Ash Wednesday Catholics: What Are they Saying to Us?

Reflecting on last week’s Ash Wednesday Masses it is possible to observe an unusual and puzzling sight. On this day, almost every priest looks out into a congregation that is barely recognizable. To be sure there are many familiar faces of those who regularly attend. But almost half (!) or more of the congregation is populated by faces unknown. Have tour busses unloaded their riders from distant lands? Is this the holiday season where many are here visiting family? No, this is Ash Wednesday, a most peculiar day. Even days before, the phones start ringing and rather urgent voices on the other end ask, “When will ashes be given?” One might almost think that ashes were necessary for salvation. Sadly, to none of the Sacraments is such urgency attached, even among the more faithful. Baptisms, confessions, marriages and Mass itself are often delayed, or even wholly omitted. But come Ash Wednesday there is an urgent and laser-like focus exhibited by large numbers of otherwise disinterested Catholics, it seems like many are majoring in the minors. 

We may lament this, but what can we learn from this? Somehow, even if unwittingly, the Church has powerfully connected with a large segment of otherwise non-practicing Catholics as well as the unchurched. Ashes are awesome! Really? It’s pretty humbling isn’t it? The usual Catholic attempts to seem positive and “relevant” such as trendy music and positive “welcoming” themes are often found wanting. But then, these ashes, which break all the “rules” and theories of modern evangelization powerfully connect with the very folks we are trying to reach. Maybe we have things to learn! 

Consider that the message of Ash Wednesday and the imposing of ashes is not one of our more joyous and positive messages. The fundamental message of this sacramental is, “You are going to die.” Sure we use a little poetry to say it: “Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” But, its fundamental message is still the same: “You are going to die.” Even if one uses the alternate formula, “Repent and believe the Gospel”, repent is not one of our more cheerful or “welcoming” messages. People are not piling into Church to hear John 3:16 (God so loved the world…) and take some valuable or lasting token like a holy card or religious medal. They are lining up to have dirty ashes smeared on their forehead and to hear that they are going to die and need to repent before it’s too late. The Prophet Joel and St. Paul issue urgent warnings that we should weep and fast on account of our sins, that we must repent and be reconciled to God. 

This is hardly what most modern evangelizers tout as the way to reach souls. But souls line up for it every year. Granted, many are not convicted enough to come again until next year, but the point is that the one time they DO come is on a day that breaks almost every precept of the  “welcoming community” message at the heart of modern Church out-reach. 

Why is this and what can we learn? In answering this I do not have vast polling data on which to rely. I have only anecdotal data from years of talking to Ash Wednesday Catholics and from hearing what others have discovered in their conversations. So, take what you like from my thoughts and leave the rest. Here then are a few thoughts. 

Belonging seems to be deeper than membership or practice. 

Many have left the formal practice of the faith and active membership. Some have angry differences with the Church, other have simply drifted or are indifferent. But, when it comes time to answer a survey question of their religious identity, they still check “Catholic.” Ash Wednesday somehow taps into this belonging and identity. It is a day, through the wearing of ashes or the participation in a well known rite that many of these Catholics say, “I still belong….These are my roots…I may not be a “good” Catholic, but Catholic I am.” In some sense, one might leave the Church but the Church never really leaves them; something is still there nudging them not to forget. To a lesser degree Palm Sunday serves a similar purpose and that little piece of palm leaf displayed in the home, usually on or near the crucifix gives voice to Mother Church’s tug on our heart. Though it, some Catholics say, “Through I am distant, I still belong.” In places like Mexico and the U.S., some Hispanics have gone to the Evangelical denominations, but the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is still prominent in their homes. It is as if to say, “You can take the Man out of the Church, but you can’t take the Church out of the Man.” 

Yes, belonging has deep roots, and somehow, people ritually express a kind of “forget me not” to the Church. Clearly we want to offer them more, but at least there is still some connection, some homing beacon that reminds us and them that they “still belong.”

A serious and sober message carries weight. 

Though the message associated with the imposition of ashes is not a cheerful one, it does carry weight; it is something to take seriously and something which commands respect. Hence the Church is attractive when she preaches and teaches in a way that is substantial and respectable. Most people know that not everything is right in their lives and the message of Ash Wednesday resonates with this instinct. Most people, in seeking a doctor, want one who takes disease seriously and is willing to have an honest conversation about what must be done. Even if they are not ready or willing to follow all of his or her advice, they ultimately want the truth and will not respect a doctor who is not serious or engages in mere flattery. To a significant degree we have lost a sense of this in the Church. 

As noted above, there has been a tendency in the past fifty years to “lighten up.” Great emphasis is put on “positive themes” such as God’s mercy and goodness, but little emphasis on repentance, which is the key that unlocks that mercy. There is almost a pathological avoidance of controversial moral teachings or more “negative” themes such as death, judgment, heaven and hell. No one should ever be upset and the fear of consequences should not be elicited. Parishes should be welcoming and non-judgmental, homilies encouraging and uplifting, sacrifices and reparation for sin and the demands of discipleship are soft-pedaled. And of course, “God is Love,” but that “love” is more often presented as a soft kindness, rather a strong love that seeks to set things right and bring us to the healing of holiness. Affirmation too often eclipses transformation. As for the liturgy, it is often not often celebrated in a way that says something profound and healing is taking place here. And while some think this is the necessary approach today to win converts, our churches have been steadily emptying through this period of “Catholic Lite.” 

Further, such a pastoral strategy does not elicit the respect and reverence necessary if the Church is going to preach the Gospel with authority.  And though many modern liturgists fear that negative themes will repulse modern man, Ash Wednesday calls such fears into question. So too Palm Sunday whose theme is the Passion. The Palm Sunday Gospel is long and intense; the suffering due to our sins is made quite clear. Yet attendance is also very good, in some places, even better than Easter or Christmas. 

So here are some things to learn in terms of Evangelization. These observations are not intended in an absolute sense. Balance is needed where the bad news of sin, death and our need to repent are blended with the good news of mercy, healing and salvation. There is an old saying, “If you don’t know the bad news, the good news is no news.” Collectively we have been too averse to presenting the bad news. But as Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday show, many of the unchurched are willing to hear it and fundamentally know it is true. The bad news also highlights how wonderful the good news is. 

It is also clear that, whatever respect Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday command, it is not enough. Only rarely do attendees at an Ash Wednesday Mass experience the conversion that helps the Church seal the deal. Looking to the future we do well to ponder how we might make use of evangelical moments such as Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, as well as funerals, weddings and baptisms. Many unchurched are encountered in such moments and simply preaching light-heartedly may need to be balanced with sober calls for repentance and a decision to walk with the Lord in the Church and in the Sacred Liturgy. 

Warnings have their place and as Ash Wednesday shows, such messages are not as unappealing as many in the Church think. If we want Ash Wednesday Catholics to become All Sunday Catholics, maybe we can learn to build on what brings them in the first place and be less anxious to echo the opening words of Jesus’ public ministry, “Repent and Believe the Gospel!”

Don’t Forget the Old Evangelization

The term “New Evangelization” was originally used by Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI to refer to the unique situation of the West, wherein we were not preaching the Gospel to a people who had not heard it, but were instead “re-presenting” the Gospel to a culture that had once embraced the Gospel and later rejected it. In essence, the term means “re-evangelization.”

In his “Latin Letters,” C.S. Lewis quipped that while the ancient Europe encountered by the Apostles and the early Church was a virgin awaiting her groom, Jesus Christ, modern Europe is an angry divorcée.

Reaching this quite different audience, of course, would require adjusting the way in which the message was delivered. “New Evangelization” was the phrase used to signify this.

However, many have taken up the phrase in a less restrictive sense and use it in the marketing sense of “new and improved!” This has opened the terminology to abuse and misunderstanding such that it comes to mean that we must mimic secular marketing principles and “mega-church” tactics. To some, it also means that we must alter the message of the Gospel by emphasizing what is popular and pleasant, while minimizing what is challenging and countercultural.

“Welcoming” has become the watchword for many in world of the misconstrued “New Evangelization.” Being welcoming is most often used to mean being nice, pleasant, unchallenging, and completely inoffensive. The only problem with this is that Jesus, as we shall see, wouldn’t qualify for membership on such an evangelization committee.

As a kind of admonition and corrective to much of this, Eric Sammons wrote a few years ago, The Old Evangelization: How to Spread the Faith Like Jesus Did. Consider this passage:

We have a simplistic notion of what it means to love our neighbors. We think of it strictly as being nice to them. Yet … Jesus rarely ever appears “nice” as we moderns would define it. On the contrary he is usually abrupt, sparing with compliments, and willing to confront others directly about their failings. He appears not to follow Dale Carnegie’s advice about “how to win friends and influence people.” Yet he has a deeper love for every individual than we will ever imagine (pp. 51-52).

It would seem that Jesus never got the memo when it comes to many modern notions of evangelization. To be sure, many found in Jesus remarkable love and healing, but it was not the sort of saccharine and soft love (understood as mere kindness) that so many think of today. It was a strong, vigorous love. It was providing true healing rather than mere emotional relief.

Healing often requires difficult surgeries. Healing can hurt. It can disclose deep drives that require strong rebuke and aggressive therapies. Many people are looking for relief, but not healing. Jesus was in the healing business and was more than willing to assert that the cross was the necessary remedy for what ails us. A lot of this does not sit well with the welcoming, pleasant paradigm of evangelization.

In his book, Mr. Sammons goes on to remind us of the true goal of evangelization:

[We think that] if we are nice enough, everyone will want to be our friends. But that was not goal of Jesus Christ. His goal was to covert sinners, to rescue souls from damnation and bring them to their eternal reward in heaven (p. 52).

True spiritual health and final salvation are the goals. Hospitality and making people feel good and welcome have a place initially, but it’s a little bit like the dentist’s office. A nice waiting room, pleasant hygienists, soothing music, and a smiling dentist are all good, but once the pleasantries are accomplished, we have to talk about dental health and get down to the business of teeth cleaning, and checking for cavities and gum disease. If a dentist sees problems and says nothing because niceness is his goal, he is not being nice or compassionate at all. Indeed, by his silence, he is guilty of serious malpractice and unworthy of his title, Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS).

It is the same with an evangelizer. An evangelizer is unworthy of the title if he leaves the call to repentance and conversion unspoken. Pleasantries and a welcoming environment have their initial place but if that is all there is, then there is no true evangelization taking place and it is outright malpractice on the part of the evangelizer, parish, or Church.

True love for others desires what is best for them, not merely what is apparently good or pleasant in the moment. The fundamental kerygma (Gospel proclamation) is summarized as follows: “Repent and believe the Gospel” (Mk 1:15). These were the opening words of Jesus’ public ministry of evangelization. I seriously doubt that most parishes would even consider such a proclamation as central to their evangelization program.

In modern settings (and probably in Jesus’ day), “Repent” is not exactly a “welcoming” word, but it is a loving word nonetheless. “Repent” suggests (actually, it outright says) that there are problems and that changes are needed. Yes, there are some problems that need attention and some drives that must be called sinful whether or not it is politically correct or popular to do so. The transformative Word and grace from God can heal and perfect us, but we must come to believe the Gospel. To believe the Gospel is to accept the wisdom of the cross, which is absurdity to the world.

Thus, “Repent and believe the Gospel” challenges; it doesn’t always feel welcoming. Eric Sammons further notes,

Too many Catholics will avoid tough topics in the desire to remain “welcoming.” But this is exactly where we most fail in evangelization. In order to make disciples, we must be willing to push into uncomfortable areas … Only by doing so will we bring another to confront the truth. (p. 57).

Only the truth will set us free. Care and prudence will assist us in knowing how and when to shift from welcoming to making disciples, but we cannot forever remain in welcoming mode and call it true evangelization. The true Gospel comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable; each of us, including the people we evangelize, is a little bit of both.

Be careful, then. The term “New Evangelization” is not always rightly understood.

I recommend Eric Sammons’ book as an important help in understanding that the “New Evangelization” cannot exclude the “Old Evangelization” established by Jesus and the Apostles, which must remain our truest model. It is not that there are no insightful aspects of the “New Evangelization” Just be careful not to embrace the new so much that the old is repudiated. Jesus’ approach was quite different from many versions of the “New Evangelization.” It would be an ironic twist if Jesus and His methods were not welcome in your warm, embracing, and welcoming parish.

At work here is the supreme evangelizer, even though He breaks almost every modern rule:

Paradoxes of Evangelization

There are mysterious aspects to the growth or decline of the Church. Jesus said,

This is how it is with the Kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how (Mark 4:26-29).

Thus, the Lord teaches that much of the growth in the Kingdom of God is mysterious; it works “we know not how.”

Perhaps with this and other things in mind, St. Paul further developed the paradox in today’s first reading (Friday of the 21st Week of the Year) of God’s ways of reaching the world. What we tend to think is good “marketing” does not seem to impress God. He delivers to the world a message that is not popular, but because it is of Him it wins the day. Consider this passage:

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness, and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord” (1 Cor 1:20ff).

Consider some of the paradoxical and countercultural ways in which St. Paul says that must we engage the world:

  • The cross, not comfort – Many people today say that we should speak more tenderly. We should be more positive, less demanding, and more merciful. We should strive to be known more for what we are for than what we are against. It is said that honey attracts more than vinegar, but clearly St. Paul and the Holy Spirit don’t agree, for we are exhorted to preach “Christ crucified” even though this is an absurdity to the world. Let us not forget to manifest our joy, but even in doing so let us not neglect to embrace the paradox of the cross.
  • Fools more so than formally educated – Studying and learning have their place. Learn your faith well and be prepared to defend it with patience and love. Parishes need to do a better job of teaching the faith to those who would spread it. However, we must not equate learning with godly wisdom. As St. Paul notes, the early Church did not draw foremost from the educated classes, but rather from the humble, the poor, and the uneducated. They won the ancient world not merely by learning, but also by joy, faith, courageous martyrdom, and simple virtue.
  • Apologetics but not apologies – Notice that St. Paul accepts that many in the world call us foolish. Apologetics has its place (so that we can reach the reasonable of this world by explaining and setting forth the reasonableness of faith), but it involves explaining and defending the faith, not making apologies for it. It is easy to make the mistake of trying to make the faith agreeable to others, watering down truths that challenge or forever delaying talking about the “hard” truths. Jesus started with the hard things. “Repent!” was His opening word. Whatever methods we choose, we cannot through endless prudence forever postpone proclaiming the whole counsel of God, in season and out of season. Some will scoff and say, “This is a hard saying who can endure it?” (John 6:60) A true apologist has not necessarily lost when someone scoffs; he has only lost when he fails to proclaim the whole faith. Scoffers may reconsider; those who reject the truth may repent; but truth unspoken, distorted, or watered down is a total victory for Satan.
  • Pure more than palatable – “Marketing 101” principles would say that in order to sell our “product” we should try to make it palatable to our target audience. However, faith that is made too palatable is almost certainly not the faith at all. True evangelization does not fit easily into the tidy categories of marketers and sociologists, who are often horrified at how “off-message” the faith can seem to the modern world. Even in the Church, many people demand that the faith be conformed to what the majority of people think. Remember, God has been at this just a little longer than marketers and publicity folks. His paradoxes have a way of winning the day when the ephemeral and fickle views of the world fade away.

Should we continue to do everything we can to spread the faith through various media, dynamic training opportunities, and trying to get the widest possible exposure? Sure! Today, at least, this is how we prepare the soil, sow the seed, and help to cultivate.

However, in humility and serenity, we must also accept that there are mysteries to what works and what does not. Growth sometimes comes out of nowhere for no discernible reason. God often surprises us with sudden growth spurts that are hard to explain. Meanwhile, we must work as best as we can and do what seems wisest.

How about a little humility that allows paradoxical things to work (paradoxical because they do not conform to the rules of the world)? How about a little humility that is willing to listen to God? We are always asking God to bless what we do. Why not (at least occasionally) find out what God is already blessing and do that?

Paradox and mystery may well have a lot more to do with effective evangelization than all our grand plans and glossy marketing campaigns.

Lord, we seek a miraculous catch of fish in our day and we are open to surprises. Keep us faithful to your teachings, which are “out of season” today. Help us to cast your nets faithfully and to be willing, like Peter, to cast them where you say even if it does not agree with our own instincts. And, like Peter, may we experience the astonishing miracle of a great catch that will make us fall to our knees in wonder and humility at the mystery and paradox of your work. Have mercy on us, Lord, and work—often in spite of us—to enrich your kingdom in ways “we know not how.” In Jesus’ name, Amen.

In Times of Harsh Political Discourse, What Do the Scriptures Say?

We are in times of strident political protest that includes a lot of harsh language, personal attacks, name calling, and even debased and profane terms. There are tweets, and angry monologues, harsh commentary on news networks, and interruptive press conferences and news interviews that sound more like a brawl than a debate. To put it all more pleasantly, these are times of “colorful” discourse.

What is the overall teaching of Scripture when it comes to this sort of colorful language? Are there some limits and ground rules? Let’s take a look.

The word “civility”dates back to the mid-16th century and has an older meaning that referred to one who possessed the quality of having been schooled in the humanities. In academic settings, debate (at least historically) was governed by a tendency to be nuanced, careful, cautious, formal, and trained in rhetoric. Its rules often included referring to one’s opponents with honorary titles (Doctor, Professor, etc.) and euphemisms such as “my worthy opponent.” Hence as the word entered common usage, it has come to mean speech or behavior that is polite, courteous, gentle, and measured.

As one might guess, there are a lot of cultural variancesin what is civil. And this insight is very important when we look at the biblical data on what constituted civil discourse. Frankly, the biblical world was far less dainty about discourse than we have become in 21st-century America. The Scriptures, including the New Testament, are filled with vigorous discourse. Jesus, for example, really mixes it up with His opponents—even calling them names. We shall see more of this in a moment. But the Scriptures also counsel charity and warn of unnecessarily angry speech. In the end, a balance of the scriptural witness to civility must be sought along with an appreciation of the cultural variables at work.

Let’s examine a few of the texts that counsel charityas well as a modern and American notion of civility:

  1. Anyone who says to his brother, “Raqa” is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell(Matt 5:22).
  2. Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen(Eph 4:29).
  3. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged(Col 3:21).
  4. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be (James 3:9-10).
  5. Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry(James 1:19).
  6. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt(Col 4:6).
  7. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up(1 Thess 5:11).
  8. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips(Col 3:8).
  9. Words from a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but a fool is consumed by his own lips(Eccl 10:12).
  10. The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools(Eccles 9:17).
  11. Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification(Rom 14:19).
  12. Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother(Gal 6:1).
  13. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort [the repentant sinner], so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow(2 Cor 2:7).

All these texts counsel a measured, charitable, and edifying discourse. Name-calling and hateful or unnecessary expressions of anger are out of place. And this is a strong biblical tradition, especially in the New Testament.

But there are also strong contrasts to this instruction evident in the Bible. And a lot of it comes from an unlikely source: Jesus. Paul too, who wrote many of the counsels above, often engages in strident denunciations of his opponents and even members of the early Church. Consider some of the passages below, first by Jesus, then by Paul and other Apostles:

  1. Jesus said, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good?”(Matthew 12:34)
  2. And Jesus turned on them and said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are. “Woe to you, blind guides! … You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. … You hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. … And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers! “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?”(Matt 23 varia)
  3. Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. … You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. … He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God” (John 8:42-47).
  4. Jesus said, Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”(Mark 7:6).
  5. And Jesus answered them, O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long must I tolerate you?(Mark 9:19)
  6. Jesus said to the disciples, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matt 7:11)
  7. Jesus said to the crowd, “I do not acceptpraise from men, but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts”(Jn 5:41-42).
  8. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables(John 2:15).
  9. Then Jesus replied, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!”(John 6:70)
  10. Paul: O senseless Galatians, who hath bewitched you that you should not obey the truth … As for those circumcisers, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!(Galatians 3, 5)
  11. Paul against the false apostles:And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve (2 Cor 11:11-14).
  12. Paul on the Cretans:Even one of their own prophets has said, “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. Therefore, rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith(Titus 1:12-13).
  13. Peter against dissenters:Bold and arrogant, these men are not afraid to slander celestial beings…these men blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like brute beasts, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like beasts they too will perish. … They will be paid back with harm for the harm they have done. … They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you. With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed—an accursed brood! … Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud”(2 Peter 2, varia).
  14. Jude against dissenters:These dreamers pollute their own bodies, reject authority and slander celestial beings….these men speak abusively against whatever they do not understand; and what things they do understand by instinct, like unreasoning animals—these are the very things that destroy them. Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; … These men are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead. They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever. … These men are grumblers and fault finders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage(Jude 1:varia).

Now most of the passages above would violate modern norms about civil discourse.Are they sinful? They are God’s word! And yet they seem rather shocking to modern ears. Imagine getting into your time machine and going to hear Jesus denounce the crowds and calling them children of the devil. It really blows a 21st-century mind!

I want to suggest to you that these sorts of quotes go a long way toward illustrating the cultural dimension of what it means to be civil.The bottom line is that there is a great deal of variability in what people consider civil discourse. In some cultures there is a greater tolerance for anger. In New York and Boston, edgy comments and passionate interruptive debate are common. But in the upper-Midwest and parts of the Deep South, conversation is more gentle and reserved.

At the time of Jesus, angry discourse was apparently more “normal,”for as we see, Jesus Himself engages in a lot of it, even calling people names like “hypocrites,” “brood of vipers,” “liars,” and “wicked.” Yet the same Scriptures that record these facts about Jesus also teach that He never sinned. Hence at that time, the utterance of such terms was not considered sinful.

Careful, now—be careful here. This does not mean it is simply OK for us to talk like this because Jesus did. We do not live then; we live now; and in our culture such dialogue is seldom acceptable and often backfires. There ARE cultural norms we have to respect to remain in the realm of Charity. Exactly how to define civility in every instance is not always clear. An old answer to these hard-to-define things is “I know it when I see it.” So perhaps it is more art than science to define civility. But clearly we tend to prefer gentler discourse in this day and age.

On the other hand, we also tend to be a little thin-skinnedand hyper-sensitive. And the paradoxical result of insisting on greater civility is that we are too easily “outraged” (one of the more overused words in English today). We take offense where none is intended and we presume that the mere act of disagreeing is somehow arrogant, intentionally hurtful, or even hateful. We seem so easily provoked and so quick to be offended. All of this escalates anger further, and charges of hate and intolerance are launched back and forth when there is merely sincere disagreement.

Balance– The Scriptures give us two balanced reminders. First, that we should speak the truth in love, and with compassion and understanding. But it also portrays to us a time when people had thicker skin and were less sensitive and anxious in the presence of disagreement. We can learn from both biblical traditions. The biblical formula seems to be “clarity” with “charity,” the truth with a balance of toughness and tenderness. An old saying comes to mind: “Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean.”

Here is a video that depicts the zeal of Jesus and a bit of his anger.

Reluctant Prophet – The Story of Jonah

Catacombs of Priscilla

Of all the prophets, Jonah is perhaps the most reluctant; his struggle with sin is not hidden. We are currently reading Jonah’s story in daily Mass. In the story we see a portrait of sin and of God’s love for sinners. Psalm 139 says, beautifully,

Whither shall I go from thy spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy face? If I ascend into heaven, thou art there; if I descend into hell, thou art present. If I take my wings early in the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, Even there also shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me (Ps 139: 7-10).

Let’s examine the story of Jonah and allow its teachings to reach us.

I. Defiance This is the word of the LORD that came to Jonah, son of Amittai: “Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and preach against it; their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah made ready to flee to Tarshish away from the LORD.

To defy means to resist what one is told to do, openly and boldly. Defiance also indicates a lack of faith because it comes from the Latin “dis” (against) and “fidere” (believe). Hence Jonah is not just insubordinate; he is unbelieving and untrusting.

His scoffing and defiance likely result from hatred or excessive nationalism. Nineveh is the capital of Syria, the mortal enemy of Israel. Jonah instinctively knows that if they repent of their sinfulness they will grow stronger. Rather than trusting God, he brazenly disobeys, foolishly thinking that he can outrun God.

II. Distance He went down to Joppa, found a ship going to Tarshish, paid the fare, and went aboard to journey with them to Tarshish, away from the LORD.

Tarshish is widely held to refer to the coastline of modern-day Spain. In order to avoid going 500 miles into God’s will, Jonah runs some 1500 miles away. It’s always a longer journey when you disobey God.

Note that he also puts down good money in order to flee. Indeed, many people spend lots of money and go miles out of their way in order to be able to stay in sin. Yes, sin is usually very expensive—but many seem quite willing to pay the price.

The simplicity of holiness is often far less onerous and less costly as well. Like Jonah, though, many line up to pay the price and take the long, painful journey deeper into defiance and sin.

How much of our trouble comes from our sin? The great majority of it. So much suffering, so much expense, so much extra mileage could be avoided if we just obeyed God. The bottom line (if you’ll pardon the financial pun) is that sinful choices are usually very costly.

III. Disturbance The LORD, however, hurled a violent wind upon the sea, and in the furious tempest that arose the ship was on the point of breaking up. Then the mariners became frightened and each one cried to his god. To lighten the ship for themselves, they threw its cargo into the sea.

Jonah’s defiance sends him and others headlong into a storm that grows ever deeper. The teaching is clear: persistent and unrepentant sin brings storms, disturbances, and troubles. As our defiance deepens, the headwinds become ever stronger and the destructive forces ever more powerful.

Note that Jonah’s defiance also endangers others. This is another important lesson: in our sin, our defiance, we often bring storms not only into our own life but also into the lives of others. What we do, or fail to do, affects others.

The mariners, fearing for their lives, also lose wealth and suffer great losses (by throwing their cargo overboard) on account of Jonah’s sinfulness.

Similarly, in our own culture today a good deal of pain and loss results from the defiant, selfish, and bad behavior of many. On account of selfishness and sexual misbehavior, many families have been torn apart. There is abortion, disease, teenage pregnancy, children with no fathers, and all the grief and pain that come from broken or malformed families. It is of course the children who suffer the most pain and injustice as a result of so much bad adult behavior.

To all this pain can be added many other sufferings caused by our greed, addiction, lack of forgiveness, pride, impatience, and lack of charity. These and many other sins unleash storms that affect not only us but others around us as well.

No one is merely an individual; we are also members of the Body, members of the community, whether we want to admit it or not.

Jonah is a danger and a cause of grief to others around him. So, too, are we when we defiantly indulge sinfulness.

IV. Delirium Meanwhile, Jonah had gone down into the hold of the ship, and lay there fast asleep.

While all these storms (which he caused) are raging, Jonah is asleep. Often the last one to know or admit the damage he does is the sinner himself. Too many wander around in a kind of delirium, a moral sleep, talking about their rights and insisting that what they do is “nobody else’s business.” Yet all the while the storm winds buffet and others suffer for what they do. So easily they remain locked in self-deception and rationalizations, ignoring the damage they are inflicting upon others.

Many people today talk about “victimless sins,” actions that supposedly don’t hurt anyone. Those who are morally alert do not say such things; those who are in the darkness of delirium, in a moral slumber, say them. Meanwhile, the gales grow stronger and civilization continues to crumble. All the while, they continue to ramble on about their right to do as they please.

V. Dressing Down The captain came to him and said, “What are you doing asleep? Rise up, call upon your God! Perhaps God will be mindful of us so that we may not perish.” Then they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots to find out on whose account we have met with this misfortune.” So they cast lots, and thus singled out Jonah. “Tell us,” they said, “what is your business? Where do you come from? What is your country, and to what people do you belong?” Jonah answered them, “I am a Hebrew, I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Now the men were seized with great fear and said to him, “How could you do such a thing?” They knew that he was fleeing from the LORD, because he had told them.

In a remarkable turn in the story, those who are not believers in the God of Israel dress down Jonah, who is to be God’s prophet, unto repentance! It’s a pretty bad day for a prophet when those whom he is supposed to address, must turn and call him to conversion. They seem to fear God more than he does!

First there comes the pointed question, “What are you doing asleep?” Yes, what are you doing? Do you have any idea how your behavior, your sins, are affecting the rest of us? Wake up from your delusions. Stop with your self-justifying slogans and look at what’s really going on!

Next they say to him, “Pray!” In other words, get back in touch with God, from whom you’re running. If you won’t do it for your own sake, then do it for ours—but call on the Lord!

This is what every sinner, whether outside the Church or inside, needs to hear: wake up and look at what you’re doing; see how you’re affecting yourself and all of us. Turn back to God lest we all perish.

VI. Despair They asked, “What shall we do with you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea was growing more and more turbulent. Jonah said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea, that it may quiet down for you; since I know it is because of me that this violent storm has come upon you.”

Jonah is now beginning to come to his senses, but not with godly sorrow, more with worldly sorrow. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret. Worldly sorrow brings death (2 Cor 7:10). Somewhat like Judas, Jonah and many other sinners do not repent to the Lord but rather are merely ashamed of themselves.

In effect, Jonah says to them, “Kill me. I do not deserve to live.” This is not repentance; it is despair.

VII. Dignity still the men rowed hard to regain the land, but they could not, for the sea grew ever more turbulent.

Surprisingly, the men are not willing to kill him, at least not as the first recourse. Despite his sin, Jonah does not lose his dignity. Even the fallen deserve our love and respect as fellow human beings. It is too easy for us to wish to destroy those who have harmed us, returning crime for crime, sin for sin.

But God would have us reach out to the sinner, to correct with love.

It is true, however, that not everyone is willing or able to be corrected. Some things must ultimately be left to God. Our first instinct should always be to respect the dignity of every person—even great sinners—and strive to bring them to the Lord with loving correction.

VIII. Deliverance Then they cried to the LORD, “We beseech you, O LORD, let us not perish for taking this man’s life; do not charge us with shedding innocent blood, for you, LORD, have done as you saw fit.” Then they took Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea’s raging abated. Struck with great fear of the LORD, the men offered sacrifice and made vows to him. But the LORD sent a large fish, that swallowed Jonah; and Jonah remained in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. From the belly of the fish Jonah prayed to the LORD, his God. Then the LORD commanded the fish to spew Jonah upon the shore.

In the end, the men must hand Jonah over to the Lord. Somehow, they sense His just verdict yet they fear their own judgment and ask for His mercy.

In many American courtrooms, upon the pronouncement of a death sentence, the judge says, “May God have mercy on your soul.” Even in the sad situation in which we can do little but prevent people from ever harming others, we ought to appreciate their need for God’s mercy as well as our own.

God does deliver Jonah. After his “whale” of a ride, a ride in which he must experience the full depths and acidic truth of his sinfulness, Jonah is finally delivered by God right back to the shore of Joppa where it all began.

IX. Determination Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh (Jonah 3:1-3).

Yes, God works with the sinner, drawing him back. He is the God of the second chance. Thank you, Lord, for your grace and mercy. He remembers our sins no more. In effect, God says to Jonah, “Now, where were we?”

God does not save us merely for our own sake, but also for the sake of others with whom our life is intertwined. Jonah will go finally to Nineveh and there proclaim a message that will be heeded by those who are so lost in sin that they do not know their right hand from their left (see Jonah 4:11). Hmm, now why does this description seem so familiar?

Here is a video of a performance of the Peccavimus (we have sinned) from the oratorio “Jonas,” by Giacomo Carissimi. It is a luscious, heartfelt piece depicting the repentance of the Ninevites. I wonder if (and hope that) the young people who sang it understood its significance for them, too.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Reluctant Prophet – The Story of Jonah

The Striking and Bold Content of the Apostles’ Preaching

The scene is Pentecost Sunday and Simon Peter has just received the Holy Spirit along with 120 others. A crowd has gathered, intrigued by the manifestation of the Spirit in the upper room. The door opens and out steps Simon Peter. He begins to proclaim Christ. After an initial summary of Jesus’ life and actions as well as a doxology, Peter says to those gathered,

Therefore, let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah (Acts 2:36).

A few days later Peter preaches even more pointedly:

You handed Jesus over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this…. Now, fellow Israelites, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. … Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out … (Acts 3:14-20).

Apparently, Peter never got the memo that we preachers are not supposed to mention unpleasant things like sin, and we certainly should not accuse our listeners of having sinned; we are supposed to issue the usual bromides of affirmation and speak only in abstractions and generalities. Imagine, he calls them killers, co-conspirators in handing over God to be crucified: “You killed the author of life”!

The unwritten rule among many priests and deacons today, especially those of the older generation, is that we should never—under any circumstances—offend anyone. We should not say anything controversial or that risks upsetting anyone. We should not mention, sin, Hell, judgment, or Purgatory. We shouldn’t preach on moral topics like abortion, fornication, contraception, divorce, or homosexuality. And we shouldn’t even think of saying that knowingly missing Mass is a mortal sin. For that matter, we should never even let the words “mortal sin” escape out lips!

Yet here is Peter saying, “You killed the author of life.” He’s not talking to the person next to you, dear reader, he’s talking to you! That’s right you did that, and so did I. Yes, we are sinners, and if we don’t repent and receive His mercy we’re going to be lost—we’re going to go to Hell. (Oops, did I let that word slip out?)

The logic is that if we talk in this way, we’ll offend people, and they’ll stop coming. Never mind that our churches have largely emptied in the aftermath of the widespread application of this policy. No indeed, it must be all honey and no vinegar, ever.

It is interesting that Simon Peter, though clear and bold in his preaching about sin, did not seem to cause the alienation feared by many modern priests. In his sermon of Acts 2, we read not of alienation but of mass conversion:

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day (Acts 2:37-41).

This response isn’t what some of the fearful, dovish, “do-no-harm-ever” preachers and liturgists of today would predict! Peter’s nets were nearly breaking with thousands of converts even after telling them they had crucified Jesus, warning them, and calling them to repentance and baptism in no uncertain terms.

After Peter’s even sterner words of Acts 3 telling them, “You killed the Author of life,” the numbers grew even more: But many who heard the message believed; so the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand (Acts 4:4).

In the early 1960s, Protestant evangelist David Wilkerson wrote The Cross and the Switchblade, a book about his ministry among hardened, inner-city gang members. His approach didn’t feature sentimentality or boosting self-esteem, but rather laying out frankly the issues at hand. In effect, he’d tell the gang members their problem wasn’t too many enemies or not enough weapons, but that they were sinning. He told them that their only hope was to turn their lives over to Jesus Christ, or else they would be forever lost—jail and/or an untimely death were the least of their worries.

You’d think that he’d get killed after talking like that to gang members—but he didn’t. Deep down they knew he was right. Even those who weren’t ready to convert respected him for being bold enough to speak the truth to them.

Somewhere along the line, many modern preachers lost their edge. The gospel, the good news of salvation, doesn’t make a lot of sense without reference to sin. To say that we are saved implies that there is something from which we need to be saved. Without a vigorous understanding of sin and the ultimate destination of Hell from which we have been saved, the gospel starts to seem peripheral, optional, just a nice story—not really all that crucial or urgent. The good news is highlighted by and makes sense only in the light of the bad news. Only if I know that “I’ve got it bad and that ain’t good” does the news of a cure seem to be wonderful, even fabulous.

We live in dainty times; many people are thin-skinned and easily offended. However, I have found that speaking clearly about sin, the need for repentance, and the glory of mercy is experienced by most people as refreshing. To be compelling, good preaching needs to have an edge. Abstractions, generalities, and greeting-card sentiments don’t really work. Chatty sermons, silly jokes, beige Catholicism, and soft tones don’t excite interest. Our empty churches say that loud and clear.

Some will inevitably take offense to such preaching, but that is ever the case. A good preacher, one who is worth his salt, must be willing to give up his life, or at the very least to enduring harsh criticism. Timid preachers are only a little better than useless. They are, as Gregory the Great said, “dumb dogs that cannot bark.”

Thank God that Peter never got the memo! As his fruitful example shows, vigorous biblical preaching includes an edgy quality; it addresses sin, setting it forth plainly but in a way that highlights the glory of grace and mercy.

The bottom line is that “You killed the author of life.” Collectively we’ve done it in a thousand ways. However, know that Jesus Christ loves you and has mercy on you in abundance; you can lay hold of this if you repent and run to Him for healing and mercy.

This song says, “Sinner, please don’t let this harvest pass and die and lose your soul at last.”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Striking and Bold Content of the Apostles’ Preaching

The Charter and Mandate of the Church

Jesus gives a concise summary of the work and experience of the Church in His discourse with Nicodemus, which we read at Tuesday’s daily Mass:

Amen, amen I say to you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but you people do not accept our testimony (Jn 3:11).

I. Plural Note that when Jesus speaks to Nicodemus He does not say, “I speak to you.” He says, “We speak to you.” The use of the first-person plural is common in Johannine literature. For example, at the beginning of the First Letter of John it is said, That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life (1 John 1:1).

Who is the “we” referred to here? As with most things in Scripture, there are layers of meaning. First, it certainly means the apostolic college. On a wider level it refers to the first eyewitnesses, the disciples who heard and saw Jesus and were able to report what He said and did. Even more widely the “we” is the Church down through the centuries. The Church here is more than an institution; it is the Body of Christ, the living, active presence of Jesus Christ in the world.

II. Proclamation“We speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen.” Just after the resurrection, the common expression of apostles and disciples is this: “I have seen the Lord” (e.g., John 20:18, 20:25). If the Church could no longer say this, she would no longer be the Church! If she could no longer say, “Jesus is Lord. We know this; we experience this; and we see it with our eyes,” then she would no longer be the Church.

Note that in the biblical sense, the word “know” does not simply refer to intellectual knowing, as if the Church were merely reciting words written centuries ago. Biblical knowing emphasizes experience; something known means something actually seen and experienced, not just learned in the abstract. The Church does not simply know Jesus is Lord and speak of it as if regurgitating reciting ancient formulas, precious though they are. Rather, she speaks of her experience with the Lord Jesus Christ in the sacred liturgy and of His powerful ministry to all her members throughout time.

The proclamation of the Church is that we speak to the world of what we know, what we have experienced. To emphasize this, Jesus adds that the proclamation of the Church is not simply what we know but what we have “seen.” Here, too, a tangible experience is referenced. This is the proclamation of ancient truths, presently experienced—seen. In other words, the Church can raise her right hand and swear to the truth of all that Jesus has said and done because she knows it; she experiences it; she has seen it—she has witnessed it occurring.

Indeed, souls are healed and set free, and human beings are gloriously transformed by the celebration of her sacred liturgy with her Blessed Groom and Lord, Jesus Christ.

The Church announces her experience with Jesus Christ, with the ability of His Word and truth to transform her and her members. The Church proclaims to the world, “We testify to what we have known and what we have seen.”

III. PersecutionThen Jesus says to Nicodemus, and by extension to the world, “You do not accept our testimony.”

It is often the lot of the Church to be scorned, ridiculed, and mocked—even hated and persecuted—because of our proclamation. There are many who demand that the Church conform to the world and its ideas and values.

Yet, as Pope Paul VI noted in Humanae Vitae, one of the Church’s most rejected encyclicals,

There is too much clamorous outcry against the voice of the Church, and this is intensified by modern means of communication. But it comes as no surprise to the Church that she, no less than her divine Founder, is destined to be a “sign of contradiction.” She does not, because of this, evade the duty imposed on her of proclaiming humbly but firmly the entire moral law, both natural and evangelical (#18).

The Church is to be this sign of contradiction. Yes, we must often stand up before a worldly consensus and say no, regardless of how many around us who say yes. It is the lot of the Church to experience rejection and to have to say, “You do not accept our testimony.”

Yet this is judgment, for Jesus says, Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light (John 3:19-20). St. Paul adds, For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear (2 Tim 4:3). Simeon, as he held the infant Jesus and thereby the infant Church, is recorded as saying this: This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (Lk 2:34).

Yes, this is our place—among the persecuted, scorned, and derided. The Church must be willing to say to the world, “You do not accept our testimony.” We must not “cave.” Too many people today, wanting the Church to be “relevant,” and “acceptable,” insist that we alter our doctrines so that the world will accept our testimony. God forbid the Church ever do this, for we would no longer be the Church!

Here, then, is Jesus’ charter—His mandate—for the Church: that we should say to the world, “We speak to you of what we know and of what we have seen, but you do not accept our testimony.”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Charter and Mandate of the Church

A Message of Evangelization in an Old Spiritual

The video below is of a performance of the traditional African-American spiritual “Children Go Where I Send Thee.”

It is a “cumulative song” in that each verse builds on the prior one (like “The 12 Days of Christmas”). The children’s choir in my parish recently sang it to great effect.

Although there are many variations in the verses, the ones below are the most clearly biblical and liturgical. There is a catechetical purpose to the spiritual, and it presents basic teachings in a memorable way:

Children go where I send Thee.
How shall I send thee?
I’m gonna send thee one by one
One for the little bitty baby
born by the Virgin Mary
Born in Bethlehem!

Children go where I send Thee.
How shall I send thee?
I’m gonna send thee two by two
Two for Paul and Silas
One for the little bitty baby
born by the Virgin Mary
Born in Bethlehem!

Children go where I send Thee . . .
Three for the Hebrew children
Two for Paul and Silas
One for the little bitty baby . . .

Children go where I send Thee . . .
Four for the four that knock on the door (Four Evangelists) . . .

Children go where I send Thee . . .
Five for the bread they did divide . . .

Children go where I send Thee . . .
Six for the days when the world was fixed . . .

Children go where I send Thee . . .
Seven for the seven that lead to Heaven (Seven Sacraments) . . .

Children go where I send Thee . . .
Eight for the eight that the flood couldn’t take . . .

Children go where I send Thee . . .
Nine for the angel choirs divine . . .

Children go where I send Thee . . .
Ten for the Ten Commandments . . .

Children go where I send Thee . . .
Eleven for them who saw him ascend . . .

Children go where I send Thee . . .
Twelve for the Twelve Apostles . . .

Enjoy the song:

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: A Message of Evangelization in an Old Spiritual