Paradoxes of Evangelization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of Peter and the Papacy – A Homily for the 21st Sunday of the Year

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.

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?”

In asking these questions, Jesus is not merely being curious about what people think of Him. He seems, rather, to be using these questions as a vehicle through 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; many put a lot of weight on the results. Many people—Catholics among them—like to point out that x% of Catholics think this or that about certain moral teachings, doctrines, or disciplines. Their position is that if more than 50% of Catholics believe something then it must be true; and therefore the Church should change her teaching.

As today’s Gospel makes clear, taking a poll doesn’t necessarily yield the truth. In fact, in this case all of the assertions of the crowd were wrong. Jesus is not John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets redivivus. So, running the Church by poll-taking does not seem be a model that works.

2. The Panel – Jesus now turns to a panel of experts, a “blue ribbon committee,” if you will. He asks the twelve, “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus is met with silence. Perhaps they were looking around like nervous students in a classroom, not wanting to answer lest they appear foolish. The politics on the panel leads not to truth, but to a kind of self-serving, politically correct silence.

Peter finally speaks up, but as Jesus will point out, he does not do so because he is a member of the panel, but for another reason entirely.

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

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 forth to describe the plan of God in adequately 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 someone else told him (Jesus is clear that flesh and blood did not reveal this to him), or because he guessed and just happened to get the right answer. Jesus teaches that Peter came to know the truth and speak it because God the Father revealed it to him. God the Father inspired Peter. There is a kind of anointing at work here.

God’s methodology, when it comes to adequately revealing and guaranteeing the truths of the faith, is to anoint Peter.

It is not polls or panels that God uses; it is Peter.

While truths may emerge in the wider Church reflecting what is revealed, it is only Peter and his successors who can definitively set forth views whose truth is adequately guaranteed. Thus, the other apostles are not bypassed by God, but He anoints Peter to unite them and give solemn declaration to what they have seen and heard.

The Catechism says this 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, 880-884 selected).

All of these truths point back to the moment described in today’s Gospel, when we see how God Himself chooses to operate.

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 he might have the power, riches, or other worldly means to impress us or compel our assent. No, we assent to the pope’s teaching because, by faith, we believe he is inspired by God. It is not flesh and blood in which we put our trust; it is God Himself. We believe that God has acted on our behalf by anointing someone to affirm the truth and adequately guarantee that truth to be revealed by Him.

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, declaring that He will build His very Church upon Simon, whom He names Peter (rock). Jesus does not merely mean this is a personal gift or recognition that will die with Peter. In giving him the keys, He is establishing an office. He is not merely giving Peter a personal promotion. 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).

This makes clear once again that God’s plan for the Church is to strengthen one man, Peter (and his successors in the future), so 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.

Many have objected to this teaching. There is no time here to provide a complete response to every objection, but frankly most of them amount to a kind of wishful thinking by those who want this text to mean something other than what it plainly does. Nothing could be clearer than the fact that Jesus is establishing Peter and an office, which will serve as a foundation for the unity and strength of His Church.

It is also true that we are living in times that have tested many Catholics who have traditionally been the biggest supporters of the papacy. For many, our current pope has been a source of controversy rather than unity. And yet the office endures; it remains our duty to pray for and respect him, and to seek to maintain unity. Concerns for some of his statements should be expressed with charity and manifest good will. Although St. Paul saw fit to express his dismay over some of St. Peter’s prudential decisions (see Gal 2:11), we should remember that St. Paul was a bishop and apostle. Thus Catholics who have concerns today would do well to work with bishops to express their concerns, whether their own bishop or one they know they can approach.

Truth be told, “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, giving it sole authority. Yet 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, 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, in effect becoming the very pope they denounce.

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 that there is a pope or to in fact act like one myself?

In the end, the Protestant experiment is a failed one. Estimates place the number of Protestant denominations as high as 30,000. I think that this figure is exaggerated, but not by much. They all claim the Scriptures as their source of truth but differ on many essential matters: the necessity of baptism, “once saved, always saved,” sexual morality, and authority. When they cannot resolve things they simply subdivide.

Jesus has installed an individual in this role to manifest his office of rock and head: Peter and his successors.

Words Do Not Make Reality, As Seen in a Commercial

The situation of the man in this commercial reminds me of modern life in general. We talk a lot about freedom, but compulsiveness, addiction, and lack of self-control are more the case with the average person.

We have collectively rejected the “Ten Big Laws of God,” declaring our freedom from being told what to do. But the result has not been that we have fewer laws; rather we now have thousands of “little laws,” imposed upon us through oppressive government, by which we are told what we must do under penalty of law.

Many cultural revolutionaries have marched under the banners of freedom and tolerance, but once having gained a foothold they have tyrannically forced their agenda on others by law. The talk of tolerance and respect for differences turned out to be just that—talk.

The man in this advertisement talks a lot about how important mobility is to him, but the reality of his life is far from his self-description. In fact, he seems quite unaware of his condition. Does he not seem familiar?

Blessed are the Pure of Heart – A Reflection on an Often Misunderstood Beatitude and Virtue

One of the beatitudes taught by Jesus is often misunderstood, largely due to the popular translations of it from the Greek text: “Blessed are the pure of heart,” or “Blessed are the clean of heart.” Let’s look at three facets of the beatitude: its fundamental meaning, its focus, and the freedom it gives.

I. Fundamental Meaning – While the words “pure” and “clean,” are not inauthentic translations of the Greek word καθαρός (katharos), a more literal translation is “to be without admixture, to be simply one thing.” Hence it means to purely and simply be that one thing with nothing else mixed in. Another helpful way of translating the Greek μακάριοι οἱ καθαροὶ τῇ καρδίᾳ (makarioi hoi katharoi te kardia) is “Blessed are the single-hearted.”

The reason I suggest that the  phrase “single-hearted” is more descriptive is that in modern English the words “pure” and “clean”  tend to evoke a moral sense of being free of sin, of being morally upright. And while this is surely a significant part, being single-hearted is a deeper and richer concept than simply being well-behaved, since to be well-behaved is the result of the deeper truth of being one thing, of not being duplicitous, of not having a divided heart.

II. Focus – Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange says, Simplicity is opposed not only to duplicity, but to every useless complexity, to all that is pretentious or tainted with affectation … Christ says to us “If thy eye be single thy whole body shall be lightsome” (Mat 6:22); that is, if our intention is upright and simple, our whole life be one, true and luminous, instead of being divided, like that of those who try to serve two masters … The perfect soul is thus a simplified soul … willing things only for God (Three Ages of the Interior Life, Tan Publishers, Vol 2, pp. 162-163).

The image of the rose window in my church (see above), which I have used before on this blog, is a good illustration of what it means to be single-hearted. It does not deny that life has different facets, but rather shows that every facet of life is ordered around and points to Christ, is subsumed in Jesus and His heavenly kingdom along with the Father and the Spirit as the ordering principle of every other thing. And thus career, family, marriage, finances, spending priorities, use of time, where one lives, and any other imaginable aspect of life is subsumed in Christ, points to Him, and leads to the Lord and His kingdom on high.

So the single-hearted life is a well-ordered life. Each step, each decision leads in the right direction. St. Paul said, This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:13-14). While Paul made many journeys to many places, he was really on one journey and headed to one place. This simplified and ordered his life. He was single-hearted.

A simple life is a well-ordered, singly focused life. But duplicity introduces many complexities and disorders. Jesus says, He who does not gather with me, scatters (Luke 11:23).  Unfortunately, this image of scattering or being hindered describes many Christians whose lives are not ordered on the one thing necessary, who are not single-hearted, whose hearts are not focused on the one thing they should be. Such people have lives that are often scattered, confused, disordered, and filled with a jumble of conflicting drives that hinder them from the true goal of life. The double minded man is unstable in all his ways (James 1:8).

St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that simplicity is related to the virtue of veracity, since it opposes the duplicity that James denounced (Summa Theologica IIa IIae q. 109 art. 2, the 4th).

III. Freedom – Finally, being single-hearted, being pure of heart, not only orders our life but it also grants us freedom. In modern Western thinking, freedom is often equated with doing more rather than less. Freedom is interpreted as “being able to do anything I please.” This attitude has led to the kind of jumbled mess that much of modern life has become: a tangled web of contrary desires with little unifying direction or purpose. We tend to think of freedom in abstract terms and hence we tend to get abstract and disconnected results.

But biblically and spiritually, freedom is the capacity or ability to do what is right, best, and proper. And thus, paradoxically, freedom often means doing less, not more.

Being single-hearted helps to focus us and to pare away a lot of the unnecessary baggage of modern life. Life gets simpler, and simplicity is a form of freedom that allows us to focus on what is important more so than on what is urgent. We discover that what often seems to be urgent is not really so necessary or urgent after all. Regarding the good options in life, St. Paul said, All things are lawful to me, but not all things are expedient (1 Cor 6:12).

Pray for the gift to become more single-hearted. More than ever in this modern age, with its myriad distractions and endless possibilities, we need to learn the lesson of the rose window and center our lives on Christ, the one thing necessary.

I have used the video below in other posts. Please pardon a brief profane word in the clip, but it does help emphasize the point being made.

I Got a Robe! A Teaching on One of the Most Shocking Parables Jesus Ever Told

Parable_of_the_Wedding_FeastThe Gospel from Thursday’s Mass (Thursday of the 20th Week of the Year) contains one of the most shocking parables Jesus ever told. It is the Parable of the Wedding Feast from the Gospel of Matthew, and it tells the story of a king who gives a wedding banquet for his son. Most know it well, but in case you want to review it, the full text is available here: Parable of the Wedding Feast.

It does not take a degree in biblical theology to understand that this parable is an allegory. The “king” is God the Father, the “son” is Jesus, and the wedding feast is the great wedding feast of the Lamb described in the Book of Revelation:

Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.” (Fine linen stands for the righteousness of God’s holy people.) Then the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” And he added, “These are the true words of God” (Revelation 19:6-9).

The invited guests are the Jewish people of that time who, when the feast is ready, ignore or reject it for various reasons. Some guests express concerns for land (I just bought a farm) or profit (I own a business). And a group of them (for unknown reasons) lay hold of the king’s servants (who represent the prophets and, later, the Apostles), beating and even killing them.

This rejection represents not just the rejection by the Jews of history, but also the long human history of ignoring or rejecting God in favor of worldliness (land), profit (business), and hostility to the truth (the beating and killing of the king’s servants (the prophets and Apostles)).

And yet the focus is on the rejection by the Jews of the time, for the parable calls them the “invited guests.”

The reaction to their rejection, related by Jesus Himself, is that the king (God the Father) was enraged and sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city (Matt 22:6).

This detail is especially shocking to many modern readers, because we have bought into a watered down notion of the holiness of God and the significance of human choice for or against Him. The common modern vision of the Father is that of a doting older man (like George Burns or Morgan Freeman) who exists more to get us out of trouble and offer friendly advice than to summon us to holiness, obedience, and a critical choice.

But take note: this detail of the king burning their city is told by Jesus Himself.  However we want to “rework” God and render Him harmless, however we want to try to oppose God’s love and justice, however we want to render human choice insignificant, the biblical text will have none of it. The bottom line is that no one loves you more than does Jesus Christ, yet no one warned of judgment and Hell more than He did.

Don’t be surprised if this parable shocks you; it is meant to do so. It is a call to sobriety in the face of the four most critical truths of our life: death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell. This parable teaches that we will either enter the wedding feast and celebrate with the Father or we will be caught up in the conflagration when the Lord comes to judge this world by fire (e.g., 2 Pet 3:7; Malachi 4:1; 2 Thess 1:7).

Add to this shock the fact that the parable was actually fulfilled in 70 A.D. (as a kind of precursor to the final end of the age) when, after forty years of pleading with the Jewish people to come to Christ, a fiery destruction came upon Jerusalem. After rejecting the Lord’s warnings (cf Matthew 24, 25; Mark 13; Luke 21), rejecting the call of the early Apostles and Church, and picking a pointless war with the Romans, the Jewish nation was utterly defeated. Jerusalem was sacked and burned and more than a million Jews were killed.

The choice is ours, but the judgment is certain to come: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water but the fire next time!” (Negro spiritual)

The only safe place to be is at the wedding feast of the Jesus the Lamb, who saves us from the wrath to come (1 Thess 1:10).

Jesus, with weeping, had warned,

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate (Matt 23:37).

The next shocking part of the parable comes in the second half. The enraged king (God the Father) orders his servants to go into the streets and gather everyone they can. This detail represents going out to the Gentiles and the Great Commission.

Thanks be to God that the response is good and the banquet is filled. But then comes yet another shock:

When the king came in to meet the guests he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment. He said to him, ‘My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?’ But he was reduced to silence. Then the king said to his attendants, ‘Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.’ Many are invited, but few are chosen.

This makes us moderns wince. Perhaps part of our trouble with these verses is that we may think that the newly invited guests were dragged in right off the street with no chance to change clothes. But there is nothing in the text to suggest that they were not given time to don their wedding clothes. The other guests all seem to be clothed properly and the focus shifts to one man who is not properly dressed.

Whatever the debated cultural parameters of the story, the theological parameters are more clear. The wedding garment is provided by the king (God the Father), who clothes us in righteousness at our baptism.

For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear. (Fine linen stands for the righteousness of God’s holy people.) (Rev 19:8)

Yes, this is the baptismal gown, the robe of righteousness, which God gives to the baptized, who have been washed in the blood of the Lamb! In the Baptismal Rite, the celebrant points to the white garment of the newly baptized and says,

You have clothed yourself in Christ. Receive this baptismal garment and bring it unstained to the judgment seat of our Lord Jesus Christ, so that you may have everlasting life (# 578).

In the parable, the man is without a wedding garment not because he is poor or was pulled in off the street, but because he cast aside the garment he was given. Remember that the garment is no mere piece of cloth; it represents righteousness. And this righteousness is received and must be cherished. Without it, we cannot endure or remain at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, which is Heaven.

Thus ends one of the most shocking parables Jesus ever told. (We will examine the “many are called but few are chosen” aspect of the text this coming Sunday.) And though the parameters of this parable do shock, Jesus speaks them with an urgent love to bring forth godly repentance from us and to stir an evangelical urgency in us to reach others before “Great and Terrible Day of the Lord” comes (cf Joel 2:31; Mal 4:5 inter al). On that day there will be only two places: safe at the wedding feast with the Lord or outside in the fiery judgment that is coming on this world.

An old spiritual says,

“God’s gonna set this world on Fire one of these days.”

Another old spiritual goes like this:

“I got a robe, you got a robe, all God’s children got a robe. When I get to heaven gonna put on my robe and go wear it all over God’s heaven! Everybody talkin’ bout heaven ain’t a goin’ there!”

Make sure you’ve got your robe and keep it washed in the blood of the Lamb.

Come Down, O Love Divine – A Mediation on a Great Hymn of the Church

Most of you know that I have just returned from Georgetown Hospital after 11 days in the ICU. Most who get COVID-19  experience some combination of fatigue, fever, cold-like symptoms, nausea, and vomiting, but do not require hospitalization. Some, mainly those who have a history of pulmonary weakness like me, experience respiratory failure and pneumonia. Such was my lot. I received wonderful care during my hospital stay and made steady progress, thanks be to God, to your prayers, and to the wonderful medical staff. I plan to write more fully about that experience in the future.

Today, however, I’d like to write about a hymn that was on my mind the entire time I was in the hospital. It is a hymn to God, the Holy Spirit. I have heard from others that it is hard to pray when seriously ill. The mind is dull, and it is hard to focus. I found this to be true for me. Just a simple act of the will, offering my sufferings, was often all I could muster. The Rosary and the Divine Mercy Chaplet, along with my Breviary, were also a consolation to me as the words are supplied.

Among my prayers was the beautiful and powerful hymn “Come Down, O Love Divine.” As many of you know, I have committed the texts of numerous hymns to memory. It comes from my days as a church organist; in order to play a hymn well, one must have some familiarity with the text in addition to playing the notes. Lying in my hospital bed or sitting in the chair in my room, connected to oxygen, with two IVs attached, and with all sorts of wires dangling from me, I gently prayed its words.

Let’s ponder the words of this beautiful old hymn. It was written in the 14th century by Bianco da Siena and translated into English in the 19th century by Richard Frederick Littledale. As an English work, it is a minor masterpiece. Ralph Vaughan Williams set it to a stirring melody, which I love to play at the organ. Here are the words, along with some commentary:

  • Come down, O Love divine!
  • seek thou this soul of mine,
  • and visit it with thine own ardor glowing;
  • O Comforter, draw near,
  • within my heart appear,
  • and kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.

Here, we seek not mere human love but Divine Love Himself. We give Him permission to seek our souls and enter therein. “Ardor” bespeaks vigor, energy, and intensity. He is call the “Comforter,” which in English originally meant something more than just pleasant things. The Latin root word is confirmare, which also means “to strengthen.” We ask that He seek our poor souls and then kindle our heart, to start a holy fire within us. As we shall see, this fire of love purifies us and configures us to the image of those reborn in Christ.

  • O let it freely burn
  • till earthly passions turn
  • to dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
  • and let thy glorious light
  • shine ever on my sight,
  • and make my pathway clear, by your illuming

Our hearts are broken and misguided. We desire earthly things more than heavenly things; we desire harmful things in abundance and avoid holy and healthy things. The Holy Spirit needs to convert our desires so that we desire more and more what God is actually offering. Earthly passions must be burned away and turned to dust under our feet. In my own journey I can say that I have gently experienced this. Many earthly passions I once desired are now of little or no interest. I have also experience the miracle of forgiveness; I discovered that many hurts and angers mysteriously melted away. I knew it was a gift of the Holy Spirit, for I, like many, find it hard to simply forgive and stop hurting.

This verse also speaks to the Holy Spirit’s role in renewing our mind. In our fallen state and on account of the influence of the passions, our mind can be quite dark. It must be illumined by the light of God’s truth. God, the Holy Spirit, is our teacher. Through the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church, He lights up our mind and shows us the way. He draws us from the ways of the worldly-minded, those whom St. Paul describes as walking in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardness of their hearts. Having lost all sense of shame, they have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity, with a craving for more (Eph 4:17-19).

Yes, Come, Holy Spirit, heal our wayward hearts. Enlighten our minds, and set us on the right and only path.

  • Let holy charity
  • my outward vesture be,
  • and lowliness become my inner clothing;
  • true lowliness of heart,
  • which takes the humbler part,
  • and o’er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.

So beautiful is this verse that I hesitate to offer much commentary. Clearly, the gifts we seek here are a divine love for God and neighbor, an inner humility that recognizes our lowliness and need for God, and a true compunction, a full and proper sorrow that weeps for our sins and shortcomings. May God the Holy Spirit so provide! 

  • And so the yearning strong
  • with which the soul will long
  • shall far surpass the power of human telling;
  • for none can guess its grace
  • till we become the place
  • in which the Holy Spirit makes his dwelling.

There is a certain quality to deep union with God that is ineffable. As the Holy Spirit continues His work of drawing us deeper into the life and love of the Holy Trinity, our prayer deepens and becomes quieter, and our longing for God grows ever stronger.  But although words do not suffice, the reality of our love and longing for God is far more delightful than anything this world offers. In this way the Holy Spirit transforms us, deepening our desire for God and for Heaven, where joys unspeakable and glories untold await us. Knowing and desiring the prize is the key to the spiritual life and to winning the spiritual battles that we must wage throughout our life in this world. 

Such was my gift in an ICU not far from here. Though my own mind was weak, the Holy Spirit summoned me to remember this favorite hymn. God the Holy Spirit reached out to my human spirit and breathed life anew. Thank you, Lord. It is no surprise that when I returned home late last week, though physically feeble, I went went to the church, sat down, and played “Come Down, O Love Divine.”

 

On The Problem of Rash Judgments and the Discernment to Which We are Called

In the Gospel for today’s Mass (Monday of the 20th week of the year) Jesus resists being called “good teacher.” He replies that no one is good but God alone. Of course this puzzles us, since Jesus is God. But the young man he rebukes does not know or understand that. Hence Jesus warns him, and us that we human beings are a mixed bag. We are gifted, but flawed; capable of enormous goodness and also of great sinfulness. As such we ought to avoid the sin of rash judgment that can occur in numerous ways.

Usually we think first of rash judgment as the tendency to believe too quickly a bad report about someone else based on very little evidence. Just because something is said or reported does not mean it is accurate or reported in context. We do well to avoid quick conclusions and discern what is true from what is false or exaggerated.

To discern is rooted in a Latin word which means to sift, sort, separate and distinguish. as a virtue it assists us in avoiding the human tendency to “size things up” too quickly. This tendency likely emerges from a more primitive part of our brain, when, like any animal, we need to be circumspect about the world around us and make many quick decisions that pertain to our physical safety. But when it comes to human interactions, we need to use a higher part of our brain that is more patient and methodical. Human interactions have subtleties and nuance that require careful judgment, not rash conclusions.

Another aspect of rash judgment is the tendency to make conclusions that are too sweeping or simplistic, given the limited information we have. We do this regarding both people and situations.

Regarding the character of people, too often we like to assess them quickly and put them into one category or another. Thus, we may conclude that “Jane is a really wonderful person!” based on very few interactions with her or very limited information. We do this a great deal with the famous personalities and “heroes” of our culture, seeing them in broad and simplistic ways. In fact we usually know very little of them, other than what we see in a rather cursory and public way. In lionizing and idealizing people, we are often setting ourselves up for deep disappointment. As noted above, people are generally a mixed bag, often possessed of great gifts, and also afflicted by human weakness and personal flaws. Scripture says, God regards all men as sinners, that he may have mercy on all (Rom 11:23). This is the human condition, gifted but flawed.

At the other end of this spectrum is the human tendency to demonize or write off people as evil based merely on the fact that they do not share our views on this or that, or that something in their past is regarded without any reference to their current state. So, in this form of rash judgment, we drop people simplistically into fixed categories (good person/bad person) based on very little.

Yet another form of rash judgment is that too often we take offense at things when none was given or intended. Sometimes we get hurt because we simply misunderstand what a person is saying or doing. At other times we presume to know their motives. So for example, if a person takes a little longer to respond than we would like to an email or text, we think they don’t care, or that their answer is “no.” But maybe the real problem is less personal toward us and they are dealing with a family crisis or there is a deadline at work. Rash judgements often cause a lot of pain, to us and to others when we jump to conclusions and say or do harsh things in response to something that isn’t even true.

Not all things are as they first appear. And no one should be regarded simplistically. We are usually a complicated mix of gifts and struggles. Discernment regarding people therefore ought to proceed with careful deliberation wherein we resist the urge to quickly size up and categorize people. We ought to exercise careful discernment that is on-going, charitable and sober.

The rush to judgment is to be avoided. I have, in the past, been prone to criticize some of the judgments and decisions of the Church, and in particular, my diocesan leadership and religious superiors. Yet, in some of the matters about which I was most critical, I have come to discover later, that I did not have all the facts, and that my judgment was both rash and wrong. We often think we know the whole story. And often we do not.

Some (including me) have also criticized the Church for not operating in the “fast speed zone” of the modern world. We often want quick and bold statements to be issued. We desire rapid responses and bold initiatives made to every issue and crisis that emerges. Of themselves, these desires are not wrong and we have long noticed the reticence of too many clergy to engage the issues of the day and teach with Catholic clarity. But these proper desires need to be balanced with an appreciation that discernment is often accomplished at slower speeds than we demand or wish. There is something to be said about following the priority of the important rather than, merely, the priority of the urgent. And careful consideration and discernment is important and has its place.

In the Scriptures we read many admonishments against rash and simplistic judgment. Here are just a few:

  1. There is the story of Samuel who was sent by God to find and anoint a King among Jesse’s sons. Arriving and seeing the eldest and strongest of the sons, Samuel was quick to conclude he must be the one: But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” (1 Sam 16:6). Samuel was eventually led to anoint the youngest and least likely of the brothers, David.
  2. Call no one blessed before his death, for by his end shall a man be known. (Sir 11:28)
  3. And Paul cautions Timothy: Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, and do not share in the sins of others. Keep yourself pure…Remember, the sins of some men are obvious, leading them to certain judgment. But there are others whose sins will not be revealed until later. (1 Tim 5:22,24)
  4. So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now! (2 Cor 5:16)

Disclaimer – Discernment should be seen as a middle ground between making hasty conclusions, and procrastination which forever delays making the conclusions we must make. We do have enemies and moral dangers we must avoid. But we must not be hasty or simplistic. Discernment, like any virtue stands in the middle to avoid either extreme. It is a caution from making sweeping, simplistic or rash judgments that are not based on things we really know. It is a call to sobriety, for people and situations are often more complicated than we first grasp, and it takes time to make proper assessments; but make them we must.

While this video may seem to make light of a serious matter, please take it as an example that not all things are as they first appear. Every exorcist must carefully discern if a person is really possessed before proceeding with the Rite.