Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Wants into Needs

Some weeks ago, I had a conversation with an old friend with whom I went to school. After catching up on the years intervening between our last encounter, he asked me if he could ask a theological question. Happy to oblige, he continued, "I get the whole God thing. But seriously: do you really think that God can turn a piece of flat bread into Jesus?"

My response was intentionally curt: "We live in a society where the want for comfort has been transformed into the need for a Snuggie."

When you think about it, his question finds its mirror-image in the state of marketing today. Is not the whole goal of a proper marketing campaign to convince you that some of your wants - certain foods, reliable transportation, a style of dress - are actually needs that can only be met by purchasing a product?

Isn't it funny how quickly so many of us think nothing of shelling out $5.00 for a Venti No-Whip Soy Latte with a Double Shot or paying exorbitant amounts of money for a pair of jeans, but inveigh against "the Church" for taking up a weekly collection? I know many schools that subsidize the cost of Catholic education...I don't know that Abercrombie & Fitch have quite the same goal in mind when you are handing over your credit card to by a new pair of distressed jeans.

The irony of the Eucharist is that it transforms our needs into our wants. Saint Augustine said it so well when he wrote, "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you." The only thing that will satisfy our restless longings is God; what we need, above all else is God. The event of Eucharist transforms this fundamental need into a want, a desire to join with others in Communion, gathered at the altar, where we join together as a desiring community.

I think the liturgy, viewed from one angle, is nothing more than a tutorial lesson in coming to know exactly how it is that our greatest need ought also to be our greatest want. The rituals build up to a climax where God Himself offers Living Bread to those gathered in memory of His Son. What we receive in the hand or on the tongue is, quite literally, a foretaste of the great banquet each of us has been invited to join.

Simple bread and bread. The basic staples of human life transformed to meet the fundamental desire of human longing. The difference between the Snuggie or the jeans and the Eucharist? Let's see if the Snuggie has 2,000 years of staying power of meeting the basic need and desire of the human condition.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The First Sunday of Advent

You, LORD, are our father,
our redeemer you are named forever.
Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways,
and harden our hearts so that we fear you not. 
The first reading from yesterday, taken from Isaiah, is quoted above. Entering into the great season of Advent, many of us were encouraged yesterday to examine our lives and to look for those places we were in need of our savior, for those places where we are weak and struggling - those places where we can sense how remote we have become from God - and to call out to the Lord that we might be reunited. 

Advent's theme is to wait and to watch and to come to want the coming of the Messiah. The Church's prayer can be summoned up in a single word, Maranatha, or "Come, Lord Jesus." How many of us can look back on this past year and cry out:

  • Come, Lord Jesus, in the muck and mire of my life. I am lost and have no idea of where I am to turn. I sense that you are calling out to me, but I cannot raise my head from the earth in order to see you...please, give your hand to me.
  • Come, Lord Jesus, I am a part of a Church too-frequently given over to acts of galling hypocrisy. Restore the hearts and minds of its members and reinvigorate its body that it might live out boldly the Gospel in a world that thirsts for the Good News.
  • Come, Lord Jesus, and soften the hearts hardened by cynicism and indifference. Rather than viewing creation as a cold and meaningless void, inspire us with a sense of wonder and awe that you are the innermost reality of all. 
  • Come, Lord, Jesus, for in the wake of suffering and loss, I wonder if I even believe any longer. I realize now that the 'god' of my illusion-free life has failed and I stand now, alone, amidst the debris of the temple that I constructed in its likeness...in my likeness. Raise these stones and create a new Temple according to your plan...for then I shall have a home worthy of worshipping within.
Each of our hearts cries out each day and it is  part of the discipline of prayer to come to know just what it is that moves within our hearts. In a special way, however, the Church across the world unites its voice during Advent to cry out, "Come, Lord Jesus!" as we invite Jesus into our reality.

The challenge of this should not be underestimated. Do we have the courage to pray this with our whole heart, for what would happen if our prayer were answered? Would we be willing to respond generously, wholly, and freely to the call of discipleship? Our prayer is "Come, Lord Jesus," and not, "Come on my terms and according to my plans, Lord Jesus." 

Perhaps each of us might take a few moments in the next few days to think back on our lives. Where, upon reflection, do you need the Mercy of God to enter into your chaos? Where do you need the Savior to break into the confines of your life and offer you liberation? Where do you feel a darkness in need of light? Where, in the deepest depths of your being, does the prayer, "Come, Lord Jesus" well up and strain to be cried out to the heavens...if only you will give voice to it? 

Saturday, November 26, 2011

And With Your Spirit

This evening, Father Kiser will celebrate the Eucharist with those interested here at the Mid-American Oireachtas (big Irish dancing competition). After a day of dancing and music, we will gather as an Irish dancing community to celebrate our faith. I'm particularly interested to see how Mass will play out this evening as today marks the full implementation of the Third English Translation of the Roman Missal.

Briefly, I think that those with the loudest voices - those who think this new translation is going to fix problems and those who think that it will cause problems - are going to be disappointed. It seems to me that what has been forgotten is that our language, human language, always falls short of fully expressing its target. When I say, "I love my niece and nephew," it is maddeningly difficult to get across to you the nuance of the word love. How much more difficult, Saint Thomas Aquinas realized (as others before and after), is it to use words of God. No translation of the liturgy is going to be perfect, nor is anything we say ever going to be adequate of its subject.

Ultimately, I hope all Catholics enter into this with a spirit of generosity. Perhaps the new translation, even where it is difficult, will grab our attention in new ways and give us something to think about: rather than rambling off prayers in a rote manner, this just might give us pause to re-acquaint ourselves with the prayers that have united the Catholic faith for centuries.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


It was nice to wake up later than usual this morning - 8:30 rather than 5:30 - thanks to our day off of school. There is nothing, to my mind, like a lazy day off of school. I enjoyed two leisurely cups of coffee, made a delicious omelet for breakfast, and I'm catching up on reading several periodicals that have been piling up on my desk.

Last night, without the pressure to grade or prepare anything for class, I managed to catch a bit last night's GOP Debate. Like many, I was surprised by Newt Gingrich's comments on immigration:
"I do not believe that the people of the United States are going to take people who have been here a quarter of a century, separate them from their families and expel them,” Gingrich said last night. “I do believe that if you’ve been here recently and have no ties to the US, we should deport you."
Much is often made of Gingrich's conversion to Catholicism. Perhaps it is just serendipitous, but what some regard as devastating "political TNT" resonates so clearly with last Sunday's Gospel.

...For I was hungry and you gave me food,I was thirsty and you gave me drink,a stranger and you welcomed me,naked and you clothed me,ill and you cared for me,in prison and you visited me.'Then the righteous will answer him and say,'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you,or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you,or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?'And the king will say to them in reply,'Amen, I say to you, whatever you didfor one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.'Then he will say to those on his left,'Depart from me, you accursed,into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.For I was hungry and you gave me no food,I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,a stranger and you gave me no welcome,naked and you gave me no clothing,ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.'
To be transparent, I am a registered Republican (read into that what you will). I think Newt is dead-on in pointing out the contradiction of claiming to be "the party of the family" while pursuing a course of action that would tear families apart.

It astonishes me that so many hear in Newt's words the death knell to his candidacy. In advocating a more human, more realistic, more Christian response...has he really severed his ties with his party? Has our country become so polarized that reason and humanity will be jettisoned for fringe-group extremism?

Perhaps it is I who have caved to extremism. Yet recall what Archbishop Allen Vigneron wrote several months ago:
There must be a concerted effort to find a pathway toward citizenship for undocumented persons who have contributed to the common good. The positive impact migrant communities have made in our country, and especially in our state, should be recognized rather than overshadowed by the small number of those who engage in illicit and unacceptable activities.
Today, I must give credit to Mr. Gingrich for, on this point, standing within the orbit of Catholic Social Teaching. It's funny that "Cafeteria Conservatives" love to dip into the Church's teachings when it comes to abortion or to "pro-family" legislation regarding gay marriage, but it leaves the teachings on Immigration untouched. If Newt's candidacy is sunk by this stance, I will have to agree with Michael Shawn Winters that, "we will have learned all we need to know about the shallowness of the claims of the GOP to be the "pro-family" party." 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

El Salvador: 20 Years On

Yesterday, Jesuits around the world remembered the 1989 deaths of six of their brothers and two companions at the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) in El Salvador. You can find a series of beautiful reflections on the event and its aftermath by following this link to Creighton University. A short video, created last year, gives the broadest of overviews of the events of that day:

Ever the provocateur, I posed this question: "In our country, we demand that justice reach to the heavens when people fail to report sexual abuse (Catholic Church, Penn State), and we assign life sentences to those who would defraud us of money (Bernie Madoff)...yet why is it that those in charge can order the murder of six priests, a housekeeper, and her daughter and remain unpunished?" This question, framed on a day when we recall in a special way the Jesuits executed for responding to the Gospel, is easily broadened to ask why we do not cry out and demand justice for all those innocent lives lost during this conflict.

Yesterday, I taught my sophomores about Jesus' "mission statement" in Luke's Gospel:

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim a year of the Lord." (Luke 4: 18-19)
True today as it was 2,000 years ago, if you proclaim this message you must face the consequences of speaking the Truth: death.

Death is not the cause of martyrdom. It is the consequence. These Jesuits and countless others lived out their love of Jesus Christ by bringing His Good News to an oppressed and languishing people, bringing sight to the blind, and proclaiming the inbreaking of God's liberating reign. For this, they were rewarded with bullets in their brains.

O God, give me the courage and strength
to be worthy of being called a Christian.
~ Karl Rahner, SJ

Martyrs of El Salvador - known and unknown - Pray for Us.


Friday, November 11, 2011

An Examen for the Close of the 2011 Liturgical Year

  we prepare to close the 2011 Liturgical Year and embark on the journey of Advent (11/27), it may help us to engage in something of an Examination of Conscience (or Consciousness). The Examen, enjoined upon his companions by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, is the single most important prayer of a Jesuit's life. In the still of the evening (or mid-day), the Jesuit places himself before God and looks attentively and reverently at his life in order to see (1) where God is working, (2) where one has failed to respond to God, (3) where one has cooperated with God's creative activity, and (4) to ask for the grace to enter more generously into God's creative action.
The Examen reminds us that things in our past are closer
to us than we might think.

Just as we embark upon every new year with a host of resolutions, perhaps we should begin the new liturgical year with our own sense of where God is leading us. We need not search tea leaves or the entrails of slaughtered animals; we need only pause and look inward to put ourself in God's presence. God's will is not some free-floating thing outside of me. Instead, it is the deepest core of my being, the deepest and most animating aspect of my personhood. To cooperate with God's will, I need not become a different person. I need only to be my true self, the self that God is inviting me to become, and I can do this by finding where God is calling out to me from the depths of my self.

We are entering a period where many generous men and women throughout the Church are discerning vocations for entrance into Seminaries and Religious Life for the 2012-2013 year. We are also embarking on the adventure of implementing the New Translation of the Mass. Perhaps an examination of consciousness will help to dispose our hearts and minds toward the generosity God asks of us that we all may become greater instruments of the Divine Will.

An Examen of 2011 with an Eye to 2012

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Of Papists and Penn State

I have followed with some interest the unfolding scandal that has engulfed the Penn State University. As is well known, the legendary Joe Paterno has been fired for his involvement (or lack thereof) in the sexual abuse of minors at the hands of Paterno's assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. This morning, the sun rises on a new terrain at Penn State: both Joe Pa and the school's president Graham Spanier have been fired.

What has drawn Paterno into the eye of the storm is that he knew of an allegation of rape made against Sandusky by a graduate student. The student reported to have seen a naked Sandusky in the shower with a ten year-old boy. This was reported to Paterno who passed it along to his superiors; as we know now, the cops were never called.

Maureen Dowd draws a parallel between the situation at Penn State and the crises in which the Catholic Church is embroiled:

Like the Roman Catholic Church, Penn State is an arrogant institution hiding behind its mystique. And sports, as my former fellow sports columnist at The Washington Star, David Israel, says, is “an insular world that protects its own, and operates outside of societal norms as long as victories and cash continue to flow bountifully.” Penn State rakes in $70 million a year from its football program. ~Maureen Dowd
I have to disagree, but only slightly. Doubtless Dowd is right saying that the Church is "an arrogant institution hiding behind its mystique." What I disagree with, however, is David Israel's observation. I think the Penn State, just as the Catholic Church, plays perilously by the rules of society. That, I'm afraid, is the problem.

Look around. On high school and college campuses, teachers have to be hyper-vigilant to stave off increasing instances of plagiarism and academic dishonesty. "If everybody else is cheating, why shouldn't I?" seems to be the reigning wisdom. Last night's Republican debate - a debacle on so many levels - did at least bring out some of the ire we feel when we hear of exorbitant bonuses being paid to executives at Fannie and Freddie when they are asking for billions in aide. Baseball and cycling seem forever involved in doping scandals; the Boy Scouts have been accused of concealing over 5,000 child molesters, politicians are involved in affairs and scandals that are hurriedly covered up.

To my mind, it's not that the Church and Penn State are playing by their own rules, apart from society's. It's that both of them claim to be governed by a different type of wisdom, a different set of rules, and they have failed miserably.

The Catholic Church would claim to live and work together in a new economy, one illuminated by the Lamb of God. Penn State claimed to have found its luminosity in Joe Paterno. What happened, tragically, is that the good values we expected to see were blighted out by the mendacity and corruption that seems to be so much a part of our society. It's funny that, if I'm right, it's not that we can't tolerate corruption and sinfulness...it's hypocrisy we cannot abide. It's fine if you accept being submerged in the muck-and-mire of daily life but, if you try to hold yourself above it, have a care: the moment you fail or capitulate to our norms, we're going to drag you back down.

Speaking on the Church for a moment, the sex abuse scandal can prove to be a moment of profound and transformative grace. It should show where and how often the Church - on its way to establishing the New Jerusalem - has failed in its mission and surrendered to the forces of darkness. While it is painful to undergo this purging, I pray that this the Church will emerge armed with greater courage and honesty and transparency. So, too, is this my prayer for Penn State. I do not think that Joe Paterno is a bad or evil man. Quite to the contrary, I think he is a very good man who allowed the logic of the world to override his good sense in this tragic instance. It is my hope that, as for the Church, this can be a time of grace, of healing, and a call to greater honesty within a venerable and storied institution.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Bedrest, Day II

I am, arguably, the worst of patients. My doctor ordered me to bedrest for the entire week, which I have been interpreting as "so long as you can see your bed, you're okay." I did manage to sleep for another nine hours last night - up from my usual 5-6 hours - and in my mailbox this morning I found "Care Package I" from one of my students. Inside CPI I were three tea bags, a letter, and three small envelopes filled with jokes to brighten my mood. I might not have a son or a daughter to make me breakfast in bed, but this certainly falls into the realm of gracious kindness I would associate with kids.

It's acts like this, to be sure, that keep me from eating freshmen alive in Latin class - sometimes, they are really funny!

Monday, November 07, 2011

Pneumonia Week: A Public Service Announcement for Students and Subs

Since I've been ordered to bed for the week (on my doctor's orders) I've recorded the following video for my sophomore New Testament students. To the Substitute teachers covering my class:

  1. Do not allow them to do any other work during these periods. The Mass is important and they need to read about it!
  2. They are to work on their own. 
  3. They are to work silently (yes, SILENTLY). 
  4. They need to bring their book to class each day
  5. Show the video below. If you showed the video before reading #1-4, please do that now. 

Loving the Church

I have the habit of reading two books simultaneously: one book in the morning (generally something spiritual) and, for bedtime reading, something a bit heftier. Right now my bedtime reading is Peter Geach's God & The Soul  and my morning reading is The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis.

This last week, one of my students raised the critique that he didn't want to be a member of the Catholic Church because it was hypocritical. I was sort of shocked by this, given that I thought it wholly obvious that the Church is so often hypocritical that it seems as though its hypocrisy should simply be taken for granted.

The last few days have shown up a great deal of institutional hypocrisy. We've watched as the drama of the Texas Judge who beat his daughter unfolded; Penn State University is reeling after the revelations of sex abuse and attempts to cover it up have come to light. Even the Boy Scouts have had to face the accusation, if not the revelation, that it has concealed the abuse of a minor within its charge. From one standpoint, it's tempting to say, "See! There are other hypocritical and corrupt organizations out there...why don't we pick on them? Leave off on the Catholics for a bit, there's plenty of corruption out there to sensationalize!"

Even if this were true, it does not change the fact that the Church has messed up in the past and it has squandered the trust placed in it by many. Modifying slightly Lewis's own works from The Four Loves, one might even say that the Catholic Church must write
...the full confession by the [Catholic Church] of the [Catholic Church's] specific contribution to the sum of human cruelty and treachery. Large areas of "the World" will not hear us till we have publicly disowned much of our past. Why should they? We have shouted the name of Christ and enacted the service of Moloch. (Moloch being associated with child sacrifice)
With courage and honesty, the Church needs to take ownership of its past. We have done great and mighty things in proclaiming God's Kingdom but, as any human organization, we've made some huge errors. Our credibility rests on our being able to take ownership of the past and show how we have learned from our mistakes so that we may go forward.

When the student asked why it is that someone could love the Church, I could say only, "I love the Church not because she's perfect, but because she's mine." I learned to pray in the Church, I learned how to surrender myself to the Mystery of Creation, how to find strength in times of turmoil, how to find comfort in sorrow, how to give thanks in times of joy, how to be a human being. In the ten years since the clergy sex abuse cases came to national attention in Boston, I have seen the Church at her worst...and as a member of the Society of Jesus, I have seen her also at her best. Even when I wanted to pull out my remaining hair in frustration, I have always been able to return to my steadfast belief that this is Christ's Church and the reason I get frustrated is because I do love it. If I have learned nothing else these years, it is how to have patience with what it is that one loves.

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame