As a priest and pastor I work very closely with others: clergy, religious, laity who work for the Church, and laity who volunteer. We all work for the Church because we love her and her people.
At times, though, there is disappointment, hurt, or even disillusionment. Perhaps these feelings result from issues in the wider Church: sexual abuse by clergy, the lack of courage and leadership from some bishops and priests, the scandal of dissent at the highest levels, questionable partnerships with anti-life and anti-Catholic organizations, the breakdown of discipline, and the strange severity of response to some infractions contrasted with the almost total laxity in the face of others. Perhaps they are the result of local problems found in any group of human beings: gossip, hurtful actions, hypocrisy, power struggles, misplaced priorities, favoritism, and injustice.
While these things happen everywhere, many hope that there will be fewer occurrences in the Church. Some who come to work for the Church begin by thinking, How wonderful it will be to work for the Church instead of out in the cutthroat business world! Maybe they envision a place where people pray together and support each other more. Perhaps they think the Church will be a place with less competition and strife.
Alas, such hopes are usually dashed quickly. We are, after all, running a hospital of sorts; and just as hospitals tend to attract the sick, so the Church attracts sinners and those who struggle. Jesus was often found in strange company, so much so that the Pharisees were scandalized. He rebuked them by saying, People who are well do not need a doctor, sick people do. I have come to call sinners, not the righteous (Mk 2:17).
Idealistic notions of working in and for the Church evaporate quickly when the phone rings with an impatient parishioner on the line, or when two group leaders argue over who gets to use the parish hall, or when the pastor is irritable and disorganized, or when the maintenance engineer is found to be drinking on the job, or when certain members of the choir are making anything but harmony, or when some favored parishioners get attention from and access to the old guard leaders while newcomers are resisted.
For all these sorts of situations that engender irritation, disappointment, or disillusionment, I keep a little prayer card near my desk. Sometimes I read it for my own benefit and sometimes I share it with those who feel discouraged at what happens (or doesn’t happen) in the Church. It is a beautiful mediation; it recalls that although great love often generates the deep disappointment, in the end love still abides.
Consider, then, the following words. They are perhaps over-the-top in places, but love has its excesses. Take these words as a kind of elixir that speaks to the pain that love can cause.
How baffling you are, Oh Church, and yet how I love you! How you have made me suffer, and yet how much I owe you! I would like to see you destroyed, and yet I need your presence.
You have given me so much scandal and yet you have made me understand what sanctity is. I have seen nothing in the world more devoted to obscurity, more compromised, more false, and yet I have touched nothing more pure, more generous, more beautiful. How often I have wanted to shut the doors of my soul in your face, and how often I have prayed to die in the safety of your arms.
No, I cannot free myself from you, because I am you, though not completely. And besides, where would I go?
Would I establish another? I would not be able to establish it without the same faults, for they are the same faults I carry in me. And if I did establish another, it would be my Church, not the Church of Christ.
Seeking not to leave behind Pentecost so soon, I propose here to briefly consider the sequence hymn for Pentecost and the purpose and history of such hymns in the liturgy. There are several feasts of the Church during which a “sequence” hymn may be sung. The sequence hymn is sung just before the Alleluia (Gospel Acclamation). The feasts with sequence hymns are these:
Easter – Victimae Paschali Laudes (To the Paschal Victim give praise)
Pentecost – Veni Sancte Spiritus (Come, Holy Spirit)
Corpus Christi – Lauda Sion (Praise O Sion)
Our Lady of Sorrows – Stabat Mater (Stood the Mother, sad and weeping)
All Souls – Dies Irae (Day of Wrath)
Too many parishes simply omit the sequence hymns. But for my money, they ought to be sung, especially if it occurs on a Sunday. (I will admit, though, that the LaudaSion is rather long.)
Most sequence hymns were written in the Middle ages and were sung just before the Gospel as the clergy processed to the place of Gospel. Sometimes, particularly in larger churches, the Gospel was chanted midway down the nave so that it could be heard, and these sequence hymns helped to fill up the time of that procession. Many important feasts of the Church began to have these sequence hymns composed for them during the period of the 11th through 13th centuries.
However, after the Council of Trent, in the Missal of Pius V (published in 1570), there were only four sequence:Victimae paschali laudes sung at Easter, Veni Sancte Spiritus for Pentecost, Lauda Sion Salvatorem sung at Corpus Christi, and the Dies Irae for All Souls and in Masses for the Dead. In the 1700s, Stabat Mater for the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows was added. Much later (in the early 1970s) the Dies Irae was removed from the Requiem Mass of the revised Roman Missal and restored in the Liturgy of the Hours as an Advent hymn, which it originally was. It may, however, still be sung on the Feast of All Souls.
Let’s look at the sequence hymn for Pentecost (Veni Sancte Spiritus) in a little more detail.
The hymn was likely written by Pope Innocent III (1161-1216). Written in Trachaic dimeter (catalectic), it is widely regarded as one of the masterpieces of sacred Latin poetry. It was obviously written by someone who had experienced many sorrows, but also consolation in those sorrows. The rhyme in this hymn is quite rich and complex. The first and second lines always rhyme, and the third line of every verse ends in “ium.”
The sung version of this hymn is gorgeous and soaring. It starts subtly and builds through the center with soaring notes; then it sets us down gently at the end.
My favorite verses speak of the moderation that the Spirit offers:
In labor rest,
in the heat, moderation;
in tears, solace.
Make flexible that which is rigid, Warm that which is cold, Rule that which is deviant.
Here is the Latin text along with a (fairly literal) translation of my own:
VENI, Sancte Spiritus,
et emitte caelitus
lucis tuae radium.
COME, Holy Spirit,
send forth from heaven
the rays of thy light
Veni, pater pauperum,
veni, dator munerum
veni, lumen cordium.
Come, Father of the poor,
Come, giver of gifts,
Come, light of our hearts.
The Apostles were dramatically changed at Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit for mission that took place there. Prior to this, even after seeing the risen Lord, they were timid and most uncertain about what to do. Peter even went back to fishing. But after Pentecost, all this changes. They are bold, courageous and quite certain of all Jesus taught.
It is worthwhile to look back at a text that sets forth this change in the apostles with a picture of courage and holy boldness that is too little evident in many Catholics. Let’s look at the passage, which takes place just after the healing of the paralyzed man at the gate called beautiful. And then let’s reflect on four qualities that the Apostles Peter and John manifest.
Now when [the Sanhedrin] saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. But seeing the man who was healed standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition. But when they had commanded them to leave the council, they conferred with one another, saying, “What shall we do with these men? For that a notable sign has been performed through them is evident to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. But in order that it may spread no further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.” So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” And when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding no way to punish them, because of the people, for all were praising God for what had happened (Acts 4:13-21).
Their Authority – The text opens with a reference to the “boldness” of Peter and John to the fact that the religious authorities are “astonished.” How could such uneducated and common men speak and act this way?
The Greek word translated here as “boldness” is Παρρησία (parresía or parrhēsía) from pás, “all” + rhēsis, meaning “a proverb or statement quoted with resolve.” In other words, parresía means to speak with confidence and exhibit strong resolve; it means to speak plainly, publicly, or effectively. It is from the root rhēsis that the term rhetoric comes. Rhetoric is the art of effective or persuasive speaking and in its more technical sense usually requires training in logic and poise.
Thus, the boldness described in this passage shows the transformation that that the resurrection and Pentecost have effected. Prior to Pentecost, the Apostles, though often zealous and willing to make sacrifices to follow Jesus, were also slow to understand and often confused. Beginning with Easter Sunday (e.g., Luke 24:32,45) and most likely throughout the forty days before ascending, the Lord instructed and formed the Apostles in the Gospel. It would take Pentecost, however, to fully quicken their minds and confirm their hearts. Jesus had said, I still have much to tell you, but you cannot yet bear to hear it. However, when the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all truth (Jn 16:12-13). Elsewhere, He added, All this I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have told you (John 14:25-26).
Prior to Pentecost, the Apostles and disciples gathered in fear, behind locked doors. Afterwards, though, they go about with the boldness described here. The religious leaders are “astonished” and marvel that such common and unlearned men can have such a sweeping command of their topic, and such serene courage. Peter and John have healed a man who had been lame for forty years, a man they knew was lame and had seen in the temple. The religious leaders cannot explain it; further, the usual threats do not seem to have the desired effect on them.
Yes, Peter and John are bold, confident, and unafraid.They are manifesting the gift that the Lord promised when he said,On account of My name, they will deliver you to the synagogues and prisons, and they will bring you before kings and governors. This will be your opportunity to serve as witnesses. So make up your mind not to worry beforehand how to defend yourselves. For I will give you speech and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict (Luke 21:12-15).
Such a change in these men, especially Peter! It is clear that the Lord has gifted them just as He promised. Their boldness is God’s grace. May that grace reach Church leaders today, both clergy and lay. Holy boldness such as this is needed more than ever.
Their Association – The text says that the Sanhedrin recognized that they had been with Jesus. What a magnificent line. While this may have meant they recalled that these men had accompanied Jesus, for the reader the expression has far more depth. Peter and John, by their transformed lives, are manifesting that they have been with Jesus. They are showing forth the fruit of a life-changing, transformative relationship with Jesus Christ. Yes, these men have been with Jesus; it is obvious!
How about you and me? Would someone be able to look at us and conclude that we have been with Jesus? Is this not a description of what should be the normal Christian life? Is your association with Jesus Christ obvious to others? It ought to be.
It is, of course, a sad reality that most Christians are content to hide out or to blend in with the culture. They are undercover Christians, secret-agent saints, and frozen chosen. There’s no real fire to attract attention, no bold proclamations or visible signs of spiritual life. Few would ever conclude that they had been with Jesus.
Where are we on the light spectrum? Is the Light of Christ in us visible (Mat 5:14)? Do we bear the brand marks of Jesus (Gal 6:17)? Do we love our enemies (Mat 5:44)? Do we shine like the stars in the midst of a twisted and depraved generation (Phil 2:15)?
Their Arresting Ability – Although Saints Peter and John have been arrested, they have, in effect, turned the tables and arrested the Sanhedrin. As remarked above, Peter and John do not seem cowed by the usual threats and their arguments are not easily set aside, for they speak with sincerity and authority. Further, the crowds are amazed and the leaders themselves cannot explain how a man, known by them to have been lame for forty years, now walks and even dances!
They don’t really know what to do. They are arrested by the winsome and courageous witness before them.
True holiness can have this effect, at least in certain conditions. St. Teresa of Calcutta was like this. Though many did not share her faith, even enemies of the faith admired her. This was not because she was a people pleaser; in fact, just the opposite. She had a boldness to scold even the most powerful, but a love that could not be denied. Her reflection of the glory of Christ arrested one and all.
This is perhaps one of the rarest gifts of all, yet still one to seek, so that at least some in every age have a holiness and a goodness that is arresting in its purity.
Their Assertiveness – To be appropriately assertive is to get one’s needs met without trampling others. And what is the greatest need of any saint? To proclaim Christ and Him crucified and risen. Thus, when Peter and John are warned to stop proclaiming the name of Jesus, they assert their need and right to continue doing so. However, they do so without disrespecting the leaders before them. They do not shout, “We won’t listen to you!” They do not personally disrespect them at all. Rather, they commend themselves to the conscience of these leaders as a way of respectfully declining a command they cannot follow:
Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.
In other words, they say, “Brothers, Elders, would you not agree that a man must obey God before obeying any man? Do what you must do. Make your judgments. But we must obey the Lord and speak of Jesus until our last breath.”
They are respectful but clear. They assert themselves and their mission but do not attack and trample the reputations or lawful authority of those in the community or state. They cannot cooperate in an evil directive, but they do not attack or stage an attempted overthrow of power. They stand before their opponents and look them in the eye. They will not flee or yield to fear, but neither will they become like them in arrogance and unrighteous demands.
This is a good model for us who are entering into increasingly difficult days, in which the pressures made upon us by the culture and the government may require that we refuse to cooperate with evil demands. Our goal is not to humiliate and overcome our opponents, but to convert them; and if not them then the culture around us. As St. Paul says, We do not use deception, neither do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God (2 Cor 4:2).
So here is a model for us and a set of challenges. We are to manifest a bold and sincere confidence in the Gospel we proclaim, because we have met Jesus and are being transformed into His likeness. Indeed, we should ask and strive for that rare holiness that is arresting in its purity but also assertively announces Christ Jesus without compromise or hypocrisy.
What a wondrous and challenging feast we celebrate at Pentecost! A feast like this challenges us because it puts to the lie a lazy, sleepy, hidden, and tepid Christian life. The Lord Jesus said to the apostles, I have come to cast a fire on the earth (Luke 12:49). This is a feast about fire, a transformative, refining, purifying fire that the Lord wants to kindle in us. It is a necessary fire, for as the Lord first judged the world by fire, the present heavens and the earth are reserved for fire. Because it is going to be the fire next time, we need the tongues of Pentecost fire to fall on us to set us on fire and bring us up to the temperature of glory.
The readings today speak to us of the Holy Spirit in three ways: the portraits of the Spirit, the proclamation of the Spirit, and the propagation by the Spirit.
I. The Portraits of the Spirit– The reading today speaks of the Holy Spirit using two images: rushing wind and tongues of fire. These two images recall Psalm 50, which says, Our God comes, he does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, round about him a mighty tempest.
Rushing Wind – Notice how the text from Acts opens: When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were.
This text brings us to the very root meaning of the word “spirit.” Spirit refers to breath. This is preserved in the word “respiration,” which is the act of breathing. So, the Spirit of God is the breath of God, the Ruah Adonai (the Spirit, the breath of God).
Genesis 1:2 speaks of this, saying, the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. Genesis 2:7 speaks even more remarkably of something God did only for man (not the animals): then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
So, the very Spirit of God was breathed into Adam, but he lost this gift and died spiritually when he sinned.
Thus, we see in this passage from Acts an amazing and wonderful resuscitation of the human person as these first Christians experience the rushing wind of God’s Spirit breathing spiritual life back into them. God does C.P.R. and brings humanity, dead in sin, back to life! The Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us once again as in a temple (cf 1 Cor 3:16). It has been said that Christmas is the feast of God with us, Good Friday is the Feast of God for us, but Pentecost is the Feast of God in us.
Tongues of Fire – The text from Acts then says, Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them.
The Bible often speaks of God as fire or in fiery terms: Moses saw Him as a burning bush. God led the people out of Egypt through the desert as a pillar of fire. Moses went up onto a fiery Mt. Sinai where God was. Psalm 97 says,
The LORD reigns; let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad! Clouds and thick darkness are round about him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. Fire goes before him, and burns up his adversaries round about. His lightnings lighten the world; the earth sees and trembles. The mountains melt like wax before the LORD, before the Lord of all the earth. The heavens proclaim his righteousness; and all the peoples behold his glory (Psalm 97).
Scriptures also call God a Holy fire, a consuming fire (cf Heb 12:29) and a refining fire (cf Is. 48:10; Jer 9:7; Zec 13:9; Mal 3:3).
So it is that our God, who is a Holy Fire, comes to dwell in us through His Holy Spirit. As a Holy Fire, He refines us by burning away our sins and purifying us. As Job once said, But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold (Job 23:10).
God is also preparing us for judgment, for if He is a Holy Fire, then who may endure the day of His coming or of going to Him? What can endure the presence of Fire Himself? Only that which is already fire. Thus, we must be set afire by God’s love.
So, in the coming of the Holy Spirit, God sets us on fire to make us a kind of fire. In so doing, He purifies us and prepares us to meet Him one day, to meet Him who is a Holy Fire.
II. The Proclamation of the Spirit – You will notice that the Spirit came on them like “tongues” of fire. The reference to tongues is no accident, for the Holy Spirit moves them to speak and ultimately to witness. The text says, And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem. At this sound, they gathered in a large crowd, but they were confused because each one heard them speaking in his own language. They were astounded, and in amazement they asked, “Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his native language? We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.”
So, behold how the Holy Spirit moves them to proclaim, not just within the safety of the upper room, but also in holy boldness before the crowds that have gathered.
Notice the transformation! Moments ago, these were frightened men huddled together in secrecy behind locked doors. Now, they go forth to the crowds and proclaim Christ boldly. They have gone from fear to faith, from cowardice to courage, from terror to testimony!
What about us? Too many Christians are silent, overcome by fear. Perhaps they fear being called names or being unpopular. Perhaps they are anxious about being laughed at or resisted, or of being asked questions they don’t feel capable of answering. Some Christians gather in the “upper room” of the parish and are active—even leaders—but once outside the safe confines of the “upper room” they slip into what I call “secret agent” mode.
Well, the Holy Spirit wants to change that. To the degree that we have really met Jesus Christ and experienced His Holy Spirit, we are less able to keep silent. An old gospel song says, “I thought I wasn’t gonna testify, but I couldn’t keep it to myself, what the Lord has done for me.” The Holy Spirit, if authentically received, wants to give us zeal and joy, to burn away our fear so that testifying and witnessing come naturally to us.
Note also how the Spirit “translates” for the Apostles. The people in the crowd spoke different languages, yet each heard Peter and the others in his own language. The Spirit, therefore, assists not only us but also those who hear us. My testimony is not dependent on my eloquence alone but also on the grace of the Holy Spirit, who casts out deafness and opens hearts. Every Christian should remember this. Some of our most doubt-filled encounters with others can still bear great fruit on account of the work of the Holy Spirit, who “translates” for us and overcomes obstacles we might think insurmountable.
III. The Propagation by the Spirit – In the great commission, the Lord said, Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age (Matt 28:19ff). He also said, I have come to cast a fire on the earth and How I wish the blaze were already ignited (Luke 12:49).
How is the Lord going to do this?
Perhaps a picture will help to illustrate. My parish church is dedicated to the Holy Spirit under the title “Holy Comforter.” Above the high altar is the following Latin inscription: Spiritus Domini, replevit orbem terrarum (The Spirit of the Lord, filled the orb of the earth). (See the photo above of our high altar.)
The walls of my parish church answer the question. The clerestory walls are painted Spanish red, and upon this great canvas are also painted the stories of the lives of twenty saints, surrounding us like a great cloud of witnesses (cf Heb 12:1). (See also the video below.) Over the head of every saint is a tongue of fire.
This is how the Spirit of the Lord fills the earth. It is not via “magic fairy dust.” It is in the fiery transformation of every Christian going forth to bring warmth and light to a cold, dark world. This is how the Lord casts fire upon the earth. This is how the Spirit of the Lord fills the orb of the earth—in the lives of saints (and in your life)!
In the end, the great commission (Matt 28) is our first and most important job. No matter what else we do, we are to do this. Parishes do not deserve to exist if they do not do this. As individual Christians, we are a disgrace and not worthy of the name if we fail to win souls for Jesus Christ. The Spirit of the Lord is going to fill the orb of the earth but only through us. The spread of the gospel has been placed in your hands. It’s scary, isn’t it!
In my short time on this planet, I have seen it. Parishes that were once big and booming (and, frankly, sometimes arrogant) are now in decline; some are near closure. It happens to the best if they do not evangelize, if they do not accomplish “job one.” The Lord wants to light a fire. Why not become fire? Let the Spirit propagate the Church through you. (Yes, I am talking to you.)
Enjoy the feast of Pentecost, but don’t forget that the basic image is very challenging, for it means getting out of the “upper room,” opening the doors, and proclaiming Christ to the world. Let the Holy Spirit light a fire in you. Then you can’t help but spread light and heat to a dark, cold world.
Let the evangelization of the whole world begin with you.
The video below features details from the clerestory of my parish, Holy Comforter in Washington, D.C. Notice the tongue of fire above each saint. The paintings show how the Spirit of the Lord fills the orb of the earth through the lives of the saints (and through you, too). It is not magic; it is grace, working in your life, through your gifts and your relationships, so that the Lord will reach each soul. The witnesses on the walls of my Church say, “You are the way that He will fill the earth and set it on fire.” Let the blaze be ignited in you!
The song accompanying the video says, “We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, looking on, encouraging us to do the will of the Lord. Let us stand worthy and be faithful to God’s call … We must not grow weary …!”
In modern bibles and in the breviary, Psalm 101 is often called the “Avowal of a Good Ruler.” In other words, it is a kind of oath a ruler takes pledging to promote virtue in the kingdom and to refute error and sin. One can imagine King David saying this himself.
While this psalm is surely a good plan for a ruler, it applies to us as well, for in fact we are rulers too. We are called to rule our very self. In addition, most of us attain to rule by becoming parents, priests, religious, or other types of leaders. Thus, Psalm 101 provides a good source for reflection for all of us.
Psalm 101 – Avowal of a Good Ruler
My song is of mercy and justice;
I sing to you, O Lord.
I will walk in the way of perfection.
O when, Lord, will you come?
I will walk with blameless heart
within my house;
I will not set before my eyes
whatever is base.
I will hate the ways of the crooked;
they shall not be my friends.
The false-hearted must keep far away;
the wicked I disown.
The man who slanders his neighbor in secret
I will bring to silence.
The man of proud looks and haughty heart
I will never endure.
I look to the faithful in the land
that they may dwell with me.
He who walks in the way of perfection
shall be my friend.
No man who practices deceit
shall live within my house.
No man who utters lies shall stand
before my eyes.
Morning by morning I will silence
all the wicked in the land,
uprooting from the city of the Lord
all who do evil.
There are four themes or rules that those in authority should heed:
I. Consistent Calling on the Lord– My song is of mercy and justice; I sing to you, O Lord. I will walk in the way of perfection. O when, Lord, will you come?I will walk with blameless heart within my house.
To have any authority over our own self or others, we must first call out to the One who has ultimate authority over us. The psalm bids us to seek the way of perfection and to have the theme song, the keynote of our life, be one of mercy and justice.
Justice points to the ultimate perfection that the Lord offers us, bidding us not to compromise it, dilute it, or despair of it. We must long for it in ourselves. We begin by seeking to walk with increasing blamelessness within the house of our own soul and our own family.
We must also “sing” of justice to others. Too many leaders—clerics, parents, teachers, and others—have stopped singing of justice, of the righteousness that God both offers and insists upon. Justice is more than caring for the poor and recognizing human dignity. It includes every aspect of living in a right relationship to God and the truth He reveals. It thus includes every aspect of the moral life and summons our conformity to what God reveals. The just person cares for the poor and for a just social order, but he also abhors and avoids fornication, adultery, divorce, lying, gossip, false religion, godlessness, theft, greed, and every other distortion of moral truth.
Mercy is joined to justice in the psalm because great patience is often required as we journey to the justice to which God summons us. Mercy bids us to work patiently for and proclaim the justice of God’s truth and to realize that people need time to hear and repent. Mercy is not an inordinate tolerance or a caving in to evil; it is a virtue that enables us to lament the awful state of God’s people, who are so often confused and lost in the immoral fog of this world. Out of this concern we patiently work to establish God’s truth more firmly in our hearts and in the hearts of others, especially those under our care and authority.
Thus, the psalm bids us to call on the Lord and ask that He come to us with His graces in abundance. Help us, Lord. Save us. Have mercy on us and keep us by your grace!
II. Careful Custody of the Senses– I will not set before my eyes whatever is base. I will hate the ways of the crooked.
We live in times of unprecedented exposure to evil, to what is base and coarse. Our lives are almost never quiet. Everywhere there is the noisy clamor of worldly and often sinful voices through television, the Internet, music, movies, advertising, and other media. We can get lost in the small screens of our handheld devices. The distractions, both auditory and visual, are unrelenting. Even the news often features what is controversial, ignoble, violent, strange, and prurient.
We must actively, even aggressively, work to shield our eyes and ears from the steady diet of the world and seek to immerse ourselves more fully and intentionally in what is of God, what is holy and true. To shield our eyes and ears from what is base requires discipline and a firm resolve to turn away from the sinful world and towards the beautiful, serene, lofty beauty of God and His truth.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things (Philippians 4:8).
Simply turning off the television and powering down the electronic devices will not be enough. We must also substitute what is good in their place. Look to higher sources such as EWTN and the growing number of helpful Catholic programs, blogs, and websites. Edifying movies are growing in number and quality.
In keeping custody of the senses, we are demonstrating a deep respect of our minds and those of others over whom we have authority. Most people would never dream of swimming in a polluted river, yet many of these same people think little of plunging their minds into the vilest swamps bubbling with every foul thing.
Thus, the Psalm bids us to hate the ways of the crooked and not set before ourselves what is base and sinful.
III. Caution for the Company We Keep– The false-hearted must keep far away; the wicked I disown. The man of proud looks and haughty heart I will never endure. I look to the faithful in the land that they may dwell with me. He who walks in the way of perfection shall be my friend. No man who practices deceit shall live within my house.
The custody of the senses must also extend to our intentional relationships. St. Paul says,
Do not be deceived: Bad company corrupts good morals (1 Cor 15:33).
He adds elsewhere,
I am writing you not to associate with anyone who claims to be a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a verbal abuser, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat (1 Cor 5:11).
These verses are not an invitation to snobbery but an honest concern to stay free of unnecessary influences. We should be protective of our soul and the souls of those whom we love and over whom we have authority. We live in a world that glamorizes sin and evil as well as those who exemplify and engage in it. We tolerate it all very well and, out of a desire to flatter the powerful or popular, or from a misplaced admiration, keep the wrong company and expose ourselves and others to danger.
Although not in personal relationships with them, we idolize famous athletes, movie stars, and sometimes politicians. We overlook or make excuses for their poor behavior. Never mind that many are false-hearted, haughty, and engage in deceitful and wrongful practices, never mind that; they’re such great actors, or they can throw a ball through a hoop so consistently, or they’re on our side politically.
The psalm bids us to look to the faithful in the land, to those who desire and seek perfection. We should intentionally seek knowledge of them and learn from their influence. Their lives may be less glamorous or popular, but they can assist us in what we most need: truth, virtue, counsel, and good example in the ways of faith.
Be very careful as to the company you keep and the people whom you admire. Do the same on behalf of your children. Do not overlook the corrupting power of bad company. Priests, parents, and other leaders must exhibit great oversight over what and who influences those in their care. They must not leave poor choices unrebuked.
IV. Correction and Culling of Sinners– The man who slanders his neighbor in secret, I will bring to silence.Morning by morning I will silence all the wicked in the land, uprooting from the city of the Lord all who do evil.
Our first action is to correct the sinner and win him over to what is right. Even with our very self, the first step is to remove sin in our life and to moderate the use of lawful pleasures. Sometimes we discover that mere moderation of a lawful pleasure is not possible. For example, wine is a gift from God, but there are some who cannot drink moderately and must therefore abstain entirely or risk grave harm to themselves and others.
Something similar can be said for our approach to fellow sinners. We first seek to admonish and correct, for all people as they come from God are good and beloved by Him. We strive to preserve union with all people of good will who desire the ways of justice and truth. We correct, as the psalm says, by silencing lies and all forms of wickedness. We silence it with the word of truth. Fraternal correction is an obligation we have to others. The psalm says that we must do it “morning by morning,” that is, consistently.
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother (Matt 18:15).
St Paul says,
Brothers, if someone is caught in a trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him with a spirit of gentleness (Gal 6:1).
St. James adds,
My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins (James 5:19-20).
Thus, our first goal in the face of sin is to correct it and to win the sinner back to the Lord. However, there comes a time when, as the psalm says, there must be an uprooting from the city of God of those who persist in sin and are incorrigible.
You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid (Deut 21:21).
Jesus says of the incorrigible sinner,
And if he refuses to listen even to the Church, regard him as you would a pagan or a tax collector (Matt 18:17).
St Paul says the following concerning a particular unrepentant sinner in Corinth:
Hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit might be saved on the Day of the Lord (1 Cor 5:5).
There comes a time when we must establish a firm boundary between ourselves and unrepentant sinners. Exactly when is a matter of prudential judgment.
Too many Church leaders today are rarely willing to consider this option. In this way, sinners are confirmed in their ways and the faithful are disheartened—even scandalized. Parents and other leaders are often lenient to a fault, slow in rebuking and punishing wrongdoing; the evil is never uprooted from the City of God and it spreads like wildfire. The psalm makes it clear that uprooting is sometimes necessary. A good leader needs prudence and courage to undertake such a task, which is done for the good of one and all.
Here, then, are the “Avowals of a Ruler.” Four rules for good, effective leadership.
In more dioceses than not, the Feast of the Ascension is celebrated this Sunday. The liturgist in me regrets the move from Thursday, but here we are any way. Let’s ascend with the Lord, three days late!
This marvelous feast is not merely about something that took place two thousand years ago, for though Christ our head has ascended, we the members of His body are ascending with Him. Because He was ascended, we, too, have ascended. In my own life as a Christian, I am brought higher every year by the Lord, who is drawing me up with Him. This is not some mere slogan, but something I am actually experiencing. An old song says, “I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore. Very deeply stained with sin, sinking to rise no more. But the master of the sea, heard my despairing cry. And from the waters lifted me. Now safe am I. Love Lifted me when nothing else could help. Love lifted me!”
If we are faithful, the feast of the Lord’s Ascension is our feast, too. Let’s look at it from three perspectives.
I. The Fact of the Ascension – The readings today describe a wondrous event witnessed by the Apostles. By His own power, the Lord is taken to Heaven. In so doing, He opens a path for us, too. The gates of paradise swing open again. Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in! (Psalm 24:7) In Christ, man returns to God. Consider three things about the Ascension:
A. The Reality– Imagine the glory of this moment! Scripture says, As they were looking on, he was lifted up and cloud took him from their sight … they were looking intently in the sky as he was going (Acts 1:9). So impressive was the sight that the angels had to beckon them to get along to Jerusalem as the Lord had said, “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Yes, it was glorious. Jesus had once said as a summons to faith, What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? (John 6:62) He had also encouraged them saying, Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man (John 1:51). So here is a glorious reality and a fulfillment of what Jesus had said.
B.The Rescue – In the Ascension, it does not seem that the Lord entered Heaven alone. As we have remarked, in His mystical body we also ascend with Him. Consider this remarkable text that affirms that: Therefore it is said, When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men. In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things (Eph 4:8ff). Yes, the Lord had earlier (just after his death) descended to Sheol, awakened the dead, and preached the Gospel to them (cf 1 Peter 4:6). Now for those He had justified came the moment to ascend, with Jesus as a “host,” as an army of former captives now set free. Behold the great procession that enters behind Christ through the now-opened gates of Heaven: Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Rachel, Judith, Deborah, David, Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Malachi, John the Baptist, … and, one day, you! Yes, this is a great rescue. Adam and his descendants have not simply been restored to some paradise-like garden; they have entered Heaven.
C.The Rejoicing – Consider how this once captive train sings exultantly as they follow Christ upward to Heaven. The liturgy today puts before us a likely song they sang: God mounts his throne to shouts of Joy! The Lord amid trumpet blasts. All you peoples clap your hands, shout to God with cries of gladness, for the Lord the most high, the awesome is the great king over all the earth. God reigns over the nations, God sits upon his holy throne (Psalm 47:6-7). I also have it on the best of authority that they were singing this old gospel song: “I’m so glad Jesus lifted me!” as well as this old Motown song: “Your love is lifting me higher than I’ve ever been lifted before!” More on this tomorrow from the Fathers of the Church.
II. The Fellowship of the Ascension – We have already remarked that, when Christ ascends, we ascend. Why and how? Scripture says, Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it (1 Cor 12:27). It also says, All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. By baptism we were buried together with him so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of God the Father, we too might live a new and glorious life. For if we have been united with him by likeness to his death we shall be united with him by likeness to his resurrection (Rom 6:3ff). When Christ died, we died. When Christ rose, we rose. When He ascends, we ascend.
But, you may say, He is in glory while I am still here. How is it that I am ascended or ascending? Consider a humorous example using our physical bodies. When I get on an elevator and press the button for the top floor, the top of my head gets there before the soles of my feet, but the whole body will get there unless some strange loss of integrity or tragic dismemberment takes place. In an analogous way, so it is with Jesus’ mystical body. In Christ, our Head, we are already in glory. Some members of His Body have already gotten there. We who come later will get there too, provided we remain members of His Body. Yes, we are already ascended in Christ, our Head. We are already enthroned in glory with Him, if we hold fast and stay a member of His Body. This is the fellowship of the Ascension.
III. The Fruitfulness of the Ascension – Jesus does not return to Heaven to abandon us. He is more present to us than we are to ourselves. He is with us always to the end of the age (cf Matt 28:20). In ascending, without abandoning us, He goes to procure some very important things. Consider four of them:
A. Holy Ghost power– Jesus teaches very clearly that He is ascending in order to send us the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you (Jn 16:7ff). He also says, These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you (Jn 14:25ff). I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come (Jn 16:13-14). So the Lord goes in order that with the Father, He might send the Holy Spirit to live within us as in a temple. In this way, and through the Eucharist, He will dwell with us even more intimately than when He walked this earth.
B. Harvest – Jesus says, And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me (John 12:32). While the immediate context of this verse is the crucifixion, the wonder of John’s gospel is that he often intends double meanings. Clearly Christ’s glorification is His crucifixion, but it also includes His resurrection and ascension. So, from His place in glory, Christ is drawing all people to Himself. He is also bestowing grace on us from His Father’s right hand to be His co-workers in the harvest: But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8). Yes, from His place in glory, Christ is bringing in a great harvest. As He said in Scripture, Do you not say, “Four months more and then the harvest”? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. 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 (Jn 4:35-38). Harvest! It is the Lord’s work from Heaven in which we participate.
C. Help – At the Father’s right hand, Jesus intercedes for us. Scripture says, Consequently he is able, for all time, to save those who draw near to God through him, since he lives always to make intercession for them (Heb 7:25). The Lord links his ascension to an unleashing of special power: Amen, amen, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son (Jn 14:12).
We must not understand asking in the name of Jesus as a mere incantation, for to ask in His name means to ask in accord with His will. Yet we must come to experience the power of Jesus to draw us up to great and wondrous things in His sight. Despite the mystery of iniquity all about us, we trust that Christ is conquering, even in the puzzling and apparent victories of this world’s rebellion. In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Though, at present we do not see everything subject to him, yet we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor … 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 2:8-9; 14-15). Thus, from Heaven we have the help of the Lord’s grace which, if we will accept it, is an ever-present help unto our salvation.
D. Habitation – Jesus indicates that in going to Heaven, He is preparing a place for us: In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also (Jn 14:2ff). Yes, Jesus has the blueprints out and the hard hat on. He is overseeing the construction of a mansion for each of us that we may dwell with Him, the Father, and the Spirit forever.
Here, then, are the ways that Christ, by His love, is lifting us higher than we’ve ever been lifted before. Yes, love lifted me when nothing else could help; love lifted me.
Following up on Sunday’s Gospel and noting that in the Office of Readings during the sixth week of Easter, we read from the First Letter of John, We return to the connection of the Law and the keeping of the Commandments. The first letter of John emphasizes the Incarnation of Jesus and demands that we experience the Word becoming Flesh in a practical way in our own lives.
Fundamentally, the Incarnation, the Second Person of the Trinity becoming flesh, means that our faith is about things that are tangible. As human beings, we have bodies. We have a soul that is spiritual, but it is joined with a body that is physical and material. Hence it is never enough for our faith to be about only thoughts, philosophies, concepts, or historical facts. Their truth must also touch the physical part of who we are. Our faith must become flesh; it has to influence our behavior. If that is not the case, then the Holy Spirit, speaking through John, has something to call us: liars.
God’s love for us in not just a theory or idea. It is a flesh and blood reality that can be seen, heard, and touched. The challenge of the Christmas season is for us to allow the same thing to happen to our faith. The Word of God and our faith cannot simply remain on the pages of a book or in the recesses of our intellect. They must become flesh in our life. Our faith has to leap off the pages of the Bible and the Catechism and become flesh in the way we live our life, the decisions we make, and the way we use our body, mind, intellect, and will.
Consider the following passage, from 1 John. (This excerpt is fairly representative of the tone of entire letter).
The way we may be sure that we know Jesus is to keep his commandments. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps his word, the love of God is truly perfected in him. This is the way we may know that we are in union with him: whoever claims to abide in him ought to walk just as he walked (1 John 2:3ff).
Note some teachings that follow from it:
1. Faith is incarnational.What a practical man John is! Faith is not an abstraction; it is not merely about theories and words on a page. It cannot be reduced to slogans or pious sayings. It is about a transformed life; it is about truly loving God and making His Commandments manifest in the way we live. It is about the loving of neighbor. True faith is incarnational. That is to say, it takes on flesh in our very “body.”
Human beings are not pure spirit; we are not just intellect and will but also flesh and blood. What we are must also be reflected in our bodies, in what we physically do.
Many people spout this phrase too often: “I’ll be with you in spirit.” Perhaps an occasional physical absence is understandable, but after a while the phrase rings hollow. Showing up physically and doing what we say is an essential demonstration of our sincerity. Our faith must include a physical, flesh-and-blood dimension.
2. A sure sign – John said, The way we may be sure that we know Jesus is to keep his commandments. Now be careful of the logic here. The keeping of the commandments is not the cause of faith; it is more the fruit of it. It is not the cause of love; it is the fruit of it.
In Scripture, “knowing” refers to more than an intellectual level. It refers to deep, intimate, personal experience of the thing or person. It is one thing to know about God; it is another thing to “know the Lord.”
John is saying here that in order to be sure that we have deep, intimate, personal experience of God, we must change the way we live. An authentic faith, an authentic knowing of the Lord, will change our behavior in such a way that we keep the commandments as a fruit of that authentic faith and relationship with Him. It means that our faith becomes flesh in us. Theory becomes practice and experience. It changes the way we live and move and have our being.
For a human being, faith cannot be a mere abstraction. In order to be authentic, it has to become flesh and blood. In a later passage, John uses the image of walking: This is the way we may know that we are in union with him: whoever claims to abide in him ought to walk just as he walked (1 John 2:6). Although walking is a physical activity, it is also symbolic. The very place we take our body is physical, but it is also indicative of what we value, what we think.
3. Liar? –John went on to say, Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not keep his commandments is a liar. This is strong language. Either we believe and thus keep the commandments, or we are lying about really knowing the Lord and we fail to keep the commandments.
Don’t all of us struggle to keep the commandments fully? John seems so “all or nothing” in his words. His math is clear, though. To know the Lord fully is never to sin (cf 1 John 3:9). If we know Him only imperfectly, we still experience sin. Hence, the more we know Him (remember the definition of “know”) the less we sin. If we still sin, it is a sign that we do not know Him enough.
It is not really John who speaks too absolutely; it is we who do so. We say, “I have faith. I am a believer. I love the Lord. I know the Lord.” Perhaps we would be more accurate by saying, “I am growing in faith. I am striving to be a better believer. I am learning to love and know the Lord better and better.” If we do not, then we risk lying. Faith is something we grow in.
Many in the Protestant tradition tend to reduce faith to an event: answering an altar call or accepting the Lord as “personal Lord and savior.” We Catholics do it, too. Many Catholics think that all they have to do is be baptized; they don’t bother to attend Mass faithfully later. Others claim to be “loyal” or even “devout” Catholics yet dissent from important Church teachings. Faith is about more than membership. It is about the way we walk, the decisions we make. Without this harmony between faith and action, we live a lie. We lie to ourselves and to others. The bottom line is that if we really come to know the Lord more and more perfectly, we will grow in holiness, keep the commandments, and be of the mind of Christ. We will walk just as Jesus walked and our claim to faith will be the truth and not a lie.
4. Uh oh, is this salvation by works? No, but it is a reminder that we cannot separate faith and works. The keeping of the commandments is not the cause of saving or real faith. Properly understood, the keeping of the commandments is the result of saving faith actively present and at work within us. It indicates that the Lord is saving us from sin and its effects.
The Protestant tradition erred in dividing faith and works. In the 16th century, the cry when up from Protestants that we are saved by “faith alone.” Faith is never alone; it always brings effects with it.
Our brains can get in the way here and tempt us to think that just because we can distinguish or divide something in our mind we can do so in reality, but this is not always the case.
Consider, for a moment, a flame. It has the qualities of heat and light. We can separate the two in our mind, but not in reality. I could never take a knife and divide the heat of the flame from its light. They are so interrelated as to be one reality. Yes, heat and light in a flame are distinguishable theoretically, but they are always together in reality.
This is how it is with faith and works. Faith and works are distinguishable theoretically, but the works of true faith and faithitself are always together in reality. We are not saved by works alone or by faith alone. They are together. Faith without works is dead (James 2:14). In other words, faith without works is a nonexistent concept; it is not a saving or living faith. Rather, as John teaches here, to know the Lord by living faith is always accompanied by keeping the commandments and walking as Jesus did.
So, faith is incarnational. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, really and physically. Similarly, our own faith must become flesh in us, in our actual behavior.
The following was sung in my own parish by the St. Luke’s Ordinariate Choir:
At daily Mass, we are reading the story of St. Paul’s arrival in Philippi and later of his arrest, beating, and imprisonment. It serves as a kind of metaphor for the radical nature of true Christianity and why it so perturbs many in this world. The Christian faith, its message, and the transformation it can effect can be very unsettling to a world that literally and figuratively “banks on” sin. Let’s consider this lesser- known story and see what it ought to mean for us if we take our Christian faith seriously and do not try to “tame” it.
Philippi was the first “European” city that Paul evangelized when he came across from Asia Minor. Arriving at the port of Philippi in Macedonia, Paul and Silas went right to work evangelizing. One of their first converts was Lydia, a wealthy woman from Thyatira who was a dealer in purple cloth; other converts followed.
Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. This girl followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” She kept this up for many days. Finally, Paul became so troubled that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” At that moment the spirit left her.
When the owners of the slave girl realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”
The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten. After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. Upon receiving such orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks (Acts 16:16-24).
Note the heart of the problem: St. Paul, in setting the slave girl free of her demon has deprived her “owners” of the income they derived from her sad state. They were banking on her bad condition and profiting from her trouble. In the name and power of Jesus Christ, St. Paul sets her free. His action draws deep anger from the “owners.” He has rocked their world; he has touched their pocketbooks. They find the Christian message, for it is revolutionary, to be disconcerting, threatening, and deeply unsettling.
It is a threat not only to profit but to power. In having Paul and Silas arrested, they stir up the hatred and fear of others as well, accusing them not only of preaching some strange new religion but of advocating customs forbidden to Romans. The word translated here as “customs” is ἐθη (ethe) in Greek, and refers to “religious rites or forms of worship.” In De Legibus, ii. 8, Cicero wrote, “No person shall have any separate gods, or new ones; nor shall he privately worship any strange gods, unless they be publicly allowed.” While the Romans often overlooked the private worship of unapproved gods, publicly proclaiming new and unapproved deities was an occasion for dissension and controversy and was strictly forbidden.
Frankly, the charges against Paul and Silas are true enough. In the healing they brought about, they have hindered profit. Further, they were openly proclaiming that Jesus was Lord. To our ears that is a religious proclamation, but to Roman ears it was a provocative and revolutionary statement. It was directly contrary to their proclamation that Caesar was Lord. Yes, Paul, Silas, Luke, and the others were shaking the ground in Philippi! While they were not advocating the overthrow of any government, they were announcing a power greater than Caesar, a higher King who demanded our first loyalty.
This is not the “tame” proclamation of the faith so common today. This is not a faith that is adjusted to fit into worldly categories. This is not a faith tucked in after political, philosophical, and moral preferences. This is a faith that shakes the world and brings a revolutionary challenge to its priorities. Yes, Paul and Silas pose a serious threat.
What of us today? We have gone through a long period during which we have lived the faith quietly; it generally fit quite well into the world in which we lived. Harmony and “getting along” were highly prized. Particularly here in America, Catholics wanted to reassure the general populace that our faith in no way hindered us from being full participants in the American scene and that we could fit right in and be just like everyone else. With the election of the first Catholic president back in 1960, we could say that we had made it and had been fully accepted. Finally, we fit in.
Of course the culture was not in such disrepair in those days. There was still a fairly wide moral consensus rooted in the Judeo-Christian vision. Having finally “made it,” though, we have assumed room temperature; the fire of our distinctively Catholic culture seems to have faded away. At the same time, Western culture has also largely died. (Is that really a coincidence?)
In recent years, so-called Catholic universities and other Catholic institutions have begun caving in: giving marriage benefits to same-sex bedfellows and succumbing to the HHS mandates to provide contraceptives and abortifacients. It is sad, pathetic, wrong, and cowardly—hardly the revolutionary faith that got Paul arrested.
Now we are coming full circle. We must rediscover how revolutionary our Catholic faith truly is to this world gone mad. As we proclaim healing and an allegiance to something other than this world, however, we will become increasingly obnoxious to the world around us.
Let’s consider more thoroughly the two offenses for which Paul and Silas were beaten and imprisoned:
They ate away at profit – Paul drove a terrible demon out of a slave girl, a demon that afflicted her but profited her “owners.” There is a great deal of trafficking in sin and addiction today. Terrible demons afflict many people in the areas of sexuality, drugs, and alcohol. There’s a lot of money to be made peddling pornography; sex sells. Hollywood movie producers, purveyors of contraceptives, pimps, escort services, abortionists, and even traffickers in the sex slave industry also feed at the trough. Drugs and alcohol are big money makers as well. Huge numbers of products are sold using the demon of fear that says, “You’re not pretty enough,” “You’re not healthy enough,” “You’re getting old,” “You don’t drive the right car,” “You don’t wear the right clothes.” The demons of fear, low self-esteem, and greed all work together.
What would happen if the Church were to start effectively preaching unabridged Christianity? What if we started saying, “You don’t need to be afraid of your health, your age, or what people think of you. You can find serenity in Christ so that you won’t feel you need for those drugs. You can be set free from your enslavement to sex, take authority over your passions, and discover the beauty of traditional marriage.” What if we got back in the business of driving out demons?
Well, of course the answer is that we, like Paul, would be under attack. In fact, we are under attack. We are especially hated by the sex industry and the abortionists because that that issue has so much focus these days. To them we are public enemy number one. We threaten the vision, the addiction, and the despair that fills their coffers. If we are too successful (and for now our successes are meager) their profits might dry up. Yes, we must be dealt with.
We will only be effective if we preach the unabridged faith, not a faith that is adjusted, not a faith that is subordinated to worldly priorities, not a faith that insists on being “realistic,” not a faith that apologizes to the world no matter how much we water things down. The true faith is revolutionary in the freedom it offers from sin and demons.
Paul and Silas didn’t wind up in prison by preaching a watered-down, domesticated moral vision. They unabashedly drove out a demon that was afflicting a girl; in so doing they engaged in a revolutionary threat to a world that profits handsomely from sin.
2. They threatened power – Calling Jesus “Lord” was a revolutionary threat to the incumbent power that demanded first and full loyalty. Today, many try to make Catholics fit into tidy political categories. Both Republicans and Democrats want the Church to march in lockstep with their party platform. Even many Catholics in those parties want the Church to conform. Many Catholics in fact are more loyal to their party than to the Church; they are more passionate about their political views than their faith. If there is a conflict between Church teaching and the party line, guess which one usually gives way!
In the end, the Church will not just fit into some neat political category. The true faith is too revolutionary to fit into some worldly box.
Thus there is a lot of hatred and anger directed at the Church. Republicans say we’re too liberal; Democrats say we’re too conservative. More and more we are being shown the door, kicked to the curb; our very right to religious liberty is being threatened. Religious exemptions to increasingly pernicious laws are slowly being removed and lawsuits against Catholic institutions are increasing. It will surely get worse as secular systems demand increasing loyalty. The Church must refuse to give that loyalty.
Jesus (not the federal, state or local government) is Lord. Jesus is not Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal. He is God, and the faith He announces cannot be watered down or compromised to fit into a friendship with the world.
No domesticated Christianity will change the world. When Paul preached, the people rioted. Modern preaching too often incites only yawns and indifference.
What should we learn from St. Paul’s arrest at Philippi? That the true faith is revolutionary and threatens the world right where it hurts: in the profit and power centers. As the world becomes increasingly secular, the revolutionary aspect of the faith will become more evident.