I first wrote on the topic of religious persecution over two years ago and since then things have only gotten worse. Clearly the situation in Iraq is awful. But here in the U.S. as well, the threats against religious liberty have continued.

Indeed, here in the States it is rare that a respected segment of American life would become vilified and hated overnight. The usual transformation from respect to vilification progresses in stages that grow in intensity. And thus the Catholic Church, once a respected aspect of American life (along with the Protestant denominations), has become increasingly marginalized and even hated by many. It may help us to review these stages of persecution since it would seem that things are going to get more difficult for the Church in the years ahead. Generally there are five basic stages of persecution.

By way of giving due credit, I want to say that these stages were introduced to me by Johnette Benkovic, of Women of Grace EWTN. She spoke at a fundraiser here in DC for WMET 1160 AM, our Catholic radio station in the Guadalupe Radio Network. She gave a wonderful talk and a summons to courage. Among the things she set forth was a sober vision of how we have arrived at this current place where the culture is increasingly hostile to Christians, and to Catholics in particular. The stages are from her talk; the commentary is my own.

Here, then, are the five stages:

I. Stereotyping the targeted group - To stereotype means to repeat without variation, to take a quality or observation of a limited number and generalize it to describe the whole group. It involves a simplified and standardized conception or view of a group based on the observation of a limited sample.

And thus as the 1960s and 1970s progressed, Catholics and Bible-believing Christians were often caricatured in the media as “Bible thumpers,” simpletons, haters of science, hypocrites, and as self-righteous, old-fashioned, and backwards.

Catholics, in particular, were also accused of having neurotic guilt and a hatred of or aversion to sexuality.  We were denounced as a sexist institution filled with clergy who were sexually repressed, homosexuals, or pedophiles. We were labeled an authoritarian institution stuck in the past, one with too many restrictive rules.

Basically, as the stereotype goes, Catholics and Bible-believing Christians are a sad, angry, boring, backward, repressed lot. To many who accept the stereotype, we are a laughable—even tragic—group caught in a superstitious past, incapable of throwing off the “shackles” of faith.

To be sure, not everyone engages in this stereotyping to the same degree, but those are the basic refrains. And the general climate of this sort of stereotyping sets the foundation for the next stage.

II. Vilifying the targeted group for alleged crimes or misconduct - As the stereotyping grew in intensity, Catholics and Christians who did not toe the line in the cultural revolution were described as close-minded, harmful to human dignity and freedom, intolerant, hateful, bigoted, unfair, homophobic, reactionary, and just plain mean and basically bad people.

The history of the Church is also described myopically as little more than a litany of bad and repressive behavior as we conducted crusades and inquisitions, and hated Galileo and all of science. Never mind that there might be a little more to the story: that the Church founded universities and hospitals, was a patron of the arts, and preached a gospel that brought order and civilization to divided and barbaric times in the aftermath of the Roman Empire. The critics won’t hear any of that, or if they do, will give the credit to anyone or anything except the Church and the faith.

In writing this, I fully expect to get a bevy of comments saying, in effect, that this is exactly what we are. And not only will they feel justified in saying this, but even righteous, so ingrained has this vilifying become in the wider culture.

As with any large group, individual Christians and Catholics will manifest some negative traits, but stereotyping, vilifying, and crudely and indiscriminately presuming the negative traits of a few to be common to all is unjust.

Yet all of this has the effect of creating a self-righteous indignation toward believers and of making anti-Catholic and anti-Christian attitudes a permissible bigotry for many today.

III. Marginalizing the targeted group’s role in society - Having established the (false) premise that the Church and the faith are very bad and even harmful to human dignity and freedom, the critics proceed in the next stage to relegate the role of the Church to the margins of society.

To many in secularized culture, religion is seen as something that must go. They will perhaps let us have our hymns, etc. within the four walls of our churches, but the faith must be banished from the public square.

In this stage it becomes increasingly unacceptable and intolerable that anyone should mention God, pray publicly, or in any way bring his or her Christian faith to bear on matters of public policy. Nativity sets must go; out with Christmas trees. Even the colors red and green during the “Holiday Season” are forbidden in many public schools!

Do not even think of mentioning Jesus or of publicly thanking him in your valedictory address; you could very well have a judge forbid you to do so under penalty of law. You may thank Madonna the singer, but not the Madonna.

The LGBT club is welcome to set up shop and pass out rainbow-colored condoms at the local high school, but Christians had better hit the road; no Bibles or pamphlets had better see the light of day anywhere in the school building … separation of Church and State, you know…

IV. Criminalizing the targeted group or its works - Can someone say HHS mandate?

But even prior to this egregious attempt to violate our religious liberty there have been many other times we have had to go to court to fight for our right to practice our faith openly. An increasing amount of litigation is being directed against the Church and other Christians for daring to live out our faith.

Some jurisdictions have sought to compel Catholic hospitals and pro-life clinics to provide information about or referrals for abortion and to provide “emergency contraception” (i.e., the abortifacient known as the morning-after pill). Several branches of Catholic Charities have been de-certified from doing adoption work because they will not place children with gay couples. In 2009, the State of Connecticut sought to regulate the structure, organization, and running of Catholic parishes. And recently a number of Christian valedictorians in various states have suffered legal injunctions when it was discovered that they planned to mention God and/or Jesus in their addresses. (More details can be found HERE.)

Many of these attempts to criminalize the faith have been successfully rebuffed in the courts, but the number and frequency of the lawsuits, and the time and cost involved with fighting them impose a huge burden. It is clear that attempts to criminalize Christian behavior is a growth sector in this culture and it signals the beginning of the steady erosion of religious liberty.

Many indeed feel quite righteous, quite politically correct in their work to separate the practice of the faith from the public square.

V. Persecuting the targeted group outright - If current trends continue, Christians, especially religious leaders, may not be far from facing heavy fines and/or incarceration.

Already in Canada and in parts of Europe, Catholic clergy have been arrested and charged with “hate crimes” for preaching Catholic doctrine on homosexual activity.

In this country there are greater provisions for free speech, but as we have seen, there is a steady erosion of our religious liberty and many Catholic dioceses are very familiar with having to spend long periods in court defending basic religious liberty. The trajectory points to suffering, lawsuits, fines, and ultimately jail.

Unlikely you say? Alarmist? Well, stages one through four are pretty well in place. One may wish to “whistle past the graveyard,” but it looks like we’re pretty well set for stage five. You decide.

Maybe a heavy post requires a light video. Here, Paul and Silas land in jail. It’s so bad its good: :-)

The Apostle John and Mary at the foot of the CrossIn Sunday’s Gospel the Lord sets forth the theology of the Cross and redemptive suffering. In so doing he sets forth a doctrine that is utter absurdity to this world. The indignation of the modern world against the Cross borders on outrage. Why is this? Simply put, hedonism. Hedonism is the worldly “doctrine” that pleasure or happiness is the sole or chief good in life. It comes from the Greek word hēdonē “pleasure” and is akin to the Greek hēdys meaning “sweet.”

Of course pleasure is to be desired and to some degree sought, but it is not the sole good in life. Indeed, some of our greatest goods and accomplishments require sacrifice: years of study and preparation for a career; the blood, sweat, and tears of raising children.

But hedonism seeks to avoid sacrifice and suffering at all costs. Hedonism is directly opposed to the theology of the Cross. St. Paul spoke in his day of the enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things (Php 3:18–19). He also taught that the Cross was an absurdity to the Gentiles (1 Cor 1:23).

Things have not changed, my friends. And thus the world reacts with great indignation whenever the Cross or suffering is even implied. And so the world will cry out with bewildered exasperation and ask (rhetorically) of the Church: “Are you saying that a poor woman who was raped needs to carry the child to term and cannot abort?” (Yes we are.) Are you saying that a “gay” person can never marry his or her gay lover and must live celibately?” (Yes, we are.) “Are you saying that a handicapped child in the womb must be “condemned” to live in the world as handicapped and cannot be aborted and put out of his (read “our”) misery?” (Yes we are.) “Are you saying that a dying person in pain cannot be euthanized to avoid the pain?” (Yes, we are.)

The shock expressed in these rhetorical questions shows how deeply hedonism has infected the modern mind. The concept of the Cross is not only absurd, it is downright “immoral” to the modern hedonistic mentality, which sees pleasure as the only true human good. To the hedonist, a life without enough pleasure is a life not worth living. And anyone who would seek to set limits on the lawful (and sometime unlawful) pleasures of others is mean, hateful, absurd, obtuse, intolerant, and just plain evil.

When pleasure is life’s only goal or good, how dare you, or the Church, or anyone seek to set limits on it let alone suggest that the way of the Cross is better or is required of us!  You must be banished, silenced, and destroyed.

And indeed many faithful Catholics in the pews are deeply infected with the illusion of hedonism and thus take up the voice of bewilderment, anger, and scoffing whenever the Church points to the Cross and insists on self-denial, sacrifice, and doing the right thing even when the cost is great. The head wagging in congregations is often visible if the priest dares mention that abortion, euthanasia, IVF, contraception, and so forth are wrong and should be set aside regardless of the cost, or if he preaches about the reality of the Cross. The faithful who swim in the waters of a hedonistic culture are often shocked at any notion that might limit the pleasure others want to pursue.

Hedonism makes the central Christian mysteries of the Cross and redemptive suffering seem like a distant planet or a strange, parallel universe. The opening word from Jesus’ mouth, “Repent,” seems strange to the hedonistic world, which has even reworked Jesus and cannot conceive that He would want them to be anything but happy, content, and pleased. The cry goes up, even among the faithful, “Doesn’t God want me to be happy?” And on this basis all sorts of sinful behavior is supposed to be tolerated because insisting on the opposite is “hard” and because it seems “mean” to speak of the Cross or of self-discipline in a hedonistic culture.

Bringing people back to the real Jesus and to the real message of the Gospel, which features the Cross as the way to glory, takes a lot of work and a long conversation. We must be prepared to have that long conversation with people.

In today’s Gospel the Lord firmly sets before us the need for the Cross, not as an end in itself, but as the way to glory. Let’s consider the Gospel in three stages.

I. The Pattern that is Announced – The text says, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.

Note here that the Lord does not announce only the Cross, but also the Resurrection. In effect, He announces the pattern of the Christian life, which we have come to call the “Paschal Mystery.”

The expression “Paschal Mystery” refers to the suffering, death, resurrection, and glorification of Jesus as a whole. The word “Paschal” is related to the Hebrew word for Passover, “Pesach.” Just as the shed blood of a lamb saved the people from the angel of death and signaled their deliverance, so does Jesus’ death, his Blood, save us from death and deliver us from slavery to sin.

So He is announcing a pattern: the Cross leads somewhere; it accomplishes something. It is not an end in itself; it has a purpose; it is part of a pattern.

St. Paul articulates the pattern of the Paschal Mystery in this way: We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body (2 Cor 4:10). It is like an upward spiral in which the Cross brings blessings we enjoy. But we often circle back to the crosses God permits, and then there come even greater blessings and higher capacities. Cross, growth, cross, growth—and so the pattern continues until we reach the end, dying with Christ so as to live with Him.

This is the pattern of our life. We are dying to our old self, dying to this world, dying to our sins; but rising to new life, rising to the Kingdom of God, becoming victorious over sin. The Cross brings life; it is a prelude to growth. We die in order to live more richly. An old spiritual says of this repeated pattern that “every round goes higher, higher.”

Do you see the pattern that Jesus announces? The Lord does not announce the Cross to burden us, neither does the Church. No, the Cross is part of a pattern that, if accepted with faith, brings blessing, new life, and greater strength.

II. The Prevention that is Attempted - The text says, Then Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

Notice Peter’s exact wording: “No such thing shall ever happen to you.” And we ought to ask, “What such thing?” For in precluding that Jesus suffer and die he also implicitly blocks the rising and glorification of Jesus. For Christ cannot rise unless He dies.

Peter, of course, is not thinking this all the way through; he is not connecting the dots. But neither do we when we seek to avoid crosses for ourselves or to hinder others improperly from accepting the Cross. For the Cross brings glory and growth and we run the risk of depriving ourselves and others of these if we rush to eliminate all the crosses, demands, and difficulties of life. Perhaps we do this by enabling behaviors; perhaps we do it by spoiling children.

We also hinder our own growth by refusing to accept the crosses of self-discipline, hard work, obedience, resistance of temptation, and acceptance of suffering, consequences, and limits. In rejecting the Cross we also reject its fruits.

All this explains Jesus’ severe reaction to Peter’s words. He even goes so far as to call Peter, “Satan,” for it pertains to Satan to pretend to befriend us in protesting our crosses while it is really that he wants to thwart our blessings. Peter may not know what he is doing, but Satan does, and he seeks to become an obstacle to Jesus’ work.

Jesus’ severe reaction is rooted in protecting our blessings.

III.  The Prescription that is Awarding - Jesus goes on to teach further on the need for and wisdom of the Cross. The text says, Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay all according to his conduct.”

The heart of Jesus’ teaching here is the deep paradox that in order to find our life we must lose it. More specifically, in order to gain Heaven we must die to this world. And that dying is a process more so than just an event at the end of our physical life here. Though we cling to life in this world, it is really not life at all. It is a mere spark compared to the fire of love that God offers; it is a single note compared to the great symphony God directs.

Jesus instructs us to be willing to exchange this tiny and dying life for that which is true life. The Lord says that whatever small blessings come from clinging to this life and this world are really no benefit at all. If you choose life in this world rather than the true life God offers, you’re nothing but a big loser.

Of course what the world’s cheap trinkets offer is immediate gratification and evasion of the Cross. We may feel relief for a moment, but our growth is stunted and those cheap little trinkets slip through our fingers. We gain the world (cheap little trinket that it is) but lose our souls. Total loss. Or to quote a modern expression, “FAIL!”

Jesus’ final words, however, remind us that the choice is ours. For the day will come when He will respond to our choice. Either we accept true life and win, or we choose the passing, dying life of this world and we lose. The choice is ours.

This songs speaks of life as a kind of spiral climb between cross and glory. As the spiritual says, “Every round goes higher, higher, soldiers of the Cross.”

One of the cultural challenges we face in both living and proclaiming the faith is that the true faith often doesn’t fit our frantic pace or our expectation of instantaneous results. Consider that many today, including those of us who believe, demand the “quick fix.” Whatever the situation—be it sickness, the needed repair of something we own, the delivery of something we’ve purchased, a resolution of family troubles, or even deeper issues such as inner peace—we want it fixed right now.

But many things do not lend themselves to a quick fix, especially the deeper matters of the human soul. And the faith we proclaim does not suggest that it is so simple. In this sense the faith is less “marketable” to our quick-fix culture. We do not (and cannot) say, “Just come to Mass for six sequential Sundays and your problems will be over.” Rather, we say, “Give your life to Christ.”

The solution of God and of the true faith insists on an often slow but steady movement toward God, wherein He draws us in stages ever deeper to Him, to holiness, to perfection. Little by little our fears fade and our sins diminish; we become more loving, patient, compassionate, chaste, serene, and so forth. The process usually takes decades—no quick fixes here.

And many medicines need to be consistently applied: daily prayer, daily Scripture and spiritual reading, weekly Mass and Communion, frequent confession, and communal life in the Church including helpful friendships, faith-filled relationships, and works of charity.

There is an old saying, “Grace builds on nature.” That is to say, God’s grace respects the way we are made by Him. And just as it pertains to our physical nature to change slowly (but surely) and almost imperceptibly, our spiritual nature follows the same pattern. And while there may be “growth spurts,” it is more often the subtle and steady growth that makes the deepest difference.

I can surely say this has been my experience. I have been serious about my spiritual life for the last 30 of my 53 years—daily Mass, daily Scripture, daily holy hour, weekly confession, fellowship with my people, holy friendships, and spiritual direction. And wow, what a change! But it has taken me 30 years to get here, and most of my growth was imperceptible from day to day. I’m not what I want to be, but I’m not what I used to be; a wonderful change has come over me.

Not the quick fix, not the fast rush, just “a inching along like a poor inchworm” (as an old Spiritual says). But praise God I am where I am today.

Lifelong plans may not “sell,” but they are the way God insists on working.

On Fridays, I often try to keep the post a little shorter and I frequently use a commercial to make my point. So how about this one:

  1. In the commercial below there is a man named Jerry who is in a “state of regret.” In a certain sense (as we shall see) Jerry represents all who stray from the Church and God’s lifelong plan of faith—looking for a fast rush and a quick fix elsewhere, apart from the faith and the Church.
  2. Sure enough, Jerry’s regret is that he dropped his State Farm Insurance and went with “the other company.” Let’s call that company “Quick Fix Auto Insurance.” In allowing State Farm to represent the Church, I intend no endorsement, but I do note that “farming” is no quick-fix business; it involves a lot of patient waiting and persistent working. Such is the work of the Lord and His Church—no quick fix, it’s more like farming.
  3. Jerry complains to his former agent, “Jessica” (but let’s call her “Mother Church”). His complaint is “It only took me 15 minutes to sign with that other company but it’s taking a lot longer to hear back.” OK, so now he’s learned that there really is NO SUCH THING as a “quick fix” when it comes to many matters. And so must we learn this same truth. The world, the flesh, and the devil often make such promises and sow seeds of impatience in us when God does not act immediately, when the Church bids us to be patient and persistent. But now Jerry’s impatience has brought him further troubles, as we shall see.
  4. Jerry explains that he’s had a “fender bender.” The truth is that Jerry has bent far more than a fender; he is in real trouble. We too often like to minimize our sorry state when we’ve made bad decisions.
  5. Jessica (Mother Church) is sympathetic but wonders what she can do, since Jerry has ended his relationship with her. Without a relationship, how can she help him? Mother Church often wants to help us but must have a relationship with us in order to be able to help. God, too, seeks communion with us in order to help us. But communion, a relationship with the Lord and his Bride the Church, is necessary for help to be extended.
  6. Indeed Jessica (Mother Church) knows Jerry well and she seems, like a mother, to intuit exactly what he has done. She knows he’s in real trouble and has “put his car up a pole” (again). There’s just something about Mother Church; she knows her children and what we do; she knows and understands.
  7. Upon hearing Jessica’s (Mother Church’s) knowing but compassionate words, Jerry breaks down and says, “I miss you, Jessica!” The ad then says, “Let it out Jerry! Then come back to State Farm.” Yes, indeed. And so too for us. Soulful and tearful repentance and the restoration of our relationship with the Lord and His Church are the way out.
  8. Quick Fix Insurance Company can’t cut the deal. Come back to the Lord and His Church. The solution may not be “quick” but it will be sure if we stay the course.

sea-stars-galaxy-universe-andromeda-nebula-hd-desktop-911506In my years as a priest, I have often had people ask me why God, who we say needs nothing and is fully content and joyful in Himself, created anything outside Himself. Does His act of creation indicate that He lacked something or that He needed others?

This is difficult for us humans to understand. To some degree that difficulty arises from us, who are often motivated most by need. We tend to project our own realities onto God. But need and incompleteness are  not the only things that motivate.

In the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas has a beautiful reflection on how and why God willed to create things outside Himself:

For natural things have a natural inclination not only towards their own proper good, to acquire it if not possessed, and, if possessed, to rest therein; but also to spread abroad their own good amongst others, so far as possible … to communicate as far as possible to others the good possessed; and especially does this pertain to the divine will, from which all perfection is derived in some kind of likeness. Hence, if natural things, in so far as they are perfect, communicate their good to others, much more does it appertain to the divine will to communicate by likeness its own good to others as much as possible … (Summa Ia, q.19, art 2).

So it is true that God is able to savor the good that He is and to rest in it, to enjoy it fully. God can find complete satisfaction in the perfection of His own being, of His own glory.

But, as St. Thomas points out, even in us who are imperfect creatures, there is an aspect of our love and joy that wants to be effusive and diffusive, to radiate outward. Those who are filled with joy and the experience of love seek naturally to share that with others. Someone who has heard good news or has experienced something wonderful can barely contain himself and immediately seeks to share it. It is not so much that love and joy are lacking something, but rather just the opposite—they overflow to others from us quite naturally. We do not share joy and love because we have to, but because we want to, and because they naturally shine forth.

When one is joyful, it is hard to hide it. Joy shows; it is effusive; it shines forth and naturally reaches others who will notice it and then immediately ask, “What are you smiling about? Why are you so happy?”

It is the same with love, though in more diverse and sometimes subtle ways. Love radiates; it motivates; it moves out and shines forth. Again, not because love is lacking, but more simply because that is what love does. It moves outward and bears fruit.

And so it is with God, who is love. His love is not lacking something, but, as love, He radiates. He shines forth; He bears fruit. He delights in sharing. And He, whose nature is ‘to be’ who is existence itself, allows his love to radiate outward in a creation distinct from Him but proclaiming of his love and joy.

Behold all creation as a shining forth God’s love and joy. See its immense size, its awesome diversity and fruitfulness—and then understand why the universe is expanding outward at such a rapid rate!

Scientists are looking for some grand unified theory, one simple principle or formula that explains everything. In a word, it is love. It is God, who is Love, and His joy rushing and radiating outward, bearing fruit and saying, “Come, share my joy!”  I don’t know … people like formulas, so how about this one?


That is, Creation equals Joy times Love squared. Love, of course, is the constant; it is ever-abiding and never withheld.  And yet it is mysteriously expanding outward. Why is love squared? I don’t know, but it makes the formula memorable! At the end of the day, God’s love is infinite. So then what is the square of infinity? Anyway it’s very big and it’s a constant.

Is God lacking something? No. Then why does He create? Because that’s what love does. But why then will it all end as Scripture says it will? It will not end in annihilation; it will “end” in a perfection that, though different, will be the fulfillment of all that is. Jesus, who holds all creation together in Himself  (cf Col 1:17), says at the end, “Behold I make all things new!” (Rev 21:5) And then will be fulfilled what St. Augustine said of what shall finally be for us and the Lord: Unus Chritus, amans seipsum (One Christ, loving Himself).

We are living in the love of God; yes, even those who reject it are living in His love.

venicebeach1920I spent a few days at Bethany Beach (in Delaware) this week with four other priests, thanks to some very generous lay people who allowed us to stay in their house. In Washington we speak of going to the beach. But in nearby Baltimore they say, “We’re goin’ down-e-ocean.” I think in New Jersey they call it  “going down the shore,” as in the Jersey shore. At any rate, thank God for a restful time, lots of long walks along the shoreline, interesting discussions, and good food. In fact, according to the Scripture story of the road to Emmaus, walking, talking, and dining provide an image of the Kingdom.

A brief thought occurred to me today as I walked along the water, this time alone. I began my walk right in the center of Bethany Beach, just down from the center of the boardwalk. The beach was rather crowded—lots of people, chairs and umbrellas everywhere, kids running back and forth into and out of the water.

As I headed north walking right on the shore, I noticed that the crowd thinned out quite quickly, so that within a hundred yards of where the boardwalk ended the beach became quite empty with just a few folks here and there.

Why, I wondered, did people huddle together so? I would think that people would prefer to spread out a little, would want some privacy, and might be willing to walk a ways to get it. Instead, they crowded together in an eight-block area along the Bethany Beach Boardwalk.

It occurred to me that despite our often-expressed desire for space and privacy, this image of people huddling together had important lessons to teach.

The chief and uniting lesson is that ultimately people need people. Crowding close together at the beach meant that there were others to provide not only company but safety. There were plenty of lifeguards, and if any trouble were to arise, plenty of people nearby to help. Where there are people there are also many conveniences near at hand. There were food vendors up on the nearby boardwalk as well as vendors selling beach gear. There was even a free town Wi-Fi signal in the air. Public bathrooms were nearby as was a safety station and a police presence. A lot of children, some of whom had only just met that day, were playing together, teaching each other to surf, riding boogie boards, or building sand castles.

A simple lesson, really, but somehow beautifully painted for me at Bethany Beach—people need people. People benefit from other people. People take care of other people and provide necessary services, protection, and company. Space and solitude have their place, but it really is more instinctual, even in this wide-open country, to cluster together in cities. For all of our complaints about crowds, in the end it’s good to have other people close at hand.

It was all a painting of what Scripture says, Woe to the solitary man! For if he should fall, he has no one to lift him up (Ecclesiastes 4:11).

Beach Baby from Tom Stillwell on Vimeo.


adoration10Yesterday’s blog on the increasing darkness in our culture received a lot of good feedback. Special thanks to Patrick Madrid for spreading the word. Reading such data can cause us to feel discouraged at times. Here are a few thoughts on this discouragement and what we can do about it.

1. The beatitude “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” comes to mind. Who are those who mourn? It is they who see the awful state of God’s people: that so many do not know Him or honor Him. Those who mourn are those who see how many do not know why they were made and spend their lives on lesser or even useless things (and get lost in sin and the deadly wages of sin). Seeing this, they mourn. But this mourning is not depression; it is a sadness rooted in love, and so, as the beatitude says, they are “comforted.” But here the word comforted is to be understood more in relation to its Latin root confirmare which means to strengthen. Hence those who mourn because they love God’s people and see their awful state are also those who will be strengthened and motivated to go to work to make a difference.

2. Indeed, there is an old Chinese proverb that says, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” And though we may feel things have descended deeply and rapidly, just keep preaching, teaching, and striving for holiness. God has a way of multiplying our works when we least expect it. The harvest will come; for now, just keep sowing seeds and watering them with your tears of love.

3. Another saying goes, “It is easier to wear slippers than to carpet the whole of the earth.” Further, we are instructed just before a flight that in the event of an emergency we should don our own mask before assisting others with theirs. In both of these instances, we hear the additional advice that we should initiate any reform by first tending to our own heart and life. If the world is going to reform, it has to begin with me, with my own decisions. Scripture says, “They made me a keeper of vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept” (Song, 1:6). May it not be so for us.

There are many things we can do, big and small, that can begin to make a difference. Some involve small personal changes, others summon us to greater courage in relationships, and still others call us to greater generosity. Here is a list of some possible avenues. Please add to it! (Note: this list was not created with any particular order in mind.)

  • Participate in pro-life vigils and “40 Days for Life.”
  • Inform others, including media companies and manufacturers, when they have done well. Warn them when they cooperate in evils such as abortion (via support of Planned Parenthood) or homosexual activism.
  • Ask for the gifts of joy, gratitude, and serenity. Others will notice and ask you about it!
  • Read Catholic media; listen to Catholic Answers and EWTN radio. Grow in your faith!
  • Work on overcoming your most frequent sins. Make a particular examen to help this.
  • Pray over the news; don’t just watch it or read it, or, even worse, just complain about how awful things are. Pray as you listen and read.
  • Sign up for Eucharistic adoration; encourage others to do so.
  • Repent; go to confession frequently.
  • Ask a friend to Mass; if he says “no,” ask again later and/or ask another person. But resolve to seldom come to Mass alone.
  • Spend time with younger people; encourage in them what is good; explain what they misunderstand.
  • Be consistent with prayer.
  • Consider praying the rosary every day; if you can, add the Divine Mercy Chaplet as well.
  • Support cloistered religious communities and ask their prayers.
  • Be willing to take the risk and correct a fellow sinner; be humble but clear.
  • Have the courage to warn those in your own family who may be mired in sins such as greed, fornication, cohabitation, unforgiveness, planning a divorce, etc.
  • Have more children; be generous with life!
  • If you are older, support those who do have many children by assisting with childcare or providing other necessary help.
  • Support outreach to the poor, especially those programs that help them to break the cycle of poverty and to become more deeply rooted in the life of faith.
  • Encourage bishops, priests, and deacons who are courageous in addressing what ails us.
  • Support Catholic groups that seek to engage the culture and summon the world to reform and to Jesus.
  • Pray! And then pray some more. If you can, fast occasionally.
  • Pray some more!

In other words, consecrate your life to God and begin the great reform by looking to your own heart and mind. When people start to notice, ask them to join you. Many little things add up to a lot. We can’t change the culture overnight, but we surely can begin to make a difference in our own life and in the vineyard of our family, parish, and community, all of which the Lord has asked us to tend.

Here’s a beautiful song that you might print and pray often. (For a printable copy, Click here: Prayer of Consecration).

Take my life, and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take my moments and my days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise.

Take my hands, and let them move
At the impulse of Thy love;
Take my feet, and let them be
Swift and beautiful for Thee.

Take my voice, and let me sing
Always, only, for my King;
Take my lips, and let them be
Filled with messages from Thee.

Take my silver and my gold:
Not a mite would I withhold;
Take my intellect, and use
Every power as you choose.

Take my will, and make it Thine,
It shall be no longer mine;
Take my heart, it is Thine own,
It shall be Thy royal throne.

Take my love, my Lord, I pour
At Thy feet its treasure store;
Take myself, and I will be,
Ever, only, all for Thee.

Words: Frances R. Havergal 1874.

Here is a beautiful version, sung by Chris Tomlin.

chartThe results of a recent Gallup poll on a range of moral issues do a pretty good job of showing how dramatically America has changed in a rather short period of time. Many behaviors now deemed “largely acceptable” were once considered very wrong. In fact, most of us over fifty remember an America that was very different.

Until the mid-1960s, birth control was unapproved—even illegal to sell in many jurisdictions. It was associated with prostitution.

Divorce was something that people whispered about. And until 1969 it was so difficult to get a divorce that the few who did want them were willing to go to Mexico to in order to obtain them.

As for gambling, Catholics were less adamant about it and permitted “light” forms of gambling like bingo. But among the Protestants, “gambling” was synonymous with sin. Some of the old spirituals warned gamblers of the fires of Hell: “I would not be a gambler. I’ll tell you the reason why. I’m afraid my Lord might call my name and I wouldn’t be ready to die.”

Having a baby outside of marriage was considered so shameful that girls who got pregnant were often sent away to have the baby, which was then usually put up for adoption. Frankly, the final result was often better for the infant, who was usually adopted quickly by a married couple. Catholic orders of nuns were often the ones who handled these matters, and did so discreetly and lovingly.

Sex before marriage happened, but far less frequently—and almost no one thought it was OK. In those days there were also many protections that society insisted upon to help prevent sex before marriage. For example, young people were often chaperoned on dates. Dances and other group events were commonly arranged by adults in order to encourage young people to meet, but there were prudent limits set. Parents were more vigilant and insisted that their youngsters be home at a reasonable hour. Women’s dormitories at colleges were more strictly guarded and a young man who called was expected to meet his young lady in the lobby and say farewell to her there. Young people also got married a lot sooner. Most did so right after high school or college.

Homosexual activity of any sort was not just considered shocking; it was deemed repulsive.

Abortion was illegal—an unmentionable horror. It was associated with prostitution and utter desperation. Frankly, I don’t think I ever heard the word abortion before 1970, though I admit I was only about ten at that time.

Only the death penalty and wearing fur were more acceptable in the pre-revolution days than they are today.

Behold the cultural revolution! And revolution is the only word for it. America before the revolution was NOT a perfect culture. Racism was more widespread; there were two major wars before 1950, and there was a rather decadent period in the 1920s. But overall, we were a lot clearer about the values necessary to ensure our future: marriage, sex, and children. People got married and usually stayed married. We frowned upon, limited, and punished  behaviors and attitudes that destroyed our families: sex before marriage, homosexual acts, abortion, and divorce. Today most of these behaviors are not only widely tolerated, but outright celebrated.

Why has this happened and why so suddenly? The world, the flesh, and the devil.

At the level of the demonic, there surely is strong satanic influence in the “high places” of Hollywood, the music industry, Madison Avenue, and Pennsylvania Avenue (at both ends of the block). American culture, via movies and music, generates a steady stream of sewer-like themes that celebrate fornication, divorce, adultery, and homosexuality, and that portray abortion sympathetically.

At the level of the flesh, Americans consume filth in enormous quantities. Internet porn sites are among the most frequently visited. Most Americans are no longer shocked by foul language, pornographic themes, or nudity in movies and music. Granted, the desire to consume this material comes from weakness due to our sinful human nature, but indulging these weaknesses leads to successively darker places, to a dulling of the sense of morality,  to enslavement by the senses, and ultimately to a downright craving for the filth.

At the level of the world there is the rebellion that is at its heart. The “world,” in the scriptural sense of the term, refers to that collection of interests and powers arrayed against God and His Kingdom. To build its power, the world entices in order to enslave; it offers pleasures but then sends the bill. The world works quite handily with Satan.

At the end of the day, however, we in the Church bear a lot of the responsibility. This has happened on our watch. Jesus commissioned us to be the light of the world. So why is the world in such darkness? I have little doubt that the Lord has allowed a kind of satanic incursion for His own mysterious reasons. Perhaps the Church needs to be purified. Perhaps the West needs to be plowed under, as many previous eras and empires have been. Perhaps He is preparing a great renewal. I just don’t know.

But I do know that we must work more consciously to be the light we are supposed to be. This poll is a gauge of the extent of the darkness. Usually the lights go out as a result of a power failure. But in this case it is a moral failure. It is a failure of our mission as Christians that has led us here. Start with your own life and with your own family. Work in your own parish. Start lighting candles and living in the light.

A couple of years ago I wrote of an unusual experience I had at Mass wherein a person who was troubled by a demon had those demons manifest themselves at the consecration, causing the person to run out of the Church. More on that in a moment.

I thought of that long-ago incident in relation to the current events transpiring in Oklahoma City, where a satanic cult stole the Eucharist from a Catholic parish and announced plans to desecrate it at a satanic “mass” in September. Archbishop Paul Coakley filed a lawsuit, asking a judge to stop the desecration by requiring the group to return the stolen property. He indicated in the suit that the Host was to be desecrated in the vilest ways imaginable as an offering in sacrifice to Satan.

A spokesman from the satanic group, Adam Daniels, said, “The whole basis of the [satanic] mass  is that we take the consecrated host and give it a blessing or offering to Satan. We’re censoring it, [I think he means using incense], doing all things that’s [sic] normally done to bless a sacrifice, which is obviously the host body of Christ. Then we’re taking that and we’re reconsecrating it, or the Devil does …”

[The bracketed comment and the single quotation marks within the above quote are mine.]

In light of the threatened lawsuit, the group returned the consecrated host to the Church. Thanks be to God. But did you notice the satanic spokesman’s attestation regarding the host: “which is obviously the host body of Christ”?

Grave and sad though this incident was (and it wasn’t the first), these Satanists obviously consider the Catholic Eucharist to be the Body of Christ. Unless I missed it, there have been no attempts by Satanists to steal and use a Methodist host, or an Episcopal one, or a Baptist one, or a Lutheran one, etc. It is a Catholic host they seek. Here then is an affirmation of the Scripture which says, Even the demons believe—and shudder (James 2:19).

Elsewhere, Scripture says of a demon that afflicted a man among the tombs, And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and worshiped him (Mark 5:6). And in Luke’s Gospel, And demons also came out of many, crying, “You are the Son of God!” But he rebuked them, and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Christ (Lk 4:41-42).

Indeed, as many who have assisted at exorcisms can attest, there is wonderful power in holy water, relics, the exorcist’s cross, the touch of a priest’s stole, and so forth in afflicting demons and urging them to leave. Yet so many Catholics and others discount these sacramentals (as well as the Sacraments), using them carelessly, infrequently, or not at all. Many people, even faithful Catholics, consider them of little significance. But demons do not. Shamefully, demons sometimes manifest more faith (out of fear) in these things than actual believers who ought to revere them out of loving faith.  Even this Satanist in Oklahoma acknowledges that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist and he seeks a host for that reason, although obviously for nefarious and perverse purposes.

And that leads to a story of my own that I published a long while back. Here is an excerpt from that piece:

It was almost 15 years ago. I was At Old St. Mary’s here in D.C. celebrating Mass in the Latin (Extraordinary Form). It was a solemn high Mass. I don’t suppose I thought it any different than most Sundays, but something quite amazing was about to happen.

As you may know, the ancient Latin Mass is celebrated “ad orientem” (toward the Liturgical East). Priest and people all face in one direction. What this means practically for the celebrant is that the people are behind him. It was time for the consecration. At this time, the priest is directed to bow low with his forearms on the altar table and the host between his fingers.

As directed, the venerable words of Consecration were said in a low but distinct voiceHoc est enim Corpus meum (For this is my Body). The bells rang as I genuflected.

But behind me there was a disturbance of some sort; a shaking or rustling sound came from the front pews behind me to my right. And then a moaning or grumbling. “What was that?” I wondered. It did not really sound human, more like the grumbling of a large animal such as a boar or a bear, along with a plaintive moan that also did not seem human. I elevated the host and again wondered, “What was that?” Then silence. As the celebrant in the ancient Latin Mass I could not easily turn to look. But still I thought, “What was that?”

It was time for the consecration of the chalice. Again I bowed low, pronouncing clearly and distinctly but in a low voice, Hic est enim calix sanguinis mei, novi et æterni testamenti; mysterium fidei; qui pro vobis et pro multis effundetur in remissionem pecatorum. Haec quotiescumque feceritis in mei memoriam facietis (for this is the cup of my Blood, of the new and eternal covenant; the mystery of faith; which will for the many be shed unto the remission of sins. Whensoever you do this, you do it in my memory.)

Then, I heard another sound, this time an undeniable moan and then a shriek as someone cried out, “Leave me alone, Jesus! Why do you torture me?” Suddenly there was a scuffling noise and someone ran out with the groaning sound of having been injured. The back doors swung open and then closed. Then silence.

Realization – I could not turn to look for I was raising the Chalice high over my head. But I knew in an instant that some poor demon-tormented soul had encountered Christ in the Eucharist and could not endure His real presence displayed for all to see. And the words of Scripture occurred to me: Even Demons believe and tremble (James 2:19).

Repentance – But just as James used those words to rebuke the weak faith of his flock, I too had to repent. Why was a demon-troubled man more aware of the true presence and more astonished by it than I was? He was moved in a negative sense and ran. Why was I not more moved in a positive but comparable way? What of the other believers in the pews? I don’t doubt that all of us believed intellectually in the true presence. But there is something very different and far more wonderful in being moved to the depth of your soul! It is so easy for us to be sleepy in the presence of the Divine, to be forgetful of the miraculous and awesome Presence available to us.

Let the record show that on that day, almost 15 years ago, it was made quite plain to me that I held in my hands the Lord of Glory, the King of Heaven and earth, the just Judge and Ruler of the kings of the earth. Is the Lord truly present in the Eucharist? You’d better believe it; even demons believe that!

The Gospel today sets forth the biblical basis for the Office of Peter—the Office of the Papacy—for Peter’s successors are the popes. The word “pope” is simply an English version (via Anglo-Saxon and Germanic tongues) of the word “papa.” The Pope is affectionately called “Papa” in Italian and Spanish as an affectionate indication that he is the father of the family, the Church.

That Peter receives an office and not simply a charismatic designation we will discuss later. As to certain objections regarding the Office of the Papacy, we will also deal with them later. But for now let’s look at the basic establishment of the Office of Peter in three steps.

I. The Inquiry that Illustrates – The text says, Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi and he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?

It should be noted that in asking these questions Jesus is not merely curious about what people think of Him. He seems, rather, to be using these questions as a vehicle by which to teach the apostles, and us, about how the truth is adequately revealed and guaranteed.

Jesus’ first two questions reveal the inadequacy of two common methods.

1. The Poll - Jesus asks who the crowds say that He is. In modern times we love to take polls and many moderns put a lot of stock in what polls say. Many people (Catholics among them) like to point out that x% of Catholics think this or that about moral teachings or about doctrines and disciplines. It is as if the fact that more than 50% of Catholics think something makes it true, and that the Church should change her teaching based on this.

But as this gospel makes clear, taking a poll doesn’t necessarily yield the truth. In fact ALL the assertions of the crowd were wrong no matter what percentage held them. Jesus is not John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets redivivus. So, running the Church by poll-taking or democracy seems not to be a model that works.

2. The Panel - Jesus, having taught this implicitly, now turns to a group of experts, a “blue-ribbon panel” if you will. He asks the twelve, “Who do you (apostles) say that I am?” Here we simply get silence. Perhaps they were looking around like nervous students in a classroom, not wanting to answer lest they look foolish. The politics on the panel led not to truth but to a kind of self-serving, politically correct silence.

That Peter finally speaks up is true. But, as Jesus will say, he does not do this because he is a member of the panel but for another reason altogether.

Hence the blue-ribbon panel, the committee of experts, is not adequate in setting forth the religious truth of who Jesus is.

And through this line of questioning, Jesus instructs through inquiry. Polls and panels are not adequate in yielding the firm truth as to His identity. All we have are opinions or politically correct silence. Having set forth this inadequacy, the Gospel now presses forward to describe God’s plan in setting forth the truths of faith.

II. The Individual that is Inspired - The text says, Simon Peter said in reply, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.”

We are taught here not merely that Peter spoke, but also how he came to know the truth. Jesus is very clear to teach us that Peter spoke rightly not because he was the smartest (he probably wasn’t), or because some one else told him (Jesus is clear that flesh and blood did not reveal this to him), or because he happened to guess correctly. Jesus teaches that Peter came to know the truth and speak it because God the Father revealed it to him. God the Father inspires Peter. There is a kind of anointing at work here.

So here is God’s methodology when it comes to adequately revealing and guaranteeing the truths of the faith: He anoints Peter.

It’s not polls or panels that God uses—it’s Peter.

And while truths may emerge in the wider Church, reflecting what is revealed, it is only with Peter and his successors that such views can be definitively set forth and their truth adequately guaranteed. Thus the other apostles are not merely bypassed by God. He anoints Peter to unite them and give solemn declaration to what they have seen and heard.

The Catechism says the following of Peter and his successors, the popes:

When Christ instituted the Twelve, he constituted [them] in the form of a college or permanent assembly, at the head of which he placed Peter, chosen from among them … The Lord made Simon alone, whom he named Peter, the “rock” of his Church. He gave him the keys of his Church and instituted him shepherd of the whole flock. The office of binding and loosing which was given to Peter was also assigned to the college of apostles united to its head. This pastoral office of Peter and the other apostles belongs to the Church’s very foundation and is continued by the bishops under the primacy of the Pope.

The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor, is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful. For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.

The college or body of bishops has no authority unless united with the Roman Pontiff, Peter’s successor, as its head. As such, this college has supreme and full authority over the universal Church; but this power cannot be exercised without the agreement of the Roman Pontiff. The college of bishops exercises power over the universal Church in a solemn manner in an ecumenical council. But there never is an ecumenical council which is not confirmed or at least recognized as such by Peter’s successor (Catechism of the Catholic Church, pp. 880-884, selected).

All these truths point back to this moment when we see how God Himself chooses to operate.

And note, too, the dimension of faith we are called to have. We are to assent to the Pope’s teaching and leadership not merely because we think he is smarter, or because it might happen that he has power, riches, or other worldly means that might impress us or compel us to assent. Rather, we assent to the Pope because, by faith, we believe he is inspired by God. It is not in flesh and blood that we put our trust; it is in God Himself, who we believe has acted on our behalf by anointing someone to affirm the truth and adequately guarantee that truth to be revealed by God.

And this then leads to the final stage wherein Jesus sets forth a lasting office for Peter.

III. The Installation that is Initiated - The text says, “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

Jesus does not merely praise Simon for a moment of charismatic insight. He goes further and declares that He will build his very Church upon Simon, and thus He calls him Peter (rock). And here, too, He does not merely mean this as a personal gift or as a sort of recognition that will die with Peter. In giving Peter the keys, He is establishing an office, not merely a “promotion” for Peter. This will be God’s way of strengthening and uniting the Church. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus says more of this:

Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, all that he might sift you all like wheat, but I have prayed for thee, Peter, that thy faith may not fail; and when thou hast turned again, strengthen thy brethren (Luke 22:31).

Hence it is clear once again that God’s plan for the Church is to strengthen one man, Peter (and his successors), that in turn the whole Church may be strengthened and united. Thus the Lord Jesus establishes not only Peter, but also his office. This is God’s vision and plan for His Church.

It is true that many have objected to this teaching. There is no time here to do a full apologetical reply to every objection. But frankly most of the objections amount to a kind of wishful thinking by some, who want this text to mean something other than what it plainly means.  Nothing could be clearer than the fact that Jesus is establishing both Peter and an office that will serve as a foundation for the unity and strength of His Church.

Some object that within other verses Peter will be called “Satan” and will deny Christ. But Jesus knew all this and still said and did what He does here.

Others object that Jesus is the head and foundation, that He is the rock. True enough, but apparently Jesus never got the objectors’ memo, for it is He Himself who calls Peter the rock and establishes him with the authority to bind and loose. It is also true that both Jesus and Peter can be head and rock, in terms of primary and secondary causality (more on that HERE).  And in addition that Peter and his successors are head and rock by making visible and being the means through which Christ exercises His headship and foundational aspect.

Finally, let’s return to the title of this post: “If no one is Pope, EVERYONE is pope!Without a visible head, there is no principle on earth for unity in the Church. The Protestant experiment tried to replace the Pope with Scripture and gave it sole authority. But Protestants cannot agree on what Scripture says and have no earthly way to resolve their conflicts. While they say that authority resides in Scripture alone, the fact is, in claiming the anointing of the Holy Spirit and thus the ability to properly interpret Scripture, they really place the locus of authority within themselves and become the very pope they denounce. Having denied that there is a pope they become pope. If no one is Pope, everyone is pope.

I have read that some objectors think Catholics arrogant in asserting that we have a pope whom we trust to be anointed by God to teach us without error on faith and morals. But which is more arrogant: to claim there is a pope (not me), or to in fact act like one myself?

In the end, the Protestant experiment is a failed one. Many estimates place the number of Protestant denominations as high as 30,000. Personally, I think this is exaggerated—but not by much. Protestants all claim the Scriptures as their source of the truth but differ on many essential matters such as sexual morality, authority, the necessity of baptism, whether once saved is always saved, etc. When they cannot resolve things they simply subdivide. There is an old joke, told even among Protestants, that goes,

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! What franchise?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too!” Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

A strange little joke, and not entirely fair since most Protestants of different denominations that I know get along fine on a personal level. But the truth is, the denominations disagree over many very important things. The Protestant experiment is a failure that leads only to endless division. The Church needs a visible head. The Bible alone does not suffice, for there are endless disagreements on how to interpret it. Someone must exist to whom all turn and who all agree will resolve the differences after listening.

Jesus installed an individual in this role to manifest His office of rock and head of the Church. That individual was Peter and after, his successors.

Here’s a light-hearted video I put together commemorating Pope Benedict’s many visits to unite and strengthen us. I don’t have enough footage yet to do a Pope Francis video. But I suspect he’ll rack up the miles, too!

Screen Shot 2014-08-22 at 8.20.38 PMUsually we don’t like to know the end of the story and when someone blurts out the ending it’s called a “spoiler.” What fun is it to read a “whodunnit” when you already know who did it?

But when it comes to the faith, not only should we know the end of the story—we must never forget it and must base our very lives on it. As we look about the world, it is easy to get discouraged and think that evil is winning. And yet Scripture plainly states that Satan’s plans are going nowhere, that Jesus has already won the victory. Mysteriously, the Lord allows Satan a little time to sift through the ruins of his former kingdom, but do not be deceived—Satan has lost and so have all who are allied with him.

Some lines from Psalm 37 come to mind:

Wait a little, and the wicked will be no more;
look for them and they will not be there.
But the poor will inherit the earth,
will delight in great prosperity.
But my Lord laughs at the wicked,
because he sees that their day is coming.
Wait eagerly for the LORD,
and keep his way;
He will raise you up to inherit the earth;
you will see when the wicked are cut off.
I have seen a ruthless scoundrel,
spreading out like a green cedar.
When I passed by again, he was gone;
though I searched, he could not be found.
mark the upright;
Because there is a future for a man of peace.
Sinners will be destroyed together;
the future of the wicked will be cut off.

Spoiler Alert! Yes, dear brethren, I checked. I went to the end of the story and sure enough, Jesus wins! There it is right at the end of the Bible. But this is a spoiler you need to know, because you have to choose which team you’ll be on and it’s nice to know ahead of time whose team has already won. It’s like going to today’s horserace with tomorrow’s paper. You’d be a fool to bet on any horse other than the winning one. Well, you have tomorrow’s paper and here is what it says:

20:7When the thousand years are completed, Satan will be released from his prison. 8 He will go out to deceive the nations at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea. 9 They invaded the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of the holy ones and the beloved city. But fire came down from heaven and consumed them. 10 The Devil who had led them astray was thrown into the pool of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet were. There they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. 11 Next I saw a large white throne and the one who was sitting on it. The earth and the sky fled from his presence and there was no place for them. 12 I saw the dead, the great and the lowly, standing before the throne, and scrolls were opened. Then another scroll was opened, the book of life. The dead were judged according to their deeds, by what was written in the scrolls. 13 The sea gave up its dead; then Death and Hades gave up their dead. All the dead were judged according to their deeds. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the pool of fire. (This pool of fire is the second death.) 15 Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the pool of fire (Rev 20:7–15).

21:1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them [as their God]. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, [for] the old order has passed away.”
5 The one who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” Then he said, “Write these words down, for they are trustworthy and true.” 6 He said to me, “They are accomplished. I [am] the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give a gift from the spring of life-giving water. 7 The victor will inherit these gifts, and I shall be his God, and he will be my son. 8 But as for cowards, the unfaithful, the depraved, murderers, the unchaste, sorcerers, idol-worshipers, and deceivers of every sort, their lot is in the burning pool of fire and sulfur, which is the second death” (Rev 21:1–8).

22:6 And he said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true, and the Lord, the God of prophetic spirits, sent his angel to show his servants what must happen soon.” 7 “Behold, I am coming soon.” Blessed is the one who keeps the prophetic message of this book. 20 The one who gives this testimony says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen! Come, Lord Jesus! 21 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all (Rev 22:6–7; 20-21).

Keep this in mind; keep it always on your mind. The result of this victory is obtained in the paradox of the cross. Jesus destroys death by dying and tells us that to save our life we must lose it to this world. Whatever the struggles and setbacks, do not be dismayed. Love and humility have already overcome hatred and pride. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hatred, only love can do that. Pride cannot drive out pride, only humility can do that. And thus the Lord allows opportunities for the light of truth to shine in the error of darkness, for love to endure in the face of hatred, and for humility to shame pride.

Until the last day when the trumpet shall sound, the drama carries on. But see what the end shall be. You already know the end of the story. Just make sure you serve in the Lord’s army and wield the weapons of light, love, and humility.

Well I know this video is going to seem strange after such a serious reflection. But what could be more humble than a little pig “spoiling” the movie as the patrons go in? And yet, if you listen to his advice, he’s basically saying what I just did. “Don’t waste your time on losers; don’t waste your time going down a path of wrong ideas or theories; don’t get all worked up about characters and things that don’t matter—here’s what’s really going on in the movie.”

Not bad advice for life either. If you know the end of the story, there’s a lot you can disregard along the way, and you’ll know where to set your focus. Keep your eyes on Jesus and the truth of His Gospel.

divorceSome years ago a woman (and parishioner) told me, almost in passing,  that she and her husband were planning to divorce. Knowing that she had two young children, both under 10, I asked her in so many words, “What about the children?” Unabashedly she assured me that they were in fact divorcing for the sake of the children. Perhaps she saw my bewildered, dubious look, so she added, “We don’t want them to experience all the yelling and bickering.” “Hmmm … ,” I said. “Well then stop the bickering and yelling. Get whatever help you need, but don’t make the kids pay even more for your problems.”

I was a parochial vicar in those days, so the woman informed the pastor of my “insensitive” remark and demanded that I be taught to be more sensitive and diplomatic. Luckily, the pastor saw the irony of her demands, since diplomacy between spouses seemed lacking as did sensitivity toward children who did not likely “feel” great that their home was breaking up because the adults couldn’t get along.

When I was a little child (not so long ago) in the mid 60s, divorce was still considered shocking, and to a large degree morally wrong. But that was before we crossed the chasm of the cultural and sexual revolution. In 1969, no-fault divorce began to careen through the land like a runaway train leaking poisonous gas. Within less than a decade, divorce went from something shocking and whispered about to a mainstream action for which we are expected to have sympathy. After all, the thinking goes, doesn’t God want everyone to be happy? How can we be so mean as to say that people should stay in “unhappy marriages”? Never mind those vows, which have no happiness clause and even seem to imply that there will be unhappy times: better or WORSE, richer or POORER, in SICKNESS and in health for as long as we both shall live. No, forget all that. Marriage is about “happiness” and everyone’s “God-given right to be happy.” God only wants me to be happy. Jesus wasn’t really serious when He spoke of the cross and our need to carry it through patience, suffering, forgiveness, and bearing with one another.

I remember another couple who were fighting bitterly in my rectory parlor. They began throwing around the “divorce” word. I asked them, “But what about the vows you took?” After a pause, the husband said, “What vows, Father?” So I recited them from memory. “Oh, that … ,” said the husband. “But you know, you just say those words at the ceremony because you’re supposed to … ” He seemed to have thought of them as only ritual words and considered himself exempt from the vows that had come forth from his very mouth before both God and man.

In the short span of a few decades, we have come to the point where many do not see marriage as about keeping vows, or commitments, or about what is best for children. Marriage is now about adults and what makes them happy. And all of us are just supposed to accept this regardless of the effect that it (obviously) has on children.

In his recent book, Defending Marriage, 12 Arguments for Sanity, Anthony Esolen makes some poignant observations:

Parents will say, “My children can never be happy unless I am happy,” but they should not lay that narcissistic unction to their souls. Children need parents who love them, not parents who are contented; they are too young to be asked to lay down their lives for someone else. It is not the job of the child to suffer for the parent, but the job of the parent to endure, to make the best of a poor situation, to swallow his pride, to bend her knees, for the sake of the child. I have heard [from those] who still quaver in voice when they speak about what their divorced parents did to them – hustling them from one half of a home to another half, enlisting them as confidants, one against the other, [threatening] them that they may just find themselves a lot less often with a parent they love if they do not do exactly what the [threatener] demands. [and I would add forcing them to endure Daddy's new live-in girlfriend, or Mommy's new husband, or a strange new step-brother who is hard to get along with and who started touching them in embarrassing places.] Children must grow up at age ten so their parents don’t have to (p. 142).

Esolen also comments on how children often have divorce “explained” to them:

[The Child] must be told that the father, although he wasn’t so terrible, just couldn’t satisfy the mother in some mysterious way, and so bad was this dissatisfaction that she had no choice but to compel her son [or daughter]  to live without a father … Adults are wonderfully adept at weaving webs of self-deceit around themselves for protection. Children aren’t … They aren’t yet dulled by habit, or by slogans, or by a long history of compromising with the truth, so that what they do see, they see clearly (p. 138).

Yes, indeed, children are famous for for seeing through the hypocrisy of adults. Their innocence is still shocked by misbehavior and inconsistency. I remember a high-school classmate, whose parents had divorced, wondering why “the rules” in the house only applied to her. One day she asked her mother, who had divorced, why she couldn’t love her father anymore. The mother replied, “But I still do love him.” My classmate saw through this self-justifying lie and challenged her mother to “get back together with Dad again.” Her mother just responded, “You’ll understand when you get older.” In one short phrase, her mother managed to both patronize her daughter and introduce her to the cynical and compromised world of the baby-boomer generation, a generation that collectively never grew up and that may well be the most narcissistic, egocentric, selfish, and immature generation since the patricians of the late Greco-Roman culture.

Disclaimer - I realize that every divorce story is an individual one. I know that there are some who read this who will be angry or hurt and who will insist that my picture does not take into account the special and unique circumstances that led to their particular divorce. I realize, too, that some people really tried to save their marriages but could not because the other spouse refused. OK. But I only speak to the general problem, not to every specific case. The critique here is of the culture, first and foremost.  The fact is that by and large people used to work out their differences and stay married, but today they do not. We used to consider the impact that divorce would have on children. Today it is either not considered or the children are way down on the list below the needs and wishes of the adults.

Divorce has shredded our families and caused grave harm and hurt to children: psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, and even physically. If we cannot see this then we are not only divorced from marriage; we are divorced from reality. You might say, “Well, I don’t think it’s so bad. The roads are paved and the planes run on time.” OK, but talk to someone whose parents divorced. Talk to them honestly about the absurdities to which they were subjected: they were supposed to get along with their siblings while Mom and Dad played by other rules. Talk to them about being shipped back and forth to different homes, about feeling guilty that they liked one setting or parent more than the other, about two houses with two different sets of rules, about Mom and Dad bad-mouthing each other, about being subjected to “loyalty tests” by their parents. Ask them about how all of this affects their understanding of acceptance, loyalty, trust, self-esteem, respect for authority, appreciation for the truth, personal responsibility, courageousness, perseverance, forgiveness, human dignity, sexual responsibility, marriage, family, love, and on and on.

We need to see divorce for the diabolical lie that it is. It comes from the hardness of our hearts, as Jesus clearly says in Matthew 19. We ought not separate what God has joined. And if we do, there can be little but destruction that comes from it.

Splitting the family is like splitting the atom. And for all the anxiety we had back in the 80s about “the bomb,” as usual, Satan had us focused on the lesser thing in order to keep us from concentrating on the greater and more dangerous problem. All the silly “nuclear-free zones” did nothing. A few “divorce-free zones” (like we had prior to 1969) might have actually made a difference! But the problem is always someone else, not me or the decisions I make.

Even in the Church we got all swept up in issues of nuclear war, etc. And while total silence on that matter from the Church would have been wrong, where were similar statements against the nuclear fission of divorce as our families were split and we were handing out annulments like candy?

Do not mistake this for “bishop bashing.” We cannot expect the clergy to solve every problem in a cultural and moral tsunami in which lay people outnumber clergy 5000 to 1. But clarity and a bit more courage never hurts.

Perhaps it is like the clarity and courage my old pastor (referred to above) showed me when I was “turned in”  for being insensitive and undiplomatic, who saw the hypocrisy of the complainant and commended me, instead of scolding me, for raising the simple question, “What about the children?”