Recent and persistent attacks by radical Muslims, especially the most recent beheadings of 21 Egyptian Christians, have many asking what can or should be done to end such atrocities. Military actions by numerous countries, including our own, are already underway. Most feel quite justified in these actions and many are calling for more concerted efforts to eliminate ISIS and related zealots who seem to know no pity, no reason, and no limits. I do not write here to opine on the need for or limits on military action. I only point to the “just war” teaching of the Church as a guide for such actions. Obviously, there is a clear and present threat that needs to be repulsed, even with force.

But perhaps, too, given our present experiences, we should not be so quick to condemn the similar outrage and calls for action that came from Christians of the Middle Ages, who also suffered widespread atrocities. The Crusades were a reaction to something very awful and threatening, something that needed to be forcefully repulsed. Many if not most of the great saints from that period called for Crusades, preaching them and supporting them. This includes the likes of St. Bernard, St. Catherine of Sienna, and St. Francis of Assisi.

Seldom are historical events identical to present realities. But our current experiences give us a small taste of what Christians, from the 8th century through the Middle Ages, experienced. Their response need not be seen as sinless or wholly proper. Armed conflict seldom ends without atrocities, a good reason to set it as the very last recourse. Most popular presentations of the Crusades are arguably more influenced by anti-Catholic bigotry than historical fact.

With all this in mind, I’d like to look at the Crusades using excerpts from an article by Paul Crawford, published a few years back at First Principles, entitled, Four Myths About the Crusades. In the excerpts that follow, his text is in bold, black italics, while my comments are in plain red text. The full text of his excellent, though lengthy article can be read by clicking the link above.

For a longer treatment of this subject, please see Steve Weidenkopf’s book  The Glory of the Crusades, recently published at Catholic Answers.

For now, let’s examine Crawford’s article and detail four myths of the Crusades:

Myth #1: The crusades represented an unprovoked attack by Western Christians on the Muslim world.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and even a cursory chronological review makes that clear. In a.d. 632, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, North Africa, Spain, France, Italy, and the islands of Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica were all Christian territories. Inside the boundaries of the Roman Empire, which was still fully functional in the eastern Mediterranean, orthodox Christianity was the official, and overwhelmingly majority, religion. Outside those boundaries were other large Christian communities—not necessarily orthodox and Catholic, but still Christian. Most of the Christian population of Persia, for example, was Nestorian. Certainly there were many Christian communities in Arabia.

By a.d. 732, a century later, Christians had lost Egypt, Palestine, Syria, North Africa, Spain, most of Asia Minor, and southern France. Italy and her associated islands were under threat, and the islands would come under Muslim rule in the next century. The Christian communities of Arabia were entirely destroyed in or shortly after 633, when Jews and Christians alike were expelled from the peninsula. Those in Persia were under severe pressure. Two-thirds of the formerly Roman Christian world was now ruled by Muslims.

What had happened? … The answer is the rise of Islam. Every one of the listed regions was taken, within the space of a hundred years, from Christian control by violence, in the course of military campaigns deliberately designed to expand Muslim territory. … Nor did this conclude Islam’s program of conquest. … Charlemagne blocked the Muslim advance in far western Europe in about a.d. 800, but Islamic forces simply shifted their focus … toward Italy and the French coast, attacking the Italian mainland by 837. A confused struggle for control of southern and central Italy continued for the rest of the ninth century and into the tenth. … [A]ttacks on the deep inland were launched. Desperate to protect victimized Christians, popes became involved in the tenth and early eleventh centuries in directing the defense of the territory around them. … The Byzantines took a long time to gain the strength to fight back. By the mid-ninth century, they mounted a counterattack. … Sharp Muslim counterattacks followed …

In 1009, a mentally deranged Muslim ruler destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and mounted major persecutions of Christians and Jews. … Pilgrimages became increasingly difficult and dangerous, and western pilgrims began banding together and carrying weapons to protect themselves as they tried to make their way to Christianity’s holiest sites in Palestine.

Desperate, the Byzantines sent appeals for help westward, directing these appeals primarily at the person they saw as the chief western authority: the pope, who, as we have seen, had already been directing Christian resistance to Muslim attacks. … finally, in 1095, Pope Urban II realized Pope Gregory VII’s desire, in what turned into the First Crusade.

Far from being unprovoked, then, the crusades actually represent the first great western Christian counterattack against Muslim attacks which had taken place continually from the inception of Islam until the eleventh century, and which continued on thereafter, mostly unabated. Three of Christianity’s five primary episcopal sees (Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria) had been captured in the seventh century; both of the others (Rome and Constantinople) had been attacked in the centuries before the crusades. The latter would be captured in 1453, leaving only one of the five (Rome) in Christian hands by 1500. Rome was again threatened in the sixteenth century. This is not the absence of provocation; rather, it is a deadly and persistent threat, and one which had to be answered by forceful defense if Christendom were to survive.

It is difficult to underestimate the losses suffered by the Church in the waves of Muslim conquest. All of North Africa, once teeming with Christians, was conquered. There were once 500 bishops in North Africa. Today, the Christian Church there exists only in ruins buried beneath the sand and with titular but non-residential bishops. All of Asia Minor, so lovingly evangelized by St. Paul, was lost. Much of Southern Europe was almost lost as well. It is hard to imagine any alternative to decisive military action in order to turn back waves of Muslim attack and conquest.

Myth #2: Western Christians went on crusade because their greed led them to plunder Muslims in order to get rich.

Again, not true. Few crusaders had sufficient cash both to pay their obligations at home and to support themselves decently on a crusade. From the very beginning, financial considerations played a major role in crusade planning. The early crusaders sold off so many of their possessions to finance their expeditions that they caused widespread inflation. Although later crusaders took this into account and began saving money long before they set out, the expense was still nearly prohibitive.

One of the chief reasons for the foundering of the Fourth Crusade, and its diversion to Constantinople, was the fact that it ran out of money before it had gotten properly started, and was so indebted to the Venetians that it found itself unable to keep control of its own destiny. Louis IX’s Seventh Crusade in the mid-thirteenth century cost more than six times the annual revenue of the crown.

The popes resorted to ever more desperate ploys to raise money to finance crusades, from instituting the first income tax in the early thirteenth century to making a series of adjustments in the way that indulgences were handled that eventually led to the abuses condemned by Martin Luther.

In short: very few people became rich by crusading, and their numbers were dwarfed by those who were bankrupted. Most medieval people were quite well aware of this, and did not consider crusading a way to improve their financial situations.

Crawford states elsewhere that plunder was often allowed or overlooked when Christian armies conquered, in order that some bills could be paid. Sadly, plunder was commonly permitted in ancient times, but it was not unique to Christians. Here again, we may wish that Christian sentiments would have meant no plunder at all, but war is seldom orderly, and the motives of every individual solider cannot be perfectly controlled.

The bottom line remains that conducting a crusade was a lousy way to get rich or to raise any money at all.

Myth #3: Crusaders were a cynical lot who did not really believe their own religious propaganda; rather, they had ulterior, materialistic motives.

This has been a very popular argument, at least from Voltaire on. It seems credible and even compelling to modern people, steeped as they are in materialist worldviews. And certainly there were cynics and hypocrites in the Middle Ages—medieval people were just as human as we are, and subject to the same failings.

However, like the first two myths, this statement is generally untrue, and demonstrably so. For one thing, the casualty rates on the crusades were usually very high, and many if not most crusaders left expecting not to return. At least one military historian has estimated the casualty rate for the First Crusade at an appalling 75 percent, for example.

But this assertion is also revealed to be false when we consider the way in which the crusades were preached. Crusaders were not drafted. Participation was voluntary, and participants had to be persuaded to go. The primary means of persuasion was the crusade sermon. Crusade sermons were replete with warnings that crusading brought deprivation, suffering, and often death … would disrupt their lives, possibly impoverish and even kill or maim them, and inconvenience their families.

So why did the preaching work? It worked because crusading was appealing precisely because it was a known and significant hardship, and because undertaking a crusade with the right motives was understood as an acceptable penance for sin … valuable for one’s soul. The willing acceptance of difficulty and suffering was viewed as a useful way to purify one’s soul.

Related to the concept of penance is the concept of crusading as an act of selfless love, of “laying down one’s life for one’s friends.”

As difficult as it may be for modern people to believe, the evidence strongly suggests that most crusaders were motivated by a desire to please God, expiate their sins, and put their lives at the service of their “neighbors,” understood in the Christian sense.

Yes, such concepts ARE difficult for modern Westerners to believe. Since we are so secular and cynical, the thought of spiritual motives strikes us as implausible. But a great Cartesian divide, with its materialist reductionism, separates the Modern West from the Middle Ages and Christian antiquity.  Those were days when life in this world was brutal and short. Life here was “a valley of tears” to be endured as a time of purification preparing us to meet God. Spiritual principles held much more sway than they do today.

Myth #4: The crusades taught Muslims to hate and attack Christians.

Muslims had been attacking Christians for more than 450 years before Pope Urban declared the First Crusade. They needed no incentive to continue doing so. But there is a more complicated answer here, as well.

The first Muslim crusade history did not [even] appear until 1899. By that time, the Muslim world was rediscovering the crusades—but it was rediscovering them with a twist learned from Westerners. In the modern period, there were two main European schools of thought about the crusades. One school, epitomized by people like Voltaire, Gibbon, and Sir Walter Scott, and in the twentieth century Sir Steven Runciman, saw the crusaders as crude, greedy, aggressive barbarians who attacked civilized, peace-loving Muslims to improve their own lot. The other school, more romantic, saw the crusades as a glorious episode in a long-standing struggle in which Christian chivalry had driven back Muslim hordes.

So it was not the crusades that taught Islam to attack and hate Christians. … Rather, it was the West which taught Islam to hate the crusades.

Yes, this is the strange, self-loathing tendency of the dying West to supply our detractors and would-be destroyers with ample reason to detest us.

I am interested in your thoughts. I don’t think it is necessary to defend the Church’s and the Christian West’s series of Crusades vehemently. There are many regrettable things that accompany any war. But fair is fair; there is more to the picture than many, with anti-Church agendas of their own, wish to admit.

And to those secularists and atheists who love to point out “how many have died as a result of religious wars and violence,” I say, “Recall how many died in the 20th century for secular ideological reasons.” English historian Paul Johnson, in his book Modern Times, places the number at 1oo million.

Does this excuse even one person dying as the result of religious war? No. But violence, war, conquest,  and territorial disputes are human problems not necessarily or only religious ones. Our current sufferings at the hands of radical Muslims show the problem with simply doing nothing. Life is complex; not all decisions are perfect or precisely carried out. Lord, help us, and by miracle convert our enemies.

Painting: The Preaching of the Crusades from Wikipedia Commons

This video shows some of the Christian ruins in North Africa, including the See of St Cyprian of Carthage.

CaterinaTrue sanctity does not easily fit into our notions of being merely nice or humble. The lives of the actual saints of the Church exude joy and can bring great encouragement to many around them. But it is also true that the great saints were irksome and unsettling to many. Most of the great saints had encountered the holiness of God and wanted to see that holiness be like a fire cast on the earth. When you really want to please God rather than men, you’re not going to be easily silenced in the face of sin and injustice, nor will you be engaging in pleasantries that merely cover over sin.

Catharine Benincasa was such a soul. We know her as St. Catherine of Siena. And though renowned for her love, generosity, and humility, as well as her power to heal, console, and cast out demons, she was no shrinking violet. If she saw something in your soul that was unholy, you were going to hear about it. And it didn’t matter who you were.

St Catherine would meet with anyone from the poorest beggars to kings, governors, bishops, and popes, and none of them were denied her love and encouragement. Neither were they spared the hard truths that God gave her to say. Only God was to be pleased, not man. Spiritual truths were to be extolled over every temporal matter like safety, comfort, and pleasing the powers-that-be.

She loved the Church but remained gravely concerned with the condition of the beloved Bride of Christ. Particularly egregious to her was the condition of so many clergy, right on up the ranks. Even the popes of her time, whom she acknowledged as the sweet Vicars of Christ, and her beloved father (“Babbo” in her native Tuscan) could not escape her expressions of grave disappointment and her calls to conversion.

Of special significance for our time is her exchange of letters with Pope Gregory XI. Though he himself led an exemplary life in many respects, he was a weak, shy, even cowardly man. He was deeply compromised by his temporal ties to power, wealth, and protection, without which he feared he and the papacy could not survive. Nepotism was also a terrible problem, as his own family members kept him wound around their fingers.

Most of the early popes died as martyrs. But by the time of the Avignon Papacy, the popes had become very tied to the world and had “too much to lose.” Instead of facing their opponents boldly, preaching the gospel, and refusing to be afraid, they had fled to Avignon and had been in residence there for decades, living behind fortified walls, protected by armies, and compromised by alliances with secular rulers. It had to stop.

Gregory XI was the last of the Avignon popes, but he only returned to Rome at the prodding of a young woman, not yet thirty, who told him, in effect, to “man up.” Perhaps most disconcerting to him was the fact that she seemed to know of a secret vow he had made to God that if he were to be elected Pope he would bring the papacy back to Rome. How could she know? But she did. Yet after all, was that not why he sought her advice? She knew God, and fearful though her words were, they were compelling, for he knew that God was speaking to him through her. In 1377, after much delay and fretting, he left for Rome.

I want to produce here some excerpts from a letter she wrote to Gregory XI just prior to 1377. I think her words speak to the clergy of today. The specific issues that beset clergy today are somewhat different, but not that different. The Church no longer commands extensive temporal power or rule. But too many (though not all) clergy still exhibit a need to “man up” when it comes to teaching with clarity and authority. And too many clergy, pastors in parishes, and bishops in dioceses, are unwilling to maintain holy discipline or enforce canonical penalties, ever.

St. Catherine confronts this tendency in her letter and does not, to put it mildly, regard this favorably. She sees it as mired in self-love and in the refusal to suffer with the Lord, who died for us at our hands rather than lie to us. She uses the image of a wound that needs to be cauterized with hot irons rather than soothed with oil. But the weak clergy who do not want to hear the cries of protest use only oil to soothe, even though this does not heal and in fact only leads the wound to get worse and in the end cause death. Such malpractice is rooted in self-love, not true zeal to heal and prevent spiritual death.

Well, I have already said too much; I will let Saint Catherine speak for herself. If you think my blogs are long, try reading St. Catherine’s letters! I present here only excerpts of a much longer letter to Pope Gregory; she wrote several others, too. The translation I am using here is from Letters of Catherine Benincasa

In the Name of Jesus Christ crucified and of sweet Mary: To you, most reverend and beloved father in Christ Jesus, your unworthy, poor, miserable daughter Catherine, servant and slave of the servants of Jesus Christ, writes in His precious Blood … the soul is constrained to love what God loves and to hate what He hates. Oh, sweet and true knowledge, which dost carry with thee the knife of hate, and dost stretch out the hand of holy desire … [But if a prelate] sees his subjects commit faults and sins, and pretends not to see them and fails to correct them; or if he does correct them, he does it with such coldness and lukewarmness that he does not accomplish anything, but plasters vice over; and he is always afraid of giving displeasure or of getting into a quarrel. All this is because he loves himself. Sometimes men like this want to get along with purely peaceful means.

I say that this is the very worst cruelty which can be shown. If a wound when necessary is not cauterized or cut out with steel, but simply covered with ointment, not only does it fail to heal, but it infects everything, and many a time death follows from it.

Oh me, oh me, sweetest “Babbo” [a term of affection in her native Tuscan which translates roughly as “Papa”] mine! This is the reason that all the subjects are corrupted by impurity and iniquity.

Oh me, weeping I say it! How dangerous is that worm [of self-love] we spoke of! For not only does it give death to the shepherd, but all the rest fall into sickness and death through it.

Why does that shepherd go on using so much ointment? Because he does not suffer in consequence! For no displeasure visits one and no ill will, from spreading ointment over the sick; since one does nothing contrary to their will; they wanted ointment, and so ointment is given them.

Oh, human wretchedness! Blind is the sick man who does not know his own need, and blind the shepherd-physician, who has regard to nothing but pleasing, and his own advantage—since, not to forfeit it, he refrains from using the knife of justice or the fire of ardent charity! But such men do as Christ says: for if one blind man guide the other, both fall into the ditch. Sick man and physician fall into hell.

Such a man is a hireling shepherd, for, far from dragging his sheep from the hands of the wolf, he devours them himself. The cause of all this is, that he loves himself apart from God: so he does not follow sweet Jesus, the true Shepherd, who has given His life for His sheep.

Truly, then, this perverse love is perilous for one’s self and for others, and truly to be shunned, since it works too much harm to every generation of people.

I hope by the goodness of God, venerable father mine, that you will quench this in yourself, and will not love yourself for yourself, nor your neighbor for yourself, nor God; but will love Him because He is highest and eternal Goodness, and worthy of being loved …

O “Babbo” mine, sweet Christ on earth, follow that sweet Gregory (the Great)! For all will be possible to you as to him; for he was not of other flesh than you; and that God is now who was then: we lack nothing save virtue, and hunger for the salvation of souls.

… Let no more note be given to friends or parents or one’s temporal needs, but only to virtue and the exaltation of things spiritual … have that glorious hunger which these holy and true shepherds of the past … hungered and famished for the savor of souls.

… Following Christ, whose vicar you are, like a strong man … Fear not; for divine aid is near. Have a care for spiritual things alone, for good shepherds, good rulers, in your cities—since on account of bad shepherds and rulers you have encountered rebellion.

Give us, then, a remedy … Press on, and fulfill with true zeal and holy what you have begun with a holy resolve, concerning your return, and the holy and sweet crusade. And delay no longer, for many difficulties have occurred through delay, and the devil has risen up to prevent these things being done, because he perceives his own loss.

Up, then, father, and no more negligence! Raise the gonfalon of the most holy Cross, for with the fragrance of the Cross you shall win peace.

We await you with eager and loving desire. Pardon me, father, that I have said so many words to you. You know that through the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh … I beg you to do what you have to do manfully and in the fear of God … Remain in the sweet and holy grace of God. I ask you humbly for your blessing. Pardon my presumption, that I presume to write to you. Sweet Jesus, Jesus Love [Letter to Gregory XI, quoted in  Letters of Catherine Benincasa pp. 49-51].

Such words still ring true in our day! For too many today in the Church would use the “oil” of accommodation to the culture today, a culture filled with sexual confusion, in which disposable marriages and easy grace without repentance are demanded. To heal such wounds, the cauterizing of the hot iron of truth is needed. Applying the oil of consolation may meet with fewer protests from those who are sick from lies, but in the end this does not help heal the putrefying wounds. Despite the protests, only the hot iron will do.

It’s time for clergy to man up and apply the more difficult medicines. May the upcoming synod show forth the vigor and courage to which St. Catherine summons us.

Thank you, Mother Catherine. May you, who converted the heart of Gregory XI and summoned him to courageous manhood, now imbue us, the clergy of today, with that same fortitude and determination to do what really heals, even if the current age protests.

LeperIn today’s Gospel, we see the healing of a leper (this means you and me). Leprosy in Scripture is more than just a physical illness, it is also a metaphor for sin. Leprosy itself is not sin, but it resembles sin and what sin does to us spiritually. For sin, like leprosy, disfigures us; it deteriorates us; it distances us (for lepers had to live apart from the community) and brings death if it is not checked. Yes, sin is a lot like leprosy.

Psalm 38 can be seen as comparing sin to leprosy:

There is no soundness in my flesh because of thy indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin. For my iniquities have gone over my head; they weigh like a burden too heavy for me. My wounds grow foul and fester because of my foolishness, I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all the day I go about mourning … there is no soundness in my flesh … My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague, and my kinsmen stand far off.

Perhaps a brief description of leprosy might be in order, so that we can further appreciate both the physical illness and also, by analogy, how sin devastates us in stages. I have compiled this description from several sources, among them, William Barclay’s Commentary on Mark. In reading this, you will see how Psalm 38 above quite vividly compares sin to leprosy:

Leprosy begins with an unaccountable lethargy and pains in the joints. Then there appear on the body, especially on the back, symmetrical discolored patches with pink and brown nodules and the skin becomes thickened. Gradually the symptoms move to the face and the nodules gather especially in the folds of the cheek, the nose, the lips, and the forehead. The whole appearance of the face is changed till a person loses his human appearance and looks more like a lion. The nodules grow larger and larger and they begin to ulcerate, and from them comes a foul discharge of pus. The eyebrows fall out and the eyes become staring. The voice becomes hoarse and the breath wheezes because of the ulceration of the vocal cords. Eventually the whole body becomes involved. Discolored patches and blisters appear everywhere. The muscles waste away; the tendons contract until the hands look more like claws. Next comes the progressive loss of fingers and toes until a whole hand or foot may drop off. It is a kind of a terrible and slow, progressive death of the body.

The disease may last from ten to thirty years and ends in mental decay, coma, then finally death.

Yet this was not all. The lepers had to bear not only the physical torment of the disease, but also the mental anguish and heartache of being completely banished from society. They were forced to live outside of town in leper areas. Everyone they knew and loved was lost to them and could only be seen from a distance.

In the middle ages, when people were diagnosed with leprosy, they were brought to the Church and the priest read the burial service over them, for in effect they were already dead, though still alive.

This description of leprosy shows how the illness develops, disfiguring, deteriorating, and distancing the leper, until ultimately there is death. As we shall see, not every diagnosis of leprosy was accurate. Many skin ailments (e.g., psoriasis) can resemble leprosy in the early stages. Later on, if the skin cleared up or remained stable, the supposed leper could be readmitted to the community.

But what of us, spiritual lepers? How are we to lose our leprosy and find healing? The Gospel suggests four steps to find healing from the spiritual leprosy of sin.

I. Step One – Admit the Reality - The text says, A leper came to Jesus, and kneeling down, begged him and said, “If you wish you can make me clean.” Notice that he knows he is a leper; he knows he needs healing. He humbles himself, kneeling, and pleads for cleansing.

But what of us? Do we know our sin? Do we know we need healing? Are we willing to ask? We live in times in which sin is often made light of; confessional lines are short. Too easily, we excuse our faults by blaming others (“It’s not my fault; my mother dropped me on my head when I was two.”). Or perhaps we point to some other sinner, apparently “worse,” and think, “Well, at least I’m not like him.”

The fact is, we are loaded with sin. Too easily, we are thinned-skinned, egotistical, unforgiving, unloving, unkind, mean-spirited, selfish, greedy, lustful, jealous, envious, bitter, ungrateful, smug, superior, vengeful, angry, aggressive, unspiritual, unprayerful, stingy, and just plain mean. And even if all the things on the list don’t apply to you, many of them do. In addition, frankly, the list is incomplete. We are sinners with a capital ‘S’ and we need serious help.

Like the leper in the Gospel, we must start with step one: admitting the reality of our sin and humbly asking the Lord for help.

II. Step Two – Accept the Relationship – Notice two things.

First, the leper calls on the Lord Jesus. In effect he seeks a relationship with Jesus, knowing that it can heal him.

Second, note how the Lord responds. The text says that Jesus is moved with pity and touches him. The Greek word translated here as “pity” is σπλαγχνισθεὶς (splagchnistheis) and is from splanxna, meaning  “the inward parts,” especially the nobler organs (the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys). These gradually came to denote the seat of the affections.

Hence the Lord is moved with a tender love for this man. The English word “pity,” though often considered a condescending word today, is rooted in the Latin pietas, referring to family love. So Jesus sees this man as a brother and reaches out to him. Jesus’ touching of the leper was an unthinkable action at that time. No one would touch a leper, or even come close to one. Lepers were required to live outside of town in nearby caves. But Jesus is God, and He loves this man. In His humanity, Christ sees this leper as a brother. Scripture says,

For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin. That is why HE IS NOT ASHAMED TO CALL THEM BRETHREN, saying, “I will proclaim thy name to my brethren, in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee” (Heb 2:11).

It is in our relationship with the Lord, a relationship established by faith, that we are justified, transformed, healed, and ultimately saved. If we want to be free of the leprosy of our sin we must accept the saving relationship with Jesus and let Him touch us.

III. Step Three – Apply the Remedy - Having healed the leper, Jesus instructs him to follow through in the following manner: See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.

Among the ancient Jews it was the priests who were trained and empowered to recognize leprosy and its healing. For, as already stated, leprosy in its early stages can resemble other skin ailments. Perhaps it was leprosy, but perhaps it was just dermatitis, or psoriasis, or eczema. Priests were trained to make observations and then either banish the person or readmit him to the community. For sometimes, out of an abundance of caution, a person was dismissed on suspicion of leprosy, but the condition cleared up or remained stable. It was the priest who made the decision for the community.

And, of course, we have here a metaphor for sacramental confession. For what does the priest do in confession? He assesses a person’s spiritual condition, and, having seen God’s healing mercy at work in a person’s repentance, reconciles him, or, in the case of serious sinners, readmits him into the full communion of the Church. It is God who forgives, but the Lord ministers through the priest.

And thus to us spiritual lepers, the Lord gives the same instruction: “Go show yourself to the priest.” In other words, “Go to confession!” And the Lord adds, “Offer for your cleansing what is prescribed.” That is to say, “Offer your penance.”

But someone might ask, why should the leper bother to do that? The Lord has already healed him. To this we can only answer, “Just do what Jesus says: Show yourself to the priest; offer your penance.” It is true that God can forgive directly, but it is clear enough from this passage that confession is to be a part of the believer’s life, especially in the case of serious sin. To those who balk, the simple answer must be, “Just DO what Jesus says.”

So, having admitted the reality, accepted the relationship, and applied the remedy, there still remains a fourth step.

IV. Step Four – Announce the Result – When God heals you, you have to tell somebody. There’s just something about joy. It can’t be hidden. And people notice when you’ve been changed.

That said, there are perplexities about this part of the Gospel. For, as the text says, Jesus “sternly warns him” NOT to tell a soul other than the priest. The Greek text is even stronger, for it says Jesus warned him ἐμβριμησάμενος (embrimēsamenos). This means to snort with anger, to exert someone with the notion of coercion, springing out of displeasure, anger, indignation, or antagonism. It means to express indignant displeasure with someone, and to thus charge him sternly. So we see a very strong and negative command of Jesus. There is nothing ambiguous about the fact that he angrily warns this man to remain silent.

That this (and other passages wherein the Lord issues similar commands) is puzzling is an understatement. And yet the reason is supplied: Jesus did not want His mission turned into a circus act at which people gathered to watch miracles and see “signs and wonders.” Clearly, this man’s inability to remain silent means that Jesus can no longer enter a place quietly, and that many will seek him for secondary reasons.

But commands to remain silent cannot remain true for us who are under standing order number one: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matt 28:19).

Hence it is clear that we NEED to shout what the Lord has done for us and give Him all the glory. And, honestly, when God acts in your life, there is joy, and joy cannot be hidden or suppressed. If our healing is real, we can’t stay silent. To quote Jesus at a later stage (when the Temple leaders told him to silence his disciples), I tell you, if they keep quiet, the very rocks will cry out (Lk 19:40).

At the heart of evangelization is announcing what the Lord has done for us. An old Gospel song says, “I thought I wasn’t gonna testify … but I couldn’t keep it to myself, what the Lord has done for me!”

Yes, tell somebody what the Lord has done. If the healing is real, you can’t keep silent.

Losing our leprosy in four easy steps.

The word honesty comes from the Latin honestas meaning an honor received from others, a kind of “standing in honor” before others (honor + stas (to stand)). It’s interesting that most people are willing to be a little phony in order to get vague appreciation or to be thought well of. (The whole cosmetics industry is based on this.) But when one is actually “honored” in a formal way by others, there is an elevated sense that we need to truthfully deserve the honor. And thus honor calls forth honesty.

A similar concept is sincerity. The word sincerity comes from the Latin as well: sine (without) + cera (wax). It seems that sculptors in the ancient world often used a hard, resin-like wax to hide their errors. But every now and then there was the perfect carving, with no wax needed, nothing phony about it, no cover-ups.

I thought about these words as I saw this commercial. In the ad, the “honor” of engagement draws forth honesty and sincerity. The honesty of one person brings forth the honesty of the other and they both end up more relaxed.

syroThe Gospel for today’s Mass shocks most modern readers and perhaps a few ancient ones as well. It is the story of the Syrophoenician woman who begs Jesus to heal her daughter. But Jesus ignores and then rebuffs her. Our shock says perhaps more about our poor understanding of love than about Jesus’ terse response.

For review, here is the well known passage:

Jesus went to the district of Tyre.
He entered a house and wanted no one to know about it,
but he could not escape notice.
Soon a woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him.
She came and fell at his feet.
The woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth,
and she begged him to drive the demon out of her daughter.
He said to her, “Let the children be fed first.
For it is not right to take the food of the children
and throw it to the dogs.”
She replied and said to him,
“Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.”
Then he said to her, “For saying this, you may go.
The demon has gone out of your daughter.”
When the woman went home, she found the child lying in bed
and the demon gone (Mk 7:24-30).

While I have commented on other theories of this story elsewhere (Do Not Pass me By), in this post I want to briefly explore what our shock reveals about our own attitudes.

Briefly said, we tend to equate kindness with love; this is a mistake. Kindness is an aspect of love, but so is rebuke and so is punishment. Mercy and patience are aspects of love, but so are insisting on what is right and setting limits. Very often, true love requires us to be firm and insistent. Sometimes being kind is rather unloving, since that can assist or enable people in doing things that bring them great harm.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus, who is God and therefore is love, is for a moment “unkind” to the woman who seeks help for her daughter. He has His reasons for this. And while neither your nor I can read her heart, Jesus can. And it seems that Jesus sees a need to exact greater faith and trust from her. His rebuke challenges her, and challenges met have a way of increasing faith. She could have gone away angry or discouraged. With Jesus’ rebuke, her faith in His goodness is challenged. By staying in the conversation and refusing to give up her hope or faith, both these virtues grow. There is an old expression, “Things do by opposition grow,” and we see that here.

Why would her faith need to grow?  I cannot speak for her, but I can speak for myself and from my experiences with others. Many people merely want relief, not healing. Healing is hard; it takes time and effort. Healing usually means that one must reexamine one’s life, thoughts, priorities, and so forth. Healing usually means making changes, some of them significant. It sometimes means giving up pleasures and ending unhealthy relationships.

Do we have the kind of faith that is willing to make the changes that healing often requires, or do we just want relief? I have found that people who have come to me over the years seeking deliverance and help often want a simple blessing or prayer to suffice. They are seeking relief and they want it fast. Some have made the longer journey toward healing, but others have gone away sad, angry, or discouraged.

In my own struggle during my mid-thirties, I think I started just wanting a quick solution to my anxieties; I wanted relief. But I came to discover that it was going to be a long journey to healing. It meant I was going to have to grow in trust by examining some of my controlling tendencies and changing the way I thought and lived.

Many years later, I can say that the healing has come. But it was a long and often difficult journey, during which I felt the way the Syrophoenician woman must have. In my own case, I was shocked by the Lord’s silence. And when I did hear His voice, it seemed only to challenge me.  Was the Lord being unkind? Back then, I would have said, “yes.” But I have come to discover that the Lord was doing what was loving, even if at the time it seemed unkind and distant. The Lord was insisting that I come to trust Him more, for my own sake, and He wasn’t just going to keep sending me bromides for relief. His goal was to heal me. That was the loving thing to do.

Kindness has its place, but so does rebuke and so does the refusal to enable us in our sinful and wounded tendencies.

And so it was that a certain Syrophoenician woman experienced a moment of unkindness from Jesus. But she did not fail to receive His love. And while her story is told in a rather quick, focal way, our own stories may extend over a longer period. If we, like her, refuse to give up our hope and faith, if we stay with the Lord allowing Him to work and grow our faith in His work, we, too, will hear those marvelous words of the Lord: For saying this, you may go. The demon has gone out.

avignonMost Catholics understandably link the Church, the Papacy, and Rome. We are “Roman” Catholics. The Pope lives in Rome. He is the Bishop of Rome and of the universal Church. Rome, the Papacy, and the Church are solidly linked terms and almost interchangeable. To say, “Rome has spoken … ” is to say the Pope has spoken, the Church has ruled.

But this connection has not always held and the popes, for various reasons, have chosen or been “forced” to live outside of Rome.

Among the lesser known and understood chapters of Church history is the “Avignon Papacy” (1309-1377). During this period, the popes lived outside of Rome, in what is now the French city of Avignon. Even prior to that time, several popes had found it necessary to live elsewhere within Italy due to the chaos, violence, and troubles in Rome.

These were turbulent times in the Church and in Europe. Whatever brief intellectual and cultural unity had come to Europe in the 13th Century (sometimes called the Medieval Synthesis) was breaking down, and a kind of localized anarchy had become the norm.

Large nation-states, as we now call them, were not the norm in the 14th Century, and violence was common between villages and regions. We live in times in which large countries engage in statecraft and, when there is conflict, wage wars between nations and even conduct world wars. The body count can be astonishing in these national and global conflicts.

In the 14th century, however, it was “death by a thousand cuts,” and violence and war were very localized. But the chaos and violence could be very fierce and ugly.

It is important for us to know some of this material. While I am no prophet, something tells me that with the decline of Christian Europe and the rise of a militant version of Islam, it may be important for us to know that Rome has not always been a place where it was possible or reasonable for the popes to live, and to learn what some of the effects of this have been.

The absence of popes from Rome almost always had a deleterious effect and it took quite a bit of pressure, even from saints, to get them to return. I pray that modern popes will always have the courage to face down threats and never relinquish the Holy See. But history provides important models to know and lessons to learn from the Avignon Papacy.

The history is too lengthy and “byzantine” (i.e., complex) to detail here in a mere blog post. But some highlights are helpful to review. Thus, I’d like to present some excerpts from Sigrid Undset’s book  St. Catherine of Siena (pp. 126-139), which describe something of this time. Exact quotes from the book are in italics, and some narrative of my own that I weave in (represented in plain text) is drawn from her material.

The general situation – Times were hard … in Italy. Towns and villages lived under the constant threat of being attacked and ravaged by the armies of neighboring republics … despots [or mercenaries] temporarily unemployed and on the lookout for plunder … The vanquished became victims of orgies of senseless bloodlust, torture, massacre and looting. In the wake of the soldiers followed plague and starvation. Men and boys who had grown up in this anarchy [often] took to the woods or mountains and became outlaws, murderers who neither gave nor expected mercy …

The situation in Rome – The restless, self-willed people of Rome were all too ready [to undertake] rioting, and anarchy broke out during papal elections when armed mobs of Romans tried to force Cardinals to choose their candidate. German emperors also [frequently] invaded Rome to force their claim[s] … [This] often forced popes to flee to Naples or Lyons … For several decades popes had preferred to live at Viterbo [or other Italian towns] … to escape the eternal unrest and uncertainty of Rome

The Avignon Papacy [began] when Clement V refused [because of the situation in Rome] to leave his native France to live in Italy … [he settled in Avignon, which, though technically not part of France, was under French influence] At his death Clement V left a fortune of one million florins. His successor [John XXII] also lived in Avignon and continued the building activities of his predecessor, [making] the papal city on the Rhone one of the most strongly fortified and mightiest cities in Europe.

Things just got worse in Rome – In Rome itself [with the pope absent] there was no authority which could control the aggressive members of the great baronial families who continually waged war on each other … They had fortresses inside the city walls … Pilgrims who came to pray at the graves of the apostles were robbed, peasants attacked outside the city walls, women were raped … The Churches were in ruins; in St. Peters and the Lateran, cattle grazed at the foot of altars … As a result of the absence of the popes, war and enmity between small groups flourished unchecked … How deserted the town which was once so full of people, the mistress of the peoples [had] become a widow.

Some attempts were made by Pope Clement VI to restore order there. He sent a legate, and churches were repaired and rebuilt, law and order restored, and pilgrims could return safely. But at length, the Romans turned against the men the Pope had sent and drove them from the city. Chaos returned. It was both disgraceful and discouraging.

Calls for repentance – It took the Black Death, which overran Europe, to put an end to the fiasco. Half of the population of Italy died in the plague. Many felt sure that the plague was a punishment from God on a world that had rejected Him.

A chorus of voices demanded that the world should do penance and the Pope return to the city that was the rightful home of the Holy See … that this return was an essential condition for a re-birth of Christianity.

This view was championed by St. Brigitta of Sweden in the middle years of the 14th Century. She wrote to Pope Clement VI and warned of terrible misfortunes that would come upon him if he failed to return to Rome. While it was said that he was deeply moved by the letter of this holy and influential woman, he cited a “difficult situation” that presently prevented his move.

His successors, Innocent VI and Urban V, also failed to end the Avignon Papacy. (Though Urban did go to Rome for three years, he left, dying shortly afterwards in fulfillment of Brigitta’s prophecy.)

Upon the election of Gregory XI, great hope was raised of a papal return to Rome. Brigitta, however, would not live to see it. It would fall to Catherine of Siena to prevail on Gregory to make the return. She carried on a long correspondence with him and then visited him in Avignon in 1376. While the weight of her influence is a debated topic, some legends have her saying to the Pope in effect, “Go to Rome or go to Hell.” And Gregory, who was a smart man and knew that Catherine said this is out of love for him and the Church, went back to Rome in 1377.

What are some lessons we can learn from this difficult and painful chapter?

  1. While we link the Pope to Rome, and he does carry among his titles that of “Bishop of Rome,” we ought not see this as doctrinally essential to his role as the Successor to Peter. Peter himself began in Jerusalem and then likely moved to Antioch, possibly to Ephesus, and then finally to Rome. His move there made sense since Rome was the hub of the empire they sought to evangelize. But if Rome were to fall into a condition that made it untenable for the Pope to stay, he could fulfill his role elsewhere. He would likely retain his title of Bishop of Rome even if forced to live elsewhere.
  2. We can see how serious the Church’s role is in fostering conversion. All the thousands of European conflicts of this and later periods occurred among Catholics. All claimed to believe in the Lord and to be Catholics, but their politics and national differences trumped their identity as sons and daughters of God. Politics and worldly conquest were more important than the faith. Does this sound familiar? Many today allow the same worldly things to eclipse their faith. Bishops and priests, along with Catholics in general, may seek to avoid conflict now by overlooking this trend, but in the end it would seem it grows only worse until the matter becomes critical.
  3. The Church of that period was seriously compromised by its own involvement in the political and temporal order. Popes were large landowners and rulers in their own right. This both compromised the Church and also dulled her prophetic stance. This state of affairs arose from benign causes. As Rome declined, Europe suffered from barbarian invasions and a leadership gap, and many departed to the east. In a way, only the Pope could have filled this void at first. But power is seldom handed back once acquired. The popes grew rich and powerful, and many became corrupted by it. Today, too, the Church, while not rich or a landowner, must be careful not to align herself too closely with worldly affairs and governments. Some countries (in Europe especially) have concordats that allow lots of tax money to flow to the Church. In America, the bishops must be careful not to allow themselves to become too closely aligned with political parties or views. We also have to be careful not to allow ourselves to become too dependent on our tax-exempt status or on other things that benefit us either financially or in terms of influence, because the “price” of these benefits may become too high. All these sorts of things can bring the Church into conflict and disrepute, dulling our prophetic stance. We must be very careful never to be in a position where we have “too much to lose” by preaching the Gospel.
  4. We are entering an era in which the popes may be pressured to leave Rome. The Christian presence in Italy is steadily eroding through contraception and abortion. The cultural and religious suicide of Christians, coupled with a rather healthy growth of Muslims (whose radical elements are a big growth sector), may cause difficulties for the presence of the Church in Rome. Muslims, especially radicalized ones, are not known for their religious tolerance. If you think I exaggerate or am being polemical, please talk to the Nigerian and Sudanese Catholics who have been suffering church bombings and the death and forced relocation of thousands.
  5. Hagia Sophia in Constantinople became a Mosque. Could the same fate await St. Peter’s? Might this happen in our lifetimes? Where would the Pope and the “Vatican” go? Should the Pope die a martyr or judiciously decide to leave? Should Christians fight to save the Holy See? At what cost? What would a move to another place do to Catholic unity? Would the receiving country gain too much prominence in Church matters? Would others resent this? Such questions cannot be answered now. But as the Avignon Papacy shows, having the popes outside of Rome has a way of causing distress in the wider Church. Most of the early popes were willing to live in a dangerous place and accept martyrdom rather than be “unSEEted.”
  6. I do not write as an alarmist, but rather as one who ponders if history has things to teach us. Difficult days may come for us. How should the Church prepare? Her own history has things to teach.
  7. Sign me up for the path of martyrdom, where popes and many Catholics with him would be willing to suffer and die rather than merely accommodate demographic and political realities and vacate the apostolic see. Step one is to step up our own birthrate and work more vigorously towards winning souls for Christ.

BuzzThere was movie some years ago that most of you have probably seen called Toy Story. It had a deep impact on me, for it came out at a critical moment in my life.

It was my 33rd year of life and the 6th year of my priesthood. As I have related elsewhere, I had suffered a nervous breakdown that required a week in the hospital and a month off to recuperate. What drove me to that point was being asked to take an assignment I really wasn’t ready for. I was asked to pastor a parish that was in serious financial trouble. The stress nearly finished me.

Invincible? I was a young priest at the time, still emerging from my “invincible” stage when I thought I could do anything. I guess it’s pretty common for men in their twenties to think they can handle anything. During those years, opinions are strong, dreams are still vivid, and hard experience has not always taught its tough lessons yet.

So the young priest had said “yes” to the assignment, even though I had reservations. Soon enough, the panic attacks came, followed by waves of depression, and days when I could barely come out of my room.  A week in the hospital for evaluation, a month off to recuperate, and years of good spiritual direction, psychotherapy, and the Sacraments have been God’s way of restoring me to health.

Somewhere in the early stages of all this, I saw the movie Toy Story. And right away, I knew I was Buzz Lightyear. Buzz begins the movie as a brash, would-be hero and savior of the planet. Buzz Lightyear’s tagline is, “To infinity … and beyond!” The only problem is that he seems to have no idea that he is just a toy. He actually thinks he has come from a distant planet to save Earth. He often radios to the mother ship and, hearing nothing, concludes she must be just out of range.

At a critical point in the movie, it begins to dawn on Buzz that he is just a toy and may not be able to save the day. He struggles with this realization and resists it. He tries to leap to the rescue, not knowing he can’t actually fly, and falls from the second floor breaking off his arm (see the second video below). Suddenly, Buzz realizes he’s just a toy, that all his boasting was based on an illusion. He then sinks into a major depression, his sense of himself destroyed.

But God wasn’t done with Buzz Lightyear. In the end, Buzz does save the day, by simply being what he was made to be: a toy. One of the kids in the neighborhood takes him up and attaches a rocket to him. In the end that enables Buzz to fly and save the day at a critical moment. And though the boy meant the rocket to cause harm, God meant it for good. The humiliation Buzz suffered enabled him to conquer his pride and made him able to save the day.

The lesson of the movie is a critical one and certainly the lesson I learned in my own mid-life crisis. And the lesson is that our greatness does not come from our own self-inflated notions, but from God. And God does not need us to pretend to be something we are not. What He needs is for us to be exactly what He made us to be. And it is often in our weakness that He is able to do His greatest work.

Similarly, I have come to realize that I am but a man. I have certain gifts and lack others. Certain doors are open to me and others are not. But when I accept that and come to depend on God to fashion and use me according to His will, then great things are possible. If we go on living in sinful illusion and grandeur, we miss our true calling and place in God’s kingdom. Ultimately, each of us must come to discover the man or woman that God created us to be. That is our true greatness. It is often in our weaknesses and humiliations that we learn this best.

All this from a cartoon.

Here is the clip from Toy Story where Buzz discovers he is just a toy:

And here is the scene where Buzz saves the day, reuniting Woody and himself with Andy, the young boy who loves them. But his ability to do this was made possible because another child had strapped a rocket to him. That child had misused him. But in accepting this humiliation, Buzz found his greatness and saved the day. He did so not by his false pride, but by the very thing that humiliated him. In his weakness and by accepting that he was powerless (for toys do not have power of their own) he became strong and received his ability to go sailing once more.

When we speak of God’s law, there is a danger that we might think of it as we think of any secular law. We usually think of secular law merely as a sort of impersonal code written by nameless legislators or bureaucrats. We have not met them; we do not know them or necessarily love or trust them. In effect, they are an abstraction in our mind called “the government,” or “the man,” or just “they,” as in, “They don’t want you to park here” or “They’ll arrest you for that.”

But God’s Law is personal. When it comes to God’s Law we are dealing with something quite different, something very personal (if we have faith). For God’s law is not given by someone we do not know, love, or trust. If we have faith, God is someone we do in fact know, someone we love and trust. Further, we believe that He loves us and wants what is best for us.

God’s law is not the equivalent of a no-parking sign hung by some nameless, faceless government. Rather, it is a personal exhortation, an instruction and command given by someone we know and who knows and loves us.

Consider an example. Suppose you pull in front of my church to park and you see a no-parking sign. Now suppose further that you decide to ignore it. All right, you have broken a law, not a big one, but a law nonetheless. You’ve chosen to ignore a sign put there by “the government.” But consider another scenario: I, your beloved blogger and the pastor of the Church you are attending or visiting, is standing out there by the curb and I say to you, “Please don’t park here.” Now the situation is very different. I, someone you know and love, :) , am personally requesting that you leave the space open for some reason.

An old rabbinic saying makes this same point:

You want to know why so many of God’s laws end by saying “I am the Lord”? I will tell you! When God says, “I am the Lord,” he is saying, “Now look, I am the one who fished you out of the mud, so come over here and listen to me.”

When you experience the law in this personal way, you are far more likely to follow it, because someone you know and trust is asking and directing you. But what if, despite this, you still choose to ignore the instruction not to park there. Well then, the situation is quite different, because in this case, the law is personal. The refusal to follow it now becomes personal and it is a far more serious situation.

Here are two examples of the “I am the Lord” sayings in Scripture:

“You shall not defraud or rob your neighbor.
You shall not withhold overnight the wages of your day laborer.
You shall not curse the deaf,
or put a stumbling block in front of the blind,
but you shall fear your God.
I am the LORD.

“You shall not act dishonestly in rendering judgment.
Show neither partiality to the weak nor deference to the mighty,
but judge your fellow men justly.
You shall not go about spreading slander among your kin;
nor shall you stand by idly when your neighbor’s life is at stake.
I am the LORD
(Lev 19:11-14).

Note how the litanies of the law each end with, “I am the Lord.” (These are but two of many litanies.) On the one hand it gives solemnity to the pronouncement. But on another level, God is saying, “This is Me talking. It is I who speak to you, I who created you, led you out of slavery, parted the Red Sea for you, dispatched your enemies, fed you in the desert, and gave you drink from the rock. It I, I who love you, I who care for you, I who have given you everything you have, I who want what is best for you, I who have earned your trust. It is I, your Father, speaking to you and giving you this command.”

God’s law is personal. Do we see and experience it this way? This will happen only if we come to know the Lord personally. Otherwise, the danger is that we see the Law of God as merely an impersonal code, an abstract set of rules to follow. They might as well have been issued by the deity, the godhead, or even just the religious leaders of the day.

Hence a gift to pray for in terms of keeping God’s Law, is a closer walk with the Lord and an experience of His love for us. Such an experience is a great help in loving the Law of the Lord. For when we love the Lord, we love His law, seeing it not as an imposition, but as a personal code of love that is meant to protect us. And when we offend against it, either willfully or through weakness, we are able to repent with a more perfect contrition, for we understand that we have offended someone we love and who is deserving of all our love.

Abba – St. Paul indicates that one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit is that we are able to experience God as Abba. Abba is the Hebrew and Aramaic family word for father. It is translated by some as “Papa,” or “Dad.” But regardless of how it is translated, it indicates a deep love and tender affection for the Father. He is not merely “the Father” in some abstract or merely titular sense. He is someone I experience as my own dear Father, as someone who loves me. It is a personal and family relationship that the Holy Spirit wants to grant us.

This personal relationship brings God’s law alive, makes it personal. And so God says, as He reminds of of His Law, “I am the Lord. This is me talking. It is I, the one who loves you.”

I might add that we also need to experience this with regard to the Church. Many see the Church in an impersonal way, as an institution. But the real gift is to see the Church as Christ’s beloved bride and our Mother. In this sense, we love the Church and grow daily in affection for her, not seeing her “rules” as impersonal, but rather as the guidance and direction of a loving mother.

In this video, Fr. Francis Martin beautifully describes the gift of loving the Father with deep affection:


Paul stonedI wonder if many of us have considered the true cost of the faith that has been delivered to us. We so easily complain if the Church is not air-conditioned, or the P.A. system is poor, or the service too long.

But have you or I ever really considered the difficulties endured by those who went before us and labored to hand down the faith to us? Every time you read the Creed, consider that martyrs died for the truths we so easily declare.

This Sunday, at the Traditional Latin Mass, I celebrated Sexigesma (60 days before Easter) Sunday. And in the epistle, St. Paul listed just some of the hardships he endured to bring the faith to others. Here is an excerpt from Second Corinthians 11:23ff, which I present as a kind of list. Read what St. Paul endured to deliver the Gospel to us and how he described his ministry:

In many more labors, in prisons more frequently, in lashes above measure, often exposed to death:

  • From the Jews five times I received forty lashes less one.
  • thrice I was scourged,
  • once I was stoned,
  • thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I was adrift on the sea;
  • in journeyings often,
  • perils from floods,
  • perils from robbers,
  • perils from my own nation,
  • perils from the Gentiles,
  • perils in the city,
  • perils in the wilderness,
  • perils in the sea,
  • perils from false brethren;
  • in labor and hardships,
  • in many sleepless nights,
  • in hunger and thirst,
  • in fastings often,
  • in cold and nakedness.
  • Besides those outer things, there is my daily pressing anxiety, the care of all the churches!
  • Who is weak, and I am not weak?
  • Who is made to stumble, and I am not inflamed? (2 Cor 11:23-29)

Such an amazing list! And here I worry if I have too many phone messages! Many of the punishments such as stoning and scourging were not often survivable. But St Paul withstood them more than once. The price of the Gospel we read so effortlessly, and even carelessly, is high!

Add to this the many martyrs who shed their blood along with Paul’s. Add the many efforts of missionaries. Add the sacrifices of peasants down through the centuries who contributed nickels and dimes toward building the great churches, universities, parishes, and parochial schools that we, who are so rich, can no longer “afford.”

Never forget the price of the faith. Every time you walk into a church, recite the Creed, or open a bible or catechism, consider the price of what you now enjoy. Remember the blood, sweat, tears, labors, resources, and money that stand behind every building, book, and proclamation of the Kingdom. Someone paid dearly to give you the faith.

Are you grateful? Am I?

People like to be warned before they watch this video. So consider yourself warned.

Here are the words of the hymn:

Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.

Then to side with truth is noble, when we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.

By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calv’ries ever with the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.

Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.

In life we face many difficulties, and these difficulties challenge not only us, but our faith. Deep struggle can lead us to question God, His love, or even His existence. The readings today speak to us of these sorts of difficulties and prophetically interpret them for us. Let’s take a look at these readings in three stages.

(This homily is recorded here: Recorded Sermon mp3.)

I. The Disillusionment of Deep Despair – The reading from the book of Job articulates clearly the feeling we have all experienced at one time or another. Job spoke, saying: Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery? … I have been assigned months of misery, and troubled nights have been allotted to me … then the night drags on; I am filled with restlessness until the dawn. My days … come to an end without hope … I shall not see happiness again.

Job is weary and worried, angry and anxious, depressed and discouraged. We’ve all been there, and although we pray it won’t happen, life sometimes cycles back to difficulties even if times are good now.

Notice Job’s disillusionment. He says, “I shall not see happiness again.” Suffering has a way of drawing us into the illusion that things will never be good again, that we will never again be happy or content. In effect, “My life is over.” Yet Scripture says that troubles don’t last forever, that weeping may endure for a night, but joy will come with the morning light (Psalm 30:5). And even for those of us who are soon to die, even death opens to a new and lasting joy provided we are faithful.

But Job is caught in the illusion that his life is over, that it will never be good again. Those of us who know the story of Job realize that this is not the case and that Job will once again be blessed, blessed with an even greater abundance than he once had.

And we, too, can get lost in illusion when suffering sets in. A thousand questions, usually starting with “why,” beset us. And while the mystery of suffering cannot be fully explained, we ought to remember that God permits some trouble in our life. For by it, certain purposes can be accomplished if we are faithful. God permits trouble to …

  1. DIRECT us  – Sometimes God must light a fire under us to get us moving. Problems often point us in a new direction and motivate us to change. Sometimes it takes a painful situation to make us change our ways. Proverbs 20:30 says, blows and wounds cleanse away evil, and beatings purge the innermost being. When our way gets a little too easy, we tend to stray from God.
  2. INSPECT us  – Our problems have a way of helping to show what we’re really made of. Through trials and tests in my life, I’ve discovered many strengths I never knew I had. There is a test in every testimony, and trials have a way of purifying and strengthening our faith as well as inspecting it to see whether it is genuine. 1 Peter 1:6 says,  Trials are only to test your faith, to see whether or not it is strong and pure.
  3. CORRECT us – Some lessons we learn only through pain and failure. Sometimes we only learn the value of something (health, money, a relationship) by losing it. Psalm 119:71-72 says, It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees. And Psalm 119:67 says, Before I was afflicted, I strayed. But now I keep your word.
  4. PROTECT us – A problem can be a blessing in disguise if it prevents you from being harmed by something more serious. It might be as simple as getting stuck in traffic, thereby avoiding a terrible accident had you been in the intersection at your usual time. It might be something more serious like losing your health, but along with it losing your ability to sin so seriously. In Genesis 50:20, Joseph said to his brothers who had sold him into slavery, You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.
  5. PERFECT us - Problems, when responded to correctly, are character builders. God is far more interested in your character than your comfort. Romans 5:3 says, We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they are good for us, they help us learn to be patient. And patience develops strength of character. And 1 Peter 1:7 says, You are being tested as fire tests gold and purifies it.

So Job’s disillusionment needs a little correction. God hasn’t given up on Job. There’s no doubt that Job is in trouble, but trouble doesn’t last forever. God is permitting it for a reason and for a season. But seasons change.

II. The Destination of Distressed Disciples – Simply put, when troubles come, run to the Lord in prayer. In today’s Gospel we are told, Simon’s mother-in-law lay sick with a fever. They immediately told him about her … Next we are told, When it was evening, after sunset, they brought to him all who were ill or possessed by demons. The whole town was gathered at the door. He cured many who were sick with various diseases, and he drove out many demons.

Note the instinct of the people to turn to the Lord “immediately.” A few old songs come to mind:

  1. I love the Lord, he heard my cry and pitied every groan. Long as I live and troubles rise, I’ll hasten to his throne.
  2. What a friend we have in Jesus, All our sins and griefs to bear. What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer! Oh what peace we often forfeit, oh what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry, everything to God in prayer.
  3. King Jesus is a-listenin’ all day long to hear some sinner pray.

Indeed, while God may have reasons for permitting us to experience difficulties, it does not mean that He does not want us to ask for grace, strength, and healing. The Book of James says, simply, “Ye have not because ye ask not” (4:2).

In seeking the Lord, we ought to remember that perseverance is also an important aspect of prayer.

  1. Luke 18:1 – Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.
  2. Luke 11:8 – I tell you, though [the grouchy neighbor]  will not get up and give [his neighbor] bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man’s persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs.
  3. James 5:16 – The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.

Here, too, another song comes to mind: If I hold my peace my Jesus will be coming for me one day, King Jesus is a-listenin’ when you pray. Thus, in times of distress and difficulty, the instinct of a true disciple is to hasten to the Lord in prayer, to seek comfort, consolation, healing, and peace.

III. The Doctrine of Divine Decision – We have reviewed two truths that are in some tension: that God sometimes permits trouble for a reason and for a season, and that we ought to run to the Lord in prayer when trouble comes, seeking help and relief. One teaching (understandably) seeks immediate relief. The other teaches that weeping may endure for a night or a season, but always for a reason, a reason deemed by God to be both necessary and productive.

In the end, the “Doctrine of Divine Decision” says that we should accept with trust that God knows what is best. We run to Him for relief and permit Him to say, “now,” or “later,” in answer to our prayers.

In the gospel today, we see both teachings illustrated and held in tension. First, as we saw above, many came to Him for healing, and He healed them all. But then we read further,

Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed. Simon and those who were with him pursued him and on finding him said, “Everyone is looking for you.” He told them, “Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come.” So he went into their synagogues, preaching and driving out demons throughout the whole of Galilee.

Therefore, note that although some remained back in the town seeking immediate healing, Jesus chooses to move on. For He is not here simply to be a medical miracle worker, but rather (as he says) to preach the Kingdom and ultimately to die for our real problem: our sin. It may be difficult for us to hear Jesus say “no” to this town and move on. In fact, Peter indicated some frustration at Jesus’ having left the town to pray and then ultimately move on. Nevertheless, for those back in Capernaum, Jesus said to some of them, “now,” and to others, “wait.” This is His decision and He knows what is best.

But consider this: either way we are blessed. Either we experience healing now and then have a testimony to give, or our faith is strengthened because we receive the Good News that Jesus has come to preach that everything is going to be all right. Consider the fact that Scripture says,

And we know that all things work together for good to them that love the Lord, to them who are the called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).

In other words, even the difficult things in your life, by God’s grace, work unto good. They bring some benefit. God permits the struggle for now because he knows of the benefit. Scripture also says,

In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:6).

Thus our sufferings have a purpose (as we saw above): to strengthen and purify us.

The Doctrine of Divine Decision leaves things up to God. Whether now or later, everything is going to be all right if we trust in God. If there is a delay, it’s because He has His reasons. And even if these reasons are mysterious and irksome for us, the decision is God’s.

Here, then, are some directions for disciples when dealing with difficulties. Briefly put, reject disillusionment, run to Jesus, and respect His decision.

This song says, “You don’t have to worry, And don’t you be afraid, Joy comes in the morning, Troubles they don’t last always, For there’s a friend in Jesus Who will wipe your tears away. And if your heart is broken, Just lift your hands and say, Oh I know that I can make it; I know that I can stand; No matter what may come my way; My life is in your hands.”

Many years ago, Archbishop Sheen made an insightful point that I am relating to you from memory. I beg your mercy if I do not quote him exactly, but his point related to soteriology, the theology of how we are saved. Now to be clear, we are saved by the obedience of Christ. But not all the consequences of our sinful choice were eliminated by His obedience. The Lord takes up some of these consequences as a means to save us. It is of these consequences that Archbishop Sheen speaks. Again, what I relate is not verbatim, but is as close as I can recall:

Consider if God were conducting a great symphony, a symphony that He Himself composed, one of sublime beauty. Now suppose that he wrote this symphony in the key of A. Having assembled His orchestra, God brings the musicians to attention and begins to conduct the symphony. But suppose that in the front row, the first and second violinists, filled with a sense of rebellion and boredom by the third measure, insist on playing an A-flat, rather than the A-natural called for by the score. This of course creates a terrible dissonance. And so God, the great conductor and composer, brings the orchestra to a halt by tapping his baton. Looking to the first and second violinists, he says, “My symphony has been ruined. I will forgive you, but the note has already sounded and gone forth. It will not be recalled. So, what was that note you played?” The first and second violinists respond, “A-flat.” “Fine then,” says God, “Let us begin our new symphony in the key of A-flat.” And, raising His baton, he begins again

What is Archbishop Sheen saying here? He is saying that in saving us, God does not merely undo or cancel every effect of our choice. Jesus does obey, saying “yes” to the Father. In contrast, we said, “no” and hence we are saved by Jesus’ obedience. But God does not merely come in and say, “Well, you got that wrong, so I’m just going to reverse everything you did and put it back to the way I want it.” Our all-powerful God has a very deep reverence for our freedom to choose. And so God chooses to write straight with the crooked lines, with the consequences of our sinful choice.

What, then, does God do? Using Sheen’s analogy, He takes our “A-flat” (the consequences of our choice),  and uses it as the keynote in a new symphony. In other words, though God had given life and paradise (A natural), Adam and Eve chose the way of suffering and death (A-flat). Hence, rather than merely erase what they had done, God said, “I will come, and, through the suffering and death of my own Son (A-Flat) and by His obedience, compose a new symphony with an even greater ending. The ending is one with humanity not in some mere earthly paradise, but a heavenly one. It is an ending in which humanity is not just humanly perfect, but shares in Divine nature. Yes, my Son will take A-flat and make of it a new song, an even greater song. “O felix culpa, O admirabile commercium (O happy fault, O wondrous exchange)!

Whereas our demise came through a man (Adam), a woman (Eve), and a tree, our redemption, too, would come from a new Adam (Christ), and include a new woman (Mary), and the tree of the Cross. Through the suffering and death of Jesus, the chosen note of Adam and Eve (A-flat) would now be the first note in a new symphony, bringing life and glory, all by God’s grace.

And our suffering and crosses, too, would do the same in this new symphony, this new song. As scripture says, This light, temporary nature of our suffering is producing for us an everlasting weight of glory, far beyond any comparison (2 Cor 4:17). Yes, God took our sour note and with it composed a new song, with a greater ending.

And that brings us the video below. Maybe I’m just zany-brainy, but I saw Archbishop Sheen’s soteriological point in, of all places, this car advertisement for the KIA Soul (yes, aptly named). And I realize that what I’m doing is pure eisegesis, that is, reading a meaning into the video that the originator likely never intended. But go with me on this little journey.

  1. As the video opens, a terrible war is raging between two unknown factions. A-flat is in loud evidence. In fact, if you have a good Bose woofer, the pounding A-flat explosions shake the floor. The entire landscape and almost everything in it is in shades of gray; everything is in ruins. Yes, this is the sour note of A-flat, all right: death, violence, and barrenness, not a living thing in sight; even the warring parties are robots.
  2. Suddenly, onto this scene comes a bright green KIA Soul with three occupants. Allow the green to represent life, and the three occupants, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (I know they’re hamsters, but stay with me.)
  3. The warring parties stop, stunned by this bright green car, and aim their weapons at it. From the car emerge the three living creatures, the Trinity, far more alive than any of the fighting robots. A tense moment ensues.
  4. The middle figure is a Christ figure, for he wears purple, a sign of his royalty and his passion.
  5. Suddenly, the Christ figure cries out and all three in the Trinity begin to stomp their feet. It is the same pounding A-flat beat that the robots have been creating by their killing; it is a kind of a sound of death.
  6. But now the Trinity is using the A-flat beat to dance!
  7. One of the robots begins to tap his foot. Other robots quickly join in, and before long, all are dancing. It’s the same A-flat beat, but the Trinity has composed a new symphony around it.
  8. Weapons drop and the dancing continues. Some of the dead robots even come back to life. The former flying war machines emanate rainbow patterns in the background.
  9. In a very symbolic moment, the Christ figure in purple stands atop a concrete circle in the shape of a tree stump, as if Christ on his Cross in triumph dancing to A-flat. The A-flat of suffering that leads only to death is becoming life. A-flat doesn’t need to lead to war. If accepted, it can lead to glory. The Lord teaches them a new song using the same note.
  10. In the final scene, the Trinity drives down a road flanked by enthusiastic praises as the A-flat dance continues. In the distance is the mountain where God dwells on high.

OK, is that too weird? Call me a dreamer, but this is what I see. If all you choose to see is a car commercial, fine. But it never hurts to see Christ wherever we can. Man disobeyed and ushered in an A-flat world of suffering and death. God forgave us and Jesus undid our disobedience. But God, showing a reverence for us even in our struggle, takes our A-flat of suffering and death and makes it a road to glory, the way to Heaven.

Enjoy this video.


St.-Catherine-of-Siena2There are some who wince at the notion of praying boldly to God, especially if anger or exasperation are part of that boldness. And yet the Bible itself models and counsels that we should include in our prayers the times when we are angry, exasperated, or disappointed in God. The psalms are filled with such prayers and great figures like Moses, David, and Job cry out to God quite plainly, expressing their anger and disappointment. I have written more on that here: A Meditation on the Role of Anger in Prayer.

At any rate, in this brief blog today I offer this example of a prayer of holy boldness from a great Saint of the Church: St. Catherine of Siena. Here is the background: Catherine’s mother, Lapa, lay dying, but Catherine was convinced that Lapa was not yet ready to die, and so she told God as much. The Lord disagreed, but Catherine remained undeterred in her assessment. And now we pick up the story and prayer …

Lapa died, or so it seemed to all the women who stood around her bed. She had refused to confess and receive the last Sacrament. Catherine lay over her mother’s corpse weeping and praying aloud.

O my dear Lord, is this how you keep the promise you once made to me that none in my house should suffer eternal death? You promised me too that you would not take my mother from this world before she could leave it in a state of grace, and here she lies dead, without having confessed or received the Sacrament. My Beloved Savior, I call to you in your great mercy, do not fail me! I will not go alive from your feet until you give me my mother back.

Speechless and overcome, the women around the deathbed saw that life seemed to creep back into Lapa’s body. She breathed and made some slight movement, … After a short time Monna Lapa was quite well again. [Told by her confessor, Blessed Fr. Raimondo, and inscribed in the Biography Catherine of Sienna by Sigrid Undset, pp 94-95].

And so here is the image of a saint at prayer: reverent but bold, seemingly unwilling to take “no” for an answer. Surely, on account of her usual and deep reverence, Catherine was allowed a bit more leeway than many of us; but do not doubt that God is often listening for us sinners to pray with a little conviction and intensity!

Somehow, too, it reminds me of a place called Cana, where the Mother of Jesus said, “They have no more wine.”  And though Jesus seemed unwilling, I am convinced that Mary gave him a look that only a mother could, a look that wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.  And the next thing you know, Jesus is making dozens of gallons of the best wine imaginable!

Are you praying with me, Church? Really praying? There is a place for boldness in prayer, not a boldness that loses all reverence, but a boldness nonetheless.

This song says, “King Jesus is a-listenin’ all day long, to hear some sinner pray!”