we can dare to live up to high moral standards.

This is how good, just and loving people are made! This is how a good, just and loving society is restored! This is the impact Pentecost had- and hopefully will continue to have -on morality!

Come, O Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Your faithful, and enkindle in them the fire of Your love.
Send forth Your Spirit, O Lord, and they shall be created.
And You shall renew the face of the earth.

Monday, May 13, 2013

God's Answer to World Revolution: Our Lady of Fatima

Originally posted as three seperate blogs in 2010, this year's version of "God’s Answer to World Revolution: Our Lady of Fatima" is combined into one post with additional subtitles.

"It was a lady dressed all in white more brilliant than the sun, shedding rays of light, clear and stronger than a crystal glass filled with the most sparkling water pierced by the burning rays of the sun."

-Lucia, Oldest seer of Marian apparitions

"Heaven was so pretty…there were many wild ponies."

-Jacinta, Youngest seer of Marian apparitions

A World Turned Away from God:

In 1917, when our Lady paid three children a visit in Fatima, Portugal, she brought eternity with her. Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco were privileged to experience, in a profound way, heaven and hell. The children’s foretaste of heaven and the glimpse of hell has a great deal of historical significance, considering that Western Civilization had already begun to close in on itself. Indeed, modern man had ceased to see his life within the backdrop of eternity. In part, this was due to great technological achievements and its consequent prosperity. Of course, when conditions are comfortable it is harder to see life as a pilgrimage to heaven.

The Encyclical of 1917:

Just one month after Our Lady appeared in Fatima on May 13th, 1917 Pope Benedict XV wrote an encyclical entitled, On the Preaching the Word. In this encyclical he made the following observation: If people honestly considered “the state of public and private morals, the constitutions and laws of nations, we shall find that there is a general disregard and forgetfulness of the supernatural, a gradual falling away from the strict standard of Christian virtue, and that men are slipping back more and more into the shameful practices of paganism.” Indeed, in 1917 there was a lot of soul searching among Christians and Westerners. After all, World War I was still raging and the Russian Revolution was just getting underway.

What led up to this new chapter in world history? For one, Christian civilization had gradually been chipped away over four centuries. The Protestant Reformation in 1517, the French Revolution in 1789, and the revolt of many European States against the Catholic Church, i.e. the annexation of the Papal States (territory belonging to the Holy See) by Italian nationalism, were just a few historic turning points in which the Western world declared its independence from God. This movement away from the Christian religion then culminated in the twentieth-century with World War I, the Russian Revolution, World War II, the Holocaust, and the Sexual Revolution.

Pope to Catholics: Do Examination of Conscience

At the onset of these unfortunate events in the twentieth-century, we find Pope Benedict XV, in so many words, asking Catholics to do an examination of conscience. He proposed the following question to them in his encyclical: “Has the Word of God then ceased to be what it was described by the Apostle, living and effectual and more piercing than any two-edged sword? Has long-continued use blunted the edge of that sword?” He then answers his own question: “If that weapon does not everywhere produce its effect, the blame certainly must be laid on those ministers of the Gospel who do not handle it as they should. For no one can maintain that the Apostles were living in better times than ours, that they found minds more readily disposed towards the Gospel or that they met with less opposition to the law of God.”

Therefore, with regard to the ever increasing movement of mankind away from God and the world revolutions which followed, the blame- at least in part -must be attributed to the dereliction of Catholics. What were twentieth-century Catholics lacking as compared to their spiritual ancestors of the early Church? Why did they not, up to this point, enjoy the same success of converting the world to Christ like the early Fathers of the Church? This is where Our Lady of Fatima comes in. Her appearance to three Portuguese children in Fatima gives a profound and yet subtle answer to these questions.

Revolution of 1910: Years Leading Up to Apparitions

In 1910, Portugal had undergone its own revolution which resulted in the persecution of the Catholic Church. Churches, convents and monasteries were shut down; priests and the religious were arrested. The following year, the persecutions came to a peak with the law of Separation of Church and State. The author of these anti-religious laws, Alfonso Costa, said: "Thanks to this law of separation, in two generations Catholicism will be completely eliminated in Portugal." By 1917 the Portuguese people were well acquainted with a government unfriendly to religious freedom. It was within this local milieu, not unrelated to the international crisis -that Our Lady of Fatima appeared to the three Portuguese children.

Fatima Message: Atheism and Materialism:

In visiting Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco, the Mother of God impressed upon these three souls that the world was closing itself off to eternity! The message that the Blessed Virgin had come to deliver was one which linked the breakdown of faith and prayer with the two World Wars, the spread of Communism and the afflictions the popes would have to endure. Indeed, the widespread failure of people to aspire towards heaven as their permanent home, the most noble incentive to live a holy life, gave rise to wars, genocides and dictatorships of the twentieth century. In a word, without the daily meditation and the anticipation of eternity, the proper perspective of life is lost and the material things of this world become the reality people live for. Pope Pius XI would go on to say five years after the apparitions that "...worldly possessions can never satisfy all in equal manner nor give rise to a spirit of universal contentment, but must become perforce a source of division among men and of vexation of spirit."

The Letter of Lucia:

It is important to keep in mind that the decline of prayer and neglecting "to seek what is above" would later be the plague of religious orders. Indeed, spiritual apathy would not only be a problem exclusively attributed to the world, but it also found its way in the Church. Lucia would later write a letter to her nephew, Fr. Valinhoin in 1971. In the letter she said, "I am convinced that the principal cause of evil in the world, and the falling away of so many consecrated souls, is the lack of union with God." "It is indeed sad," she continued, "that so many are allowing themselves to be dominated by the diabolical wave that is sweeping the world, and they are so blind that they cannot see their error. But their principal error is that they have abandoned prayer."

Lack of prayer enfeebles the soul and weakens life's foundation. As such, when the cultural revolution of the 1960's rocked the Catholic Church, the vocation of many priests and consecrated men and women in religious orders simply collapsed.

More Important Than the Sun:

Our Lady of Fatima, in her series of six apparitions from May 13th through October 13th of 1917, spoke to this plight the world found itself in. To be sure, in profound and yet subtle ways, she used the three poor children of Fatima to teach a world-gone-wrong that life takes on the greatest value when seen in light of eternity.

When considering the series of events at Fatima, there can be a temptation to focus on October 13th, the day 75,000 plus people witnessed the sun spin and dance. There is a lot to be said for that supernatural phenomenon. However, what is even more worthy of our attention, and more relevant to Catholics in the twenty-first century, is what happened to the souls of Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco during that six month period.

The spiritual direction Our Lady of Fatima gave to Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco and the affect it had on their souls speaks to the heart of the Gospel. It also explains why the Church of the early centuries were able to set the world a blaze and why today's world had grown cold to God. Indeed, just when Pope Benedict XV was asking his questions about why the world had fallen away from the Catholic Faith, Our Lady was answering them.

If Catholics of this century can take in and grasp what the Mother of Jesus Christ communicated to three children in the last century, then the Church can have the life-giving influence she once enjoyed over civilizations.

Heaven Accompanies the Blessed Virgin:

Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco, the three young seers of the Marian apparitions at Fatima in 1917, were introduced to the very depths of Christianity and to the heart of the Gospel. The Mother of God, who spent countless hours on earth in conversation with her divine Son, and who continues to commune with her Son in eternity, formed these three young souls with the most favorable spiritual direction any Christian could receive. The love of God and the expectancy of heaven was so deeply impressed upon their souls that all three children lost their natural fear of death.

In coming in contact with the Blessed Virgin, the children encountered the very presence of God in a profound way. And during their experience of the Divine Presence, they were able to see themselves in a new light. Lucia, the oldest of the children, reported that in one appearance the Lady opened her hands and shed upon the children a highly intense light. “This light penetrated us to the heart and its very recesses, and allowed us to see ourselves in God, Who was that light, more clearly than we see ourselves in a mirror…” Just as Mary mediated the Holy Spirit to her pregnant cousin Elizabeth upon her greeting at Zacharias’ house, in Fatima, she similarly mediated the presence of God, as in a ray of light, through her hands. Lucia would go on to describe, as best she could, the utter beauty of this Visitor from heaven: “It was a lady dressed all in white more brilliant than the sun, shedding rays of light, clear and stronger than a crystal glass filled with the most sparkling water pierced by the burning rays of the sun.”

It is important to note that with our Lady’s appearance, the three children experienced heaven. Jacinta, the youngest of the three, excitedly told her parents, “Heaven was so pretty…there were many wild ponies.” Lucia would later say that “before the Divine Presence we felt exaltation and joy.” It is under reported, to be sure, that after each visit with the Madonna they were supremely happy. This explains why Lucia asked Mary to take them to heaven; not later, but immediately. It also explains why, for them, a short life on earth was a blessing. Their detachment from earthly things was complete. Their thoughts were no longer preoccupied with what was below but instead they sought what was above. No sacrifice was too much, no suffering too unbearable, knowing that heaven awaited them.

Sacrifice, Reparation and Death in a New Light:

In 1916, an Angel of Lord appeared to the three children to prepare them for what would ensue the following year. He asked them to “Offer up everything within your power as a sacrifice to the Lord in an act of reparation for the sins by which he is offended; and of the supplication for the conversion of sinners…Above all, accept and bear with submission the sufferings that the Lord may send you.” The Blessed Virgin repeated this request several months later when she asked, “Do you want to offer yourselves to God to endure all the sufferings that he may choose to send you, as an act of reparation for the sins by which he is offended and as a supplication for the conversion of sinners?” Lucia answered for the other two by saying, “Yes, we want to.” After which, Our Lady said, “Then you are going to suffer a great deal but the grace of God will be your comfort.” Soon after, in the month of July in 1917, Our Lady of Fatima showed them the fires of hell where countless souls descend. According to Lucia, demons and reprobate souls were engulfed in the torment of despair. They were deeply moved by this vision; it gave them a fresh determination to offer themselves as a living sacrifice to the Lord.

The three children would have to bear a heavy cross in the months that followed. Francisco and Jacinta, just two to three years after the apparitions, died at a young age. Poor little Jacinta even died alone in the hospital; this, she did for the conversion of sinners. Indeed, the heavenly-mindedness of all three children and their memory of hell inspired a great love for people and their willingness to suffer for them. They valued inconveniences, sufferings and contradictions as opportunities to make reparation for sinners. As St. Peter wrote, “whoever suffers in the flesh has broken with sin” and then adding, “love covers a multitude of sins.” (I Peter 4:1,8) Their early death, as sad it was for loved ones and unfortunate as it appeared to the world, speaks volumes about what God wants us to know about this life and the life to come. Indeed, the passing nature of this earthly life of ours and the enduring reality of heaven and hell is at the heart of the Fatima message.

Our Lady's message to Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco was God's answer to the question Pope Benedict XV asked in 1917 regarding the effectiveness of Catholic witness. To be sure, the eager anticipation of heaven, making reparation for sinners and seeking the Blessed Virgin's spiritual guidance is God's answer to the "diabolical wave" (as Sr.Lucia would write in 1971) of world revolution, atheism and war.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Cure of Mass Attendance Decline

Administrators and Shepherds:

In the 1950’s, on his Emmy Award winning, Life is Worth Living, Bishop Fulton Sheen warned believers- but especially Catholics –that during times of prosperity church leaders are apt to become administrators who sit behind desks. The emphasis is more on the office than it is on the mission field. However, during times of adversity, church leaders are more likely to be out there in the mission fields as shepherds with the people. And as for the laity, when talking about the Sacrament of Confirmation in a different address, Bishop Sheen reminded his listeners of the following:

“The laity will have to come to a comprehension that our blessed Lord was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles but in the world, on a road way, in a town garbage heap…He place Himself at the very center of the world, in the midst of smut, thieves, soldiers and gamblers.”

Followers of Christ are once again returning to a time of adversity. Prosperity has softened us up and turned us into administrators rather than shepherds and missionaries. We Catholics are beginning to realize that what we have been doing- or not doing –in the last fifty years has not been working. Case and point:

Mass Attendance Decline:

In a local Catholic diocesan newspaper, The Compass, it was reported that Mass attendance has dropped annually about 3 percent; and for the last 10 years, 21 percent. The total number of parishes in the Diocese of Green Bay that has shown signs of growth in recent years is 24. But the sum total of parishes that have decreased is 133.

However, the Church on a national level is no less promising. In her book, Forming Intentional Disciples, Sherry A. Weddell reported that there are four times as many people leaving the Catholic Church than entering it. From 2000 to 2009, the rate of adults entering the Church dropped 35 percent. If unchecked, the projected results are sobering. She said,

“If this trend does not change, in ten years it will cease to matter that we have a priest shortage. The Builders will be largely gone, the Boomers retiring, and our institutions- parish and schools –will be emptying at an incredible rate. Sacramental practice will plummet at a rate that will make the post-Vatican II era look good, and the Church’s financial support will vanish like Bernie Madoff’s investment portfolio.”

Nearly a hundred years ago, just when it was becoming clear that Christian civilization was becoming a thing of the past, Pope Benedict XV wrote: “By God's good pleasure, things are preserved through the same causes by which they were brought into being…” In other words, the causes which brought into being a Church capable of producing numberless converts and Christians institutions, are the very causes that will duplicate the same results.

The Cure of Ars:

I recently gave a presentation on an encyclical by Pope John XXIII, written in 1959. The encyclical was on St. John Vianney, also known as the Cure' of Ars. He was a priest who lived from 1786 to 1859 in France. He embodied the principles that made the Catholic Church so attractive in the first thousand years.

As stated in previous articles, during the first millennium of Christianity, over 70 percent of the popes were canonized Saints. This translated into great bishops, priests and lay people. But among the popes in the second millennium, roughly 6 percent were honored as Saints. If we were to ask the reason behind this differential, we would do well to consider why St. John Vianney attracted tens of thousands of souls to his parish Ars, France. Indeed, he spent about a third of his priesthood in the confessional.

However, before people travelled from distant lands to consult him, the holy priest prepared for them. He spent the first ten years of his priesthood- from 1818 to 1827 –begging God, in prayer and fasting, for the conversion of sinners. That’s right. Those first ten years were quiet and uneventful. But he took advantage of that time to intercede on behalf of his parishioners and those souls that would soon come to see him. And even after they came, he never neglected his times for prayer.

The Discipline of Prayer:

St. John Vianney used to say, "A priest must be especially devoted to constant prayer" and "How many people we can call back to God by our prayers!" For him, the emphasis was on the sanctuary or spending time before the tabernacle; not so much on the office or on meetings. He took for granted that prayer was the holiest of works. Far from being idle, to pray is to act on the First Cause of conversion. Just as prayer is a conversation with God, conversion is the work of God. The former gives fuel to the latter. Every ounce of supernatural life has to be drawn from him. Indeed, Christ is the life-principle of our work.

How many of us, who sincerely want to do good work for the Lord, spend more time in the office than in the sanctuary? Or it may be that we are so busy with external works, we neglect our own spiritual needs. But like the early Church Fathers who put prayer as their first priority, St. John Vianney never neglected his own spiritual needs because he was too busy serving others. Pope John XXIII warned the clergy in 1959 about the preoccupation with external works: “Priests in Our own day, are likely to attribute too much to the effectiveness of external activity and stand ready and eager to immerse themselves in the hustle and bustle of the ministry, to their own spiritual detriment!”

Too many of us who set out to do the work of the Lord would dare not miss a meeting, a conference or a pledge drive, but we let prayer slip away from us too easily (To be sure, I am a work in progress in this regard). We forget that it is not what we do or say that is the most important thing. Rather, it is what God does with what we do or say that makes the difference. Christ said, “Without me you can do nothing.” And Psalm 127 says, “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.”

The question then becomes: Are we building in vain? Are we, like the early Christians and St. John Vianney, giving prayer its due? For them, designated times of prayer throughout the day were of the highest priority; more important than any administrative duty. It is what attracted souls to Christ. As Pope Pius XII said in reference to St. John Vianney, “A man who is filled with Christ will not find it hard to discover ways and means of bringing others to Christ."

The Way Back Home:

The way ancient pagan civilization was saved, with all of its cruelty and barbarity, is the same way our post-Christian civilization will be saved. After the martyrs did their part by sanctifying the European and Mediterranean soil with their blood, the monastics (i.e. religious monks and nuns) built upon that foundation through the habit of prayer and penance. They gave us the template of spiritual and evangelistic success.

The early Christians- the ones who called down God's grace for so many conversions -were not half as administrative as we are, but they got things done! As Sister Lucia, a Fatima seer, once wrote: We receive more light, more strength, more grace and virtue than you could ever achieve by reading many books, or by great studies. She then added that with a real commitment to prayer we will accomplish a lot in a short period of time.

As for St. John Vianney, he did daily meditations, he visited the Blessed Sacrament, he recited the Rosary, and carefully examined his conscience. But like the early Christians, he did more. He offered spiritual sacrifices for sinners. With St. Paul, he exhorted his parishioners to do the following: “I urge you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.”  St. John Vianney also used to say, "The works of penance abound in such delights and joys that once they have been tasted, nothing will ever again root them out of the soul.... Only the first steps are difficult for those who eagerly choose this path."

The Cure' of Ars knew that making spiritual sacrifices on behalf of others was essential. One day, a priest had inquired as to why tens of thousands of pilgrims visited Ars, France; this, just to see the holy priest. In response, St. John Vianney reminded him: “You have preached, you have prayed, but have you fasted? Have you taken the discipline? Have you slept on the floor? So long as you have done none of these things, you have no right to complain.”

Keep in mind that the Catholic parish in Ars was not well attended at all for the first ten years after St. John Vianney arrived. But eventually, what he did to increase Mass attendance worked! It is a recipe for success. In fact, about one hundred years later, the "cure" to low Mass attendance was once again confirmed. As Jesus reminded St. Faustina, “You will save more souls through prayer and suffering than will a missionary through his teachings and sermons alone.”

The Heart of the Matter:

Assisting at Mass presupposes an active, living relationship with Christ. Without talking to Jesus on a daily basis, without learning more about Jesus through the reading of Scripture on a daily basis and without doing one's best to observe his precepts on a daily basis, the Mass is just another ritual. It's hardly worth getting up for on Sunday mornings. You see, just as a family meal in the home presupposes a pre-existing relationship among family members, so too does the Sacred Meal at the altar presuppose a communion with Christ and his Church.  But to ignite the flame of faith- to stoke the fire of love for our Lord in the hearts of people -it is absolutely essential "workers in the vineyard" revisit what has proven to work in the past. Not only did St. John Vianney and the early Christians point out the cure to spiritual apathy, the applied it! And, as history reveals, the results were impressive.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Class of 33 A.D.

Preface: "The Class of 33 A.D." is a repost for new Sky View readers. In October of 2012, it was originally entitled, "The Greatest Class."

On May 1st the Catholic Church celebrates two of the greatest graduates from this class- Mary, the Mother of God and St. Joseph. I say that Mary, Joseph and all Saints are of the class of 33 A.D. because it was then that the death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord made it possible to belong to this class...the greatest class.

So Different: Yet the Same

The Saints of the Catholic Church are a diverse class of people who lived in different eras and are from different cultures. They are composed of men, women and children who possessed a wide variety of personalities; some were extraverted while others were introverted; some were known as being humorous and yet others were serious. Their stations in life ranged from that of royalty to peasantry; from the heights of the papacy to the disgrace of the excommunicated; from the rich to the very poor; from the intellectually gifted to those who suffered from learning disabilities; and from those who lived a long life to those who were called to martyrdom at a young age.

Yet, given this diverse array of personality traits, status and background, they were still of the same mind and heart. After all, they all shared one thing in common with Jesus Christ: the Holy Spirit. It was this same Spirit that breathed into each Saint a real ambition for God’s honor, a strong desire for heaven, and a similar, if not, the same disposition towards virtue and vice. Remarkably, they were all uncompromising on the essentials- the things that really mattered -and indifferent towards the trivial and marginal circumstances of the day.

Falling in Love:

Chief among their virtues was that they not only loved Jesus Christ, but as Spouses of the Bridegroom, they were “in-love with him.” They truly courted him in solitude, prayer and meditation as often as they could. And among their favorite meditations was the Passion of Christ. For them, our Lord’s sacrifice on the Cross was the very essence of divine love. But they also understood that the fullness of Christ was to be found in life of the Church. This is why they drew close to the Mass and to the Sacraments where the life of God within their souls was daily nourished and built-up.

God is Everywhere:

To frequently experience Christ within the sanctuary of the Church is to better discern his presence in the world. The Saints were constantly aware of the presence of God, no matter where they were. For instance, St. John Bosco (1815-1888), a priest who cared for orphans, one day came across three of his boys who were playing soccer. He asked them, “If you were told that you had three weeks to live, what would you do?” The first boy said, “I would immediately go to the chapel so I could prepare for my death.” The second boy echoed the same sentiments. But the third boy said, “I would continue playing soccer.” That third boy happened to be St. Dominic Savio who died not too long after that discussion. What St. Dominic saw that the other boys failed to see is that playing soccer was very much consistent with their salvation. It wasn’t that St. Dominic downplayed spending time in the sanctuary. In fact, he frequently attended Mass and also spent quite a bit of time before the Blessed Sacrament. Rather, he offered everything he did, including recreational activities, to God. As such, his path to heaven ran right through the soccer field.

Unconventional Wisdom:

Just as the Saints saw the presence of God in all places, they likewise saw each human being as they really were. Social status, class status or political status meant nothing to them. If the Saints were willing to reach out to outcasts and sinners- those of whom society tended to ignore or disdain -they were equally willing to rebuke powerful rulers and highly esteemed celebrities if circumstances required it. St. Padre Pio, who had founded a hospital for the sick and suffering, was also known to chase out unrepentant sinners from his confessionals. St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, inspired St. Augustine’s conversion with his sermons but he refused to allow the Roman Emperor Theodosius II, who had killed 6,000 Thessalonians in an uprising, to enter his cathedral.

These great men and women did not succumb to “group-think” habits and conventional wisdom of their times. If the good of the soul was being compromised, they could be outspoken and mercilessly rude. Neither kindness nor severity- neither turning a cheek nor opposing an offender- neither silence nor making a scene was off limits for them. When the interests of God were stake, they were uncompromising. Even if the Devil himself would appear to them, they would hardly flinch because knew that He who was within their souls was the stronger of the two.

Beside Themselves:

The Saints did not take themselves seriously at all. With a cheerful abandon, they did little to hide their own faults. When they could, they agreed with their critics and laughed with those who ridiculed them. In the mid-nineteenth century there were some elitist priests in France who were determined to have St. John Vianney ousted from the priesthood because of his learning disabilities. They got a petition going and it eventually made its way to Ars, where the saintly priest was stationed. What did St. John do when it was presented to him? He asked if he could sign it.

The law of holiness is that the holier a person is, the more he or she realizes that they are a sinner. When the bright light of God is allowed to shine in the soul, imperfections show themselves. With this, the sinner sees himself as he really is: nothing before God’s holiness. For instance, upon having a vision of the Lord of Hosts, the prophet Isaiah said, “Woe is me.” Centuries later Christ told his Apostles, “Without Me, you can do nothing.” Indeed, the Saints took his words quite literally. They were perfectly content knowing that they were the source of their own sins and shortcomings. Yet, whenever the Saints were commended for their exceptional virtues, they immediately gave the credit to God. Such humility gave them a levity that few people enjoyed.

Outsiders and Foreigners:

Many Saints knew what it meant to be outsiders, marginalized by the world. As with our Lord, not a few of them were even rejected by their own. St. Patrick was criticized by his brother bishops for preaching throughout Ireland. St. Joan of Arc was falsely accused and put to death by the Church officials of her day. St. Mary MacKillop, an Australian nun, was excommunicated by her own archbishop. And St. Alphonsus was kicked out of the Redemptorist order he had founded. In fact, he once said, “The saints have not been made saints by applause and honor, but by injuries and insults.”

Knowing what it means to be an outcast- and at least in some sense, foreigners to this world -every single canonized Saint loved the poor and the needy. They felt as though they were one with them. Because of their own crosses, they learned to be at home with suffering humanity; that is, in mental institutions, prisons, orphanages, soup kitchens, the slums and in nursing homes. And although salvation and the needs of the soul took priority over the needs of the body, they never exclusively focused on one ministry at the expense of the other. Each individual, no matter how seemingly insignificant, was given special attention. Many said that when they spoke with Blessed Mother Theresa, she would zero in on them as if they were the only one in the room; the same with Venerable Fulton Sheen. One day Bishop Sheen was visiting the church of his childhood years in Peoria. He was surrounded by the press, the clergy and many attendees outside of St. Mary’s. And in the distance, he noticed a woman who looked distressed. Her appearance suggested to him that she needed a friend to talk to. The good bishop excused himself, approached the lady and asked her to follow him. Apart from the crowd, she revealed to Bishop Sheen that she was in a “bad place” in her life. She confessed her sins to him, and then he resumed with the festivities.

To Accept All Things:

Arguably, one of their most remarkable virtues among the Saints was that they accepted everything as coming from the hand of God. St. Paul once said, “I know indeed how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need.” (Philippians 4:12) The Apostle understood that Christ joined humanity in its suffering by dying on the Cross. But he did this not to spare people from suffering. Rather, he did it so that people could suffer in union with him. Through this mystical union, every Christian could be assured that their suffering had meaning and redemptive value. God told St. Catherine of Sienna that his servants accept all things with equal reverence. Perhaps, this is why complaints rarely escaped the lips of the Saints. In setbacks, persecution and hardship, the loving hand of God was discerned. With the prophet Job they would say, “Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

The Greatest Saint: A Saint-maker

The greatest class of people the world has ever known, without a doubt, are the Saints of God. Yet among these exceptional disciples of Christ, one stands out above rest- the Blessed Virgin Mary. As St. Louis de Montfort said, God was glorified more by the 30 years Jesus spent with his mother in Nazareth than if he had preached the Gospel to the world at a young age. Indeed, before the Lord entered into public life, his private life was shaped and influenced by his Mother. What she did for Jesus she does for every Saint.

Just a few things are necessary in order to become a Saint: First, we have to believe it is possible. Second, we have to will it! Third, the life of Christ does not end with the last chapter of the Gospel of John. The life of Christ continues in the lives of the Saints. As such, studying the life of Christ in the Saints will go a long way in spurring us on to the goal.

You might be surprised to learn that when these holy men and women sought to glorify God first and foremost, great things were achieved. It was from this quest that Christian civilization- the only free civilization to ever have existed -was brought into being. And it was from this holy ambition that the Catholic Church was renewed in times of languor. These are just a few of the blessed but unintended consequences that resulted from "seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness." To be sure, countless people- Christians and non-Christians alike -benefited from the holiness of the Saints. And if we carefully look at annals of history, we will see that Our Lord kept his promise when said that "all these things will be given you besides." When his interests were the number one priority of Christians, blessings abounded.