In the secular world, a “mystery” is something that baffles or eludes understanding, something that lies undisclosed. And the usual attitude of the world toward mystery is to solve it, get to the bottom of, or uncover it. Mysteries must be overcome! The riddle, or “who-done-it” must be solved!
In the Christian and especially the Catholic world, “mystery” is something a bit different. Here, mystery refers to the fact that there are hidden dimensions in things, people, and situations that extend beyond their visible, physical dimensions.
One of the best definitions I have read of “mystery” is by the theologian and philosopher John Le Croix. Fr. Francis Martin introduced it to me some years ago in one of his recorded conferences. Le Croix says,
Mystery is that which opens temporality and gives it depth. It introduces a vertical dimension and makes of it a time of revelation, of unveiling.
Fr. Martin’s classic example of this to his students is the following:
Suppose you and I are at a party, and Smith comes in the door and goes straightaway to Jones and warmly shakes his hand with both of his hands. And I say, “Wow, look at that.” Puzzled, you ask, “What’s the big deal, they shook hands. So what?” And then I tell you, “Smith and Jones have been enemies for thirty years.”
And thus there is a hidden and richer meaning than meets the eye. This is mystery, something hidden, something that is accessible to those who know and are initiated into the mystery and come to grasp some dimension of it; it is the deeper reality of things.
In terms of faith there is also a higher meaning to mystery. Le Croix added the following to the definition above: It [mystery] introduces a vertical dimension, and makes of it a time of revelation, of unveiling.
Hence we come to appreciate something of God in all He does and has made. Creation is not just dumbly there. It has a deeper meaning and reality. It reveals its Creator and the glory of Him who made it. The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands (Psalm 19:1).
In the book of Sirach, after a long list of the marvels of creation, is this magnificent line: Beyond these, many things lie hid; only a few of God’s works have we seen (Sirach 43:34).
Indeed, there is a sacramentality to all creation. Nothing is simply and dumbly itself; it points beyond and above, to Him who made it. The physical is but a manifestation of something and Someone higher.
In the reductionist world in which we live, such thinking is increasingly lost. Thus we poke and prod in order to “solve” the mysteries before us. And when have largely discovered something’s physical properties we think we have exhausted its meaning. We have not. In a disenchanted age, we need to rediscover the glory of enchantment, of mystery. There is more than meets the eye. Things are deeper, richer, and higher than we can ever fully imagine.
Scripture, which is a prophetic interpretation of reality, starts us on our great journey by initiating us into many of the mysteries of God and His creation. But even Scripture does not exhaust the mystery of all things; it merely sets us on the journey ever deeper, ever higher. Mysteries unfold; they are not crudely solved.
For the Christian, then, mystery is not something to be solved or overcome so much as to be savored and reverenced. To every person we know and everything we encounter goes up the cry, O magnum et admirabile mysterium (O great and wondrous mystery)! Now you’re becoming a mystic.
The first reading today, fromIsaiah 49:3-6, speaks of some of the qualities of a prophet. By our baptism we are called to be prophets, so we do well to try to imitate these qualities. As it is also the national observance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I will also cite some of his words that help to illustrate the qualities taught by Isaiah. As pastor of a parish with a strong African-American heritage, I often seek to include aspects of King’s life and message on this holiday weekend. Every American should be grateful for his leadership and for the sacrifices he made (ultimately paying with his life) in summoning our nation to repentance.
What then are some of the qualities of a prophet?
A Prophet Is a Servant – The text says, The LORD said to me: You are my servant.
A servant is one who implements or does the will of the one he serves and under whose authority he operates. Sometimes a servant directly cares for or serves the one in authority; at other times he may serve others about whom the one in authority is concerned. The key point is that the servant does the will of the one who has authority, serving him and his interests.
We who would be prophets are servants of the Lord, under whose authority we speak and act. To do this we must first be good students of the Lord by studying his words and teachings, seeking to live them, and then speaking of them to others. As prophets and servants, we speak the truth so that others can hear the voice of the Lord. We do not have authority over the Word of God—God does.
Prophets love God’s people. They do not serve only God; they also serve the people whom God loves. God has no voice now in this world except yours and mine. If we would be His servants, we must be His prophets, his voice in the world. Too many of us have remained silent in the face of error and injustice. Perhaps it is because we fear; perhaps it is because we are just lazy.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had studied more for the life of a pastor and theologian than for that of a public prophet and national leader. However, he was deeply struck by the increasing and appalling toll of racism and injustice on God’s people. Like the prophets of old, he heard a call that, as God’s servant, he could not refuse. While confined in a Birmingham jail, he reflected on why he was there and what it means to be the servant and prophet of God:
I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the eighth-century (B.C.) prophets left their little villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns; and just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Greco-Roman world, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid(Letter from a Birmingham Jail, August 1963).
Yes, just as during the night, Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia (modern day Greece) standing and pleading with him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (see Acts 16:9), so Dr. King heard a similar cry for help and God saying, “Go.” As God’s servant he went.
A Prophet Shows God’s Glory –The text says, [You are] Israel, through whom I show my glory.
Jacob, you may remember, had wrestled with God through a long, dark night. At the end, God gave him the new name “Israel,” which means, “he who wrestled with God.” It can also mean “He who triumphs with God.”
Thus, we who would be prophets must let God contend with us and lead us through some dark passages so as to purify us, strengthen us, and humble us. This is a necessary testing because we must engage a great battle.
Prophets go forth and battle for souls armed with the sword of God’s Word. They must have courage and fortitude. The prophets of old suffered. Some were reviled while others were exiled; some were jailed and others killed. We too can expect great resistance when we announce the light of truth to a world that prefers the darkness. We, too, will often be reviled. Jesus says,
If the world hates you, understand that it hated me first. If you were of the world, it would love you as its own. Instead, the world hates you, because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. Remember the word that I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you as well (John 15:18-20).
I have told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take courage; I have overcome the world! (John 16:33)
In any tribulation we experience, we must never forget that, if we are God’s prophets, we are showing forth His glory whenever we speak His Word.
Dr. King has an admonition for any of us who would draw back from our office of prophet out of fear, laziness, or indifference:
And I say to you this morning, that if you have never found something so dear and so precious to you that you will die for it, then you aren’t fit to live. You may be 38 years old as I happen to be, and one day some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause–and you refuse to do it because you are afraid; you refuse to do it because you want to live longer; you’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you’re afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you or shoot at you or bomb your house, and so you refuse to take the stand. Well you may go on and live until you are 90, but you’re just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90! And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. You died when you refused to stand up for right, you died when you refused to stand up for truth, you died when you refused to stand up for justice.”(Sermon at Ebenezer Nov 5 1967)
Yes, there is nothing worse than a mute prophet. We are called to manifest the glory of the Lord’s truth; we must not hide the light of truth under a basket and cower in the death of fear.
In a more positive sense, Dr. King also speaks of those who dogo forth and engage the battle. Not only do they spread God’s glory, they will share in it:
If you will protest courageously, and yet with dignity and Christian Love, when the history books are written in future generations, the historians will have to pause and say, “There lived a great people—a black people—who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization” (Dec 31, 1955, Montgomery Alabama).
What will your descendants say of you?
A Prophet Seeks Out the Lost– The text says, [I send you] to raise up the tribes of Jacob,and restore the survivors of Israel; I will make you a light to the nations.
Prophets love God’s people. Seeing what sin and injustice have done to God’s people (perpetrator and victim alike) prophets seek to restore and raise them up so we can once again be a light to the nations.
Today, many are locked in error and moral darkness. We have lost our sense of the dignity of the child in the womb and have killed sixty million through abortion. We no longer value Holy Matrimony or the meaning and beauty of human sexuality. Too many in our generally affluent culture remain locked in poverty. Too many live in broken families. Addiction is rampant. Mutual respect is being drowned in a sea of anger and bitterness.
Scripture says of Jesus,
He went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness. When He saw the crowds, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into His harvest” (Matt 9:35-38).
We, of course, are the workers, the prophets whom the Lord asks to be sent. We are the ones who, seeing the awful state of God’s people, must be moved with compassion and then teach and bring healing. We cannot go everywhere, but each of us knows people who are wandering, lost, or suffering and who need to be restored and raised up.
Dr. King often spoke of how his sorrow and anger motivated him to do his prophetic work and duty as God’s servant:
I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say “wait.” But when … you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; …then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over(Letter from a Birmingham Jail, August 1963).
Moved with concern over the awful state of God’s people, Dr. King set about seeking the lost.
A Prophet Is Strong in the Lord – The text says, and my God is now my strength!
As in any great battle or work, there are times of discouragement and difficulty. A prophet must stay close to God and draw on His strength. Prayer, Scripture, the sacraments, and the support of godly friends must nourish and heal the soul. An old spiritual says, “Be still, God’ll fight your battles. God’ll fight your battles if you just be still.” Being still doesn’t mean doing nothing, but it does mean being focused on the Lord. A prophet must be strong in the Lord by staying close to Him.
Dr. King spoke of a moment of discouragement. He had been awakened at midnight by a phone call, in which the caller threatened to bomb his home. He thought of his wife and children and feared for their safety. He went down to the kitchen and prayed:
Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I still think I’m right. I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now, I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. Now, I am afraid. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone. [And the Lord replied in the depths of my heart] “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world.” And so, “I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone. No never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone” (A Knock at Midnight, 1956).
A Prophet is a Sign of Salvation – The text says,… that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.
The Lord has this goal, that the work of a prophet will extend the offer of salvation to all people, to the ends of the earth. Prophets do not simply denounce sin; they must also point to the glory that lies ahead if we follow the Lord. Prophets must encourage God’s people and remind them of the joys unspeakable and glories untold that await the faithful. The cross, if carried in faith, leads to a crown. Yes, there may be difficult days ahead, but just beyond Calvary’s hill lies Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem in all its glory. Prophets must announce this coming glory and be a sign of it.
In his very last sermon, one day before he was murdered, Dr. King gave a word of encouragement as he spoke of the Promised Land:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord (Final Sermon, Memphis, TN, April 3, 1968).
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated the next day, April 4, 1968. Like every good prophet, he was God’s servant, showing forth God’s glory in his preaching and actions. He sought the fallen and the lost, was strong in the Lord, and was a sign of salvation and encouragement.
Consider well, fellow prophets what God expects of us. Not all of us will rise to national leadership, but all of us have a mission territory that God has assigned to us: family, parish, workplace, friends, even the Internet. Do what God expects. Be His prophet.
There’s something interesting about the love between brothers and the way in which they show it. There’s a combination of competitiveness and deep love: “I get to hassle you, but no one else had better do that!”
In the video below, although the older boy continually reminds his younger brother who’s in charge, there’s actually some underlying respect in his actions. It’s as if he’s saying, “I know you can take it. I’m just trying to prepare you for life. There’s always going to be someone bigger and stronger than you are, so stay humble!”
When someone else torments the younger boy, however, the older brother steps in. Without uttering a word, he conveys this message: “I’ve always got your back.”
At times, Jesus was pretty tough on His Apostles, but I suspect the situation wasn’t so far removed from what this video shows. Jesus was saying, “I’m getting you ready for something that you can’t handle right now. And remember, I’ve always got your back” (see John 16:12 and Mat 28:20).
I have said the Traditional Latin Mass for all of my many years of priesthood. Back in the late 1980s, only a few priests were “permitted” to do so and there were few resources available to learn it. About the only visual help was the Fulton Sheen film from the 1940s describing the Mass. So, I trained under a few older priests during my seminary years. I moved from being part of the schola in the choir loft, to serving as sub-deacon, then deacon, and finally as priest-celebrant. Solemn High Mass was my specialty; I only learned the low Mass later. Most of us who celebrate the traditional Latin Mass exhibit great care in observing the rubrics and norms and have great esteem for its beauty.
During my training, I asked the older priests why they and their generation got rid of such a beautiful form of the Mass. They often replied that though they came to lament its loss later, at the time it was not always celebrated so beautifully; they spoke of hurried masses, cursory gestures, and mumbled Latin. They indicated that the Solemn High Mass (the form with a priest, a deacon, a sub-deacon, and a bevy of acolytes) was quite rare in Washington, D.C. Even the Missa Cantata (in which some of the parts are sung by the celebrant, but without the deacon and sub-deacon) was limited to one Mass, and many places didn’t even have that. Homilies at weekday Masses were rare and even a good number of Sunday Masses had minimal preaching.
With all the horrifying abuses associated with Masses after the liturgical changes, these problems may seem mild, but in any case, things were not as ideal as I had imagined—at least that was picture these older priests painted for me.
I recently came across a letter from the 1920s in our parish archive that confirms this generally perfunctory quality. It is a lament on this situation from Archbishop Michael J. Curley of Baltimore and is directed to his priests.
At that time, the Archdiocese of Washington was still part of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Thus, the Archdiocese of Baltimore covered a very large area, stretching from the Delaware border in the east, through Washington, all the way to the western panhandle of Maryland. It contained large city parishes from Baltimore and Washington, a growing number of suburban parishes, and numerous small ones from the large expanses of rural territory.
Regarding the city parishes, remember that the immigrant Church of that period was expanding rapidly and vast numbers of newly immigrated Catholics from all over Europe were filling the pews. One of the needs was thus to schedule numerous Masses to accommodate the numbers. In addition, in those days all Masses had to be finished before noon. All of this led to a hurried morning schedule in which some of the liturgical principles suffered as a result.
And now we proceed to the letter itself. It is hard to imagine a bishop of our times being so informal and blunt, yet those were days in which many bishops and local pastors were known for their large, colorful personalities. Enjoy some excerpts of this colorfully blunt letter, which focused on encouraging priests to be more liturgically minded. I include some brief remarks of my own in red text.
July 9, 1929
Reverend and Dear Father,
Confusion worse confounded has arisen during the past few years in the matter of our Sunday services. An inter-parochial competitive system has ended in chaos and not a little distant disedification. We must now return to sane normal conditions. Hence the following mandatory regulations will be effective Sunday, October 6.
The High Mass (Solemn or Missa Cantata) must be the last of the parish masses and may not be an hour later than eleven. Every church in Baltimore, Washington, and Cumberland is expected to have a High Mass. The same is expected of all parishes outside the above cities where a choir is possible. The choir does not have to be an adult choir. It may be composed of school children. In country parishes where heretofore there has been no High Mass, I desire the pastors to work towards a High Mass. The Missa parochialis must be kept in its honorable place. … Let the well-prepared sermon be short and practical; let the music be strictly liturgical and let the liturgy be carried out with dignity and correctly.
We see that in certain areas, the low Mass (recited and whispered) had come to be the only type celebrated. High Mass, with the priest and choir singing significant portions, was becoming too rare. This afforded less possibility for the faithful to interact with the Liturgy. Further, it excluded a vast repertoire of chant, polyphony, and classical music from the Mass. In response, the Archbishop insisted that at least one parish Mass should open this treasure to God’s people.
The epistle and gospel should be read at all the masses. … A short discourse (of even five-minutes duration) should be given at each mass. The work of instruction should be supplemented by the recommendation of pamphlets as reading matter. No parish church should be without a pamphlet rack.
A significant problem in that era was that the readings were proclaimed in Latin by the priest at the altar. Because few if any of the laity knew Latin, the proclamation of the Word mostly fell on deaf ears. A common solution was that the priest would go to the pulpit and repeat the readings in the vernacular, but this lengthened the Mass. Some priests evidently skipped this altogether and merely continued on with the Mass. Some even skipped a sermon of any sort at certain masses. The Archbishop was surely not pleased and insisted that teaching the faith was an essential purpose of any liturgy.
Some of our younger parish clergy read their sermons. This should not be done except for some very special reason. The priest who is not capable of preparing and delivering a brief, clear instruction on Catholic teaching to his people is not fit to be in parish work. The people as a rule do not want to listen to a sermon reader. The reader is usually a poor one and his matter many times is poorer. We do not expect every priest to be a Lacordaire or a Bossuet. We do expect every priest however to be a teacher of God’s word, an intelligent and intelligible one. We have heard splendid eloquence on the subject of card parties, bazaars, church support, etc. and then mental confusion in many cases when the time came for the sermon. Our work as preachers of the gospel of Jesus Christ is of infinite importance. It ought to be done with prayerful preparation. The sermon should be delivered in such a manner that our people can hear, understand, and take away with them a better knowledge of their faith and at the same time feel moved to live that faith and more practical way. If the priests of a parish wish to hold her people’s loyalty to their parish church, they cannot do it by competition in the matter of late hours for masses, unbecoming a hurry in the celebration of divine mysteries, or curtailment of devotional church practices.
Tough, but well said.
In some parishes of the cities there is no evening service. The reason given is that the people will not come. If the pastor will only give the people a chance to come, they will come in sufficient numbers to Rosary and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. They will come gladly to hear a course of sermons during Advent, Lent, novenas, etc. They will not come to hear the rosary and litany recited in a marathon style. They leave their parish church and go to one where there is devotion in the sanctuary.
We have completed our building program. The brick-and-mortar work is almost over. Let us now apply ourselves to the more important work of gathering our people around the sanctuary in order that we may build Christ our Blessed Lord into their hearts and lives. We have, thank God, many parishes where liturgical functions are carried out with inspiring dignity, order, correctness, and consequent impressiveness. … But where there is a tendency to starve the people spiritually, the priest soon realizes a reaction that, to say the least, is neither healthy nor pleasant.
Let us then in God’s name begin with enthusiasm a new era of order in matters liturgical October 6th.
Sincerely, + Michael Curley Archbishop of Baltimore
I hope this provides you with a little picture of liturgy and parish life form the late 1920s. The problems of that time are nothing compared with the disorder often evident from the 1970s through today, but surely the human condition will always require that we battle the perfunctory observance of the sacred liturgy.
This video clip from the beginning of the movie True Confessions shows a beautiful depiction of the Traditional Latin Mass. I first saw it in 1981 and was amazed at the beauty of the Mass. I set about learning this form of the Mass well before it was more widely allowed. Although Solemn High Mass was not unknown in larger city parishes, its celebration complete with all the details was rarer than I thought. Low mass, recited and whispered, was more the norm. This situation led to Archbishop Curley’s request that at least one high Mass be sung in every parish each Sunday. Amen, Archbishop!
There is a marvelous chapter in the Book of Proverbs that ought to be studied by every young person living in this lustful world. It sets forth plainly the stance that any son or daughter of God should have regarding the lust so often celebrated by this age.
Many preachers and teachers wince at the Book of Proverbs on this topic since it tends to portray seduction and lust as coming from women.
However, it must be recalled that Proverbs features a father speaking to his son. So the context is that of a young man experiencing seduction from a certain class of women (not all women).
The silence of this chapter of Proverbs on the problem of men seducing women should not be taken as a denial of this problem; it is simply not the context of the discussion. Any woman ought to be able to take the advice given here and translate it for her own sake as well.
With that in mind, let’s look at this masterful advice from the Wisdom of God. The alliterations (on the letter “D”) are based on a talk by Rev. Adrian Rogers that I heard many years ago. While the alliterations are his, the content of this article is wholly mine.
The Direction we should follow – My son, be attentive to my wisdom, incline your ear to my understanding; that you may keep discretion, and your lips may guard knowledge.
As we have noted, the Book of Proverbs takes up the form of a father advising his son. One of the most critical jobs a parent has is teaching and handing down the preserved and tested wisdom that comes to us from God and from experience. A father should teach his children at length on all matters of life, including sexuality. He should also insist that his children both listen (incline their ears) and apply (attend to) the wisdom that comes from God.
With the modern breakdown of the family on a wide scale, this basic function of fathers, specifically, and parents and elders, in general, is poorly executed. Children today are often without critical moral instruction, at least of a healthy sort.
The opening verse encourages the son to hearken to the wisdom of the elders so that he may keep discretion. In this case discretion refers to the ability to exercise good judgment and to having cautious reserve. Discretion is the ability to make responsible decisions. Sound teaching is meant to assist sound decisions.
The son is also encouraged to hearken to wisdom so that his own lips may preserve knowledge. In other words, one day he will need to teach others, and what comes from his mouth should be the tested wisdom of God, not the fleeting and often foolish slogans of the world.
Sadly, when one generation fails to teach wisdom, the next generation is not only poorly instructed, it is ill-equipped to teach; this allows the problem to multiply quickly. What was once common sense isn’t very common anymore. It doesn’t take long for the whole culture to start crumbling without good sense.
There is a direction, a received wisdom, that ensures sound judgment; we must keep it, preserve it, and pass it on.
The Deception we should avoid– For the lips of a loose woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil; but in the end she is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword. Her feet go down to death; her steps follow the path to Sheol; she does not take heed to the path of life; her ways wander, and she does not know it.
This describes a woman inciting lust in men. Surely such a woman is the antithesis of Lady Wisdom! Again, though this describes a woman, seduction and the incitement of lust is not unique to women (any more than wisdom is unique to women). Men can seduce and draw others to lust as well. However, in general, men are more susceptible to lust. Even if you wish to debate that, recall that this book is a collection of teachings of a father to his son.
Note the description of sweet lips and smooth talking. Lust always plies her trade by emphasizing her sweet delights without mentioning the cost. Her smooth talk assures that everything will be all right, that those who object are just sexually repressed and judgmental. She assures that “experts” have found “healthy” societies where free love is practiced. She cites statistics that nearly everyone fornicates anyway. How can the majority of people be wrong? Yes, she’s a smooth talker all right.
Then comes the bill and the results are bitter as wormwood. Lust cuts like a sharp but jagged knife; she drags souls to Hell.
Lust has lost sight of her own lies. She has even convinced herself that her lies and deceptions are true. This occurs because of the way that sins, especially sins of the flesh, cloud the intellect. St. Thomas Aquinas noted that the sins of the flesh (lust and gluttony) are not usually the most serious (sins of the Spirit such as pride are more so), but they are the most disgraceful because of the way that they darken the mind. St. Paul similarly wrote that those who suppress the truth claim to be wise but are fools and their senseless minds are darkened (cf Rom 1:17ff).
Lust cannot even see for herself how foolish her notions are. She believes her own lies and so do those who fall into her trap. Even middle school students can see how unhealthy promiscuity is. They can recognize that homosexual acts violate the very design of the body: the “parts don’t fit together.” They can do this because their hearts have not yet been blinded by lust, nor have their minds been darkened by it.
Lust and her followers soon become blind and fail to see even the most obvious facts before them; their minds are darkened. Jesus says, Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? (Lk 6:39)
The Distance we should keep– And now, O sons, listen to me, and do not depart from the words of my mouth. Keep your way far from her, and do not go near the door of her house;
Yes, stay away. How many have been snared merely by coming too close! Addiction to Internet pornography has reached shocking levels. Many young men think it impossible to break free. Worse still, the addiction descends into ever darker and even unnatural places. What begins as sinfully looking at “ordinary” nudity soon degrades to viewing depictions of some of the vilest sexual practices. Children today can find displayed before them practices that normal adults would not have even imagined just 50 years ago. Even animals do not engage in the things pined for by those addicted to lust. There is a great debasement described in the literature by experts who try to help those lost in lust. Even if these addicts can break free, their minds may be sullied for years if not for life.
Hence, Scripture advises us to stay far away, to venture not even near the door. Elsewhere, St. Paul wrote, Flee fornication (1 Cor 6:18). There is to be no dabbling with lust, no risk-taking, no testing limits, no teasing, no occasional looks at risky websites to satisfy curiosity. One must soberly, carefully, and prudently avoid any and all commerce with lust. Lust easily gets her hooks in. Once that happens, it is goodbye to innocence and healthy notions of human sexuality.
Keep a safe distance. Install web filters. Engage in prudent dating practices. There is a distance that we must maintain or we will suffer great damage.
The Damage we will suffer – Many damages are described: lest you give your honor to others and your years to the merciless; lest strangers take their fill of your strength, and your labors go to the house of an alien; and at the end of your life you groan, when your flesh and body are consumed, and you say, “How I hated discipline, and my heart despised reproof! I did not listen to the voice of my teachers or incline my ear to my instructors. I was at the point of utter ruin in the assembled congregation.” Drink water from your own cistern, flowing water from your own well. Should your springs be scattered abroad, streams of water in the streets? Let them be for yourself alone, and not for strangers with you … For a man’s ways are before the eyes of the LORD, and he watches all his paths. The iniquities of the wicked ensnare him, and he is caught in the toils of his sin. He dies for lack of discipline, and because of his great folly he is lost.
Note the following damages:
Dissipation– lest you give your honor to others and your years to the merciless; lest strangers take their fill of your strength, and your labors go to the house of an alien … Drink water from your own cistern, flowing water from your own well. Should your springs be scattered abroad, streams of water in the streets? Let them be for yourself alone, and not for strangers with you
Practically speaking, fornicators and adulterers can find their income reduced by alimony, child support, and other expenses. Those who flee these responsibilities are often pursued by the government and can have their wages garnished. They can be subject to penalties for lack of compliance. They assume the financial costs without the benefits of a loving wife and children, a common home, and the shared joys that God intended to go with the challenges of marriage and family.
Hence, the text speaks of the honors, strengths, and fruits of labor of the fornicator and adulterer going to strangers, to homes where he does not live or enjoy the warmth and love thereof.
Why should this be, O lover of lust, that your wealth and resources be scattered? Resist lust now or you will find your resources scattered to alien homes.
Disease … and at the end of your life you groan, when your flesh and body are consumed …
Practically speaking, the text points to sexually transmitted diseases.
The text can also refer to the emotional and spiritual damage that comes from giving your body over to strangers and to lust. There is the anger and depression of being used and discarded. Intimacy cannot be exchanged in a merely physical way; humans are just not made that way. Our soul and psyche are deeply connected to our body, especially in matters of profound physical intimacy. To be joined in this way can never be as casual as the lustful say it is. There is a connection that sets up and is hard to break. An entire subset of deliverance ministry is devoted to helping people break their “soul ties” to past “sexual partners.”
Add to this list of ailments the awful sorrow and gnawing guilt associated with post-abortion syndrome.
Many groan under the physical, spiritual, psychological, and emotional weight of their sins. Even for believers, who know that God has forgiven them, it is often hard to forgive themselves. The weight of guilt, embarrassment, and shame is hard for many to shake. Lust does not like those who have discovered her lies, and she taunts them with guilt and shame.
The verse also points to the end of life. Although at the end of our life we are meant to be surrounded by loving children and grandchildren, many who served lust will die far more alone.
Disappointment – … and you say, “How I hated discipline, and my heart despised reproof! I did not listen to the voice of my teachers or incline my ear to my instructors … ”
If the sinner ever wakes up, his disappointment with himself is often colossal. He feels foolish and regrets that he pridefully rejected instruction, regarding it as stupid or old-fashioned. I meet people like this all the time, those who wish they could do it all to do over again, differently.
It is so easy to scoff at instruction when we are young, and even when we are not so young. In a culture fixated on adolescent rebellion, a culture that thinks it knows better than Mother Church, many finally grow up and realize what a mess they have made of their own life and that of others.
The promises that sexual and other sinful pleasures make are broken on the rocky shores of disappointment and betrayal.
Disgrace – I was at the point of utter ruin in the assembled congregation.
Our private sins have a way of becoming public. The Internet porn addict discovers that his browsing habits are known by search engines, the FBI, and even prospective employers who do background checks. Security clearances are threatened. The adulterer is found out. The boyfriend running from his duties to the pregnant girlfriend is summoned to answer for himself. The sinful priest is turned in, arrested, and loses his parish and ministry. The sexually abusive stepfather is arrested. The public school teacher has her escapades with the teenage boy displayed on the nightly news.
At some point it would seem that even Lust and Satan himself tire of the sinner; they like to see him suffer before Hell comes. Though Satan risks having the person repent and ultimately be saved, he can’t quite resist making an early “snack” of some of his followers.
What is done in the darkness will be brought to the light.
Even a world that says sexual sin is “no big deal” turns on its own at some point. The sinner cannot escape the special shame and scorn that go with sins of the flesh.
On account of envy, many fellow sinners delight in pointing to someone in worse shape than they are. Somehow they think that this will make them feel better. Maybe, but only for a moment; envy is the sin that keeps on taking.
Domination – The iniquities of the wicked enslave him, and he is caught in the toils of his sin.
There is an addictive quality to lust and especially to Internet pornography. Many reach a point where they feel enslaved. They want to stop but feel incapable. Though their habit is costing them dearly in all the ways already described, even this cannot motivate them to stop. They are enslaved and dominated by lust.
Death– He dies for lack of discipline, and because of his great folly he is lost.
The death described here is surely a spiritual death, but there are those, not few in number, who have physically died from syphilis, gonorrhea, and AIDS.
St. Paul wrote, For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 6:23). We were made to be free and alive in the Lord, but sin (in this case indulged lust) drags us to death and Hell.
Jesus warned, but He advanced a solution as well: Therefore I say to you that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins (John 8:24). Only the grace of God, working through our faith and His mercy, can cancel the death that ultimately comes upon the unrepentant slave of lust (or of any of her nasty sisters, cousins, and aunts). Scripture says, The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God … Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life … (Gal 5: 19-21; 6:7-8).
The text says that this death comes upon one who lacks discipline. The word discipline is rooted in the Latin word discere (to learn). In English, the word discipline also speaks to applying what one has learned as a way forward. Thus, one can be said to engage in the discipline of learning or the discipline of science. To lack discipline is to reject sound teaching or to refuse to apply it.
The text adds that it is a great “folly” to do so. Folly is related to the word “fool.” Who is the fool? The one who refuses received and taught wisdom.
Make no mistake, then. To refuse or reject God’s wisdom, handed on through the Church, is foolish; it shows a lack of discipline and brings death.
The Design that we should follow – Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, A loving doe, a graceful fawn—let her breasts always satisfy you; be lost in her love forever. Why should you be infatuated, my son, with a loose woman and embrace the bosom of an adventuress?
Yes, here is God’s design: a man should leave his father and mother, seek for a wife, and having found her, cling wholly to her in an embrace of growing and fruitful love. This plan has its difficulties and requires sacrifice, mercy, and mutual forgiveness, but unlike lust, God’s plan gives life. Fruitful, faithful, and lasting matrimony is God’s answer to a lustful world.
Lust is no lady! Another proverb says, Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, But a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised … An excellent wife, who can find? For her worth is far above jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, And he will have no lack of gain (Prov 31:30, 10-11).
Every now and then, someone will come to me to request parish services of some sort. Maybe it’s to plan a wedding, a baptism, or a funeral; maybe it’s for money! Sometimes, not recognizing the person, I look at him or her and say, “Who are you?” “Well, Father, you don’t know me, but my parents go here; this is our family Church.” “I see, but where do you go to Church?” I usually ask. The response is usually something like this: “Well, you know how it is Father, I don’t get to Church too often … but my parents go here.”
Well, I’ve got news for you: your parents’ faith isn’t going to save you. You gotta have your own faith. You have to know Jesus for yourself. There are some things you just can’t borrow. Once, you depended on your parents, and ultimately the Church, to announce the True Faith to you. At some point, though, you have to be able to claim the True Faith as your own. Your parents can’t go to Church for you and they can’t believe for you.
On another occasion, a man came up to me in the parking lot of the local grocery store and began to talk to me as if we were old friends. Perhaps he saw the puzzled look on my face as I awkwardly wondered if I had ever met him. He was mildly offended and said, “Gosh, don’t you know who I am?” “No,” I admitted with some embarrassment. He went on to explain that his family had been one the “pillar” families who had helped build the Church and that I really ought to know who he was. “Do you come to Mass often?” I asked. “No, but I was there at the last funeral, the one for my grandmother, whom you buried. Perhaps you know who I am now!” I said, “No. I certainly knew your grandmother, but I can’t say I know you.” “That really hurts, Father, because if it hadn’t been for my family the Church wouldn’t be there.”
Eventually I got the man to admit that he hadn’t been going to Mass for more than 20 years (since he graduated from the parish school), and that his only attendance was for a few funerals and weddings. “Consider this a dress rehearsal,” I said, humorously, but with underlying seriousness. “You may be angry and disappointed that I don’t know you, but it will be a lot worse to hear Jesus say, ‘I don’t know you.'”
Indeed, in one of the judgment scenarios in Scripture, Jesus declares that he does not “know” some who seek entrance to Heaven:
Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matt 7:22-23)
Someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” He said to them, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’” (Lk 13:23-27)
Later the other virgins also came, saying, “Lord, lord, open up for us.” But he answered, “Truly I say to you, I do not know you.” Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour (Mat 25:12-13).
We may wonder how the Lord cannot “know” someone. Is he not omniscient?
Here it helps to understand that the “knowing” as understood in Scripture does not have the modern Western notion of simple intellectual knowing. To “know,” in biblical terms, more richly describes knowing through personal experience. It implies an intimacy gained through a personal experience of another person, thing, or event. Sometimes the Scriptures use “knowing” to refer to sexual intercourse (e.g., Gen 4:17,25; Lk 1:34).
The Lord, who does not force us to be in an intimate relationship with Him, is indicating in verses like these that some people seeking entry to Heaven (probably more for its pleasures than for its supreme purpose as a marital union with God) have refused His invitation to intimacy. He does not “know” them because they never wanted to be known by Him in any intimate way. They may have known of Him and even spoken and taught of Him, but they did not want Him. They may have used Him for their purposes, but they did not want Him. Jesus stands at the door and knocks; He does not barge in and force Himself on anyone.
Each of us we must accept the Lord’s invitation to enter our lives and transform our hearts. We cannot simply say, “My family built the Church,” or “I went to Catholic school,” or “My mother goes there.”
Remember the story of the wise and foolish virgins (Matt 25:1-13)? They were waiting for the groom (in those days one waited for the groom; nowadays the groom waits for the bride) to show up for a wedding. Five were wise and brought extra oil for their lamps, while five were foolish and did not not. When the groom was delayed in coming, the foolish ones said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil.” The wise ones replied that they could not do this because there was not enough oil for all ten of them.
You see, there are some things you just can’t borrow and some things you just can’t lend. You can’t lend your readiness to meet God to someone else. You can’t borrow someone else’s intimacy with God.
You know what happened in the story. The foolish bridesmaids went off to buy more oil and missed the groom’s arrival and then were not able to enter the wedding feast. In those days, when a wedding feast began, the doors were locked and then no one else could enter. When they finally arrived, the groom said that he did not know them.
The bottom line is that you have to know Jesus for yourself. You can’t borrow your mother’s intimacy, relationship, or readiness. You have to have your own. No one can go to Church for you. You can’t borrow someone else’s holiness.
There is an old gospel hymn that says, “Yes, I know Jesus for myself.” It’s not enough to quote the pastor; it’s not enough to say what your mother said. You have to know Jesus yourself. Do you know Him? I didn’t say, “Do you know about Him.” This is more than intellectual knowing; this is the deep, biblical, experiential knowing. Do you know the Lord Jesus? Have you experienced that He has ministered to you in the sacraments? Have you heard His voice resounding from the pulpit and in others you meet? Do you know Him? Don’t be satisfied that your mother or grandmother knew Him. You are called to know Him for yourself.
The commercial below is a reminder to all of us clergy who stand before the people of God each Sunday that they aren’t easily fooled.
People know if we are genuine or if we are just saying things we think we ought to say or heard others say. They can tell if we really know the Lord and the truths we proclaim or if we’ve just studied them. No preacher can perfectly live the Gospel he preaches, but people know when clergymen are living double lives or are being inauthentic. They know when we are merely playing a role. They know when we are half-heartedly saying what we think we’re expected to say without really believing it—a lot like Pinocchio in the commercial.
People also recognize when we are striving for holiness, really loving God and His people. They can tell whether we are men of prayer, preaching God’s word with experience because we try to live it each day and see its fruits in our lives.
Yes, I am convinced that you in the laity can tell the difference. Pray for the bishops, priests, and deacons who stand before you; pray that we will be the men that God and you deserve.
It is hard to describe 2019 in glowing terms for the Church, whether in the United States or worldwide. I will not recite every gory detail here, but this year saw a further unfolding of the drama of sexual abuse, both the abuse itself and the deposing of several bishops and other clergy for covering it up. More of the same is likely to follow in the year to come. This has led to further discouragement among both clergy and the faithful.
Can anything good possibly come from 2019? None of us can say for certain, but we do know that God can write straight with crooked lines; He can make a way out of no way. Some of God’s greatest gifts come in strange packages. Though I have been a vocal critic of many of the events of the past few years, I would like to point out some positive effects of the ordeal. I pray that these do not become overcorrections, which can sometimes be as bad as the evils they replace.
The laity has found its collective voice.
Many of us can remember a time when it was almost unthinkable to say anything negative about a member of the clergy. Even if one saw evidence of problematic behavior, mentioning it was verboten. There was an almost excessive deference by the laity to Church authority. Because the priest was holy and had given his life to God, questioning or opposing him was tantamount to questioning or opposing God.
Though this began changing in the 1970s and 1980s, there has still been a sometimes-unhealthy submissiveness to the clergy, especially bishops. For traditional Catholics, disrespect for the clergy—especially the pope—was a mark of dissent and was highly frowned upon. A true and orthodox Catholic had a filial love for the pope and, as general rule, for the bishops in union with him.
Although we call priests “Father” and think of bishops as shepherds, most of us are adult children. The Catholic faithful have equal dignity before God and have both the right and the duty to work with their clergy in manifesting the Church. The roles are distinct, but the responsibility is shared.
While not rejecting the divine constitution of the Church (wherein the Lord established his clergy with the power to teach, govern, and sanctify in a unique and authoritative way), God’s faithful are to work with their clergy so that the clergy are responsible and accountable for the gifts and roles God has given them. Canon 212.3 says this of the lay faithful:
According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons.
A fawning and overly deferential attitude toward the clergy does not help them or the Church.
The bishops and other clergy have been humbled in a way that may have salutary effects.
Over the past thirty years, many Catholics have become more comfortable giving feedback to their local priests, even confronting them when necessary. Bishops, however, have continued to be well-insulated; they are often surrounded and protected by several layers of staff. Most lay people indicate that they have no hope of ever getting through to the bishop. Even letters addressed to the bishop are answered by subordinates. In some larger dioceses, even priests can have difficulty meeting or speaking with their bishop.
Many bishops have become aware that they are too distant from their people and must get better at listening to them, taking their concerns seriously, and participating more in the everyday life of the flock.
Clergy are more likely to correct one another and to speak more honestly to their bishop.
Priests are not immune from showing excessive deference to and flattery of higher-level Church officials. Priests are people, and most people are hesitant to speak clearly and forthrightly to those in authority over them.
We priests need to overcome this tendency and learn to speak more frankly, yet still respectfully, to our bishops. A priest has a shared responsibility with his bishop, acting as his eyes and ears in the parish as well as being his voice to the parishioners. Priests must become more willing to say things to their bishop that he would rather not hear but needs to hear.
The recent crisis has helped some priests, even if only a minority, to speak out, to the bishop and to the laity, with clarity and charity. Priests owe respect and obedience to their bishop, not obsequiousness or fawning deference, but manly and respectful interaction that has the best interests of the bishop and the wider Church at heart.
We have learned the price of silence and compromise.
The sexual revolution was simmering through the early 1960s and reached a boil in the last few years of the decade. Sadly, most clergy and parents remained silent as the body count grew. It is estimated that there are more than 40 million abortions per year around the world. Most children today are raised without the benefit of a father and mother in a stable marriage. Sexual promiscuity (and the resultant sexually transmitted diseases) and sexual confusion are rampant. Yet the silence from many pulpits is deafening.
In 1968, many clergy, embarrassed by the prophetic encyclical Humanae Vitae, simply stopped teaching on human sexuality. It became too politicized, too controversial for their tastes. In sowing the wind, we have reaped the whirlwind.
We have been reminded that “tactful” silence is foolish, and compromise with the world brings a false peace rooted in lies. The world will never be satisfied with any compromise we make. In fact, it derides us when we do so! The world will only be satisfied with total surrender. The sexual sin and confusion, up through the highest ranks of clergy, shows forth the price of such compromise. The world is not changed by our compromise, but we are corrupted, weakened, and confused by it. We have earned no converts, only derision and moral debilitation.
It’s time to get back to the uncorrupted and pure teaching of Scripture, which is more concerned with people’s salvation than with their feelings.
Some are now speaking more plainly about the central issues of homosexuality and the abuse of power.
The connection of homosexuality to sexual abuse by clergy has been a forbidden topic, but the current crisis has forced it into the open. (I have written in detail about this topic in other posts: here and here.) When 80 percent of the victims of sexual abuse by clergy are males, we must investigate why that is the case; remaining silent about this fact has only caused further damage. An honest assessment is necessary in order for any solution to be credible.
Clearly, those with deep-seated homosexual tendencies are going to face unique problems in the same-sex settings of seminaries, rectories, and religious houses. The Pope himself raised these concerns in 2018. The current crisis has encouraged more to speak out about these issues, realizing that continued silence will only make matters worse.
The common good and the spiritual welfare of those with same-sex attraction require a truthful assessment of this matter no matter how unpopular such observations and prescriptions may be. Besides, the world isn’t going to love us no matter what we do!
We are now more aware that the victims of sexual abuse are not just pre-pubescent, pubescent, and post-pubescent minors, but vulnerable adults as well.
Although seminarians and newer priests are adults, an older priest or bishop can use his power, authority, and influence over their future to make it difficult for them to resist sexual advances.
Further, because priests are called “Father,” any sexual interaction with the faithful—male or female, young or old—can rightly be called “spiritual incest.” All this talk about “consenting adults” ignores the fact that many relationships are not ones between equals. The #MeToo movement has brought this out in the business, media, and Hollywood worlds.
There is a growing awareness in the secular world of the damage that can be caused by caretakers, therapists, counselors, and others in positions of influence who take sexual advantage of vulnerable adults. In the Church, a priest who does this is guilty not only of violating a professional boundary but also of sacrilege, because he violates his sacred vows.
The current crisis has caused the Church to take a much clearer look at this aspect of the problem. If even the secular world is beginning to understand this, we can do no less.
Beware of over-correction! Above are some positive outcomes from the crisis, even if painful in their initial unfolding. They can be helpful trends for the Church provided they do not become overcorrections. This is one of the dangers of any response to a crisis: that we simply swing to an extreme that may be equally undesirable. For example, overcorrections might result in some of these:
a laity that is so bold as to be incorrigible, unteachable, and disrespectful of clergy and bishops
bishops that are so anxious for the approval of their flock that they stop leading and prophetically challenging the faithful to follow Christ, especially in matters that challenge popular ways of thinking
the neglect of mercy and the pastoral need to be patient in leading people out of habitual sin
the failure to address the sexual abuse of females by clergy (20% of victims)
the disparagement of sexual attraction to the extent that even appropriate flattery and outreach (e.g., asking someone out for a date) is considered abuse. Attraction between men and women is normal and healthy and should not be demonized. Obviously, clergy should never signal sexual interest, but a mere look or an expression of concern does not amount to a boundary violation.
Ultimately, we must lovingly summon all to chaste living in accordance with the Sixth Commandment and God’s overall teaching. If we can be serious and loving about this, something good may emerge from the ongoing crisis.