A Brief Essay on the Fear of Death

In times like these, consider well this text from Hebrews:

Since the children have flesh and blood, [Jesus] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Heb. 2:14-15).

In the past I have written on these verses allegorically, pointing out that “the fear of death” can be understood more broadly as anything that diminishes us, that makes us feel less adequate than others. Maybe we think others are smarter or more popular that we are. Perhaps we do not feel attractive enough; we’re too tall or too short, too fat or too thin. Maybe we resent the fact that others are richer or more powerful. Perhaps we wish we were younger, stronger, and more energetic. Maybe we wish we were older, wiser, and more settled. Perhaps we feel diminished because we think others have a better marriage, a nicer home, or more accomplished children. Maybe we compare ourselves unfavorably to a sibling who has done better financially or socially than we have. Advertisers tap into this wider understanding of the fear of death (diminishment) to create anguish over our inadequacy, selflessly offering us their product, which will remedy the problem for just $19.95 plus shipping and handling.

But in the face of this most recent global panic about a relatively strong virus, we need also to ponder the literal meaning of this text. Whether you are of the view that this is an extreme threat that requires dramatic measures or you think the matter is exaggerated and the measures are too severe, it is clear that the fear of death has seized large numbers throughout the world. The text from Hebrews above should make us ponder the satanic origins of this gripping fear.

What makes the worldwide fear suspiciously satanic is that it is almost wholly focused on physical death and worldly setbacks. Would that we had such fears about our spiritual and moral well-being. There are innumerable threats to our very salvation in the temptations and seductions all about us. These can kill our soul through mortal sin. There are many drives of sin that fester in us like a cancer, hardening our hearts or giving us a “spiritual Alzheimer’s” wherein we forget why we were made and who is our Heavenly Father.

You see, I have a dream that we, as a world, recognize the gravity of our collective spiritual condition. In this dream, the heads of governments insist that we all follow strict protocols to avoid temptation as well as seducing others into sin. There would be 24/7 coverage, with updates on our progress, interviews with priests and religious, proclamation of scripture by moral and biblical experts, and stories of recovery and courage from the lives of the saints related by hagiographers. I dream of many rushing to prepare the test kits of examinations of conscience and an army of priests and bishops deployed to hear confessions around the clock. Well, you get the point.

It is certainly not wrong to look for a cure for the latest virus. I only wish we were as concerned for our spiritual and moral well-being. Jesus says, Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Instead, fear the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matt 10:28). We do face physical threats in this world, but they are not our worst enemy. Moral plagues and sinful viruses can damage us eternally.

In times like these, when the temptation to fear death is so strong, resist the devil and run to God. Dwell in the shelter of the Most High. Be sheltered by Him from the scourge that lays waste at noon and the plague that prowls in the darkness (cf Ps 91). Make your first goal to stay spiritually alive and flee anything that might lead to mortal sin. If you do this, then even if you were to die, by dying in faith you would receive a maximum promotion (likely through Purgatory) to the heavenly realms. Be strong! Fear not!  The devil is a liar; he wants us to fear lesser things so that we ignore the more serious. Wash your hands, but don’t forget the spiritual version:   Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you (James 4:8).

Rediscovering the Original Meaning of the Word “Relevant”

A word we hear frequently these days is relevance, or the related relevant. There is great insistence today that whatever is said, taught, or presented should be relevant. Often what this means is that it should be applicable, reasonable, easily understood, and, above all, modern.

This is the most problematic aspect of the modern meaning of the word. Relevance today means being in agreement, or in step, with modern times; with the thinking, leanings, customs, and mores of people here and now.

And not only are our ideas, teachings, and views expected to be relevant, so are our institutions, such as the Church. We often hear the demand that the Church should be relevant; that her teachings, structure, methods, and views should be up-to-date and should speak to the issues modern people deem important.

With proper distinctions, relevance does have its place. It is important for the Church to speak to issues that are of current concern. An extended sermon on a text from Leviticus detailing how to slaughter animals properly during the Temple sacrifice might well be critiqued as irrelevant to the average Christian today. In addition, we moderns face many issues that were unknown to the ancients, such as the morality of in vitro fertilization.

Therefore, the Church must make some adjustments with respect to culture and era, and it is reasonable for people to expect that.

However, as with many concepts that are in themselves good and proper, the demands for relevance are often taken too far. What many today want when they demand that the Church be relevant is that she reflect the culture around her, that she be more of a thermometer recording the temperature rather than a thermostat seeking to set it. For many, relevance means that the Church should reflect the views of her members rather than those of her founder and Head, Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, and whose Word endures forever. Relevance, to many, also means that the Church should cast aside a large number of her basic teachings and practices.

As a result, there is a lot of tension around the words relevant and relevance. It is necessary to distinguish authentic concerns for relevance from inauthentic ones.

Part of the problem in determining the proper degree of relevance is that the word itself has lost much of its original meaning. In a certain sense, many use the word to mean the opposite of its original sense.

The Latin etymology is re (again) + levare (to lift). Hence, the literal meaning is “to lift up something again.” And because re can describe a repetitive action, the word can also mean “to lift up something again and again.”

The original connotation of the word is that something has been dropped or cast aside, and then someone picks it up again. It is as though something that has fallen away or fallen into disuse is then picked up and presented anew or freshly. It could even theoretically be applied to something that was cast aside as old-fashioned or out-of-date and then taken up again or presented anew.

In a way, then, from its Latin roots, relevant means rather the opposite of its current usage. Something relevant was brought back from the dustbin, not something brand new and popular!

This examination of the Latin roots suggests a possible way forward in recapturing the word relevant and using it with proper balance.

The re in the word demands that the Church ever lift up her unchanging truths, especially when they have been carelessly cast aside. However, this does not simply mean rehashing ideas in the same way. The idea or truth is still valid, but the way we express it may need adapting; it may need re-presenting. Obviously, as the Church encounters new languages, translations need to be made. As cultures change or new situations and circumstances arise, some of the analogies and images used to express unchanging truths may need adjustment. The Latin roots capture the notion that although things sometimes do fall away or are dropped, they need to be picked up again and often re-presented, that is, presented in new and fresh ways.

In addition, the levare in the Latin root shows that if something significant has been dropped, it is important to pick it up again. Certain things cannot be allowed to drop or fall away; they must be picked up again and again.

Therefore, despite demands that the Church let some of her teachings drop or that we make them go away, the notion of relevance from its Latin roots says just the opposite. To be relevant we must re+ levare; we must insist on picking them up again and again, presenting them freshly. Even if the culture is hostile, we must continue to present, to re-present, to lift up again and again the truths that God has given us, which can never die.

In this sense we can respond to a world that demands we be relevant, “Amen!” We must pick up again and again the perennial truths that God has given us, but at times we must also accept the challenge to present them freshly and in a manner that is understandable, even infectious, to our listeners.

Relevance anyone?

This song says, “Everything old is new again. … Don’t throw the past away, you might need it some rainy day.”

Five Fundamentals for a Firm Faith – A Homily for the 27th Sunday of the Year

The readings for this Sunday’s Mass richly describe some essential qualities of faith. There are five fundamentals that can be seen:

Wanting The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith” (Luke 17:5-6).

There’s an old saying that what you want, you get. Many doubt this, thinking that they have wanted many things that they did not get. The reason for this, however, is usually because they didn’t want it enough. When we really want something (provided it is not an impossibility) we usually get it, because we have a passion for it and work at it.

Many people who say that they don’t have time to pray or to go to Mass still find time to golf and watch TV television. They find the time because they want to do these things. They don’t find time to pray or to go to Mass because they do not want to do these things enough.

When the apostles ask the Lord to increase their faith, they are asking for a deeper desire to know Him. Too often we miss a step in our prayer. We might ask the Lord to help us to pray when we really should be asking Him to give us the desire to pray. When we want to pray, we will pray. When we want to be holy, we will naturally strive for holy practices. It is about what we truly desire. Ask the Lord to help you want Him and His kingdom. Ask the Lord for a new heart that has proper wants and desires. Ask the Lord for a new mind that has the proper priorities and prefers to think about what is good, true, and beautiful. What you want, you get.

Waiting – The first reading speaks of our need to wait for the Lord’s action: How long, O LORD? I cry for help, but you do not listen! I cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not intervene. Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and clamorous discord. … Then the LORD answered me and said, Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets, so that one can read it readily. For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late. The rash one has no integrity (Hab 1:2-3; 2:2-4).

Waiting is one of the great mysteries of the Christian life. It is not always clear why God makes us wait. Perhaps He is trying to strengthen our faith. Perhaps He is helping us to clarify or confirm our desires. Scripture consistently tells us that we must learn to wait for the Lord and that there are blessings for those of us who do. Here are some examples:

        • Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil … those who wait for the LORD shall possess the land (Ps 37:8).
        • Those who wait for me shall not be put to shame (Is 49:23).
        • The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD (Lam 3:25).
        • But they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint (Is 40:31).

Waiting is a fundamental of firm faith. Gospel music is replete with waiting themes. One song says, “You can’t hurry God, you just have to wait, trust, and never doubt him, no matter how long it takes. He may not come when you want him but he’s always right on time.” Another song says, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy will come with the morning light.” Other songs counsel that we must hold on and hold out:

        • “I promised the Lord that I would hold out, he said he’d meet me in Galilee.”
        • “Hold on just a little while longer, everything’s gonna be all right.”
        • “Keep your hand on the plow. Hold on!”
        • “Lord help me to hold out until my change comes!”

The reading from Habakkuk above warns that the rash man has no integrity. That is another way of saying that waiting is integral to the Christian life; it is a fundamental of faith. To have integrity means to have all the necessary parts that make up the whole. To lack patience, then, is to lack integrity, to lack a fundamental of the Christian faith.

Withstanding – The second reading counsels us, God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control. So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord, nor of me, a prisoner for his sake; but bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God (2 Tim 1:6-8).

This passage tells us that life has difficulties and challenges. Becoming a Christian does not necessarily make things easier. In fact, things often get harder, because we must endure the hatred and ridicule of the world. A fundamental of the Christian Faith is that being able to withstand such trials with courage.

Notice that this courage, power, and love come from God, not from us. Hence, it is grace that is being described here. This is not a moral slogan. Withstanding means that God is “standing with” us, and we with Him. Such withstanding is only possible by the relationship with God that comes by faith. In this way, we discover the power, the capacity, to withstand, to live the Christian faith courageously in a hostile world.

Working – The Gospel teaches, Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here immediately and take your place at table”? Would he not rather say to him, “Prepare something for me to eat. Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink. You may eat and drink when I am finished”? Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded? So should it be with you. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, “We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do” (Luke 17:6-10).

This teaching of the Lord’s can irritate us and even seem hurtful if we misunderstand grace and seek to understand this text by the flesh. Our flesh is self-centered and thinks we deserve praise and good things from God in return for the good things we do. The flesh expects—even demands—rewards, but God can never be indebted to us, never. Our good works are not our gift to God; they are His gift to us.

All our works of charity and faith, for which our flesh wants credit, are God’s work and His gift. This is made clear in this passage from the Letter to the Ephesians:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God– not because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Eph 2:8-10).

If I think that I did something deserving of praise and reward, I am thinking in terms of the flesh, not the Spirit. When I have done something good all I can really do is to say, “Thank you” to God. His grace alone permitted me to do it. God may speak elsewhere of rewarding us, but that is His business. He is not indebted to us in any way. When we have done everything we ought, our one disposition should be gratitude. We are useless servants in the sense that we can do nothing without God’s grace. We can only do what He enables us to do.

That said, it is clear that work is a pillar of faith. The text from today’s Gospel and the text from Ephesians above both make clear that work is something God has for us. So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead (James 2:17). Likewise, Jesus says, “It was not you who chose me. It was I who chose you that you should go and bear fruit that will last” (Jn 15:16). Yes, work is a fundamental of faith.

Winning – We conclude with a reference back to the first reading: For the vision still has its time, it presses on to fulfillment and it will not disappoint. If it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late (Hab 2:3).

See what the end shall be! It is true that we must want, wait, withstand, and work, but we do not do so for no reason. We have a cross to carry, but if we carry it with the Lord, we carry it to glory. There is an old gospel song with these lyrics:

Harder yet may be the fight, Right may often yield to might, Wickedness awhile may reign, Satan’s cause may seem to gain, There is a God that rules above, With hand of power and heart of love, If I am right, He’ll fight my battle, I shall have peace some day. I do not know how long ’twill be, nor what the future holds for me. But this I know, if Jesus leads me, I shall get home someday.

This is just what Habakkuk describes: we will win with Jesus. He describes a victory that is

        • Future – the vision still has its time; it presses on to fulfillment
        • Fantastic – it will not disappoint
        • Firm – it will surely come
        • Fixed – it will not be late

For all those who walk with Jesus on the way of the cross, there is victory ahead. Even here in this life we already enjoy the fruits of crosses past. Our withstanding in the past has given us strength for today. Our waiting in the past has had its fulfillment and provides the hope that our current waiting will also be fruitful. Our past work, by God’s grace, has already granted benefits to us and to others.

These are but a small foretaste of a greater glory to come, the glory that waits for us in Heaven. Yes, if we want, wait, withstand, and work, we will win! I promise it to you in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Five Fundamentals for a Firm Faith – A Homily for the 27th Sunday of the Year

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!

The Battle Is Engaged – Choose Sides!

The readings this Sunday speak of a great cosmic battle that is taking place all around us. In the Gospel, Jesus speaks of it vividly and of his own mission to engage our ancient foe and to gather God’s elect back from the enslaving clutches of Satan, who was a murderer and a liar from the beginning (cf John 8:44).

As Jesus approaches Jerusalem for the final time, He describes the battle that is about to unfold. It is a battle He wins at the Cross and Resurrection, but it is one whose parameters extend across time to our own era.

We also do well to examine the second reading, which describes what should be our stance in reference to the great cosmic battle. Though the victory is ours, we can only lay hold of it by clinging to Christ and walking with Him. The Hebrews text gives us a kind of battle plan.

Let’s begin by considering Jesus’ description in the Gospel of the cosmic battle and of his own great mission as the great Shepherd of the sheep and the Lord of armies (Dominus Deus Sabaoth).

I. A Passion to Purify – Jesus begins by saying, I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!

Fire is powerful and transformative. Fire gives warmth and makes food palatable, but it also consumes and destroys. Nothing goes away from fire unchanged!

The Lord has come to purify us by the fiery power of His love, His grace, and His Word. He has a passion to set things right.

Purification is seldom easy or painless, though, hence the image of fire. In this great cosmic battle, fire must be cast upon the earth, not only to purify but to distinguish. There are things that will be made pure, but only if other things are burnt away and reduced to ashes.

This image of fire is important because many people today have reduced faith to seeking enrichment and blessings. Faith surely supplies these, but it also demands that we take up our cross and follow Christ without compromise. Many, if not most, enrichments and blessings come only through the fiery purification of God’s grace, which burns away sin and purifies us of our adulterous relationship with this world. Fire incites, demands, and causes change—and change is never easy.

Therefore, Jesus announces the fire by which He will judge and purify the earth and all of us on it, rescuing us from the power of the evil one.

This is no campfire around which we sit singing cute songs. Jesus describes it as a blaze that must set the whole world on fire!

II. A Painful PathThe text says, There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!

In coming among us, the Lord does not merely come to get us out of trouble, but to get into trouble with us. Though sinless, Jesus takes upon Himself the full weight of human sinfulness and manfully carries it to the cross. He accepts a “baptism” in His own blood on our behalf.

In waging war on our behalf against the evil one, Jesus does not sit in some comfortable headquarters behind the front lines; He goes out “on point,” taking the hill of Calvary and leading us over the top to the resurrection glory. He endures every blow, every hardship on our behalf.

Through His wounds we are healed by being baptized in the very blood He shed in the great cosmic war.

It is a painful path He trod, and He speaks of His anguish in doing it, but having won the victory He now turns to us and invites us to follow Him through the cross to glory.

III. A Piercing Purgation – In words that are nothing less than shocking, the Lord says, Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother, a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.

The words shock, but they speak a truth that sets aside worldly notions of compromise and coexistence with evil. In order for there to be true peace, holiness, and victory over Satan, there must be distinction not equivocation, clarity not compromise. Fire and water do not mix; you can hear the conflict when they come together: hissing, popping, searing, and steaming. One must win; the other must lose. Compromise and coexistence are not possible.

In this there is a kind of analogy to a surgeon’s scalpel. The surgeon must wield this “sword” to separate out healthy flesh from that which is diseased. Coexistence is not possible; the diseased flesh must be removed. The moment one talks of “coexisting” with cancer, the disease wins. Were a doctor to take this stance he would be guilty of malpractice. When there is cancer, the battle must be engaged.

Thus, in this great and cosmic battle, the Lord cannot and will not tolerate a false peace based on compromise or an accepting coexistence. He has come to wield a sword, to divide. Many moderns do not like it, but Scripture is clear: there are wheat and tares, sheep and goats, those on the Lord’s right and those on His left, the just and wicked, the lowly and the proud, the narrow road to salvation and the wide road to damnation.

These distinctions, these divisions, extend into our very families, into our most intimate relationships. This is the battle. There are two armies, two camps. No third way is given. Jesus says, Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters (Matt 12:30).

If this be the case, how do we choose sides, practically speaking? And having chosen sides, how do we fight with the Lord in the cosmic battle?

For this it is helpful to turn to the Letter to the Hebrews from this Sunday’s Mass, a magnificent text that summons us to courage and constancy. Let’s examine the four prescriptions in this letter for a soldier in the army of the Lord.

1. Lay hold of the Proof of faith. The text begins, Since we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.

What do witnesses do? They testify to what is true, to what they have seen, heard, and experienced. In the previous chapter of Hebrews, we were given a litany of witnesses from the Old Testament who learned to trust God and were rescued from ungodly men and innumerable snares. Individually and collectively they stand before us summoning us to courage and declaring that God can make a way out of no way, that He can move mountains and deliver His people, that He can do anything but fail.

We are to listen to their testimony, respond courageously to the summons to battle, and choose the Lord’s side, knowing that He has already won the victory. To the litany of Old Testament heroes can be added an innumerable number of saints in our Catholic experience who speak to us of victory and who summon us to faith and steadfast courage. Yes, there is the cross, but resurrection always follows!

These witnesses tell us to choose the Lord for He has already won the victory, to live the life of faith by adhering to the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church, to let the sacraments strengthen us, to rest in prayer, and to walk in fellowship with other Catholic believers in the army of the Lord.

Jesus is the Lord of Hosts; He is the King of Glory; He is the Head of the Body, the Church. We ought to listen to the testimony of these heroes and accept their witness as a proof of faith.

2. Live the Priority of faith. The text says, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.

We are given the example of a runner in a race. What does a runner do? He runs the race! Runners do not stop to watch television; they do not stop to make small talk; they do not take foolish detours or run in the wrong direction. They do one thing: they run the race. So, too, with our faith: it has priority. We should not let anything or anyone hinder us.

Runners also know where the finish line is; they know the goal. They do not run aimlessly. They keep their eyes on the prize and single-mindedly pursue the goal. Not one step is wasted. No extra baggage is carried that would hinder them or weigh them down.

3. Learn the Perspective of faith. The text says, For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God.

It is clear that there are crosses, setbacks, disappointments, and suffering in life, but do you know where these lead? To glory, if we are faithful! The text reminds us that the Lord Jesus endured shame and the cross for the sake of the joy and glory that lay ahead.

There is no place in the Christian life for a discouraged, hangdog attitude of defeat. We’re marching to Zion, beautiful Zion! Glories untold await us. Scripture says, For our light and momentary troubles are producing for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Cor 4:17-18).

Keep this perspective of faith. The devil wants you to be discouraged. Rebuke him and tell him you’re encouraged because no matter what you are going through, it is producing.

4. Last to the end through the Perseverance of Faith. The text says, Consider how [Jesus] endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.

It is not enough just to answer an altar call or to get baptized. It is necessary to persevere. In this cosmic battle Jesus says, At [the end] time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved (Matt 24:10-13).

In a cosmic war like this, endurance to the end is essential. We must make it over the hill of Calvary with Jesus and unto the resurrection. Victory is promised, but we must make the journey—and make it with Jesus.

Scripture says, Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain (1 Cor 15:1-2).

At the end of the day, there will be only two groups: the victors and the vanquished. You know the outcome by faith, so why not pick the winning team?

The battle is engaged. Choose sides!

This video shows images from my parish Church, which features the “Great Cloud of Witnesses” up on the clerestory level.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Battle Is Engaged – Choose Sides!

In the Winter of Faith Just Keep Working

As I write this, it is mid-winter in the Northern Hemisphere. Like each season, winter has its time, its three months. To many of us, there seems to be a metaphorical winter in the Church and in our culture, one that has lasted for years.

Those of us who are older probably remember a time when Masses were crowded. The church parking lots were packed full, and if you didn’t arrive early enough you often had to park elsewhere and then stand during Mass. Catholic Schools had long waiting lists, and parents made sure to put their children on the list long before they reached school age. If you put up four walls, Catholics would fill them.

Beginning in the mid-sixties, however, weekly Mass attendance by Catholics began to drop. According to some polls, nearly 80 percent of Catholics were regular attendees in the mid-fifties; today, that figure has dropped to as low as 20 percent (depending on the polling methodology). Open dissent from Church teaching grew among the faithful and the clergy, especially after Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which re-affirmed the rejection of artificial contraception. The autumn of our discontent and the “falling leaves” of defection of clergy and religious sisters from their vows and the faithful from their pews ushered in a long winter from which we have yet to emerge. Added to this are scandals of the worst kind, rooted in a loss of faith by the very ones sent to prophetically announce that faith. Corruptio optimi pessima!

What is evident in the Church is even more apparent in our culture. The West, which was once called Christendom, has descended into a cold and fierce secularism. The darkness and moral confusion grow deeper; opposition to once-widely-held moral norms is outright celebrated. Artificial contraception, abortion, divorce, premarital sex, adultery, homosexual acts, euthanasia/physician-assisted suicide, and many other things we once considered shameful are now promoted and called “rights.” Our culture has become crass, coarse, and angry.

Yes, it is the depths of winter in the Church and in our culture. Jesus once said, False prophets will arise and mislead many. Because of the multiplication of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold (Matthew 24:11-12).

Where is the plentiful catch of fish, the abundant harvest of which Jesus often spoke? What are we to do in this long winter when little seems to grow?

Perhaps the first step is to realize that there are seasons through which the Church must pass and that one day the seasons will change. Even in winter, farmers work to prepare for the next harvest. What does this mean for us? St. Paul wrote this to Timothy regarding the seasons:

Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and encourage with every form of patient instruction. For the time will come when men will not tolerate sound doctrine, but with itching ears they will gather around themselves teachers to suit their own desires. So, they will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (2 Tim 4:2-4).

Therefore, even in winter we must still work for that which will bring in the harvest when winter has passed. We are to preach and live the Word in season and out of season, whether popular or unpopular. We are to pray, to prune, and to accept pruning ourselves.

Back in November as climatic winter approached, I pruned my roses and crape myrtles. Pruning cuts away what is excessive and no longer fruitful in order to encourage future growth. Soon enough the warmth of spring will come; tender shoots will appear and then leaves and flowers. Similarly, the Church must prune and be pruned. The pruning has been severe and evidently quite necessary; much that was unhealthy is being cut away.

Even in those times that the Lord designates for pruning or for the field to lie fallow, He is preparing for future growth. The Lord says, “The harvest is plentiful,” but that doesn’t mean that the harvest is necessarily right now.

The bottom line is this: just do your work. Keep living the faith, passing it on to your children, and insisting on what is true. Obey what the Lord commands and know that the harvest He announced will be brought in someday. Yes, the harvest will come, and it will come with abundance. Scripture says,

Those who sow in tears will reap with shouts of joy. They go forth weeping, carrying the seed to be sown. But they will surely return with rejoicing carrying the harvest of grain (Psalm 126:5-6).

Although it is winter, continue to do your work. We may not live to see the harvest for which we prepare, but others surely will. Jesus says,

Thus the saying “One sows, and another reaps” is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor” (John 4:37).

I have reaped harvests that others have sown. When someone comes to confession after forty years away, I reap the harvest that others prepared—planting, watering, and fertilizing. I, too, will prepare so that others after may harvest.

Whatever the season, do your work. It will bear fruit in due time.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: In the Winter of Faith Just Keep Working

But at Your Command I Will Lower the Nets – A Homily for the 5th Sunday of the Year

This Sunday’s Gospel describes the call of Simon Peter, one that takes place in several stages. While it is presented in a compact time frame, for most of us it takes place over a longer period, as the Lord works to deepen our faith and heighten our call.

The upshot of the Gospel is that Peter’s faith is strengthened by his obedience to the Lord’s command.

Let’s see how the Lord grows Peter’s faith.

The Help that isn’t Hard – The text says, While the crowd was pressing in on Jesus and listening to the word of God, he was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret. He saw two boats there alongside the lake; the fishermen had disembarked and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, he asked him to put out a short distance from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.

It may astonish us, but God seeks our help. What did Peter have? He had a boat at the ready and, as we shall see, a tender heart. What do you have? All of us have talents, gifts, access, and availability that God can and wants to use. The way the Lord has set things up, He “needs” our help. God, who made us without our help, will not save us without our help. Call this what you will—cooperative grace, collaborative grace, or my personal favorite: responsible grace—but God seeks to engage us in our own salvation and in the salvation of others. He wants our help.

The main point in terms of Peter’s progression in the faith is that this initial request (to put out from shore) is a small one; it’s not hard for Peter and helps him to learn the obedience of faith.

This is where the Lord begins with both Peter and us. He trains us in greater obedience through small things. Don’t overlook the small, daily acts of obedience to the Lord. Through them the Lord trains and equips us for greater things. If the Lord can trust us in small matters, He can and will trust us with larger ones.

The Hesitation that must be Healed – The text says, After he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” Simon said in reply, “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets.”

Peter is willing to do something routine for the Lord. After all, how hard is it to let the Lord use your boat for a while? Now the Lord invites Peter to go a little deeper, to “put out into deep water.” For a moment, Peter hesitates. He is tired and discouraged—so much work and so little to show for it. There was probably some doubt in Peter’s heart and a hint of sarcasm in his voice, because later he repents and calls himself a sinful man. Yes, here is a hesitation that must be healed if Peter is ever to see his blessings and reach his destiny.

So, too, for some of us. Perhaps we’ve heard the Lord calling us to some task but hesitated because we were tired or discouraged. I’ll come to Church and say a few prayers, but please, Lord, don’t ask anything more of me.

Perhaps we are fearful. Deep waters bring greater threats. As the water gets deeper the stakes get higher. Somehow, we must step out in faith, to get out of our comfort zone and head for deeper waters. Like Peter, we can hesitate, thinking of all sorts of reasons why what the Lord asks of us is not a good idea.

How is Peter healed of his hesitation? In a countercultural way, Peter is healed by the obedience of faith; that is the central point of today’s Gospel.

Yes, Peter’s healing is caught up in his acknowledgement that the Lord commands it. Peter says, But at your command I will lower the nets. Peter finds strength and consolation in the Lord’s command. Paradoxically, there is something freeing about being under authority.

We live in a culture that tends to regard authority with cynicism, even rewarding some amount of rebellion. Further, our flesh tends to bristle at being under authority. Again, there is something freeing about being under authority.

As a Christian, I derive a lot of serenity and courage when I understand that the Lord commands something of me. While the world may balk at the demands of the moral life and find much of it too difficult or demanding, I often find that it is enough for me to know that the Lord both teaches and commands it. This gives me both serenity and confidence. Even if some aspect of my flesh may hesitate, knowing that my Lord and His lawful representatives (my bishop and the Magisterium) command something frees me and gives me the courage to understand that I am doing God’s will. Any natural hesitancy I might have is often quickly dispatched when I realize that I am being commanded by the Lord.

On a given Sunday morning, a person might consider skipping Mass, preferring to sleep in or perhaps finding it difficult somehow. Knowing that it is commanded (the third commandment) helps him to overcome his hesitancy. The same is true for the rest of the moral law and also certain vocational matters and actions required of the Christian, not under a general command but under a specific call from the Lord.

In this way of obedience, the Lord draws Peter to deeper waters. Peter’s hesitation must be healed if he is to see his faith deepen and his call heighten.

The Harvest that is Hauled – The text says, When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish and their nets were tearing. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come to help them. They came and filled both boats so that the boats were in danger of sinking.

In this matter the Lord grants Peter a great grace: enjoying the fruits of obedience in an immediate way. In other cases, the harvest is not so swift, but this much is always true: it is promised, and it will come, whether today or years from now.

The Lord says elsewhere, using a more terrestrial image, the harvest is plentiful (Mat 9:37). The Lord is providing an audiovisual aid. Obviously, the harvest that the Lord heralded was not about fish; it was about human beings. Indeed, the harvest is plentiful. Consider all the people whom the Lord has touched after these humble beginnings in a backwater of Israel. Not only are there more than one billion Catholics in the world today, but there are countless others who lived before us and many (only God knows how many) who will come after us. Yes, it is a bountiful harvest!

Some days and times are better for fishing or harvesting than others. St. Paul speaks of the gospel as being “in season and out of season” (2 Tim 4:2), but even in those times that the Lord designates for pruning or for the field to lie fallow, He is only preparing for future growth. The Lord says, “the harvest is plentiful,” and His Word prevails.

In the West it seems that the seasons have turned against us, but we must remember that even in winter the farmer must stay busy preparing the soil, removing the rocks, and laying down fertilizer.

Yes, the Lord is heralding a harvest, and we must work no matter the season. Even if we do not see the full harvest, the Lord will, as will others who come after us. Jesus says elsewhere, Thus the saying “One sows, and another reaps” is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor” (John 4:37).

The bottom line is this: just do your work. Obey what the Lord commands and know that a harvest is heralded and will be hauled in someday. The nets will be strained, and the boats heavily weighed down. The harvest will come, and it will come with abundance. Just keep working and obeying what He commands.

The Humility that Heightens – The text says, When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” For astonishment at the catch of fish they had made seized him and all those with him, and likewise James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners of Simon. Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” When they brought their boats to the shore, they left everything and followed him.

In falling to his knees, Peter is about to raised higher by the Lord. Peter realizes that his hesitation and doubt have been sinful and that had he persisted in not obeying the Lord, he would have blocked his blessings.

Notice that Peter is not described as having a cringing humility but rather a healthy one.

Healthy humility raises us; it does not cast us down. Bowing in healthy humility does not crush us; it heightens our status. The Lord, having led Peter to a healthy obedience and humility, in effect tells him, “Come up higher. Your concern now will not be fish but rather the care of human souls who are precious to me. You will be my co-worker in a far more important enterprise.” Yes, healthy humility raises us.

Thus, Peter’s humility is a productive one. It is the godly sorrow of which St. Paul writes,

Even if I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it. Though I did regret it—I see that my letter hurt you, but only for a little while—yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done (2 Cor 7:8-11).

Peter’s humility is productive because it is godly. Humility and sorrow equip him for greater duties, duties no longer related fish but to human souls.

How different this is from mere shame (which Paul calls worldly sorrow)! Shame often locks us into unhealthy, paralyzing self-loathing. Godly sorrow increases our zeal to do God’s will and thereby equips, empowers, and enables us when He calls—and the Lord does call.

Peter, through obedience and humility, is now ready to leave everything and follow Jesus. The Lord has led him to this point in stages. It began with a request for help that wasn’t hard, a small obedience, but then the Lord called Peter deeper, to a more difficult obedience. Peter needed to have his hesitation healed. Experiencing this healing, he hauled in a harvest that illustrated what his lack of faith and obedience might have cost him. It humbled him but also heightened him. Having his faith deepened in Jesus, Peter is now ready to follow the Lord. It is always better to walk in humility and obedience than in pride!

In all of this, don’t miss the key, the golden chord: At your command, I will lower the nets. Faith is rooted in obedience and humility. That is the key to our growth as disciples.

St. Peter is still a rookie, but his first season holds great promise. He will not go through life without injury, but in the end, he too will be the rock (in Christ) who is ready to roll.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: But at Your Command I Will Lower the Nets

A Shocking Loss of Faith: Reflecting on the Closing of So Many Churches

Lincoln Congregational Temple in Shaw, credit: NCinDC, Flickr

As I walk or drive through my Capitol Hill neighborhood here in Washington, D.C., I pass by more than twenty churches (all of them Protestant) that have been closed in the past decade. Many of them are grand and prominent buildings. (Click here to see four of them.) Most of the them have been converted to condominiums, likely due to historic preservation norms that seek to retain the exterior appearance of historic buildings.

A recent study by the local non-profit organization Sacred Spaces Conservancy confirms my anecdotal evidence about the large number of closures. On Capitol Hill, a growing neighborhood with a tremendous number of row houses, about 40 percent of buildings used for worship have closed [*]. Such a figure is shocking and demonstrates a collapse of religious observance. Our Catholic parishes have suffered as well, but thankfully none of them have closed.

As always, there is important detail behind the numbers. At the root is a dramatic demographic shift in the population of the District of Columbia. The once majority-black city is no longer so; African-Americans now make up less than 50 percent of the population. The new arrivals to the city are also younger. To say that the city is undergoing gentrification is not really accurate. The majority of the new residents are not gentry at all; they are largely young adults, saddled with college debt and unable to afford to own property. The median home price in this area is close to one million dollars. Because most of them do not have the means to buy a home, they rent, and even then must usually share with others to make it affordable.

This is the new demographic reality: A once solidly African-American area is now more racially diverse and younger as well. The new residents are in general less religiously observant and those who are “religious” are less tied to particular denominations or congregations. This is a challenge to institutions established in a very different world.

This has affected Protestant and Catholics in different ways.

The Protestant Experience:

There are reasons that the Protestant congregations have been more affected by the changes than the Catholic parishes. In general, Protestant denominations were and are divided in that they served specific groups defined by both racial and sectarian lines. For example, there might have been ten “Baptist” churches in a fairly small area, but they weren’t serving just different Baptist denominations; there were White Baptists, Black Baptists, Primitive Baptists, Free Will Baptists, and so forth. Add to this a slew of other denominations and distinctions such as African Methodist Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran, Missouri Synod Lutheran, High Church Episcopal, Low Church Episcopal, and Broad Church Episcopal. The city churches were built during a time when these distinctions mattered.

However, it is the racial focus of Protestant churches that looms largest of all in this city. Dr. Martin Luther King once observed that the most segregated day of the week is Sunday. This still rings largely true. It wasn’t just race, it was the length of the service and styles of worship, preaching, and music. Black churches in solidly black neighborhoods could flourish in many varieties from storefront churches to megachurches to historical “anchor” churches such as Metropolitan Baptist and Foundry United Methodist. African-American congregations that identify strongly with black traditions of worship have not adjusted easily to the demographic shifts of recent years. Thus, they face the choice of either moving to where their congregants have moved or closing. It isn’t just “inflexible” niche marketing that is the problem; whites who move in are not easily persuaded to attend their services. Whether it is liturgical style, preaching content, or just the “awkward” experience of being a minority, whites and other non-African-American arrivals don’t join in large enough numbers to shore up a declining congregation.

In short, the combination of changing demographics and denominational division has spelled disaster for many traditionally black congregations. Some of them have moved to the suburbs; others have closed. Focusing on a niche market is a problem when the niche disappears or moves away.

As for the mainline (largely white) Protestant churches, I would argue that a collapse of faith has depleted them, at least collectively. Many of them ceased preaching the “old time religion” a long time ago, having largely assimilated to a post-Christian world and acclimated to the sexual revolution. Gone are the moral demands of the gospel, which have been replaced by a social “gospel.” Gone is the drama of salvation. Jesus is less Lord and Savior and more a good man and ethical teacher. For those who think the Catholic Church should chart a similar course, please note that as much as we have declined, the mainline Protestant churches have collectively seen an utter collapse in attendance [**].

The Catholic experience:

The experience of the Catholic parishes on Capitol Hill has not been ideal, but it is better, and we can survive collectively. There are reasons for this.

Our first commitment is generally to serve a neighborhood or region. In a certain sense, the whole world is divided up into parishes. Every diocesan parish has a boundary. Boundaries used to tell Catholics where they should attend Mass. Today, boundaries tell the Church where we are supposed to go. A parish is responsible for every person who lives within its boundaries. Thus, with few exceptions, the parish stays put whether its founding parishioners remain or move away. Although there are a few ethnic parishes here and there (mainly due to language and/or a special rite) that aim to serve only a particular group, this sort of “niche marketing” is generally frowned upon.

The Catholic Church is catholic (universal). My own parish has gone from a solidly African-American parish to one that is more than 40 percent non-African-American. In this, it is beginning to reflect the current makeup of the neighborhood, which is more racially diverse and much younger than it was. Noting this, we did a very Catholic thing. Although the changes brought stress, we went out to meet our neighbors. We knocked on doors; we talked to them in the park and at the local market. Over time we’ve adjusted to their needs; at their request we began an evening Mass that has become quite popular (it seems that younger people tend to be night owls). We still have our longer, vibrant Gospel Mass for the benefit of our traditional parishioners, some of whom have stayed in the neighborhood and others who have moved away but continue to attend Mass here on Sundays. This has been the second big sea-change in this parish and neighborhood. (The first one took place after World War II, when the neighborhood became solidly black.) Through it all, our parish stays and cares for whoever lives here.

That said, things are not nearly as good or strong as they should be in the Catholic Parishes of Capitol Hill. Not one of them has more than 1000 people in attendance on Sunday. The largest has just under 900; mine has 600; two of them have fewer than 200. Several of our schools have closed. Part of the reason for the smaller number of parishioners is that all these parishes were built before the advent of the automobile and thus are much closer to one another than is true in the suburbs. People in my neighborhood have three Catholic parishes within walking distance, with Masses offered at all sorts of different times, lowering the number in any one parish.

Yet, truth be told, all our Capitol Hill parishes were once much fuller. The parish schools were bursting with children and our rectories and convents were brimming. To some degree, the fact that all our parishes are still open is based on inertia from prior times. We were bigger than the Protestant congregations to begin with and so it’s taken longer to erode. The danger is that we are parking on someone else’s dime; the fuel that those of the past left us is dwindling to mere fumes. The generation that built our parish churches was poorer than we are in a monetary sense but seemingly richer in faith. There was a time when more than 80 percent of Catholics went to Mass weekly. Today it’s only about 20 percent and the figure has been dropping by the year. The current scandal has surely not helped, but the problem is deeper, older, and wider than that. Despite the steep drop in attendance, it has often been “business as usual”; our focus seems to be institutional more so than Christological or eschatological.

The problem is not a local one in Capitol Hill. This steep decline has occurred throughout the Western world. A secular world has, by definition, a worldly focus and little time or thought for God. The Catholic Church has not always responded well to this.

There isn’t the time to set up a complete scheme for evangelization, but as most of you who read here know, I think accommodation/watering down of the faith is precisely the wrong path. We must shine brightly in a world of increasing darkness. As Catholics and Catholic parishes, we are called to love everyone, but we must love them enough to tell them the truth. A fiery love for Christ that holds Him in awe and deeply respects His teachings must be combined with a true love for souls such that we strive to save them rather than merely pleasing them.

In a neighborhood with an increasing population, no church that was once full should close. We cannot simply blame demographics for decreasing numbers of parishioners. If every parishioner found one convert or returnee, the parish would double in size. Is that really so hard? What percentage of our parishioners can say they have ever gotten even one person to return to Church and the sacraments? Blaming demographics is a convenient excuse.

If secularism has swept in, we cannot simply lament it; we must accept the responsibility that it has happened on our watch. We must meet the challenge with fortitude and with the knowledge that the Lord built a worldwide Church with a cadre of leaders who hardly looked promising. He did it against all odds. He asks that we bring our five loaves and two fishes and promises to multiply the harvest of holiness and the numbers as well. His graces are not exhausted, and His mercies are not withheld if we but ask and act.

What are your five loaves and two fishes? What are your parish’s five loaves and two fishes? Not one Catholic parish should close in a neighborhood where people still live. Even if the “old-timers” have moved on, there is still a harvest of human beings to bring in. The harvest is plentiful, so ask the Lord of the harvest, “Lord, who is that one person in my family or among my friends to whom you are sending me? Show me, Lord, and I will go to work.”