Life Is Hard, as Seen in a Commercial

The following commercial illustrates the truth that “life is hard.” In this case, it comes in the form of being pelted with items ranging from broccoli to rubber duckies to an entire wedding cake. These sorts of things are only important in a decadent, privileged cultural environment. In less privileged parts of the world people struggle with basics like getting enough to eat, finding shelter from the elements, and avoiding fatal diseases. Most of the “problems” we have in the modern United States are ones others wished they had.

Nevertheless, the basic truth remains: life is hard. Its challenges are many, and God permits them to humble us and to help us grow. You have to be tough to endure. The Lord expects us to “man up” to our challenges.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Life Is Hard, as Seen in a Commercial

What Our Church Buildings Say About Us

In the Mass for Thursday of the 25th week of the year, we read from the book of the prophet Haggai, who wrote at the time of the return of the Jews from the Babylonian exile, which had begun in 587 B.C. The Jewish people were permitted to return to the Promised Land beginning in about 538 B.C. Haggai wrote his book in the summer of 520 B.C. and in it he scolds the people for concentrating on their “paneled houses” while the Temple is in a ruinous state. He ties their weak piety to the failure of crops, their inability to enjoy what they have, and other calamities.

Zechariah, who wrote in the autumn of 520 B.C., also expresses concern for the poor state of the Temple and ties its rebuilding to future blessings, including the coming of the Messiah. Later, we will examine Zechariah’s writing.

In today’s post we look at a passage from the Book of Haggai and ponder what it means for us:

This is what the LORD of Hosts says: “These people say, ‘The time has not yet come to rebuild the house of the LORD.’” Then the word of the LORD came through Haggai the prophet, saying: “Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins?” Now this is what the LORD of Hosts says: “Think carefully about your ways. You have planted much but harvested little. You eat but never have enough. You drink but never have your fill. You put on clothes but never get warm. You earn wages to put into a bag pierced through.” You expected much, but behold, it amounted to little. And what you brought home, I blew away. Why? declares the LORD of Hosts. Because My house still lies in ruins, while each of you is busy with his own house (Haggai, 1:2ff).

God does not need a fancy temple, but we do. The building of beautiful churches says a lot about our priorities and where our heart lies. Churches express our love for God and our desire to honor and thank Him. They need not be extravagant, but they should be adorned with a beauty and form that stands out as sacred and memorable, as an expression that we love God and take Him seriously, that He is a priority in our lives. In the Middle Ages, the town church was usually centrally located and was the tallest and most prominent building. By the 16th century, palaces and government buildings began to take that place. Today, the skyscrapers of our cities are named for investment banks and insurance companies. Yes, our buildings say something about our priorities!

Churches are also meant to remind us of Heaven. Until recent decades, they were built along lines that spoke to the heavenly realities both Moses and John saw as they were shown the heavenly worship and vision. Churches have high jeweled (stained glass) walls because Heaven does. Churches have glorious throne-like altars with the tabernacle at the center amidst tall candles because in Heaven there is a throne-like altar with the Lamb upon it and Jesus stands among the lampstands. Paintings and statues of saints and angels, incense, priestly robes, standing/kneeling appropriately, and singing of hymns all remind us of the communion of saints and angels in the heavenly worship. All of this is revealed in the heavenly visions contained in the Bible. (I have written more on this topic here and here.)

Haggai’s opening vision also says a lot about our inability to enjoy even the good things we have without God at the center. We all have a God-sized hole in our heart and only He can ultimately fill it. Trying to get created things to fill that gap is both frustrating and futile. The good things we do have point to God, the giver, and should inspire in us a gratitude and longing for Him. If we remove or marginalize God, our disorder affections gnaw away at us; no matter how much we get we remain dissatisfied.

God says through Haggai that fixing the ruined Temple is the way to fix their hearts. It is less about the building than about hearts. It is interesting that some of the most glorious and beautiful churches in this country were built by poor immigrant communities. We now live in times of comparative affluence, especially in America, but although incomes and home sizes have grown our churches seem to be built on the cheap, lacking both the nobility and glory that belong to God and which poorer generations produced in the churches of their time.

The problem has both theological and liturgical roots. A flawed notion of the liturgy claimed that churches should look more like living rooms or dining rooms than Heaven. (N.B. Some more recently built churches are returning to more traditional forms, but the reform has been slow).

Another problem was/is the “poverty of Judas.” This is the idea that money spent on buildings would be better used by being given to the poor. There may be a little truth to that, but the poor also want and need beautiful churches that remind them of Heaven and give due honor to God. A church is a space of beauty that all can share.

Yet another reason is that we just don’t value or prioritize the Lord and the liturgy as highly anymore. If we give less to the church perhaps we can buy a nicer car, a boat, or a vacation home. How is that ephemeral stuff working out for us? Are we happier? Haggai says no: You eat but never have enough. You drink but never have your fill. Exactly! All our blessing point to God and should instill gratitude and a longing for the true completion of an eternal relationship with Him.

Enough said for now. The point is not so much a building itself but what the building says about our hearts. God says today through Haggai, in effect, “Your paneled houses and the ruined Temple are a testimony to the condition of your hearts and your flawed priorities.”

Indeed, God should get the first fruits of our harvest, our best and highest effort. This is not because he needs them but because we do.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: What Our Church Buildings Say About Us

What Can Remnant Theology Teach Us about the Church Today?

In the first reading for Wednesday of the 25th week of the Year, Ezra laments the sins of the people that led to their exile in Babylon, but he is also grateful that God has now opened a door to return to the Promised Land and left “a remnant” of the people to rebuild. There is something for us to learn in the biblical theology of the remnant.

As a Catholic and a priest, I am stunned at the decline in Mass attendance that has occurred during my lifetime. When I was a young child, I remember jam-packed Masses: if you didn’t get there early, you’d have to stand. In those days (the 1960s) if you put up four walls, Catholics would fill them. There were long waiting lists for parochial schools. There were lots of religious sisters. There was not just one associate pastor or curate; there were two or three or even four.

Those days are largely gone. While there are still some large parishes in suburban areas, some of them even growing, the number of Catholics who attend Mass weekly has dropped from about 75 percent to under 25 percent since the 1950s. And although vocations are beginning to rebound, today’s situation is one of largely empty convents and rectories. A parochial vicar is unknown in many parishes, and in some parts of the country there isn’t even a resident pastor in each parish.

There is no way to describe this decline other than stunning. I can hear all the usual arguments about why swimming around in my brain: we abandoned tradition; no, we’re not progressive enough; there are too many rules; no, our problem is that we abandoned all the rules. Everyone has an explanation, and there is a lot of disagreement.

What might God be doing? What might He be allowing? I know that I’m skating on thin ice in attempting to consider this question, but please be assured that I am merely pondering it, not proposing a definitive answer. I have often asked the Lord, “What’s up with the Church? What has happened?” I don’t claim that I received a bolt from Heaven in answer, rather I came to the gradual conclusion that what we are experiencing is really nothing new. There is a biblical precedent that God has frequently seen fit to thin His ranks, to prune and purify His people. Theologians call this “remnant theology.”

Remnant theology is seen in both the Old and New Testaments. During critical periods, many (if not most) followers of God fell away such that only a remnant remained to begin again. Here are just a few of the many examples that can be found in Scripture:

      • The tribes of Judah and Levi – There were twelve tribes in Israel, but ten of them (the Ten Lost Tribes) were lost in the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 721 B.C. The prophets had warned the Northern Kingdom of its wickedness, but they refused to repent, and the foretold destruction came to pass. Those who did not die in the war were deported and assimilated into the peoples around them. Only a remnant, the tribes of Judah and Levi, survived in the Southern Kingdom of Judah.
      • A remnant of Judah – Judah also grew wicked and prophets warned of its destruction. The Babylonians then destroyed Judah, and Jerusalem with it, in 587 B.C. They deported the survivors to Babylon. Eighty years later, the Persians conquered the Babylonians and allowed the Jewish people to return to the Promised Land. Only a remnant went back, however; most chose to stay in the Diaspora, preferring Babylon to the land promised by God.
      • Gideon’s army – Gideon had an army of 30,000 and faced the Midianite army of 60,000, yet God told him that his army was too large, and he should send home any soldiers who were afraid. So, Gideon told the soldiers that if they didn’t think they were up for this battle they could leave; 20,000 left. With Gideon’s army down to only 10,000, God said to him that his army was still too big and that he should observe the men as they drank from a nearby stream. Three hundred of them lapped up the water with their tongues like dogs! God told Gideon let all the others go home. Gideon won that day with those 300 men whom the Lord had chosen. God thinned His ranks and chose only a remnant as His true soldiers (cf Judges 6 and 7).
      • Jesus and large crowds – Some of Jesus’ most difficult sayings came when there was a large crowd present: He taught against divorce (Matt 5 and 19, Mark 10); He declared that no one could be His disciple unless he renounced his possessions, took up his cross, and followed Him (e.g., Luke 14); He taught on the Eucharist, causing many to leave and no longer walk in His company (Jn 6).
      • The narrow road to salvation – Jesus lamented that the road to destruction is wide and many are on it, while the road to salvation is narrow and only a few find it (cf Mat 7:13-14). Yes, only a few, a remnant.

I would like to quote one last passage from Zechariah because it gets to the root of what God may be doing in our times, if my hunch is correct.

Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who is close to me!” declares the LORD Almighty. “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered, and I will turn my hand against the little ones. In the whole land,” declares the LORD, “two-thirds will be struck down and perish; yet one-third will be left in it. This third I will bring into the fire; I will refine them like silver and test them like gold. They will call on my name and I will answer them; I will say, ‘They are my people,’ and they will say, ‘The LORD is our God’ (Zechariah 13:7-9).

It is a shocking passage to be sure, but it shows God’s purpose in thinning His ranks. Although we are always free to stay or go, there is something very mysterious about why God allows so many to stray. There seem to be times during which God allows many to depart, even “causes” them to depart, as this passage describes. It is a hard mystery to stomach, but I understand one aspect of it when I consider my rose bushes.

In November it is pruning time here in the Northeast. My mighty rose bushes, some of them eight feet tall, will be pruned back to just one foot off the ground—and I do it on purpose! If my roses are to thrive next year, the pruning must be done. The roses do not understand what I do, but I know why I do it. Although it is painful, it is necessary. God, too, knows what He is doing and why. We cannot fathom it any more than my rose bushes can understand why I prune them. In the passage above, the one-third who remain must also be purified, refined as in fire. When it is done, they will be pure gold. Those who remain and who accept purification will call on God’s name. They will be a people, a Church, after His own heart.

To me it seems clear that the Lord is pruning His Church. He is preparing us for spring. We are in fact enduring a difficult winter, but we’re being purified, cleansed. These are tough days for the Church, but I can already see signs of a great spring ahead. There are many wonderful lay movements and growth areas in the Church. I am very impressed with the caliber of men entering the priesthood; they love the Lord and His Church and deeply desire to speak the truth in love. In my own convent, we have more than 25 young sisters of the Servants of the Lord, a wonderful relatively new missionary order. They, too, love the Lord and His Church and want to spread His Gospel.

Though the number of practicing Catholics has diminished, I see greater fervency in those who remain. In my parish there are many who are devoted to prayer, bible study, and praise of God. Eucharistic piety is stronger in the Church today through Eucharistic adoration and daily Mass. On the Internet there are many signs of excitement and zeal for the faith. Many wonderful blogs and websites are emerging to strengthen Catholics. EWTN is doing wonderful work and many Catholic radio stations have also begun.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. God has pruned us and is purifying us. I have no doubt that there are still some difficult winter days ahead before a full spring sets in, but God never fails. He is renewing His Church and preparing us for what lies ahead.

It is going to take a stronger and purer Church to endure the cultural tsunami that has been rolling in. The first waves hit in the late 1960s and successive ones look to be even more destructive. Western culture as we have known it is gradually being swept away. The Church will have to be strong and pure in order to endure the days ahead, to rescue those we can, and to help rebuild after the terrible waves have done their damage.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: What Can Remnant Theology Teach Us about the Church Today?

Pondering a Surprising Restoration and Hoping for the Same!

At daily Mass during this 25th Week of the Year, we are reading from Nehemiah and Ezra, two books dealing with the restoration of Jerusalem and the Temple. In an almost miraculous turn of events, the Persians conquered the Babylonians and then Persian rulers Cyrus and Darius not only permitted the Jews to return to their land, they even offered money to help rebuild the Temple! To fully appreciate this, we need to study the terrible demise of Jerusalem and the Temple.

The Northern Kingdom of Israel had been destroyed by the Assyrians in 721 B.C. The Southern Kingdom of Judah, ignoring numerous warnings and calls to repentance, later experienced the same fate. The Babylonians laid siege and destroyed Jerusalem in 587 B.C. Just prior to this destruction, Jeremiah saw the glory of God lift from the Temple and move away to the east. The city and even the Temple now lay in ruins. The Ark of the Covenant was lost, and the survivors were deported to Babylon.

Yes, it was a terrible destruction, but one that could have been avoided if the Lord’s people had only heeded the warnings of the prophets and returned wholeheartedly to the Him and His commandments. With the Lord and within the safe walls of His commandments, there is strength and protection. Outside the walls and His presence, Judah was a sitting duck, easy prey.

Let’s consider what the Lord says through Jeremiah in the 30th Chapter and ponder how this historical event speaks to our times.

Ruin  Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Incurable is your wound, grievous your bruise.

Simple medicines or bandages are not sufficient. These wounds are deep, foul, and festering. Sin does this to us spiritually as its evils go deeper and deeper. A minor skin cancer, left untreated, can find its way into internal organs and even reach our bones. Similarly, sin, untreated by repentance, grows more serious. It renders us vulnerable to deeper and more serious sins that bring spiritual ruin, darkness, and a stubbornly unrepentant demeanor in which the cancer of pride is in its final stages. Judah has reached this stage and the only medicine that is left is for the people to experience the full ramifications of their rejection of God.

What of the once-Christian West? What of America? Can we possibly think that our cultural revolution, rooted in sinful rebellion against authority, sacred Tradition, the moral vision of the Scriptures, and the meaning of human sexuality and marriage, can yield anything but corruption? Can our greed, our insatiable desire for more no matter the human (or monetary) cost, forever mortgage our future? Have not our wounds multiplied and gone deeper? The blood of our aborted children cries out to Heaven. Our broken families multiply due to promiscuity and rampant divorce. Broken families yield a bumper crop of broken children, and the cycle continues. Are these wounds curable? Do we show any willingness to take the necessary medicines of self-control, fidelity, and obedience to God’s vision? It seems not. Midnight fast approaches. As Jeremiah once warned the people of his time, so must we in the Church send up the warning cry that our wounds are getting worse, the intellectual and moral darkness is growing ever deeper, and our time to repent is getting shorter. Soon enough, as with Ancient Israel and Judah, the full bill for our sin will come due.

Scripture says,

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith (Gal 6:7-10).

Rejection  There is none to plead your cause, no remedy for your running sore, no healing for you. All your lovers have forgotten you; they do not seek you.

Among the things that the ancient Jews did was to run after “other lovers” and other remedies. They were entangled in foreign military alliances and became enamored of pagan culture and religion. God referred to their running after pagan gods as infidelity and adultery, for they were espoused to Him.

As for us in the formerly Christian West, while we are not espoused to God as a nation (though surely as members of the Bride of Christ), we too have often sought solutions far from God or even opposed to Him. We have cast aside His plan for our happiness and bought into the notion that worldly indulgence and sin will bring us happiness and health. In so doing we call God a liar and forsake our covenant with Him. We run after other lovers, trusting the world, the flesh, and the devil instead of our God, who made us and saved us. Secular mindsets and even outright atheism have made deep inroads into our culture. Mass attendance has plummeted while attention to the “bread and circuses” of the modern world continues to increase. We trust our affluence, power, medicine, and science (all themselves great gifts of God), but we do not trust the true Shepherd and Lord of our souls, the only one who can really save us.

What are these philosophers that pose as healers and lovers, who have ushered in this ruin, doing now? They are doubling down on their false prescriptions and going ever deeper into darkness, repeating the lies of these worldly philosophies, glorying in the flesh, and marginalizing the vision of God. Moderns cry out “Love!” and speak of compassion, but it is a false love and a false compassion.

The text essentially asks, where are these lovers now? Where is the happiness and fulfillment they promised with their false notions of freedom?

Reason  I struck you as an enemy would strike, punished you cruelly; Why cry out over your wound? your pain is without relief. Because of your great guilt, your numerous sins, I have done this to you.

The consequences of sin cannot forever be postponed. Even if God mercifully protects us from some of them, He will not do so forever. God’s patience is directed toward our salvation. He gives us time to repent, but at some point (known only to Him) our presumptiveness eclipses His patience. The boil must be lanced; gangrenous tissue must be cut away. Only strong— even desperate—measures will work. They may seem to us to be cruel, but to do nothing would be to lose all, and that is far more cruel. Our sins and lack of repentance “force” these strong measures, so that at least a few can be saved.

When does a person, a culture, or a nation reach such a point? Only God knows, but why test the situation? The Lord says,

“… O Israel, if you would but listen to Me! ‘You shall not have in your midst a foreign god; you shall not bow to an alien god. I am the LORD your God Who brought you up out of the land of Egypt’—open wide your mouth, and I will fill it.” But My people did not listen to My voice, Israel did not yield to Me; so I set him free with their stubborn heart, that they could follow their own counsels. O that My people would listen to Me, that Israel would follow My ways! At once I would subdue their enemies, against their foes bring back My hand. Those who hate the LORD shall cringe before Him; their doom will last forever. But He would [rather] feed him the finest wheat: and sate you with honey from the rock (Ps 81:9-17).

Restoration  Thus says the LORD: See! I will restore the tents of Jacob, his dwellings I will pity; City shall be rebuilt upon hill, and palace restored as it was. From them will resound songs of praise, the laughter of happy men. I will make them not few, but many; they will not be tiny, for I will glorify them. His sons shall be as of old, his assembly before me shall stand firm; I will punish all his oppressors.

God permits these terrible ills to befall His people so that He can save at least some, a faithful remnant.

The people of Israel had spent eighty years in Babylon, and then as if miraculously, God brought them back. Now He will begin again with this purified remnant, though future purifications will still be necessary.

What of us? In times of old, there was a faithful remnant that did not fully succumb to the darkness of the days, who did repent. It is for their sake that God acts to bring an end to widespread evil lest all His people be consumed. Though none of us has lived a perfect life, through repentance we should seek to be part of the faithful remnant God acts to save. We are likely going to see even darker days before the evil of our times plays out and is purged. The battle is the Lord’s. For our part, we should seek to stay faithful, repent when we fall, and look to the day when God will restore this world or come again in glory.

The Church has survived many ups and downs in this world. Empires have risen and fallen, nations and cultures have come and gone, but we are still here proclaiming the gospel, in season and out of season, until the Lord shall come.

What is your mission and mine? Be part of the remnant! Lord, do what you need to do, but please help us to stay faithful!

Reunion  His leader shall be one of his own, and his rulers shall come from his kin. When I summon him, he shall approach me; how else should one take the deadly risk of approaching me? says the LORD. You shall be my people, and I will be your God.

This is the endgame. The Lord’s ultimate work for each of us is to restore us to union with Him. Jesus came to give us access to the Father through the shedding of His Precious Blood. Jeremiah’s message to us is to stay faithful unto death, when we will be summoned to the Father and by the grace of our Lord Jesus approach Him with the confidence of holiness granted to us by that grace. The Book of Hebrews describes this, exhorting us and giving us hope.

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the veil, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near (Heb 10:19-25).

And there we have a quick tour through a ruined land, but with our eyes set on a glorious reunion. As Tuesday’s readings demonstrate, God acts to restore His people, often in surprising and wondrous ways. Who would think that two Persian kings would fund the very rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple!

For now, be part of the remnant and stay faithful, by His grace. Let God do His work. Maranatha!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Pondering a Surprising Restoration and Hoping for the Same!

Strong Words from St. Augustine to those Who Would Be Shepherds

St. Augustine, reflecting on a text from Ezekiel, has some strong words for those who would be shepherds, be they bishops, priests, or deacons. Let’s examine two important observations he made during a longer sermon delivered to the priests and people of Hippo.

He begins with a lament over the failure of many shepherds to teach the truth:

After the Lord had shown what wicked shepherds esteem, he also spoke about what they neglect. The defects of the sheep are widespread. There are very few healthy and sound sheep, few that are solidly sustained by the food of truth, and few that enjoy the good pasture God gives them. But the wicked shepherds do not spare such sheep [from a sermon On Pastors by Saint Augustine, bishop (Sermo 46, 9: CCL 41, 535-536)].

St. Augustine speaks here of the fact that far too many are not “sustained by the food of truth.” The weak and unsound condition of the flock is evidence of neglect by the bishops, priests, and deacons of the Church. It is largely a failure to teach truth clearly and to rebuke error.

We are in the midst of one of the most shocking and rapid cultural meltdowns imaginable. We have seen the demise of marriage through divorce, cohabitation, contraception, and its very redefinition. Here are just a few other examples: more than 50 million abortions since the Roe v. Wade decision, sexual promiscuity, rampant single motherhood (and absent fathers), widespread sexually transmitted diseases, sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults (including by clergy), sexual harassment, rampant pornography that is becoming ever baser, celebration of homosexual acts, and a sexual confusion that has led some to claim that there are more than 50 “genders” and that a male can make himself female (and vice versa) simply by declaring it to be so. Add to this the deepening toll of greed and gluttony as well as a dramatic falling away of religious practice. Fewer than one in four Catholics attend Mass weekly, down from more than three in four in the 1950s and before.

In the midst of this demise—in which, just when it seems it can’t get worse, it does—many pulpits are strangely silent, as are catechetical programs, and nominally-Catholic universities and colleges. It’s still business as usual even though most don’t come to Mass anymore to know that. You’d never know that there was a tsunami raging outside the doors.

The fault here lies first and foremost with the clergy, but it also extends to parents, catechists, and lay staff in parishes. Parents fail to educate their children in the faith, warn them of sin and error, and protect them from it as much as humanly possible. Most clergy and parish staff have few, if any, plan to deal with the onslaught. There is little in the way of vigorous sermons that speak to modern confusions. Catechesis does not address it. There are few focused bible studies, seminars, or lectures. Very little in the way of good literature is available in parish bookstores/libraries. Seldom are Catholics encouraged to read edifying Catholic books, watch Catholic programming, listen to Catholic podcasts, or make use of other good sources to refute modern errors.

Taking a moral stand is “controversial,” and too many Catholic leaders, both clergy and lay, are allergic to controversy. There is endless talk about being a “welcoming parish” but never the fuller development of that idea: all are welcome to come and hear the truth of Jesus Christ, repent of their sins, and thereby grow in holiness.

Listen to what St. Augustine says: “There are very few healthy and sound sheep, few that are sustained by the food of truth.” This is the fault of the shepherds. A good shepherd sees the wolf (of untruth and error) coming and drives him away, but a bad one sees the wolf and hides while it devours the flock. The bad shepherd fears controversy; he doesn’t want to risk his popularity or career. He hides, living off the fewer and fewer sheep who remain. We priests, bishops, and deacons need to take a good look at our ministries and honestly assess whether we are good or bad shepherds. Parents and other church leaders need to do the same. The flock is in terrible health, and we cannot simply blame others; this has happened on our watch. Even reasonably good bishops and pastors ought to ask what they can do to be better, what concrete plans they can implement. Parents and other leaders need to do the same.

St. Augustine next turns his concern to a matter even more shocking than neglect: shepherds who actually attack the strong sheep who remain:

It is not enough that they neglect those that are ill and weak, those that go astray and are lost. They even try, so far as it is in their power, to kill the strong and healthy. Yet such sheep live; yes, by God’s mercy they live [Ibid].

There is a frustrating and hurtful dynamic today among many bishops and other clergy to excoriate the very Catholics who have stayed with us through thick and thin, who still come to Mass and believe the doctrines. Too easily they are dismissed as being troublemakers, extreme, and overly rigid. Little attention is given to their concerns even when the matters involve serious doctrinal issues, liturgical abuses, or outright malfeasance. If such Catholics receive any reply at all from bishops or pastoral leaders, it is often terse and stern.

Meanwhile, much effort is expended by Church leaders seeking to placate dissenters and others who oppose us but who often show little or no intent to repent or to be converted. Prominent Catholics, including politicians and even clerics, publicly dissent from Church teaching and are seldom rebuked. But let a young priest say a Mass ad orientem, chant too much Latin, or warn particular Catholics not to approach Communion, and he is often quickly rebuked—even removed. Lay Catholics too are often selectively rebuked. Traditional Catholics are often scolded and their concerns dismissed; dissenting Catholics and others like them are treated with great tolerance and seldom rebuked. They are even honored in our universities and other public settings.

It is obvious that this causes great grief among the faithful who have tried to remain loyal during this maelstrom. At times this grief manifests as anger. While that anger is sometimes misdirected, we in the clergy ought not to so quickly forget that many of them have darned good reasons to be angry. Collectively, we have too often scorned them and/or dismissed their concerns. The Church they love is in shambles, and it has happened on our watch. Yet, as St. Augustine observes, we turn on them as if to kill them, to kill the little hope they have left. This is not only wrong, it is foolish; they make up the larger part of the few who still do come to Mass, and their children attend our shrinking schools. Though our flock is sorely diminished, we turn on them, our own. It is a strange and sad dynamic.

One can only hope that the recent and ongoing sexual abuse scandal will humble us clergy and make us more grateful for the strong faith that God has given this remnant to see beyond our sins and foolishness and still find Christ. They are still here, often in spite of us. As St. Augustine observes, “Yet such sheep live; yes, by God’s mercy they live.”

Yes, these are strong words from St. Augustine. Reaching back to the time of Ezekiel, whose text St. Augustine is commenting upon, the problem of bad shepherds seems a consistent one. Please pray for us shepherds. Much has been given to us; much depends upon us, and much is expected of us. We will face judgment one day. May our ministry not condemn us.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Strong Words from St. Augustine to those Who Would Be Shepherds

On the Connection Between Sound Doctrine and Civility

A key theme of St. Paul’s Letters to Timothy and Titus, bishops he appointed to oversee the churches of Ephesus and Crete respectively, is their insistence on sound doctrine. He writes to Titus, “As for you, speak the things that are consistent with sound doctrine …” (Titus 2:1). He tells Timothy that if he passes on this doctrine to others, he “… will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, nourished by the words of faith and sound doctrine that you have followed” (1 Tim 4:6).

St. Paul also makes an interesting connection between doctrine and civility. He writes of those who diverge from sound doctrine and describes the effects of their dissent:

Whoever teaches something different and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the religious teaching is conceited, understanding nothing, and has morbid disposition for arguments and verbal disputes. From these come envy, rivalry, insults, evil suspicions, and mutual friction among people with corrupted minds, who are deprived of the truth … (1 Tim 6:3-5).

We can see this clearly today, when so many people—even within the Church—spread false teaching and call good, or no big deal, what God calls sin.

Note that the effect of rejecting sound doctrine is, in effect, widespread incivility (rivalry, insults, suspicions, and friction). Yes, welcome to the modern Western world.

What is the connection between spreading false teachings and incivility? It is the loss of a shared foundation of fundamental truths. Without such a foundation it is difficult to have reasonable, rational discussions in which one begins with agreed-upon principles and builds upon them logically to form conclusions. Here is an extremely simple example:

  1. An obtuse angle is one whose measure is greater than 90° and less than 180°.
  2. This angle measures 120°.
  3. Therefore, this angle is an obtuse angle.

You can see that you wouldn’t get very far if you couldn’t agree on the definition of an obtuse angle or on how to use a protractor to measure angles or on how to compare the magnitudes of numbers!

The problem today is that, due to radical individualism and subjectivism, many basic realities are no longer accepted as legitimate premises upon which to base an argument. Without the ability to have reasoned arguments like the ones so beautifully depicted in the St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, we have descended into vehement disagreements, strident protests, heated rivalries, and even hatred.

The most extreme example of this is the relatively recent word “transgender.” Merriam-Webster defines it as follows: “of, relating to, or being a person whose gender identity differs from the sex the person had or was identified as having at birth.” Nothing is more obvious than that humans come in two sexes, male and female. The ability to determine one’s sex is neither difficult nor mysterious; a simple look at one’s private parts (in more than 99.9 percent of the population) is quite sufficient. When even something this simple or obvious is no longer accepted as such, the ability to have a conversation, let alone a rational argument, is diminished, to say the least.

In such a radically subjective climate, whose view “wins”? Generally, it’s the one who yells the loudest or has the most influence or is the most famous. It is not reason that triumphs but power. We have today what Pope Benedict XVI called the “dictatorship of relativism,” in which nothing is accepted as definitively true. The tyranny comes in the force (cultural, political, or legal) used to impose the standard that there is no standard. It is impossible to argue for a position from first principles when there are no agreed-upon first principles. Today, one achieves the highest level of popularity and acceptance by having no principles at all (other than that everyone’s “principles” are equally valid). Interestingly, the principle that there are principles is not considered an acceptable principle!

St. Paul rightly highlights the necessity for pastors to teach sound doctrine. This helps build a sturdy foundation of truth for the Church and the culture. Having agreed-upon principles provides the basis for rational discussion. It also sets limits on diversion: a range of views may be allowed but only within reasonable boundaries. It is like the rules on a multilane highway: a person can drive in any one of several different lanes, but only those going in a certain direction and certainly not on the shoulder or off on the grass. Sound doctrine provides limits; it helps us avoid getting in an accident or winding up at the bottom of a roadside ravine.

In the modern West, we seem to be engaged in a massive social experiment as to whether there can be a culture without a shared cultus. A cultus indicates a shared set of beliefs in God and in what He teaches and expects. Once upon a time in the U.S., though we had sectarian differences, there was still a fundamental agreement on basic moral norms rooted in the Ten Commandments and the long experience of Christianity. This common ground has disappeared, and the picture of St. Paul describes above is very much in evidence. Even in the Church there are factions, suspicions, rivalries, and even insults. That is what happens when doctrine is set aside, when silence and/or ambiguity are widespread and even weaponized. When the sheep are fighting, the shepherd should step in with clear teaching. In today’s radical uncertainty, even the shepherds are afraid to fight.

When doctrine collapses, incivility and fierce anger rule the day. St. Paul paints the picture vividly and accurately. The only real solution is to rebuild the sure and sturdy foundation of sound doctrine. Pray for greater courage among bishops, pastors, and Catholic Cultural leaders to rebuke dissent, solidly restore the foundation of truth, and then insist upon it. Without the truth there will be no peace.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: On the Connection Between Sound Doctrine and Civility

On Being Faithful in a Few Things before Being Ruler over Many Things – A Homily for the 25th Sunday of the Year

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In this Sunday’s Gospel, the Lord Jesus gives a penetrating analysis of the state of the sinner and some very sobering advice to us would-be saints. Let’s look at the Gospel in two stages:

I. ANALYSIS OF THE SINNER – In the opening lines of the Gospel, Jesus describes a sinful steward.

DELUSION (of the sinner) Jesus said to his disciples, “A rich man had a steward …”

 Notice that the man is referred to as a steward rather than an owner. God is the owner of everything; we are but stewards. A steward must deal with the goods of another according to that person’s will. We may have ownership in relation to other human beings, but before God we own nothing, absolutely nothing.

Part of the essence of sin is behaving as though we are the owner. We develop the arrogant attitude that what we have is ours to do with as we please: “It’s mine; I can do what I want with it.” “It’s my body, and I can do with it as I please.” But in fact, everything belongs to God.

Scripture affirms, The earth is the LORD’S and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein (Ps. 24:1). Even of our bodies, which we like to think of as our own, Scripture says, You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body (1 Cor 6:19). There’s a song that says, “God and God alone created all these things we call our own. From the mighty to the small, the glory in them all is God’s and God’s alone.” The Lord compares the sinner to a steward who acts as if he were the owner.

DISSIPATION (of the sinner) “… who was reported to him for squandering his property.”

The Lord here describes the essence of many of our sins: we squander His gifts. We waste the gifts we have received and use them for sinful ends.

For example, in greed we hoard the gifts He gave us. Instead of using them to help others, as God intended, we store them up for ourselves. Yet all the goods of the world belong to all the people of the world, and they ought to be shared to the extent that we are able.

Other examples of squandering the things of God are these: in gossip, lying, and cursing, wherein we misuse the gift of speech; in laziness, wherein we misuse the gift of time; in all sin, wherein we abuse the gift of our freedom. This is the dissipation, the squandering, of God’s goods.

God has given us many good things, but instead of using them to build the Kingdom, we squander them and dissipate it.

DEATH (of the sinner)“He summoned him and said, ‘What is this I hear about you? Prepare a full account of your stewardship, because you can no longer be my steward.’”

Here the Lord reminds us that someday our stewardship will end, and we will be called to account. Scripture reminds us, So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body (2 Cor 5:9).

We have an appointed time to exercise our stewardship, but at some point, our stewardship will end, and the books will be opened. Scripture says, And books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books (Rev 20:11).

Although many pay little heed to the fact of judgment, Scripture warns, Say not, “I have sinned, yet what has befallen me?” For the Lord bides his time. Of forgiveness be not over-confident, adding sin upon sin. Say not, “Great is his mercy, my many sins he will forgive.” For mercy and anger are alike with him; upon the wicked alights his wrath. Delay not your conversion to the Lord, put it not off from day to day. For suddenly his wrath flames forth; at the time of vengeance you will be destroyed (Sirach 5:4).

Every steward (each of us) will die. Our stewardship will end and we will be called to render an account. Therefore, we ought to listen to the Lord’s advice.

II. ADVICE TO THE SAINTS After analyzing the sinner, the Lord has some advice for those of us sinners who want to be saints. He lays out four principles we ought to follow:

1. Principle of INTENSITY – The text says, the steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do, now that my master is taking the position of steward away from me? I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg. I know what I shall do so that, when I am removed from the stewardship, they may welcome me into their homes.’ He called in his master’s debtors one by one. To the first he said, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He replied, ‘One hundred measures of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note. Sit down and quickly write one for fifty.’ Then to another the steward said, ‘And you, how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘One hundred kors of wheat.’ The steward said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note; write one for eighty.’ And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting shrewdly. For the children of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

The Lord is telling us here that many of the worldly are craftier in what matters to them than are the spiritually minded in what (supposedly) matters to them.

Many people are dedicated and intense in worldly matters. They spend years in college, preparing for their career. They work hard to climb the company ladder. They develop (worldly) skills and become knowledgeable in their profession. In earning money and holding down a job, many display great discipline: getting up early to go to work, working late, going the extra mile to please the boss.

When it comes to faith, however, many of these same people display only a rudimentary knowledge of things spiritual and show little interest in praying or advancing in the faith. They will expend effort to please the boss, to please other people, but not to please God. Parents will fight for scholarships for their children to get into the “best” schools but not quite so dedicated to ensuring they learn the saving truth; the pews are empty, and Sunday School is poorly attended.

The Lord says to us here that the spiritually minded ought to show the same intensity, organization, dedication, and craftiness that the worldly show in their pursuits. We ought to be zealous for the truth, for prayer, and for opportunities to sharpen our spiritual skills and increase our holiness. We ought to be as zealous to be rich in grace as we are to be rich in money.

2. Principle of INVESTMENT I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.

(Read here for more information on what the Lord means by “dishonest wealth”: What Does the Lord Mean by “Unrighteous Mammon”?.)

The Lord tells of how the dishonest steward made use of the money at his disposal to make friends who would help him in the next stage of his life. How about us? Are we willing to use our money and resources to bless others (especially the poor, who can bless us in the next stage of our life)?

On the day of your judgment, will the poor and needy be able to speak up on your behalf? Will they be among the angels and saints who welcome you to eternal dwellings? I don’t know about you, but I’m going to want the poor to pray and to speak to God on my behalf! Scripture says that the Lord hears the cry of the poor and needy. In this world, the poor need us but in the next world we’re going to need them. In this world, those with money and power are heard; in the Kingdom, it’s the poor and suffering who are heard. It’s a wise investment to bless the poor and needy.

In effect, the Lord Jesus tells us to be wise in our use of worldly wealth. The world tells us to take our money and invest it so that it will reap future rewards; so too does the Lord. How? By storing our wealth up in Heaven. And how do we do that? By giving it away! Then it will really be ours.

You can’t take it with you, but you can send it on ahead. Scripture elaborates on this idea: Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life (1 Tim 6:17). Notice that the passage says that through their generosity in this world, the rich store up treasure for themselves in Heaven.

This is the scriptural principle and the great paradox in the Kingdom of God: we keep something for eternity only by giving it away. We save our life by losing it. By giving away our treasure, we keep it and store it in Heaven.

So, invest, my friends. Invest wisely! Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal (Matt 6:20).

3. Principle of INCREASEThe person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones. If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with true wealth? If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another, who will give you what is yours?

What is the “small matter” of which the Lord speaks and in which we can prove trustworthy? The small matter is money. Most people make money the most important thing in life, but spiritual matters are far more important.

Scripture attests to this clearly. The Book of 1st Peter says that our faith is more precious than fire-tried gold. The Book of Psalms (19:10) says, The words of the Lord are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb.

So, God says, let’s see how you are in the small but significant matter of money; then I’ll decide if you’re able to able to handle bigger blessings. Do you think you can handle Heaven and the spiritual blessings of holiness? If you’re trustworthy with worldly wealth, God will give you true wealth. If you’re trustworthy in what belongs to God, He’ll give one day what is yours.

Do you want more? Then use well what you’ve already received. Only then will God know that He can trust you with more. There’s a gospel song that says, “You must be faithful over a few things to be ruler over many things. Be faithful unto death, and God will give you a crown of life.”

4. Principle of INDIVISIBILITYNo servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon.

Pay attention! To serve means to obey. Most people obey money and affluence; they worship a high standard of living before they obey God. They meet their world obligations first and then give God what is left over.

We are called to obey God alone, to have an undivided heart. The wording here is strong. You cannot obey the world (money) and think that you’re also going to obey God. You must choose which will be more important.

Now don’t tell me we don’t need a lot of grace and mercy! Money and the lure of the world are very powerful. It’s time to get on our knees and pray for the miracle of preferring God to the world.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: On Being Faithful in a Few Things before Being Ruler over Many Things – A Homily for the 25th Sunday of the Year

A Guardian Angel Unlike Any You’ve Ever Seen!

Most of us have sentimental notions about angels in general and guardian angels in particular, yet the Bible depicts then as powerful, fierce, and almost warlike. They are holy and good, but their glory overwhelms. In Scripture, people encountering angels are often disconcerted and filled with fear.

Many of us think of the angels as here more to help us, but God tells us to obey them.

[The Lord God says,] See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared. Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him; he will not forgive your rebellion, since my Name is in him. If you listen carefully to what he says and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies and will oppose those who oppose you (Exodus 23:20-22).

Angels are to be revered and respected; they are not the prancing, doll-like figures we often imagine.

I do not write this to dash sentimental notions, only to add balance. Our angels love and serve us, but they do this with a divine authority that we ought not to trivialize.

For some reason I thought of all this when I ran across this commercial first shown during the Super Bowl in 2003. It featured linebacker Terry Tate, who is brought into a business to “motivate” the workers to follow their better natures. I am certainly not implying that angels act in this manner, but I have often wondered whether my own guardian angel doesn’t sometimes need tactics like this in order to shape me up!

Enjoy the commercial, and remember to obey your guardian angel!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: A Guardian Angel Unlike Any You’ve Ever Seen!