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A Reflection on the Lord’s Prayer

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Having celebrated this morning the memorial Mass for St. Francis of Assisi, I am inspired by the votive Gospel reading (Matthew 11:25-30) to reflect upon the Our Father. This may seem a bit odd as the reading was not about the Lord’s Prayer, per se, but rather a different albeit neglected oration with similar attributes. Jesus announces, “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike. Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will.” This much, any of us as believers could recite. However, unlike the Our Father, this was Jesus’ personal prayer. There was no request to teach the gathering how to pray. The Lord’s Prayer is given to us as one that reflects the human condition of weakness and sinfulness. Like us, Jesus will be tempted in his humanity; unlike us, he will surrender himself into the hands of the evil one so that we might be delivered. The prayer here speaks of his unique identity as the divine Son of God: “All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.”

Note that it begins much as does the Lord’s Prayer as an oration of praise addressed to the Father. Heaven is also mentioned although here it is clear that he has lordship over both heaven and earth. We are given a quick glimpse of our Lord’s relationship as “the Son” to the Father. This is not figurative language or pure analogy. It is expressive of his very identity. (Note that at his baptism in the Jordan the identity of Christ as the beloved only Son of God is revealed; when it comes to our baptism, our identity is changed— we become adopted sons and daughters to the Father.) We are summoned as “children” to trust God in our communication with him and in the life of faith. Ours is not a detached or malicious deity. He loves us and wants the best for us, which is union with him. Suffering and death come into the world through sin. While the dark mysteries are not immediately brushed aside, we have in Christ one who is in solidarity with us. Indeed, by enduring the price of sin, he redeems us. A distinction must be made between the active and passive will of God. The Father did not send his Son into the world because he directly willed for him to be tortured and murdered. That would image God as monstrous. The reason or motivation for his coming is made clear in the reading: “Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will.” The mission of Christ is to be faithful to his Father’s will— to do whatever it takes to fulfill the divine saving plan. Both here and in the Our Father, the providence of God is accentuated, “thy will be done.” The reading continues: “All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.” We know that his situation is not entirely comparable to our relationship with the Father because we are purely human and Jesus is the second person of the Holy Trinity. He is God made man. Nevertheless, he gives us something of his relationship as our own.

Interestingly, this prayer in Matthew appears in the Gospel again tomorrow (Saturday, the 26th Week of the Year, Cycle 1) albeit from Luke 10:17-24. Prior to the prayer, the text states: “At that very moment he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit . . .” This is an important lesson for us as the great Christian revelation is that of the Trinity. Jesus reveals to us the face of God. He patterns for us how we are to pray to the Father, through the Son and by the Holy Spirit. Our Lord prays in the Spirit. Saturday’s text from Luke also precedes the prayer of Jesus with the return of the seventy-two disciples sent out by the Lord. We are told they come back rejoicing and say, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us because of your name.” Jesus responds, “I have observed Satan fall like lightning from the sky.” A link can be drawn between this and the ending words of the Our Father where we pray “deliver us from (the) evil (one).” Ours is a jealous God. He will not share us. If we belong to him then the devil can have no part of us!

More than any other prayer, the oration that is held in common by all Christians is the Lord’s Prayer or the Our Father. While there are a few variant English translations, we all recognize it and it is a staple in our liturgies. It is the one prayer that we have memorized. Until recent times, most Catholics could also recite the Our Father in Latin, something which the Vatican still promotes so that visitors to Rome from around the globe can recite this prayer in unison. Note that the prayer for peace and its sign is placed immediately after the Lord’s Prayer in the Mass. This is no accident as both the ritual and the prayer from the lips of Christ immediately signifies the unity of the believing community in Christ. We should exhibit caution that while it is memorized, we should never say it mindlessly or mechanically. We would not want to lose sight of the treasury of prayer types that make up the whole. It has been called the perfect prayer. Our Lord gives it to us as both as a prayer to be said and as a formula for other prayers. These are words that we must make our own if it is to be a true dialogue with God. It is the one prayer that is essential to a person’s daily prayer and spiritual life as a Christian.

During the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord introduces the Our Father. “In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:7-8). Why did the ancient pagans babble with many needless words? First, they were speaking to a false deity. As such they were really talking to themselves, trying to convince themselves, despite their frustration that someone was listening. Nevertheless, there was no response— no intervention— just a painful silence. Second, some of the pagans believed that if they could stumble upon the true name of God then all their wishes would be granted. They literally babbled long strings of nonsense words for this purpose. This was no genuine speaking in tongues, but a one-sided and deliberate effort at magic or sorcery so as to manipulate the deity. It was not intelligent conversation just fruitless gibberish. Nothing came from it. Third, some sought to pamper God just as they did people of power or high station or wealth. They were moved not by a desire as creatures to give praise to the Creator; no, this was simply an effort to ingratiate themselves so as to court favor. Such people were often very weak and fearful in character. The more anxious they became the more they talked and talked and talked. Fourth, the pagan priests in particular would often shout and repeat their petitions— almost as if their deity were deaf or had to be convinced to respond. This stood in stark conflict with the intimate union that Jesus shared with us by giving “his” Father to us as “our” Father and suggesting a back room, hidden away, as the best place to privately pray.

Note that those who know each other often need few words. I have known long-term spouses that can communicate to each other with a look or a nod. God knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows what we want. More importantly, he knows what we need. He hears all prayer, even that which is said in a whisper while we are alone. We do not have to make a big show about prayer and faith. The main thing is that it remains real. The Lord’s Prayer helps us to render true prayer.

Certain anti-Catholic critics will use our Lord’s spurning of the babbling prayers of the pagans to attack upon our recitation of the rosary. But such an argument collapses as there is definite content to the rosary, i.e. the mysteries of faith. Others, particularly the “once saved, always saved” apologists will argue against persistence in prayer. This latter view crumbles because we are urged to pray always. Note the story about the mistreated widow in Luke 18 who prevails against an unjust judge because of her persistence in wanting justice. Jesus commends her to his listeners. If she can find justice from a bad judge, just imagine how well our petitions will fare given that the divine judge is all good and loving. Our Lord tells his listeners not to lose heart when they pray and that it is a “necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary” (Luke 18:1). Patience and persistence is really more for our sake than for God’s. While the Christian will humbly acknowledge divine providence, our petition prayers ideally express what we really want, the desires of our hearts. This speaks immediately to our relationship with the Lord. Is Christ our true treasure? Do our hearts belong to him? What do we really want? God knows what we really need. It has been said that God answers all prayer. A catechist friend teaches, “Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes no and sometimes not now.” I would add that often the asking itself is the true answer as it breeds a sense of dependence upon the divine. When the answer does come it is often a gift unexpected but what we really need.

I think part of the answer for which we are looking is hidden in the Catholic mystery of purgatory. We are taught that this purification rightfully begins in this world. Often we pursue penance and various mortifications. But we are also purified and transformed in our daily life of prayer. The response of God and his timing brings us to a continual conversion or changing by grace. This is also expressed in the Our Father, to put on Christ, to have the will of the Father. Any questioning experiences a reversal. Those least enlightened and transformed will ask, “Why doesn’t God give me right now what I want?” The person who has walked with the Lord for a while will ask, “Why is it that I am still restless and fail to want what God wants in my life?”

Christianity is not sorcery and the Our Father is not a magical incantation. Christianity is the end to magic and superstition. The words of the Lord’s Prayer are precious but they also constitute a formula to assist us in putting together our own personal words when we pray. Further, prayer is a back-and-forth operation. We talk to God and then we pause and find quiet in ourselves to listen for God’s whispering to our souls. This is not self-deception. It is something wondrous and real. The conversation with God must be authentic if it be constitutive of a worthwhile and personal relationship in faith. Remember that Catholic-Christianity is not a book religion or one of philosophy and rules. At its very heart, Christianity is a personal and communal relationship with a person, with the saving Lord. It is Jesus who draws us into the mystery of the Trinity. He is our mediator to the Father. Remember, our orations are made to the Father, through the Son and by the Holy Spirit.

How are we to pray?

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us today our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and do not subject us to the final test, but deliver us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:7-13).

1. To Whom is Our Prayer Addressed?

As mentioned before, we address the Father as a people who have been brought into a more intimate relationship with God. We are not merely creatures appealing to the Creator but adopted sons and daughters to our heavenly Father, kin to Christ and children of our Queen Mother Mary. We are invited into the family of God. The Holy Spirit makes possible this saving faith. Otherwise, neither believing nor prayer would be possible. While we are naturally wired for God as demonstrated by all the efforts at sacrifice and worship toward a deity around the world and throughout human history; the God of the Jews is revealed as a loving Father. He is the Abba or “papa.” We are his little children. It is this God who surrenders his only Son so that we might be saved from our sins. Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit. He works his miracles by the Holy Spirit. He raises himself from the dead by his own power, the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God is extended to us in faith and baptism. We become temples of the Holy Spirit— a people regenerated or “born again.”

Our posture as we approach the Father in prayer is not comparable to the oppression humanity endured as the devil’s property. Redeemed or bought at great price, we are no longer slaves but sons and daughters.

“For those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’ The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:14-17).

Note that we address God by denoting that he is in heaven. Heaven is by definition where God is. One might even say that God is heaven. Those who would live in heaven must live in God. The Trinity will be our eternal home.

“As proof that you are children, God sent the spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God” (Galatians 4:6-7).

We are literally heirs to the kingdom of heaven. It is in Christ and by grace that we will be divinized— members of the family of God.

2. Summoned to Give Glory to God with the Angelic Hosts.

The angels of God always keep their sights upon God and give him eternal glory. We are invited into this chorus of praise. Our rejoicing comes with the acknowledgment of God’s holiness, “. . . hallowed be thy name!” At Mass we have the Sanctus where we cry, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Holiness is more than a description of God or a divine attribute. One might regard it as a name. Indeed, the Trinity is intimated by the Sanctus, the triune holy God; he is three co-equal divine persons in one God or divine nature. What is holiness? It signifies something of the divine otherness. When possessed by men they are transformed into the likeness of Christ. Saints are not self-made and it is so much more than being good. Foremost, a saint is a sinner that has been forgiven. God extends something of his own mystery and plants himself into the souls of men. We become temples of the Holy Spirit and new Christs for a world that still needs to encounter Jesus.

The pattern when praying is always to begin with praise. It conveys the basic posture of the creature to the Creator and the Son to the Father. Other forms of prayer will eventually pass away. Giving glory and praise to God is not only foundational to the spiritual life but to the order of creation. The sung praises of the heavenly hosts is the symphony or music of all rightly disposed creation. If there is a discordant note or break in the harmony, such is reserved for the devil and his indentured pawns. Those who keep faith with Christ have every reason for their “sure and certain” hope. The righteous man or woman (not self-righteous) knows joy even before crossing the threshold from this world into the next. He or she already carries something of eternal life.

The Mass gives us the Gloria, a wonderful expression of praise which ushers forth a real sense of the Church in pilgrimage giving praise in unison with the Church in heavenly glory:

Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace to people of good will.
We praise you,
we bless you,
we adore you,
we glorify you,
we give you thanks for your great glory,
Lord God, heavenly King,
O God, almighty Father.
Lord Jesus Christ, Only Begotten Son,
Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father,
you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us;
you take away the sins of the world, receive our prayer;
you are seated at the right hand of the Father, have mercy on us.
For you alone are the Holy One,
you alone are the Lord,
you alone are the Most High,
Jesus Christ,
with the Holy Spirit,
in the glory of God the Father. Amen.

It is a peculiar but authentic side-effect in the spiritual life that when the creature (the lesser) gives glory to the Creator (the greater) that something of the divine shines back upon the one rendering praise. We laud God as holy and thus make ourselves into recipients of his holiness. That which is praised, is shared or reflected back. We can only be saints because we participate in the holiness or divine otherness that is God. The one human person that supremely participates in this holiness is the Virgin Mary. She is preserved from sin and made holy because the All Holy One enters the world through her. She becomes an exemplar for God’s other children as to how we can be transformed by grace. Note the humble posture of Mary in Scripture. The pattern of praise that Jesus sets for us is realized in his first disciple. The Church echoes her daily in the Magnificat when reciting the Liturgy of the Hours: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.”

3. It is in Giving that We Receive.

The liturgy, our prayers and even the life of charity consist of elements of giving and receiving. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The pattern is clear. The kingdom breaks into the world through the person of Christ. Then we respond by taking up our crosses and following him. The obedience of those on earth should mirror the fidelity found in heaven. The back-and-forth and the many prayer types in the Our Father also find witness in the great prayer of worship, the Mass. We encounter the Lord in his Word and we respond with praise and alleluia. The Gospel is proclaimed and we respond with affirming the Creed and petitions. God has given us the grain of the field and the grapes of the vine. We take them and make them into bread and wine. Next, we offer them to God that they might become the body and blood of Christ. Given to us again, we offer the Lord to the Father as the one acceptable sacrifice. He gives it back once more for Holy Communion. We take what we have been given and then give it to others as a people sent on mission. We cooperate with God but the initiative remains with God. We would have nothing to offer— we would be nothing— apart from the movement of God and his gifts to us. While we are called to obedience and to be sentinels of the kingdom, the kingdom of God breaks into the world according to his providence and not by human labor and whim.

This reception requires reflecting upon what the Lord says and does for us. Otherwise, we would be hard-pressed to know his will in our lives. Many people think they are good but, separated from the Lord they do not know how to be good. A son or daughter might advocate euthanasia for a parent suffering pain. A husband might urge contraception to his wife because of pressing financial worries. A friend might suggest to another teen an abortion because of unplanned pregnancy. They might all think they are doing right; however, they are easily led astray when separated from the Church and the content of the Good News (the Gospel of Life).  Formation in the faith, along with prayer and reflection, give us divine guideposts as to how we should live and act.  Otherwise, genuine love is replaced by a terrible and false compassion.

We must all be alert to the danger of devaluing prayer from a dialogue to a soliloquy. Are we communicating with God and allowing him to speak to us? Are we talking to ourselves and simply mimicking God with what we want to hear? While obedience plays an important part in Catholic discipleship, we are not mindless robots or soulless ants. The hands of the soul must be outstretched to receive what the living Word would give us. Indeed, the true disciple hungers for the truth that God wants us to receive and to know. Disposition and appropriation are vital. We must be ready for what God wants us to have. We must make what God offers our own, before any selfish desires or human fears. The pain at the end of a person’s life might be the means of a final purification so as to see God. The self-donation of spouses in the marital act may give their union it’s most precious gift and preserve their union. The unborn child regarded as an inconvenience or an accident may prove to be the person who most loves us in return and makes a positive difference in what would otherwise be a lonely life filled with regret. We have to know God’s will, even in the face of sin, and then trust God’s will in a childlike manner.

Christians should regularly open the Scriptures. It is God’s inspired Word. When we read or hear the Word of God there is a human-divine encounter. Every meeting with God changes us— if we are open— if we want to be in right relationship with God. Catholics should also know their catechism and look up all the attached Scripture passages. There is also utility in following the daily readings of the Mass as well as looking at the prayers. We are people called to both a personal and a corporate faith. We pray alone, among a few friends or family and with the community of faith at the Lord’s Supper (the Mass). The Mass is a participation in the marriage banquet of heaven. Christ is the groom and the Lamb of God. The Church is his bride. Christ instituted the Church so that we would have each other and to insure that his truths and sacraments would not be lost in the passage of time. The kingdom of God breaks into the world, first through the person of Christ and now through the Church, his mystical body.

4. Supplication Emerges from Our Dependence upon God

“Give us this day, our daily bread.” The first prayer that we learn as children is one that comes naturally— intercession and petition. A child asks his mother for a cookie. We make a request of God for a favor. We pray for ourselves and for others. There are some who reduce all prayer to petition. This phenomenon was manifested after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. There was a short while when millions seemed to return to religion. They had lost control. They were desperate and afraid. A year later many of them had fallen away again. Their faith was shallow. They could ask God for things; but, they were ill-equipped spiritually to give. Where was the praise? Where was the thanksgiving? Too often when it comes to “gimme” prayers, there is a lack of balance or focus. If the person does not get what he or she wants, then the person gets angry and stops praying. They are quick to tell God his business but slow to listen.

While prayers of petition might be the most elementary and readily distorted; God indeed wants his children to turn to him. However, we must do so with a profound humility and acceptance of God’s will. The Lord’s Prayer has us pray for our daily bread, that which sustains our life. Yes, this first may be the food for our bellies but it is so much more as well. We are also fed from the table of the Word and from that of the Eucharist. Jesus teaches, “It is written: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4). Given how Jesus does not run away from his mission; we must also pray for strength and courage. This was lacking when Peter denied knowing Jesus and the apostles were in the locked upper room hiding. The risen Lord would appear to them and along the beach to heal Peter. We cannot escape the Lord and we should face the challenges that come to us with a witness that celebrates Christ’s victory over sin and death. Whatever this world takes away from us, we know that Christ can give back many times over.

The Bidding Prayers or General Intercessions at Mass constitute a wonderful model for petition prayers. We pray for many needs: the Church, our country and the larger world, for the oppressed or those facing injustice, for the suffering or the sick, and for those who have died as well as for those who mourn them. A number of us regularly pray for an increase of vocations as well as for good and holy priests. Given the tragedy of abortion, most faithful Catholics pray daily for the unborn child, the right to life and that parents will have hearts welcoming toward their children. We can pray about anything— safety, health, solvency, security, belonging, love, etc. A mark of our Christianity is our willingness to pray on behalf of those who hate and seek to hurt us. This is a great measure to the authenticity of our faith and our willingness to imitate Jesus.

Having said all this, such supplications should not be reduced to crass and ineffective magic or superstition. The believer trusts that God knows best. It is not like rubbing Aladdin’s lamp and wishing for a million dollars in small bills. I would also doubt that an angel will come down from heaven with the winning lottery numbers. My credulity is also strained by those who pray during sporting events. While it is okay to pray for a fair match and the safety of players, I am doubtful that God would intervene so that the Redskins football team would beat the Cowboys, even if the devil does have a contract with the athletes from Texas. Countries might pray for victory and for peace during times of upheaval and war; however, I think God is more on the side of justice over oppression. Historically both sides often pray to the same God. I am reminded of the unofficial truce of 1914 during World War One. The leadership of the warring countries refused a papal petition for a hiatus in violence. Nevertheless, the soldiers in the trenches declared their own unofficial Christmas truce. It was said that one could hear the hymn Silent Night simultaneously being sung in the different languages of the combatants. Many visited the enemy camps. Food and drink was shared. The dead were exchanged. Small gifts were given. The peace did not last very long but it was a teaching moment about human brotherhood that still haunts us in a divided world.

Watching the news on television or reading about tragedies in the newspapers often leaves us unmoved. This should not be the case. We have access to news unlike any generation before us. This should become an occasion for prayer, not voyeurism seeking the sensational. We may not personally know the victims of violence or natural disasters but they are still people like us. They need to be remembered in our prayers to God. When possible we can add our donations to those prayers to assist people in a material way, too.

The worse the people, the more we should feel compelled to pray for them. Who knows, a believer may find out when he meets the Lord at judgment that his were the solitary prayers for some poor soul who had no one to care enough to remember him to God. Many will rightfully pray for victims, but how many of us pray for the victimizers? The most they usually receive is the venom of curses elicited from hatred. Over time many poor souls are forgotten. We should pray for those who need jobs and for those who sell themselves and are exploited to make ends meet or to care for children and those who need them. We should pray for those living on the street and eating out of dumpsters; we should also pray for the callous who walk around them each day uncaring. Many have made bad decisions and are locked into destructive behaviors and addiction. We can lend a helping hand and keep them in our hearts and their needs upon our lips. Such prayer can be effective. It is also transformative for the person who is praying and interceding for others. Do we invite others to know Christ as we do? Do we ask them to pray with us? Have we ever asked a friend or neighbor to join us at Sunday Mass? Prayers of supplication are a demonstration of compassion.

5. The Proclamation of the Gospel Begins with the Cry to Repent and to Believe.

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” Our Lord came into the world to make possible the forgiveness of sins. Here is the root of my vocation as a priest.  Every priest is a minister of reconciliation ordained to extend the saving work of Christ. Repentance makes the ground fertile for faith. We have to let go of what a fallen world offers if our hands are to be free to accept the gift of Christ. (Years ago I remember reading a book by a Pentecostal minister who explained this clause of the Our Father as a bargaining with God: if you forgave others then God would give you mercy in return.) No, there is no such deal.  It does not work that way. We have nothing with which to bargain with God. He holds all the cards. The Lord’s Prayer is not offering us a deal as might be imagined between gangsters; no, rather the prayer is pointing to imitation and how this furthers our new creation in Christ. If we forgive as Christ forgives then we are imitating the Lord. If we love and forgive like Christ then the Father will see something of his Son in us and give us a share in his Son’s reward. The reference to temptation is an acknowledgment of human weakness. It is okay to ask God to avoid certain challenges which might be too much for us. Of course, when empowered by grace, people are often surprised by how much they can endure as a disciple. The deliverance from evil or from the evil one is indicative of the whole meaning of Christ’s redemptive Cross. Original sin made us the devil’s property. Christ redeems us and makes us free.

We want our personal sins forgiven or remitted. We also want true liberation or the lease broken from the house that sin built— the various injustices, sources of hatred and manipulation— indeed, any and all of the framework of sin that would bring us back into demonic bondage. Christ reached out to those who were oppressed, hated, scapegoated, and cast aside. He let them know that they were important and loved. He also healed the sick, forgave sins, exorcised demons and raised the dead. These were the acts by which he gave us a powerful example of counteracting the presence of sin or evil among us. When facing the effects of evil, we all need deliverance prayer and heartfelt contrition. Our sins placed Christ on his Cross. He died for each of us by name. He said from the Cross, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). The war is over and Christ is the victor. But the devil is spiteful. He fights his small skirmishes for individual souls. We must still battle powers and principalities. Between this world and the next saints will certainly be made perfect but on the way saints are sinners who know they have been forgiven.

 

Harry Potter & the Occult

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A person recently asked me the question,  “Are the Harry Potter books a dangerous introduction to the occult and demon possession?”  The inquiry was a response to a news topic.  A Catholic school in Tennessee reportedly has removed the popular Harry Potter book series from its library because they “risk conjuring evil spirits.”

How might I answer?  I would not routinely presume to second-guess the prudential decision of another Catholic pastor. When the Harry Potter books were removed from the school library, Rev. Dan Reehil, the pastor of St. Edward School in Nashville stated:

“These books present magic as both good and evil, which is not true, but in fact a clever deception. The curses and spells used in the books are actual curses and spells; which when read by a human being risk conjuring evil spirits into the presence of the person reading the text.”

It may be that he knows something that I do not. Have there been any exposed cases of possession due to reading children’s books? I really cannot say. It has not been my experience.  Reasoning along these lines, I have warned against the use of Ouija boards for incidents that are clearly documented.

Rebecca Hammel, the superintendent of schools for the Catholic Diocese of Nashville, stated that the Catholic Church does not have an official position on the Harry Potter books. I think this would be a sufficient answer to the question posed here. Admittedly, as someone who cringes against censorship, I do have my own “personal” opinions about the matter.

The universal catechism does not address the Harry Potter books directly, but it does speak about sorcery or the occult:

[CCC 2116]  All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to “unveil” the future. Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone.

[CCC 2117]  All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one’s service and have a supernatural power over others – even if this were for the sake of restoring their health – are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion. These practices are even more to be condemned when accompanied by the intention of harming someone, or when they have recourse to the intervention of demons. Wearing charms is also reprehensible. Spiritism often implies divination or magical practices; the Church for her part warns the faithful against it. Recourse to so-called traditional cures does not justify either the invocation of evil powers or the exploitation of another’s credulity.

Does such exclude fiction?  If not then Doctor Who television shows and books as well as the Back to the Future films would also be prohibited as there is certainly “a desire for power over time, history, . . . .”  I am well aware that there is a doctrinal issue with time-traveling as it puts into question the delineation of divine providence.  Exorcists have warned us that psychics might be performing their paranormal feats by means of a demonic presence; however, one of the exorcists of Rome related that he sometimes employs sensitives to help discern the presence of demons or suffering souls.  The boundary line is also blurred in the lives of certain saints like Fr. John Vianney who often argued with the devil and could read souls.  Some of the events and manifestations around Padre Pio are downright terrifying.  While many are drawn in faith to the sites of Marian apparitions; it must be related that there are some simply attracted to sensational spectacles.  They want secret messages, weeping statues and miraculous signs from heaven.  All this is mentioned so as to emphasize that it is not the supernatural as such that is condemned; rather, it is any source or intervention outside of Jesus and the communion of the saints.

The Vatican has criticized the Harry Potter books although the final movie in the series based upon them was praised by its authorized newspaper reviewers. If the books truly pose a danger of enticing children into witchcraft and the occult; then I would agree with a Church censure. However, the question must be asked, do these books and stories really pose such a threat? It seems to me that if the Church feels that Harry Potter is “the wrong kind of hero” then we should do more to promote good literature that appeals to the youth with proper characters for emulation. I am also an advocate of parents and children reading together and discussing what is read. Might we be able to baptize the books, sharing what we find problematical and talking about those moral themes that help build good character? As a child I was a fan of horror comics, fairytales with all sorts of magic, and television shows like Dark Shadows, The Addams Family, Bewitched, The Monsters, The Twilight Zone, and the animated Sabrina the Teenaged Witch. Nevertheless, I learned my catechism, knew what was real and what was not, and eventually became a fairly conservative (i.e. orthodox) Catholic priest.

The Greek term for sorcery in the New Testament was “pharmakeia,” from which we derive the English word “pharmacy.” This folk science mixed with superstition often had to do with potions or so-called magical drugs. The practitioners provided abortifacient concoctions that caused miscarriages. The biblical prohibition against sorcery, while viewed as an offense to the power and providence of God, was also a condemnation of abortion or the murder of children.

I cannot say how many outright Satanists there may be in the world today. I suspect the most egregious witnesses to such a twisted religion are really soured Christians who delight in blasphemy.  It strikes me as a kind of sickness of the soul.  Many who identify themselves as such are actually atheists who delight in tormenting the sensibilities of Christians and Jews.  Others have embraced the label of Satanism due to a rejection of charity or self-sacrifice as espoused by the Gospel.  Theirs would be a philosophy of selfishness.   Groups of this type are distinct from the Wiccans or neo-pagans.  Often connected to radical feminism, they speak of finding the goddess.  In truth they may worship a deity of their own fancy or no god at all.  All this makes their religion hard to define.  Modern witches and their craft reflect a naturalistic type of faith. Their worldview is immanent and pantheistic.  They would seek to employ the so-called cosmic energies in the world around us.

While they attempt to exploit a pedigree that goes back to pre-Christian times (as with the druids), in truth modern witchcraft probably only goes back to the 1940’s.  It is argued that Gerald Gardner was inspired by the masonic secret rituals in his reimaging of witchcraft.  What is the interpretation given to all this by Christianity?  If you call upon any spirit other than God then you are likely summoning demons.

Just as Christianity has its sacramentals like holy water, holy salt, the rosary, etc. so too do they.   We are familiar from scary movies where fortune tellers use crystal balls, read tarot cards and cast spells.  While it is used in psychiatry, witchcraft also employs hypnosis and sensational forms of faith-healing.  Much of the superstition is merely to exploit the gullible.  Connected to the current fascination with the paranormal, these poor people and their so-called psychics deceive others and themselves.

Many of the practitioners of witchcraft like the late Aleister Crowley accented the philosophy of selfishness and defined magic as real but as natural and not supernatural.  He and his disciples thought they could manipulate reality or creation by acts of will. I suspect he would be offended by the magic of Harry Potter and regard it as rather silly and contrived.  Condemnations toward the belief system of Satanists or Wiccans or Neo-Pagans would not seem to really apply to the magic in Harry Potter.  It literally is the witch on the broomstick parody.

We would no longer condemn conjuring tricks like slide-of-hand, but would question an appeal to invisible powers or spirits. The fundamentalist might equate all magic with devil worship. According to this mindset, there is no good magic, only the bad that sometimes masquerades as good.  If it is not God then the danger is we might be appealing to the demonic. The most impressionable might imagine that magic is a mysterious power untapped by most humans. A skeptic by inclination, I would view much of this as empty superstition or trickery to fool others. This would still make sorcery a sin as it becomes an occult religion and false worship.

While I would assume in truth that all sorcery is from the evil one, I am not convinced that J.K. Rowling’s witchcraft is anything more than a fanciful literary device to motivate and to drive her various storylines. Is it really witchcraft that is proposed as a positive ideal? While it is employed by both sides in the books, it seems the gravity is upon themes like family, friendship, loyalty, goodness, and mercy.

The author, herself, is a member of the Church of Scotland. She is honest about her struggles in faith and how she desperately wants to believe in life after death. Granted her Christianity may not be as mature as C.S. Lewis or Tolkien or George MacDonald, but it should not be dismissed. Indeed, it is reflective of the agnosticism that infects so much of contemporary Christianity. She is a woman of her times. Toward the end of the Harry Potter book series, she makes a few explicit references to Christianity— in particular about the themes of life beyond the grave and resurrection.

The Greyfriars Cemetery in Edinburgh is purportedly the inspiration for the Godric’s Hollow graveyard. Harry and Hermione find his parents’ grave. It is Christmas Eve. This inscription is written on the tombstone: “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). Let us look at the larger context (1 Corinthians 13:20-28) from which the verse is taken:

“But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the first fruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming. Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. For he hath put all things under his feet. But when he saith all things are put under him, it is manifest that he is excepted, which did put all things under him. And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.” (KJV)

We are given to understand that the character Albus Dumbledore, the Headmaster of Hogwarts, is the source. Note that he does not cite books of magic but turns to the Bible. He gives gravity to the Scriptures with his inscriptions.

The book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows also has the following inscription on the tombstone of Ariana Dumbledore: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21 or Luke 12:34). Here’s the full passage, Matthew 6:19-24:

“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness! No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” (KJV)

J.K. Rowling has confessed (in 2007) that these two verses “epitomize” or sum up the entire series. Admittedly, Harry Potter (probably like many readers) seems not to understand what the verses really mean. Did Dumbledore understand, that Christ would defeat all enemies, the last being death?

The scene is poignant in the film. The church in the background is called St. Clementine in a video game; but it is otherwise revealed as St. Jerome. There is a large image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus over the entry door.

As an aside, St. Jerome as a learned man of his time, was challenged for his study of a Greek philosopher Apollonius of Tyanna who was a contemporary of Christ. His life paralleled the Lord somewhat in that he had disciples and also apparently performed miracles. He contributed to the development of reasoned arguments. The purported paranormal elements had him branded by early churchmen as a sorcerer in league with demons. But he proved to be nothing to worry about as his following quickly disappeared with no school or church as a legacy. It is likely too far-fetched to imagine a deliberate connection here by J.K. Rowling in reference to the charges of the occult leveled against her. I suspect it is simply a case of a curious and unfathomable synchronicity.

While sorcery is condemned by Scripture and the Church, there are many fantasy books that portray magic as good and evil. Indeed, one might argue that C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles and Tolkien’s stories about The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings portray magic as such, even if as a metaphor for other things that we regard as real like the sacraments and the Eucharist. The news story comes from a Catholic school deep in the Bible belt where even these books by notable Christian authors might come under negative scrutiny and prohibition, too.

Indeed, it might be argued that Tolkien’s Sméagol is to Sam and Frodo what Tom Riddle is to Ron and Harry. The battle is essentially between good and evil. Harry has been marked by Voldermort and he could easily be corrupted by the same hate and anger. However, his friends, especially Ron, keep him rooted in goodness. Frodo is tempted as was the Gollum. Notice the name change in both stories. If it were not for Sam’s friendship, he would likely have destroyed himself like the pathetic Gollum. Arguable Tolkien has given us a masterpiece while there are more than a few literary critics who criticize the level of Rowling’s composition, even if she does present a good action yarn. But that may be beside the point.

One reviewer postulated that the Harry Potter saga promoted the old heresy of Gnosticism, particularly in reference to secret truths, power and ultimate salvation. Really?  Are we not projecting what is really not there?  I must admit that I saw little theological depth in J.K. Rowling’s writings.

It is a fantasy story told by a woman who claims to be a Christian but not one who seeks to endow her story with many overtly Christian elements.  We might equate something of our battle with powers and principalities; but it is the world of fanciful creatures, flying brooms and dragons. In a sense, she has given us modern fairy stories.

While another critic saw the derisive criticism of the “muggles” or normal humans as “diabolical” I simply saw it as an imaginative way to detail the division we know among people in the modern world. There is serious ethnic and religious division. People are looked down upon and even being killed by other people for being different. The world of Harry Potter mirrors the real world and its bigotries; indeed, she presents the corrupted face of Voldermort to stand for the evil that we confront daily in the many faces and souls distorted by hatred, anger and selfishness.

We live in a culture of death. We are surrounded by the lovers of death. How else could we explain New York politicians clapping and rejoicing over the legalization of terminating children who are nine-months old in the womb and ready to be born? J.K. Rowling is apparently blind to this connection as she supports legalized abortion; could it be that along with many of our own Catholics, she has been figuratively seduced by her own “death eaters”? How does death come into the world?  It is the result of the fall and the temptation of Satan.  Obviously she draws upon ancient Hebrew mythology regarding the devil as a serpent in the garden when she characterizes her villain as associated with an enormous snake (Nagini who also has a name change, Maledictus). How is death defeated?  Christ makes himself our sin-offering and redeems us with his Cross.  Harry is a Christ-figure.  He must be willing to sacrifice himself.  He must also be willing to die.  Of course, he does not stay dead.  He is also not alone.  Harry faces Voldemort.  His classmate Neville slices off the head of the snake.  It must be said that the theme of sacrifice is essential in the Potter universe.  We see it with both Severus Snape and Albus Dumbledore, as well.  We must note it at the very beginning with Harry’s parents who died so that their child might live.  (This is a theme that young people might find benefit in a guided reflection.)

As believers we appreciate that ours is a God who is both independent of his creation and yet he sustains it.  We are stewards of creation but not the masters of God.  In contrast to this, a realm of magic usually implies an immanence where the divine is either associated with the physical world or where the world itself is divinized.  I suspect this is where the more thoughtful might be somewhat critical of Rowling. The worlds imagined by Lewis and Tolkien always make room for a transcendence that Rowling only hints at. Rowling is not well versed in Christian theology and philosophy. Her world is much more chaotic and lacks order. Must we fault her for what most secular authors today would utterly dismiss?  The magic of Harry Potter is employed much as science and invention is presented to us in the real world. Do we not sometimes treat our tablets and portable phones and the internet as a scientific kind of magic? People even live out much of the lives in virtual gaming worlds. My fear in the latter is whether we are abandoning the real for that which is only make-believe.

As a Christian what I brought to the story was that Harry Potter was fighting against a variant of Satanism. In truth, one could not use sorcery because one should not battle evil with evil. But I think there is a crucial disconnect between the magic that Christians would condemn and the make-believe antics portrayed in the books and on the cinematic screen. It is no more real than the Marvel and DC superheroes with their fantastic powers.

I suppose I would ask young Christian readers a series of questions.  We would examine the themes of goodness, evil, sacrifice, love, justice, death, redemption, mercy, etc.  We would also seek to make a leap from fiction to reality.  How would we fight against evil?  Who or what are our enemies in the world today?  What are our weapons?  We could then talk about, not spells, but the power of prayer. We could open the newspapers and give the real devils of our times the names they now go by. We could invoke, not fanciful spirits or the occult, but Christ with his communion of the saints and the holy angels. And then, we would seek to be heroes and heroines in the real world with apostolates that seek to make a difference for the oppressed, the poor, the hurting and the unwanted unborn. While there is no denying the malicious efforts of our ancient enemy, the devil; we would also appreciate that many of our battles are with a secular modernity imbued with selfishness and not so much with a juvenile attention to magic.  When it comes to the Harry Potter series, and much else in our culture, we would do what people of faith have done for two thousand years— we would seek to understand and to transform that which is in the world for the purposes of Christ.

Reflecting Upon the Abuse Crisis

154164358031183741 (7)The clergy abuse issue just never seems to let up.  Today there was a headline in THE WASHINGTON POST, Three Teens Allege Abuse by Catholic Priest in D.C.” A Capuchin parochial vicar from Sacred Heart Church was charged with a single count of second degree sexual abuse and brought to the D.C. Superior Court in shackles.

The dark tragedy of clerical abuse of minors conflicts with a core element of the Church’s identity.  The mission of every priest is to be a spiritual father— teaching, nurturing and healing his flock.  The center of the priestly vocation is his role as a vehicle for the forgiveness of sins.  Any priest who would harm or corrupt others stands in stark violation of his sacred calling and the mission of the Church.  When the scandals first emerged, many disbelieved the allegations and assumed that none of it could be true.  Today, that mentality can no longer be substantiated.  While individual cases may or may not be credible, the issue is real and some priests have failed us and violated the trust we had in them.  Excuses cannot be made.

Given the type of violation we are discussing, it must be admitted that efforts at healing will fall short.  How does one restore trust when it is violated so egregiously?  Clergy abuse of minors signifies a profound attack against innocence that leaves a lasting wound.  That is why people come forward decades after such assaults.  Lives are changed forever.  Many of those assaulted abandon the faith.  Others are hampered in their later relationships and suffer from trust issues.

The comeback that “we are all sinners” does little to soften the blow about such infidelity.  Yes, it is true that the history of the faith is one where corruption and sin has infected both leaders and followers.  But, we argue as well that the true legacy of the faith is written with the lives of the saints.  We have not always been successful at the discernment of spirits.  We struggle to distinguish those who really walk in holiness and those who only put on a show.  The Church is holy because Christ is holy and the Church is his mystical body.  This is the case, even though the Church is composed of sinners.

The apparent but largely unreported fact that abuse is even more pervasive outside the Church does nothing to ease our disappointment and shame about misbehaving clergy.  The Church should be above such violations of decency.  We rightly expect a lot of our priests.  Celibacy which should be the shining treasure of Catholic ministry is subjected to ill-repute and questioned as either the cause or situation that enabled wrong doing.  Apologists argue that the celibacy is not the problem but rather the solution— if priests will follow through with their promises.  What we need are shepherds and laity courageous enough to embrace the hard truths that confront us and to fully cooperate with God’s grace in the sacraments toward the cleansing of our ministries.  This will necessitate a full acquisition of the truth; in other words, a realization that the problem is not largely one of pedophilia but of sexually disordered and frustrated men who are mostly but not entirely homosexual.  The proof of the pudding is the number of pederasts who have also broken their promises with adults and older teens.  Of course, if such men kept their promises this discussion and need for purification would be largely mute.  However, promises have been broken and in ways that demonstrate a lack of commitment to faith, holiness and prayer.  They loved God too little and sought satisfaction where it was forbidden to them.

What most of us once regarded as rare and aberrational has proven to be more serious than we imagined and devastating for thousands of children and their families.  Compounding the problem, many wrongly targeted the victims and witnesses that came forward for resulting scandal instead of disciplining rogue clergy and removing them from ministry.  We must continue corrective efforts.  We must perfect policies to protect our youth while insuring a process that safeguards innocent clergy from charges that are not credible.  My worry today is that there is an intense malice that clouds the subject, one that focuses upon any and all clergy, regardless of the truth.  Mercy toward the guilty will not bring restoration to ministry or escape from censures and punishment.  Justice toward the innocent must protect the rights and sacerdotal dignity of priests who may be falsely charged or condemned by association.

Reflecting upon how we might personally respond to the scandals facing the Church, here is a good list:

  1. Stay put and do not abandon the Barque of Peter— remember the words of Peter, where would we go?
  2. Keep faith in Christ and in the Catholic Church— do not stop believing.
  3. Remain faithful to the Mass and the discipline of prayer— offer our own fidelity in reparation for the unfaithful.
  4. Acknowledge our own faults and seek mercy in absolution— while not all sin cries out to heaven, we are all sinners needing forgiveness.
  5. Open your mind about the issues facing us and grow in the faith— as believers we must always know and proclaim the truth.
  6. Continue to live for others in acts of Christian charity— such is an antidote to the selfishness that has manufactured this situation.
  7. Avoid hate and calumny, exhibiting a heartfelt sacrificial love and mercy— if we are to face the devil then we must put on Christ.
  8. Clean your house of that which conflicts with our Gospel witness— we should have no part in the hypocrisy that makes this matter worse.
  9. Seek the purification of the Church from any satanic enemies within— the poison in the mix must be expelled, even if it means the end of individual ministries.
  10. Fight for justice and healing toward the oppressed, wounded and innocent— the dignity of persons must always be safeguarded.

 

The Rise of False Worship

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There are now more witches in America than Presbyterians. Sorcery is on the rise and it is more than fun-and games.

Trust the Power of the Mass for Healing

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I was reminded of the “Healing Your Family Tree” phenomenon among certain Charismatics and Exorcists while reading about Msgr. Clement Machado and watching a few of his YouTube EWTN videos.  He claims to have had visions of the Blessed Mother and St. Patrick.  I am skeptical… but who knows?  The Church has many saints and seers.  The children of Fatima were given a vision of hell so as to pray more fervently for souls.

While Catholicism certainly encourages prayers for the souls of the dead, this idea of targeting sins and woundedness in past generations for current problems faced by believers goes back to the ancient Jews.  They believed that punishment for the sins of one’s fathers could be visited upon the children.  Our notion of Original Sin is an extension of this.  However, at least as a routine source of particular ailments, Jesus seems to dismiss this notion.

“As he passed by he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him. We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world’” (John 9:1-5).

While we would not deny our connection with those who have gone before us, if taken too far, we might fall into superstition or the occult.  The sacrifice of the Mass makes possible atonement but it is a sacrament that conveys grace and mercy.  It is not sorcery or magic.  Further, we cannot purely blame our problems on deceased family members.  We live in a broken world and sometimes we are our own worst enemies.  It may be that certain maladies are placed before us so that we might demonstrate or witness to a courageous faith.  Catholicism does not run away from all sickness and pain but often seeks to transform the dark realities.  They are opportunities for us to take up our crosses in following Jesus. There is already too much of a “victim mentality” inflicting our society— regarding ethnicity, gender, orientation and social status.  I am worried that such ideas as healing the family tree may often be misunderstood in this light.

We are all aware of the excesses of popular Protestant ministers who put on a big show in conducting “purported” healings.  Many pagans and so-called demonologists dangerously tinker with exorcisms.  Returning to the Catholic camp, there is a temptation, especially among the rising celebrity priests, to emphasize what they can do over what Jesus can do.  While the Church needs exorcists, it is best that the ministry be imposed upon the priest rather than enthusiastically embraced outside of an episcopal summons.  Indeed, while any priest can offer absolution and deliverance prayer, full exorcisms require the authorization of the immediate bishop.  (When I think about this issue my mind quickly recalls Fr. Thomas J. Euteneuer, a wonderful defender of human life who fumbled in this area.)

Sharing information is fine, but sensationalism about the devil, exorcism and obsession can pose a real danger.  After the release of popular horror movies, chanceries are bombarded by phone calls of people who all think they are possessed.  While we battle powers and principalities, much sin finds its origin in the world of men and many who imagine they are spiritually afflicted are in actuality mentally disturbed.

During November there is a special emphasis upon prayers for the dead.  Yes, we can claim spiritual benefits for the dead and the living.  There is a two-fold action— uniting and breaking off.  A funeral Mass offered for the dead brings grace and we commend the deceased, particularly the souls in purgatory, to the mercy of God.  They are sped on their way.  We invoke the purification of God’s love, a fire that heals. Our prayer also joins us to the communion of the saints.  Simultaneously, if there are any negative spiritual elements, as with those who have rejected God’s love, then that bond is severed with the living.  The expression “rest in peace” can apply to the living just as well as to the dead.  But ultimate judgment is left to almighty God.  While there might be little or no fanfare, Catholics need to trust the sacraments, especially the Mass.  We need to encourage the offering of Masses for the dead and for healing in times of trauma.  This is the most effective and resolute manner of healing “the family tree.”

My late father back in the 1950’s spent time as a Trappist monk at Holy Cross Monastery in Berryville, VA.  He firmly believed that his life of work and prayer there, combined with the sacrifice of the Holy Mass, facilitated the translation of all our family ancestors from purgatory to heaven.  The emphasis should NOT be upon how links to the dead can plague us.  Rather, recalling that the poor souls are now helpless, we should intercede on their behalf.  As we prepare to celebrate All Souls Day, we should all recommit ourselves to praying for the dead.

Church Scandal & the Devil

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Those who hate the Catholic Church are falling over themselves in blaming pedophile clergy for the abuse and scandals.  They absolutely refuse to acknowledge that the majority of cases are instances of homosexual pederasty.  These critics, that include major newspapers and other news outlets, are in collusion with churchmen who want to protect or hide “gay” priests in the Church and promote the growing acceptance of homosexuality in secular culture.  The devil as the great deceiver has not only corrupted some in the Church but many in our secular society.

When Pope Francis targeted Satan as the primary culprit of the crisis, many public officials, journalists and others roundly ridiculed him.  Article headers around the world heralded a distorted view of his remarks: “Pope Blames Satan Instead of Pedophile Priests!” A spiritual view was derided as a political deflection.  Given that many critics of the Church are also inimical to any and all religious affiliations, this should not surprise us— atheists neither believe in God nor a devil. Nevertheless, the devil is real and if it seems that he is spending an inordinate amount of time and energy attacking the Catholic Church the reason is that she is the house that Jesus built.  However, if he is present in the Church as an interloper, he is alive and well in modern society as a welcomed guest, or at least this is so in terms of his distorted values.  He wants to take ownership of the world and is willing to hide as the ghost in the machine.

Satan_Gustave_Dore_paradise_lost_the_devil_cast_out_of_heavenThe Pope warns us: “We should not think of the devil as a myth, a representation, a symbol, a figure of speech or an idea. This mistake would lead us to let down our guard, to grow careless and end up more vulnerable.” While other confessions broke away from Catholic unity, the legacy of the Catholic Church goes back to Jesus and the first bishop-priests, his apostles.  The devil hates the Church because she is the present-day realization of the incarnation in the world.  Christ is the head and his Church is his Mystical Body.  There is a profound unity.  Given that none are saved apart from Christ, the same can be said about the Church.  As the Mystical Body of our Lord, she is the great sacrament of encounter with Christ.  Even as the Church is composed of sinners and invites others by divine command, the Church remains holy because Christ is holy.  Our Lord’s redemptive work won the victory over sin and death.  However, the consequences must be unraveled throughout subsequent human history.  The devil has lost the war but he still seeks to steal individual souls.  Given the importance of the priesthood and the Eucharist as at the heart of the Church, the devil attacks where he can cause the most damage and scandal.  Just as he can numb the consciences of mothers about the tragic abortion of their children; he deadens the souls of renegade priests to their heinous acts against God’s children, making a sacrilege of their role at the altar and in the confessional.

None of this mitigates the priest’s own culpability for his sins.  Similarly the bishops have an obligation to insure a priesthood that is sanctified by grace and devoted to a service realized in sacrificial love.  They must be new Christs.  We can accept nothing less as it would come from the evil one.  Bishops and priests are called as ministers of mercy or reconciliation.  It is in this regard that we should not dismiss Satan’s efforts to tempt and corrupt priests.  We are not Donatists and the powers of the priesthood are not dependent upon personal holiness.  However, bad priests do not readily invite others to repentance and holiness of life.  Our Lord abhors duplicity.  Compromise the truth and few will listen to our preaching and teaching.

When the devil targets priests, he uses their own loneliness and brokenness against them.  He sows weeds from the beginning in secret.  Things that needed to be said were not said.  Weaknesses were not acknowledged or treated.  Truth was the victim throughout— in the psychological evaluation, in the acceptance into seminary, in the regular reviews of candidates and even as they prostrated themselves before the altar. Men who were afraid thought they could hide their cowardice and defects within the priesthood even though our Lord had admonished his apostles not to be afraid. Men who were not committed to celibate love came forward with divided hearts to be ordained.  Men who were not humbled by a call of service knelt before the bishop with princely dreams instead.  Men who pledged obedience became infected by the poison of Milton’s Satan who cried, “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.” Did any of the rogues possess a genuine conviction to answer a calling from God? If so, what was it that changed their trajectory?  While some of these men deceived themselves; others were given help.

Most priests are good men who seek to realize the holiness of God and the forgiveness of sins, in their lives and in the lives of those to whom they minister.  But it only takes a few bad men to hurt many.  It only takes a moment of passivity or weakness or silence to become complicit in their crimes.

Pope Francis has asked God’s people to pray the rosary every day in October so as to repel the satanic attacks and to exorcise the demonic presence from the Church.  Of course, we should always pray for good and holy priests.  Pope Francis tells us: “The Church must be saved from the attacks of the malignant one, the great accuser, and at the same time be made ever more aware of her guilt— her mistakes— with the abuses committed in the present and the past.”

The Pope has asked us to add to the rosary the traditional intercessory prayer to St. Michael:

“St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou, O Prince of heavenly hosts, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan, and all evil spirits, who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.”

The Ascendant Laity & Reform

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There is increased tension about the role of laity on review boards and in taking leadership efforts to stem abuse of the young and corruption in the Church.  On one side, many traditionalists do not want clergy conceding authority of any sort to the laity.  However, given that the clergy, and particularly bishops, currently have very little moral standing among God’s people, they really have no choice— not if they want the Church to return to good health.  The other side opposes an increased role of “certain” laity, and here I would agree, albeit from the opposite pole of fidelity.  The laity must be a genuine “sensus fidelium” and not one populated by dissenters who would create an entirely new church.  The progressive voices want more than an overhaul; they want a full-blown revolution where the doors would be opened to married priests, women clergy, lay trustee ownership of all Church properties, full acceptance of divorce and subsequent unions, of homosexuals and other emerging sexualities, and a communion table open to all.  It is this group that is fearful of orthodox laity.  While the clergy can be manipulated in labeling the crisis as one of pedophilia, it would be much more difficult to compromise faithful laity into being silent about the true malady which is a homosexuality infestation of Church leadership.

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The faithful laity has the will and the money to get to the root of the Church’s problems, and many (clergy and dissenting laity) want those roots to remain safely hidden in the ground.  Which is preferable, to allow investigations to remain exclusively in the hands of secular or civil authorities who often have a negative animus or real hatred toward the Church; or to allow orthodox laity who love the Church an opportunity to expose the truth about the current scandal so that there might be a necessary purification, restoration and healing?  We want men and women committed both to the faith and to the truth, regardless of the immediate consequences.  Bishops have shown that they cannot police themselves.  Lower ranked clergy too easily become passive pawns to authority.  We should not underestimate the fear that many priests feel.  Their priesthood is not a job but their identity.  Their ordinaries or bishops can easily make or break them— giving them opportunities for rewarding ministries or locking them away with meaningless closeted assignments or sending them to real hell holes where they will be ill-equipped to survive.  Most laity respect their bishops but they are not under their thumbs.  They have sufficient autonomy to act.

The dissenters, among the bishops and the laity, are quick to reject investigative efforts from the orthodox laity.  Even prior to any such work, they are already accusing them of gay-bashing.  They mock them as hardliners obsessed by sex.  But this issue is precisely about sex, more directly, about the homosexual acts between clergy and other men or teenagers.  This is well over 90% of the actual problem.  The dissenters would have us dismiss this and focus on the 2% or less that deals with children and possibly girls.  The orthodox faithful and clergy are not Puritans or Jansenists.  They acknowledge the beautiful teachings on the Theology of the Body that come from St. John Paul II.  There is no derision of the marriage bed between men and women.  But sex outside of marriage is a sin.  Homosexual acts are always outside of marriage and the attraction is a grave disorder.  It is not neutral.  We are called to love and respect our “gay” brothers and sisters.  As with the priesthood, we would urge them to embrace an authentic and faithful celibate manner of loving.  Because of the danger of scandal brought to ministry, the Church should exclude from priesthood all homosexuals who have had sexual encounters.  This is not bigoted hate-speech but the necessary bottom line.  These critics who argue otherwise must not be given their way as they offer no solutions and are part of the problem, itself.

The liberal critics are infuriated that a priest who violates his vows must be expelled from the priesthood.  They employ an analogy in regard to marriage.  They would ask, “Would we insist upon the end of a marriage when a man sins against his matrimonial vows?”  They have a point here, but only to a point.  Much depends on how the vows are broken, the level of contrition and amendment of life and the willingness of the spouse to forgive.  As to the manner of violation, there is voyeurism, pornography, prostitution, adultery (with another woman), homosexually disordered acts and incest.  A union might come to a practical end because it is a sham or dehumanizing to the spouse or a threat to her and the children.  As for a priest, an infidelity with a woman might indeed be forgiven, particularly after a period of counsel and spiritual reflection.  His bride the Church is very merciful, even though it would be best to restart his ministry somewhere else far from the person of temptation.

However, if his vows are broken through an abusive act, particularly of a minor or child,  he can never be restored to ministry.  We do not want rapists of any sort in our active priesthood.  The safety of God’s people must always come first.  If the violation was a homosexual one, even with a consenting male, then he must also be stripped of his faculties and laicized. We cannot risk predation upon altar boys, seminarians or young priests.  A priest must have a certain moral standing and there are certain acts that are so depraved that it is impossible to restore his full sacerdotal dignity and moral authority.   Such a priest must go.

A Scandal that Calls for a New Reformation

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“Christ himself, the model of priests, taught first by the example of his deeds and then by his words: Jesus began to do and then to teach. Likewise, a priest who neglects his own sanctification can never be the salt of the earth; what is corrupt and contaminated is utterly incapable of preserving from corruption; where sanctity is lacking, there corruption will inevitably find its way.”

– St. Pius X

We are taught as Catholics that the Church is holy because Christ is holy.  This is what gives truth value to the second mark of the Church mentioned every time we recite the Creed at Sunday Mass.  The Church is holy and it is by means of the teachings of faith and the sacraments that we can be made holy by grace.  This is what we believe and yet has there ever been a time when it was so very hard to believe? The Church is also composed of sinners; indeed, we are all sinners needing a Savior.  But when it comes to our priests and bishops, we like to imagine that they have a direct line to heaven.  They make little money, forsake a spouse and family and are at the immediate beck-and-call of their flocks.  The lesson that Jesus gives his apostles with the Holy Thursday foot washing is that the greater they would become, the more they would have to humiliate themselves as the servants of all.

Catholicism insists that both bishops and priests should remain celibate— placing the love of the Mystical Body or the Church ahead of all other loves.  At a time when most churches compromise on the moral teachings of Christ; the Catholic faith remains resolute about purity prior to marriage, about the permanence of marriage, about marriage as only a relationship between a man and a woman, about the nature of the marital act as open to the generation of children, and about the sanctity of human life.  The loftier the moral message, the further the messenger might fall when he is exposed as duplicitous.

Our priests witness the marriages of couples in love, consecrating unions with the favor of God and of his Church.  They baptize babies, transforming them from mere creatures of God into adopted sons and daughters of our heavenly Father.  They absolve penitents from their sins, literally stealing the damned from the devil. At Mass they celebrate the sacrifice of Calvary so that we might offer ourselves with Jesus, the Lamb of God, as an acceptable oblation to the Father.  They give us Holy Communion, rations from that promised shore to which we travel as spiritual pilgrims.  Along with bishops, they offer confirmation, completing our baptisms so that we might be enriched by the gifts of the Spirit and made living temples of God.  They anoint the sick, perpetuating the ministry of Jesus in bringing healing to the hurting among us.  They bury the dead, preaching a message of hope that in Jesus love is stronger than death and victorious over the grave.  The priest is at the center of everything Catholic.  That is what makes the current scandal especially devastating.  The faithful are rightly disappointed and upset. Our shepherds are facing a crisis in holiness.

Contagious Scandal & the Loss of Reputation

Any one priest signifies every priest.  This collective appreciation has made the present crisis a damning one.  When the laity look at their priests, they immediately wonder, “Could he be one of those priests?” While regarding only a few, these dark revelations of sin and crime are sufficient in damaging overall trust.

Men presumed as truthful revealed as duplicitous liars.

These are the same men appointed as preachers of the Gospel.  The priest and pastor is the chief catechist of every parish and is entrusted with the faith formation of his people.  What becomes of the message or the Good News when the messenger becomes a witness of bad or scandalous news?  What becomes of his credibility when the mouthpiece of God not only stumbles in his witness but is unveiled as an agent of the devil’s anti-gospel? How can such a man speak to us about the truth when he has failed to put on the mind of Christ?

Men presumed as merciful exposed as sources for sin.

These are the men chosen to give flesh to the Divine Mercy in the ministry of the church.  Who would want to go to confession to such rogues?  Many might think that their sins pale in comparison to such reprobates.  While the efficacy of the sacraments is assured; it is understandable that the faithful would feel stained or polluted by association with these men.  Is it all just empty words and gestures? Compounding the problem, they sometimes substitute malice for mercy and draw others as accomplices into their lives of sin.  How can such men draw us into the love of God when they do not have the heart of Christ?

Men presumed as healers caught as sadistic destroyers.

Jesus condemned the pharisees for placing unnecessary burdens upon good people.  As an antidote he delivered the freedom and healing that belongs to the children of God.  Priests were called to mend souls and to give hope, not to breach their victims from the family of God or to give them cause for despair.  The miscreants in the news destroyed innocence and purposely misdirected the faith trajectory of people’s lives.  They placed their own sexual gratification over sacred promises and the good of persons.  How could they live with themselves, exchanging the joy of right relationship with God for a cruel transitory delight toward others?  Even if there were a failure to love, did they not fear God?

Men presumed as pure are brought to light as defiled.

Priests are commissioned as eschatological signs of Christ’s kingdom.  This is a basic premise behind the promise or vow of celibacy.  Celibacy is not the same as chastity or virginity.  Rather, it is a wondrous way of loving others.  We are corporeal-spiritual composites, creatures of spirit and flesh.  The purity of the body is supposed to immediately signify the virtuous nature of the soul, the existential resolution as one who loves the Lord so tremendously that it spills over in concern for the neighbor.  As opposed to the pattern of the rich man going away sad because of his many possessions, it is the follower of Jesus who seeks to abandon earthly satisfaction so as to be rich in Christ.  What happened to this singleness of purpose in these men?  How is it that they could be satisfied with the carnal man when they were pledged to something greater, the one who lives in the Spirit?

Men presumed as holy are divulged as devils.

We are all called to be saints.  That is our fundamental purpose in life.  Christ as the new Adam comes into the world to restore an innocence that was lost by sin.  The priest is charged as an instrument of the Lord to dispense the divine mysteries in making this objective possible.  His ministrations allow us to enter in the saving paschal mystery.  Here is where the sins of these men become a kind of blasphemy against all that is holy and good.  Instead of realizing their role as sharers in Christ’s priesthood and extending his saving works, they look to the wimpish failure of the first Adam; indeed, worse than this, they play the role of the serpent.  Do they not see how they have been thoroughly soiled as slaves to the devil?  Have they stopped believing entirely?

We are told that a priest, even in mortal sin, can validly administer the sacraments.  This is one of the great absurdities of faith and yet one necessary to insure the efficacy of the sacraments in the life of God’s people.  Of course, while a bad priest might do some good, his bad character often sours the milk and corrupts or tears down what is built up.  This dissimulation probably constitutes a special wound in the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  Our Lord is pained by the priest who is a cheat or hypocrite, even as he is supposed to be “another Christ” at the altar.

It remains a conundrum that a priest might take his people to the very gates of heaven but himself be unable to enter.  While we might think that the graces of priesthood would make it easier for him to go to heaven; certain authorities have argued that it makes the prospect of hell more pressing and dangerous.  Why?  The more one is given, the more for which one will be held accountable.  The priest knows better and cannot claim ignorance.  Everything needed for salvation is immediately available.  That makes any neglect inexcusable.  Further, because he has been configured to Christ by his ordination, the devil targets him for every temptation and assault.  At his altar, at his desk, in his car and in his bed he is always in the midst of a fierce battle with the prince demon of perdition.  Priests who forget this will immediately stumble.  The senses are especially targeted.  The scandals of late all appeal to the flesh and sexuality.  The sins committed are virtually unimaginable.  Minds are clouded.  Hearts are hardened.  The devil will take any crack he can find to pierce the priest’s soul— smoking, drunkenness, gluttony, sloth, anger, jealousy, whatever.  The devil may have failed in his temptation of Christ; but starting with his apostles and coming down through history to his priests and bishops of today, he has found men who sometimes falter and even become his property.  Judas may not be the only bishop-priest in hell.

It is a terrible business when the weak link of faith is the shepherd. The weapons to hurt souls and to attack the Church then come from the very hands of the priest— hands that were consecrated for the chalice and the host.  We as Catholics become our own worst enemies.  It is at such times that we must remember that our faith is placed ultimately not in men but in God.  We should also recall the saints, for theirs is the true legacy of the Church.  Instead of running away, it becomes all the more imperative for God’s people to keep the faith and to demand fidelity and holiness of their priests.  All sins might be forgiven, but the sins against innocence must not be forgotten.  A reform of the Church will mean that some higher churchmen will have to step down, certain priests will have to be removed from ministry and others will have to embrace a heroic apostolate of penance and sanctity.  This is not a time for window dressing but of a true moral reform, to deal both with a hostile secular modernity and a rigid clericalism that makes careerism and a fear of scandal into higher imperatives than protecting God’s flock from the robber and the wolf.

If we enter into the light (not afraid of what will be unmasked) and not in the darkness (where the roaches of sin hide), then we will truly walk with Christ.  As opposed to the clamoring enemies of the Church who see the current scandal as the death knell for Catholicism, maybe it is an unavoidable summons to “grow up” and to become a more effective and genuine witness for Christ in the modern world?  Divine providence is most unfathomable when God draws something of the good from the misdirected evil of men.

How Do We Get Out of This Mess?

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His Enemy Came and Sowed Weeds All through the Wheat

These are dark days for the Church.  One of my friends even said, “These scandals make me feel ashamed to work for the Church.” I well understood.  At every Mass a priest mentions and prays for his bishop by name.  What if a bishop should disappoint you or you discover that one was likely a reprobate?  I suspect a number of priests have paused or recently winced during the saying of the Eucharistic prayer.  In any case, we are called to pray for the good and the bad, always remembering as priests that we are all sinners and have fallen short of the glory of God.

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Jesus’ apostles often disappointed him— one even betrayed and despaired, taking his own life.  I suppose the best of priests are wounded healers.  Nevertheless, there are certain sins that cry out to heaven.  I am reminded of one of the parables:

“The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field. While everyone was asleep his enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off. When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well. The slaves of the householder came to him and said, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where have the weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ His slaves said to him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ He replied, ‘No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until harvest; then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, “First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn.”’” (Matthew 13:24-30)

Is it time for the harvest?  It is so very hard to separate the weeds from the wheat.  Indeed, the weeds threaten to strangle the wheat.  We desperately want to see the weeds bundled and burned.

The Devil Made Me Do It

Alarmists about Vatican II regularly cite a quotation attributed to Pope Paul VI that “from some fissure the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God.”  While I neither have a naïve celebratory nor a pejorative view of the Council, I do feel that a diabolical attack upon the Church extending back to the very beginning of the incarnation is reaching a fever pitch in these latter days.  The assault targets both clergy and lay.  The complicit backdrop is a culture where sexual perversion is increasingly regarded as normative, where immigrant families are derided as criminals and subhumans and where mothers argue for the choice or right to murder their children.

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Just as Christ is the fulfillment of the ancient promise for redemption given our first parents; the devil is all about broken promises.  He corrupted Adam but failed when it came to Jesus and that failure fills him with an eternal spite.  He numbs consciences to the truth about the sanctity of life and the dignity of persons.  He hardens hearts, not merely against charity but even about what should be obvious in regards to compassion, mercy and decency.  Truth is an immediate casualty but so is the love that beckons to us from the Cross.  We become comfortable with our sins and selfishness.  Divine commands become weak suggestions.

Christ was tempted but could not fall; however, we still struggle with the brokenness of the first Adam.  Apart from Christ we are destined to fail.  The world pampers our pride.  The flesh entices our senses.  The devil seeks to oppress and even to possess us.  Satan has a burning hatred for us and the Church.  He lost the war against Christ but continues to corrupt and steal in skirmishes for individual souls.  We should not pretend that the devil is a fool.  He knows that the best way to hurt the Church is to undermine her ministers— as goes the priesthood, so goes the Church.  It was only a matter of time that this crisis would turn to the bishops given that they possess the fullness of priesthood.

Jesus redeemed us and yet some would return to their bondage of suffering, sin and death.  We hear the devil speaking through the mouths of his slaves all the time:  “I am not a saint so why try? May we always be going to hell but never get there.  You can’t tell me what to do.  If it feels good then do it.  It is my body.  Everyone is doing it! Those foreigners are all drug dealers and rapists!  I’ll run over anyone who gets in my way!  Going to church is a waste of my time.  To hell with her brains, I want her for her body.  We don’t want his kind around here. It only becomes a baby if you want it.”  Yes, I am convinced that the devil has a hand in this abuse scandal; but, of course, none of the guilty can escape personal culpability.

Man Has Made Himself the Measure of All Things

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Everything is salted with sensuality and eroticism: television, movies, music, books, art, the internet, etc.  Fifty Shades of Grey becomes a bestselling book and it leads to sequels and films, affirming that pornography has truly gone mainstream.  We feed our children to demons, not only with abortion but by eroticizing adolescents— dressing them as provocative adults, putting makeup on babies, romanticizing their juvenile relationships and allowing them to set the rules in our homes (giving them everything they want).  We fill their heads with profane music and delight in their dancing, much as did lecherous Herod over Salome.  Nevertheless, denying our own cooperation in sin, we point the finger at others when lines are crossed.  Man imposes his strictures of fad as dictates over natural law, the height of lunacy. Few are willing to admit that gender confusion and same-sex unions have fashioned a twisted parody of marriage. A political correctness mislabels the clergy scandal so that it cannot be adequately addressed. We clamor about a few pedophiles when the problem remains a cabal of unsated homosexual pederasts.

Forbidden are a host of words and concepts like purity, chastity, virginity, temperance, obedience, duty, sacrifice, etc.  Truth is no longer “what is” but simply “what we want it to be.” A Christian society has largely vanished.  Many elements of the Church have given up the fight and have been seduced.  Custody of the eyes is virtually impossible.  If there remains any element of shame from damaged consciences and complicity in scandal then it is brushed aside by critics upon others.  We find much of this transference in how the Church is faulted, especially her clergy.  A problematical infestation of active homosexuals is ignored or tolerated because the culture wants to affirm and normalize homosexuality.  Thus, the errant priests who largely target males are labeled as “pedophiles” when in actuality they are essentially repressed homosexuals acting out with other men or committing pederasty with older minors. (I must quickly add that this judgment should not diminish a respect for persons or insinuate that all homosexuals are a danger to minors. We need to be sympathetic to those who seek to be chaste and celibate, even if they should not be welcomed into holy orders.)

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Where do we go from here?  Silence is not the answer; indeed, it becomes part of the problem.  Moving the men around is not the answer; like shipping the trash out to sea it only makes a problem for others somewhere else.  Much of the damage evades healing, at least in this world.  What is done cannot be undone.  (Many of us hoped and prayed that this problem was largely behind us.)  Now we know that most of us will be long in the grave before these troubled seas are calm again.

The late cardinal-priest Avery Dulles was a prophet about this problem, urging adequate protections for innocent priests but also alerting the bishops that they should not exclude themselves from inspection, reprimand and public penance. When these issues first began to make headlines the USCCB recommended a day of penance for the laity to pray upon this issue— but the criticism was rightfully made that the laity would prefer to see the bishops and priests on their knees.  The situation with the disoriented and misbehaving clergy might have been a symptom of a sick society and a repressive Church but still people were right to argue about the blinders that some of the shepherds were wearing.  I suppose the issue of fault is often connected to liability and lawyers.  It should be about contrition, amendment of life and penance.

The revelations during the last few weeks have caused many of us who love the Church, clergy and laity alike, to weep as we have prayed.  How can we win back the confidence of God’s people as credible witnesses to the Gospel? The flock has every right to be upset at the many allegations of misconduct and the passivity from bishops in protecting our children.  Where was accountability in all this?  How could anyone move up the ranks of the hierarchy when there were sordid rumors and even past settlements for sexual misbehavior?  Many of us are shaking our heads; it is so unbelievable.  And yet, like throwing gasoline into an open fire, there are many in authority claiming “I did not know” or “We thought we could morally reform the man” or “A few of the details need correction or clarification.”  No one should be falsely charged, either in the commission of heinous acts or as concealing that which cries out to be known; however, missteps were made and we will never move forward while there is a refusal to accept responsibility for how matters were handled.

I’m Mad as Hell and I am Not Going to Take This Anymore!

Most bishops do not regularly live and work in parishes.  They may not be fully aware of how angry people are.  I am reminded of the 1976 movie Network where the television newscaster shouts, “You’ve got to say: I’m a human being, g-dammit! My life has value! So, I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell: I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!”

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As I said, the faithful have every right to be upset.  They deserve good and holy priests.  They should expect that their bishops and priests would love and protect them, especially the children.  Will we see more empty pews?  Will needed funds dry up?  I cannot yet say, although I have heard more than one person say that he or she will be cutting back.  As with the lawsuits and large monetary awards to victims and their lawyers— we could also end up victimizing the faithful in the pews and the needy in our communities. While the Church’s moral authority is compromised, we are still a voice and helping hand for the oppressed and the poor.  What will happen to them if our resources are stripped away from the Church?

A Proposal for the Future

I have a hard time believing some of the things I am hearing.  I do not want to believe it all.  The deteriorating situation signifies bad news in terms of our credibility in proclaiming the Good News.  Again, what must we do?  Msgr. Charles Pope writes:

“As a lower-ranking priest I cannot issue demands or send binding norms to those in wider and upper ranks of the hierarchy, but I do want to say to God’s faithful how powerfully aware I am of their justified anger and agree with their insistence that something more than symbolic action or promises of future reform is necessary.”

At the end of his article at the National Catholic Register, he states:

“Remember, too, not every bishop or priest is equally to blame. Some are suffering as much as you are. However, no one, clergy or lay, should exempt himself from the task of summoning the Church to reform and greater holiness.”

That is exactly the case and I would like to applaud his courage and forthrightness in saying so.

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It is my view that only something drastic will make any difference in the current climate of anger and distrust.  I am only a priest and maybe a poor one, but here are my suggestions:

  • There should be a new review board given over entirely to the laity (men and women) where bishops could participate as observers and advisors (on ecclesial protocols as well as canonical and theological questions.)
  • While certain facets of professional secrecy and the seal of confession would have to be respected, there should be no secret agreements and a general transparency in the process.
  • There would need to be collaboration with the Holy See, not only to modify certain canons of the Church (returning to the explicit language of the 1917 code), but to create an independent canonical board and to facilitate canonical trials.
  • This review board should also become a clearing house for charges against clergy, especially bishops; priests would be able to share what they know without fear of reprisal in their dioceses.
  • There should be a general purge of those in the upper hierarchy who have tolerated active homosexuality or who have failed in their duty to protect vulnerable persons and the young from predator priests (through either silence or shuffling clergy elsewhere).
  • There should be a bill of rights for priests to insure justice and due process in determining innocence or guilt along with a provision for legal representation (an innocent priest should not be reduced to bankruptcy in trying to defend his good name while Church lawyers defend bishops).
  • Continue to insure that those who have abused or harmed minors would be permanently removed from Church ministries.
  • Insure that all programs of priestly formation also include regular psychological evaluation from a therapist who assents to Church teaching on human sexuality, not minimizing issues like consensual heterosexual relations (fornication), homosexual acts, masturbation, pornography and/or a general discomfort around women.
  • Forbid seminary formation to anyone who has committed homosexual acts and permanently remove any priests from ministry who violate their celibacy in committing them.
  • Suspend a priest from active ministry who has violated his celibacy with heterosexual acts, requiring either his laicization or that he spend five years doing penance in a monastic environment along with appropriate counseling prior to returning to ministry in another (arch)diocese.
  • Reparation for victims that brings some degree of healing and help to those harmed while not destroying the resources that rightly belong to those in the pews and to those assisted by our charity and justice initiatives. (Do we have to review the “corporate sole” model?)
  • Promote policies that both protect vulnerable persons and yet insure fair and just treatment for those accused.
  • As witnessed by Pope Francis, bishops should be required in all cases to live a very modest lifestyle with no more perks than those given to the poorest priest.
  • A penitential reform within the Church that would fully restore the Friday fasting and abstinence practices of the past for everyone and add particular acts of penance (over and above this) for all bishops and priests.
  • A daily campaign of praying the Rosary and/or the Liturgy of the Hours for the sanctification of priests, the fidelity of the Church and the conversion of sinners.
  • Restore the Prayer of St. Michael the Archangel to the liturgy, either at the end of the bidding prayers or at the conclusion of the Mass (Satan needs to be uprooted).

Reverse the Pyramid: Faithful Laity Can Save the Church

This is one of those situations where the good suffer along with the bad.  The true “sensus fidelium” is not with dissenters, but with the faithful laity and they are the ones through their prayers and intervention who will now make a difference. Everyone should pray for the Church. Dialogue with the bishops and priests must be fair and open.  This is not a situation the bishops can fix.  As one person said to me, “Their credibility is shot!”

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I noticed online that a few of the Hollywood celebrities have added their two cents (mostly negative) to this crisis in the Church.  It would seem to me that when it comes to scandal they should be the last ones to talk, but I suppose it makes good fodder for deflection.  Pointing to the sins of others takes the attention off one’s own. Years ago when these scandals first broke, I asked an elderly priest (who has since gone to God) about such matters.  He explained that he was surprised about the child abuse but that the problem of errant priests was not new.  However, he explained, the Church treated transgressions (as when a priest fell with a woman) entirely as moral ones, not focusing on psychological issues or any kind of pathology beyond the man’s control.  It was presumed that after a reprimand, going to confession, a retreat and a verbal assurance of repentance— that a priest might be returned to ministry.  Evidently, when it came to some of them, and particularly regarding disordered urges and an attraction to youth, no such assurances could be trusted.

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There has been a great deal in the news about allegations of misconduct by Cardinal McCarrick.  He has resigned from the College of Cardinals and Pope Francis has ordered him to pursue a “life of prayer and penance.” There is not much more that I can say about what has come out about Cardinal McCarrick.  He was a great communicator and extremely charismatic.  We clashed years ago when I openly opposed the practice of giving Holy Communion to pro-abortion politicians.  I am still deeply troubled about such policies, although the scope seems to be expanding to include invitations for those in adulterous unions to take the sacrament and even to receive absolution.  How can the mortal sins of enabling murder or committing marital infidelity properly dispose one for the divine mysteries?  I shake my head.  Maybe I am too stupid to understand?  I promised him years ago that I would pray for him daily.  Now, more than before, I am dedicated to keeping that promise.

The Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report on sex abuse in the Catholic Church was hard to read.  I became overwhelmed by grief and wept.  How could this happen?  Priests are called “Father” and fathers are supposed to protect, nurture and heal their children.  My next emotion was anger.  Men broke their promises and they lied about it.  Others were so afraid of scandal and litigation that they apparently kept silent.  Was this the Church for which I sought to be a priest by entering the seminary 40 years ago?  Our faith is ultimately not in weak men but in Jesus who is God come down from heaven to save us.  Given all the negativity and the painful stories, how is it affecting the people in the pews?  (I am planning a monthly parish program on the saints.  That is where we find the real legacy of the Church.  We will focus on those who faithfully ran the race and won their crowns.)

Years ago when I heard that Cardinal Wuerl was coming to Washington I was delighted as I had been a fan of his catechism, The Teaching of Christ, going back to my college seminary days.  His little book, The Mass: The Glory, the Mystery, the Tradition, co-authored with Mike Aquilina, is a real gem and a useful tool in teaching about the Eucharistic liturgy.  As one of his priests, it is hard to hear all the criticism from his time in Pittsburgh.  It seems to me that he did so very much to make a positive difference in protecting children.  Did he stumble at some point?  I am certain that there are many families and victims appreciative for what he tried to do for them.  There has been some talk that the Grand Jury Report got a number of particulars wrong.  I am not in possession of all the facts and so I will leave it up to others to figure out.  I will keep him in my prayers, especially in the Mass, and urge our good people in the pews not to despair.

I am reminded of John Cardinal Newman’s work on the Arian crisis and St. Athanasius when so many of the bishops had fallen into heresy. He concluded that in the fourth century the laity were the heroes who had saved the day for the true faith. While the Lord will be the one to ultimately separate the weeds from the wheat or the goats from the lambs, we need to trust our good lay men and women today.  I am not talking about dissenters but the homeschooling family, the teacher in the parish school, the volunteers running the bible study, the Blue Army lady always rattling off her beads in the lonely church, the teenager eager to serve Mass, the Knights of Columbus men who actively live out charity in communities, the virtuous souls who march for life and stand outside abortion clinics praying for the unborn and their parents, the reader faithful to his service, the altar guild ladies who help set up for the liturgy, etc. Allowing the laity to take the lead may be hard for bishops as it seems to be a surrender of their authority; however, in truth this is precisely the kind of humiliation that may restore their moral jurisdiction as servants of the Most High God.

Statement from the Archdiocese of Washington to Pastors

Many of you have addressed the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report, as well as the Archbishop McCarrick matter in homilies or comments to your parishioners.  Cardinal Wuerl requests that you not shy away from addressing these matters again in a spirit and manner that you feel appropriate. He also requests that you include in your Prayers of the Faithful the following intercession:

“For young people and our most vulnerable that they remain safe and protected, and for those survivors of abuse whether by power or violence, especially by the clergy who have not lived up to their call to holiness. Let us pray to the Lord.”

Finally, as a concluding prayer after the Prayers of the Faithful, he requests the following Prayer for Healing Victims of Abuse from the USCCB:

God of endless love,
ever caring, ever strong,
always present, always just:
You gave your only Son
to save us by the blood of his cross.

Gentle Jesus, shepherd of peace,
join to your own suffering
the pain of all who have been hurt
in body, mind, and spirit
by those who betrayed the trust placed in them.

Hear our cries as we agonize
over the harm done to our brothers and sisters.
Breathe wisdom into our prayers,
soothe restless hearts with hope,
steady shaken spirits with faith.
Show us the way to justice and wholeness,
enlightened by truth and enfolded in your mercy.

Holy Spirit, comforter of hearts, 
heal your people’s wounds
and transform our brokenness.
Grant us courage and wisdom, humility and grace,
so that we may act with justice
and find peace in you.

We ask this through Christ, our Lord. Amen.

FROM CARDINAL WUERL:

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Episcopal Support as Pope Carries Out Reform

Statement Regarding Archbishop McCarrick

Statement on PA Grand Jury Report

Statement in Response to Grand Jury Report (in full)

But Judging Credibility in Abuse Cases Is a Tough Call

“I Met with Every Victim” (TV Interview)

FROM OTHER SOURCES:

Scapegoating Cardinal Wuerl

Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report Debunked

Pope Francis is on the Side of the Victims of Pennsylvania Abuse

The Good Ole Shepherds Club

Bishops will Have to Sacrifice Power & Privilege to Resolve the Abuse Crisis

Bishop Morlino: ‘Homosexual Subculture’ a Source of Devastation

After PA Grand Jury Report, Will Laws Change to Better Protect Children?

US Bishops Express Anguish Over Abuse Reports

Active Homosexuality in the Priesthood Helped Cause This Crisis

Janet Smith to Bishops: ‘Save the Church — Tell Everything’

Heaven & the Comedy of God

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One definition of humor is this:  “complying with the wishes of someone in order to keep them content or happy with us, no matter how unreasonable such wishes might be.”  It is in this vein that we might understand God and heaven as having a sense of humor.  It may be that in the kingdom that which is serious and that which is comic somehow coalesce or become one.

There is much about the truth of Christ which consoles and challenges, and yet, simultaneously there is much that seems absurd. Creation itself is not immune from the comic.  It should be warned that trying to discern this element in God might inadvertently lead to a kind of cynicism.  For instance, focusing on God as the author of creation, I have heard it remarked: “Why did God make the most fertile females in the world, only sixteen years old?” Teens that are least able to deal with the needs of children easily have babies while established and mature women struggle to have offspring.  Those who work with crisis pregnancies often shake their heads in bewilderment.  We can laugh or we can cry about it.  God’s ways often seem unfathomable. It is almost as if intelligent design took a wrong turn.

Turning to salvation history, the ministry of Jesus begins with a humorous oddity.  His mother tells him that they have run out of wine at a wedding banquet.  Our Lord is curt, what has this to do with me— my time has not yet come?  Mary tells the servants to do as he says.  He has water poured into jars.  The stewards are already imagining the disappointment of the gathering when they get water instead of wine.  But miraculously water becomes wine; indeed it is the best wine so far.  Who would have thought such a thing?  Surprise!

If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out!  If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off! Call no man your father!  You must be born again!  He who loses his life will save it!  He who does not hate mother and father is not worthy of me! Let the dead bury their dead! Hebraic hyperbole gives an emphasis to the demands of Christ, but still they seem crazy to our ears.  If we were to view such matters in a literal way, we would find ourselves set firmly within a Monty Python script.

There are some elements of the Gospel that readily lend themselves to joking.  Even the questions of Jesus can be funny.  A blind man comes up to Jesus and our Lord asks, “What do you want?”  Is it not obvious?  It may be he was hoping that someone would ask for sins to be forgiven, but the given response was more than likely.  He says, “I want to see!”  No surprise in the response here, only in the question.

When a woman is caught in adultery, our Lord tells the crowd, let the one without sin cast the first stone.  The text relates that they all walk away and that our Lord, who could condemn her, forgives her instead.  A contemporary joke version has a stone sailing past Jesus and plunking the woman on the head, knocking her down.  Surprised, Jesus looks around and then says, “Mother, I told you to stay home!” (This is a Catholic joke as we understand Mary to be the sinless or immaculate Virgin Mary.)

Our Lord tells parables that are familiar to us but which were ridiculous to his first listeners.  Which among you would not leave his ninety-nine sheep to go in search of the one lost lamb?  Later, he speaks about the shepherd rejoicing in having found it.  However, in truth, most shepherds would have written it off.  Why risk all the rest to thieves and wolves? And yet, this good shepherd regards the least of his flock as having a value commensurate with all the rest.  This is crazy but it is part of the irony or humor of God.  Then there is the story of the good housewife.  She tears her house apart in search of a lost coin.  When she finds it she has a party with her friends that probably amounted to more than the coin’s value.  Again, his listeners, probably frugal women, would have thought the whole business was crazy or nonsensical.

Take the last place at gatherings.  You must become like little children.  Sell all that you have and follow me.  The one who would be the greatest must become the least servant of all.  Our Lord never lets up.  The absurdity is amplified as the topics become more grave or important.  Thousands have followed him to an isolated location.  When asked to dismiss them so that they might find sustenance, he tells his apostles to feed the crowd themselves.  All they have are a few fish and a little bread.  Nevertheless the multitude are fed and there is food left over.

His humor is so severe that one day most of his followers walk away. He says that unless we eat his flesh and drink his blood then we can have no life in us.  Today, the guys in the white suits would be coming to take him away.  And yet, it is precisely this Eucharist that has sustained the Church for two thousand years.  Indeed, these are the rations from the promised shore to which we travel as pilgrims of faith.  We must become a parable people.  We must become fools for Christ.

Everyone likes to receive a gift or reward, so Jesus assures us of a litany of favors. Our Lord gives a series of benedictions, assuring us that we will receive the kingdom, will be comforted, inherit the land, have justice satisfied, know mercy, see God, become God’s children, and one more thing—know persecution, including torture and murder.  It sounded pretty good until that last bit.  But such is the humor of God.  “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven” (Matthew 5:11-12).

“For as I see it, God has exhibited us apostles as the last of all, like people sentenced to death, since we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and human beings alike. We are fools on Christ’s account, but you are wise in Christ; we are weak, but you are strong; you are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clad and roughly treated, we wander about homeless and we toil, working with our own hands. When ridiculed, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we respond gently. We have become like the world’s rubbish, the scum of all, to this very moment “(1 Corinthians 4:9-13). Our Lord writes his straight lines with our crooked ones.  He shows his greatness, not by calling the best of men but making the least and the weakest into his ministers and messengers.

These are the ones that make up the great saints of heaven.  Yes, the joke is on us, but it is a joke that brings not brief laughter but eternal joy.  The infinite and omnipotent God has filled his house with the likes of thieves, prostitutes and traitors.  Just as he could change water to wine and wine and bread into his flesh and blood, he can transform the weakest of sinners into the greatest of saints.  I suspect, albeit in a spiritual manner, there erupts a celestial guffaw that the children of heaven appreciate and which leaves the devils of hell scratching their heads.  They do not get it and that is why they have cast themselves outside the gates to paradise.

The greatest humor or ironic sign of contradiction is found in the heart of the incarnation.  It is here that we discover the full scope of infinite power, love and humor.  The perfect Spirit, the Creator of this and all dimensions and universes, the one who is truly omnipotent and omniscient, the one that stands outside and yet sustains all that he has made— makes himself almost infinitely small, weak and subject to all the petty jealousies and enmity of humanity.  The devil is the first to distance himself from God in utter disbelief— something ridiculous and impossible happens— the great Unmoved Mover moves… and the Word becomes flesh.