About Fr. Steve Kelley

...is a happy Catholic Priest, ordained 2013 for the Diocese of Harrisburg. He is currently assigned as the pastor of Holy Trinity Parish in Columbia, PA. He started this blog to provide personal opinions, speculative theology, and commentary on various theological and social issues. "I ask that if you find anything edifying, anything consoling, anything well presented, that you give all praise, all glory and all honor to the Blessed Son of God Jesus Christ. If on the other hand, you find anything that is ill composed, uninteresting or not to well explained, you impute and attribute it to my weakness, blindness, and lack of skill." - St. Anthony of Padua

Homily: Love Thy Neighbor

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) (link to readings)
Exodus 22:20-26
Psalm 18:2-3, 3-4, 47, 51
1 Thessalonians 1:5c-10
Matthew 22:34-40

Today’s Gospel reading connects beautifully to the readings we’ve had the last few weeks. What is the greatest commandment? “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.” In other words, render unto God what belongs to God. We can be Caesar’s good servants because we are God’s first. All these are different ways Jesus is reminding us of that first and greatest commandment: First, things first, and God is always first, in every way, with all of our being.

How do we respond and comply to this first and greatest command? By keeping the Lord’s Day holy and set apart. By actively participating in the holy sacrifice of prayer and worship that is the Mass, on all Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. By daily and frequent prayer and reading with the holy scriptures. By praying the rosary and participating in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament as much as reasonably possible. By tithing our income. By volunteering and participating in the Church’s ministries, groups, and events. By living one’s life in perfect conformity with the truth God reveals to us in his word and his Church. And by regularly reconciling with God and his Church through the Sacrament of Reconciliation whenever one falls into mortal sin. Essentially, uniting your will, your mind, your heart, your soul, to God through Jesus in the Holy Spirit. Do that, and you will live.

In Jesus’ time, it was common for scholars of the law, the scribes, to test an unknown rabbi and their interpretation of the law by asking them to choose which of the hundreds of laws was the most important. Jesus didn’t quote any of those hundreds of laws. He quoted the Shema, the verse of Deuteronomy that faithful Jews recited three times every day, which everyone knew, the way we know the Our Father. The full text of the Shema says, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD; and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” In other words, filling one’s life with God’s presence and truth at all times, in all places, in all conversations, including diligently passing this on to the children of each generation. Just as the Our Father is the perfect prayer, the Shema is the perfect commandment.

Then Jesus goes one step more. He gives us the practical application of this perfect commandment, the way for us to fulfill it in the way we live and witness our love for God. He says: “The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Ah, there’s the rub. As Saint John says in his first letter, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.”

Jesus took his first commandment from the Shema in the Book of Deuteronomy, and he takes his second commandment from the book of Leviticus: “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your own people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.” I’ll remind you that when Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbor?” his response was the parable of the Good Samaritan, showing that we are called to show mercy to everyone: in a liberal, not a restrictive, interpretation of the words “neighbor,” and “your own people.”

So what does that look like, for us as the people of God? It looks like our first reading. We go back to the 2nd book of the bible, Exodus, in a scene in which Moses has just come down from the mountain of God with the ten commandments, and he is instructing the people in the moral code that is to be the law of Israel. It is the Torah, the great gift that sets Israel apart for the divine wisdom of their law. God connects his law with Israel’s recent experience in Egypt, as strangers in another people’s land, vulnerable, and dependent upon others for their survival.

Thus says the LORD: ‘You shall not molest or oppress an alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.” Immigrants have a humanity, a human dignity, that morally must be honored, under all circumstances. There is great risk and suffering in attempting to settle your family (or just part of your family) in a new country for a new life, assimilating into a new culture and community. They–and the people of the nation they’re looking to for hope–need better than a broken, inhumane system. Our national immigration policy hasn’t been sufficiently updated or funded, and it needs to be fixed as an urgent priority. But immigrants, aliens, asylum seekers, are of particular concern of God and his people, because they are vulnerable, in a position of weakness and need of protection, affirmation, and hospitality. And it is an act of divine love to welcome them and support them.

You may remember a situation in 2015, when (after an ACLU lawsuit) Catholic Charities was eliminated from the government's program of temporarily housing and caring for immigrants because Catholic Charities did not include access to abortion in the healthcare offered to its refugee/immigrant residents. This example, and that of Catholic Charities pulling out of the adoption services in Illinois' adoption program because it refused to adopt children to same-sex couples, illustrates the difficult dynamic of faith-based providers (adhering to their faith) working with (and receiving funding from) government social services.

You shall not wrong any widow or orphan. If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry. My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword; then your own wives will be widows, and your children orphans.” What is this? Social injustice, systemic dependency, racial prejudice, unlivable wages, systemic poverty, unaffordable or unavailable medical and mental healthcare. These are all issues described by the US Bishops as grave sins against the dignity of human life. We cannot address these issues with any flavor of Socialism or Communism, which the Church has clearly condemned for their systemic sins against human dignity. We can never solve a sinful problem with a sinful solution. And the government is not necessarily the best way for these problems to be solved. But there would be no outcry for Socialism if these problems were to be solved voluntarily, without the need for the government to compel by legislation.

And the last one from our reading, “If you lend money to one of your poor neighbors among my people, you shall not act like an extortioner toward him by demanding interest from him.” To me this might sound a bit like the cry of those trapped under decades of student loan payments, looking for hope. I get that students willingly agreed to take out these loans, and we can say that their consequences are just. But also remember that their oppressive student loan debt is a factor in their cohabiting and putting off marriage, delaying having children by using contraception and abortion, and the general despair, depression, and outcry about economic inequality. A lot of moral problems we lament could be greatly helped by finding a merciful solution to this problem. And that applies to many of the issues the bishops outlined in their document on forming consciences according to Catholic social teaching. Absolutely, abortion is the most urgent and egregious issue. But while we combat that issue, we must also combat the myriad other issues of systemic injustice and sin that infect our society and violate Catholic social teaching. Again, I encourage you to read the Bishops’ document if you haven’t done so yet.

Lastly, this social dimension, the second commandment of Jesus, takes on a particular importance in the Christian covenant. Not only does our neighbor bear the image of God in his or her humanity, but through baptism, our neighbor is our brother or sister in Christ. The poor and vulnerable come to us as Christ our brother, in need of our compassion. What you did (or did not do) for one of these, the least of my brothers, you did (or did not do) for me. And so because our neighbor is Jesus who has come to us in need, and because Jesus is God, this two-fold commandment folds back up into a single commandment of love: love for our neighbor is love for God, and justice denied to our neighbor is justice denied to God.

To love ourselves is to desire for ourselves justice, freedom, dignity, affirmation, kindness, truth, and salvation through Christ. And to love our neighbor as ourselves is to bring our desire for them to have that into our desire for our ourselves to have that, because they are united to us in Christ.

The cross is the center of our faith. The horizontal, social dimension, and the vertical, transcendent dimension, meet and are united in Christ. We are called to reach out in mercy to others, in Christ, because God has reached out in mercy to us, in Christ. We are our neighbors’—our brothers’ and sisters’—good servants, because we are God’s first.


This is a transcription (slightly edited for length and continuity) of a conversation between Matthew S. Leonard, who runs his Catholic Podcast “The Art of Catholic,” and Dr. Andrew Jones, author of the book pictured above, “Before Church and State: A Study of Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX.” You can find the audio of this interview here, if you prefer, and I highly recommend it. I tend to listen to Catholic podcasts and lectures through the BlueTooth audio in my car. But I wanted to type this out so that I could search it and reference it as the need arises. And in doing so, I was reminded just how monumental this concept is. I read the book with great interest and joy, and that too, I highly recommend. The link is above. So in the interview below, I don’t really distinguish between what’s Matt, and what’s Andrew. But if you read through it, I have no doubt it will be quite eye-opening, and I hope you will take that as a cue to buy and read the book. Enjoy!

Almost all of us have been co-opted by a completely false narrative that has totally corrupted our view of the world and our practice of the faith. Among other things, we’re going to look at the whole notion of “church and state”: categories that are treated almost as gospel by the modern world. And we’re going to expose how what so many of us have taken for granted as gospel truth is basically bull. In other words, the very categories that we use are totally modern inventions that totally undermine the very fabric of a Christian worldview and the Catholic Church, frankly, in particular.

So much of what we have been taught all of our lives is intrinsically opposed to our beliefs, and many of us have accepted it blindly, even though it essentially crushes our faith.

The way we’re going to approach all of this is to set off the problem of the narrative we’ve been fed, and then go back and look at how things really were, using the high middle ages as an example: the time before there was such a thing as “Church and State.” What we’re going to see is that the way things have progressed from there (or regressed, as it were) basically has made it so that Christianity has nothing to say about the way things are structured in society. So we’re going to try to start to put things back in their right order and realign our perspective to a truly Catholic worldview.

And to help us begin this rethinking is a guest with whom regular listeners to the program are familiar: Dr. Andrew Jones. He’s got a PhD in Medieval History from St. Louis University, and is an expert on the Church in the High Middle Ages. He is a faculty fellow at Franciscan University, and is also the Executive Director at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He loves to destroy the anti-Catholic paradigms and the false narratives we’re all taught to believe. He has a new book: “Before Church and State – A Study of the Social Order in Saint Louis IX’s Sacramental Kingdom.” I think many of you will find this book, and hopefully our discussion today particularly relevant, given what’s happening in society.

History’s about human beings, and it’s about the course of human beings in time. In order to do history, you necessarily bring in the theory of anthropology, or theory of humanity: who is this thing that I’m studying, called man? What are we? And modernity has a certain answer to that question, and Christianity has a different one. And so if we go to history, to the evidence of history as a Christian, we’re going to see things differently, because we believe human beings are different than the way modernity presents them as.

In the past, in the Middle Ages, which we all imagine as rainy and dark and muddy, there was the Church, and there were the kings. The pope and the bishops on one side, and then there was the king and the knights and all of those. These are two different institutions, and what you’re looking at in the middle ages, there’s a lot of conflict between the two. This is the typical narrative to those who read history.

And the way we normally tell it is that the Church (so the bishops and the papacy) are corrupt, by which we mean (and you see this by the way Hollywood makes movies about them) that they’re trying to be involved in politics, basically. So they’re after power, or wealth, or whatever the things that politics are about, the Church is trying to be in charge of that, or take over it, or somehow be involved, and the result is conflict with the monarchy, with the various kings and the emperors. And so, you have the battle between the Church and State. And this manifests itself in multiple different conflicts, most famously with the investiture controversy, which if you’re kind of a history buff, you recognize the story. But basically, the story is normally told, is that over the course of the middle ages, the papacy in its attempt to beat the monarchies, sort of corrupted itself to the point where it lost all credibility. And when it did that, that’s when you get into the Avignon papacy, where the papacy is moved into France, because it’s dominated by the French monarchy. While at the same time, the papacy is sort of corrupting itself, and the bishops along with them.

In politics you have the construction of the monarchies. So the French and the English in particular, starting in the 11th century. And so you have the two corresponding movements: the decline of the power of the papacy, and the rise of the monarchies. And they’re presented as necessarily correlated in that way. Because the power of the papacy is defined, basically, as its ability to coerce monarchies. So if the monarchies are getting stronger, the papacy’s getting weaker. That’s the way we normally tell the story.

So then you move into the early modern period where you have confessionalization, basically all that means is the creation of State Churches, Protestant or Catholic, it doesn’t matter. And then you get the wars of religion spin out of that, where all these kings are fighting each other, and their religion is all wrapped up into it. And that’s universally viewed as being this horrible sequence of events that are primarily caused by the confusion of religion and politics.

And what we get out of that is the final modern “proper” sorting, where religion becomes a private, reflective category called “morality.” And then you have politics and economics, that are a different category. And the politics and economics become the social and public thing, and religion and morality becomes the private thing. The perfect example of this would be Catholic politicians who say things like, “Well, I’m personally opposed to abortion, but you know, when I’m voting for the public good or making laws, I’m going to act this other way, because my religion is separate from the secular world.”

But the reason why people can say those sorts of things is because when we say religion, now, what we mean is “things that don’t really matter.” That sounds like an extreme thing to say, but I believe that’s kind of what we mean. So, what doesn’t really matter? Heaven. And when I say it doesn’t really matter, it doesn’t really matter here and now, as I walk down the street. Your relationship with God. So, your prayer life. What you do on Sunday morning. You go to the Sacraments or you don’t. You go to church or you don’t. None of these things affect the stock market. None of these things affect the war in Iraq. And so they’re not important. That’s what I mean by religion. We’ve created this category, in the modern period, where we can sort certain things that used to have real significance, socially, and declare them to be insignificant, socially, and then have a place for them to continue to survive.

The modern period was not interested, at least in its early phases, with the annihilation of Christianity. That’s not really what it’s about. In fact I would argue that, in contrary, that the modern period in a lot of ways constructs Christianity as a religion as we know it, as something that can be compared to something like Islam or Buddhism, like one religion among many.  Where do we get that idea? Well that’s a modern idea, where you have this category called “religion,” and there can be different kinds of people who have different religions. [And when we’re saying, “religion doesn’t matter, we’re talking about it from the view of modernity.] My argument is going to be that this is totally wrong.

Take someone like John Locke, for example. So John Locke basically defined religion as that category of a person’s life that is a matter of opinion, a matter of personal beliefs. And what defines it as that is that it doesn’t have social consequences. So, for example John Locke is all about religious liberty, but not for Catholics. Why? Because he’ll argue that Catholicism isn’t really a religion. Catholicism is political. Because Catholicism makes demands on the body politic, on society. And so that makes it political, as a matter of definition, not religious.

This is the same sort of thing, you can see this today, with Islam. In the pop culture we have the narrative of Islam is peaceful, it’s a peaceful religion. And that people who kill in the name of Islam are distorting it. Really (modernity will say), they’re being political. It’s a political action that’s using the religion of Islam as a tool for its ideological objectives.

But my point here is that, that’s a modern understanding of religion, and that’s all a matter of definitions. As soon as a religion becomes politically meaningful, then by definition it’s not religion anymore. So, Islam is peaceful, because all religion is peaceful. That’s what religion is. Religion is this peaceful thing we do in our private life. As soon as we try to take it out of that, and apply it anywhere else, then it becomes political, and then it’s a perversion of religion. And this is just modernity projecting its definitions of its terms. There’s no real substance there. So religion is defined as this private reflective peaceful (because it’s not politically relevant) category. And religion operates, then, within [the space politics allows it].

Here’s another example, which is great, where you can see this. The contraception mandate. What do we have going on there? The government is saying that certain businesses have to provide contraception to their employees regardless of their personal religious beliefs. Look at the way I just phrased that: “their personal religious beliefs.” So we’ve created this distinction. And what the government’s saying here is that, once you go out into the marketplace, then that’s in the public space; that’s no longer the place where religion operates. So your religious beliefs are relevant at home, and they’re relevant on Sunday, and they’re relevant those places, and that’s fine, that’s where they can survive. But once you go out into the marketplace, and start a business, then that’s where economics and politics happen, not religion. So it’s inappropriate for religion to govern how you perform those functions. And so, it’s ok for the State to coerce you to provide contraception.

The point, though, is that, that used to not be the case. So only a few decades ago, it would have seemed obvious that a private business owner, that the way he ran his business was a part of his religious beliefs. [Well you see this right now with the bakeries that won’t bake the cake to celebrate the wedding of two homosexuals.] Exactly right. So what you’re seeing happening is the re-definition of religion. So religion as a category is a category that functions within the secular politics [within the view of modernity]. That means that secular politics gets to define what the boundaries of religion are: what counts as religious and what doesn’t. That’s just another way of saying, to modernity, what are you allowed to do, and what are you not allowed to do. It doesn’t matter to us if you do this and this and this, so that’s religion. It matters to us if you do this, so that’s no longer religion, now it’s politics. What I’m arguing is that, within modernity, religion is a category of domination [by secular politics], really. To view Christianity as simply a religion, and to accept modernity’s terms on what that means, is to say that Christianity doesn’t really have anything to say about the structure of society. [And that’s where we are.]

Religious liberty, religion, all these ideas, these categories, are concepts that the overriding fundamental secular dominance controls. So what does it mean to have religious liberty? It’s like, I have the right to do this sort of thing, this list of things, in juxtaposition to this whole other world which isn’t a part of those things. [You’re setting them up against one another.]  But religious liberty, or the thing we’re free to do, which is called religion, subsists within the larger context, which is the secular. And the secular really gets to determine where the boundaries are. The government gets to say what counts as religious liberty and what doesn’t. [The secular is basically the reality, and religion just sort of exists as part of that reality.]

[So your whole argument here is basically is that there is an integration, there used to be, an integration of all this, so that these categories didn’t exist previously.] What I argue is not that in the past, the religious and the secular and the political and the Church were all mixed up together. What I’m trying to suggest is that those categories themselves didn’t exist.

Let’s talk about Sovereignty. Thomas Hobbes. 17th century, English. And he is one of the founding fathers of modern political thought. Thomas Hobbes famously wrote the book, “Leviathan.” And what he argues in it is that mankind, in its state of nature, as he calls it, is engaged in a war of “all against all.” So there’s just continual violence and each individual against every other individual, they’re all trying to seek their personal gain at the expense of each other, and that this is really sort of a nasty world. This is the famous Hobbes quote (I’m not sure I’m going to get it exactly right) that, “in the state of nature, man’s existence is nasty, brutish, and short.” What’s the solution to this war of all against all? And what Hobbes tells us is that the solution is for everybody to surrender their power to inflict violence against each other to one power, one person, who assembles together all of that power, and then has the ability to inflict violence everywhere and always; and that his power will be so overwhelming that all the other people in society will refrain from exerting their own violence, because if they do so, they’ll get the wrath of this Sovereign against them. So he’ll enforce peace. But the way in which he enforces peace is suppression of all violence. So the idea is that as soon as the overwhelming violence of the State, of the Sovereign, is weak enough that someone thinks they can get away with an act of violence against someone and profit from it, they’ll do it. Modern political thought starts here, with this idea of the conflict between people necessarily. This is human nature. There really is something to that. What is human nature? Human nature is totally depraved. [This is a completely Protestant notion, obviously, of original sin.]

One thing that is important, also, is that if that is correct, if Hobbes is right, then modern political theory may be correct. The only way you achieve any type of peace is with the overwhelming power of a State that monopolizes all violence in society, and is capable of enforcing a concord between people [a police force].

So, the Sovereign is that absolute power that all legitimate power in society is derived from. So it’s all delegation from the Sovereign. But it’s not simply that it’s the absolute power. It has to be all-encompassing power. So there’s nothing that falls outside of the power of the Sovereign. There’s no compartments of society that the Sovereign couldn’t exert force in if he saw fit.

So we have all these things like constitutions, and all these legal ways of managing the sovereign power. But when it really comes down to it, the Sovereign power can make war. Including civil war. And that is the suspension of whatever those legal formalities are. So we can have all the constitutions we want. But if there’s always the sovereign power to suspend that in the name of peace, that’s one of the defining features of sovereignty. So there is no legal limit to the power of the Sovereign. There can’t be.

[What’s the alternative?] This goes back to anthropology—the question of who we are as human beings. And this is the core of the argument I’m making. The underlying idea that leads to sovereignty is this idea of a ubiquitous and primordial violence, from the state of nature.  And what Catholicism teaches us that that’s not the case. That in fact, the primordial condition is condition of peace and love.

Think of Adam and Eve. And that sin hasn’t led to total depravity [the Protestant teaching of original sin]; sin has wounded us severely [the Catholic teaching of original sin] (and there’s all sorts of political consequences to that, which I can talk about in a minute), but it’s not complete. So, there’s still the ability for charity, for love. And that grace is what actualizes that ability. Through grace we can achieve actual virtue. What the Catholic anthropology shows us is that different people can be united with each other in their difference in a true unity that is not one of domination and submission, and it is not one of destruction of their differences. An example of this would be a father and a son. A father is a father only because he has his son. A son is a son only because he has his father. And they are very different from each other. So, the father’s responsibilities, his duties, his obligations, his role, is very different from that of the son. And their relationship, though, when they come together, if they have a relationship of perfect peace, it’s precisely in those differences that that peace exists. So, they each fulfill their obligations to each other, and they find peace, through love. But it’s not a peace of exchange—it’s a peace of gift. So, the father gives himself to the son, and the son gives himself back to the father. And they give themselves to each other in a way that’s reciprocal, that constitutes each other. Like I said, the father can’t be the father without the son, and vice versa. And it’s precisely their gifts of each other, in their difference between each other that makes their peace a real thing.

[So you’re saying that it’s differences that beget peace, and sameness will lead to violence.] In the Hobbsian modern view, the reason why two men go to war with each other is because they’re different. So one of them has more land than the other, or has land that the other guy wants, whatever it is. And those differences are what opens up the possibility of violence between the two, because they can look at each other and say, I have more power than you, therefore, I can take your things. Or, you have things I want, I’m more powerful, I think I can win, so I’m going to take it. So differences lead to conflict when two people encounter each other. And so the drive in modernity is toward sameness. How do we create peace? We create peace by making everyone the same. And the way that modernity does that is through things like rights.  In the Catholic view, difference is precisely the place where there are things like gifts, duty, responsibility, love. And it’s only in giving those gifts to each other that they have the common good, which is a family. Obviously, the reason why I’m using the father and the son analogy is because of the trinitarian connection. And that is, that man is trinitarian. By analogy we are like the trinity. And the trinity is the ultimate example of different persons whose very personhood contains within it the other persons. You can’t even talk about the Father in the Trinity without talking about the Son and the Holy Spirit. They’re constituted by each other, and yet they’re not lost into each other. Their distinctions are so profound that it’s where we get the very notion of persons. And yet their unity is real. And it’s not the unity of contract, or agreement, or compromise. It’s a true unity of perfect charity.

So, what I’m suggesting here is that in the Catholic anthropology, the Catholic conception of humanity, it’s possible for human beings to associate with each other in a way that is not based in conflict. In fact, we would reverse the modern notion, and say that human beings’ normal way of interacting with each other is in love. And that sin, which is an aberration, which is a distortion of the norm (of the very structure of reality), is where that conflict comes in.

So, what that means then, is that if you go back to that Hobbesian idea, that violence is everywhere and always, and you have the Sovereign, which is just superior violence, and that’s the only path to peace and political order. But in the Catholic conception, we deny those points. It’s not the case that human beings are necessarily always and everywhere at war with each other. And it’s not the case therefore that we need a more powerful human being who has absolute total power over all of us in order to suppress all of our violence.

[So if the modern model is wrong, how does society look, if it’s not that?] The way that I would answer that is to ask, has there ever been a society ordered by Catholic principles, and what did it look like? And that, I think, is 13th century France. It doesn’t mean it’s perfect. And that’s the thing. One of the things that’s overriding in this study is that the overarching thought is about conflict and violence and how we do deal with it, because we live in a fallen world. So it’s not some sort of utopia where there isn’t fighting. The whole father and son analogy is a perfect one, because fathers and sons fight with each other all the time. But we don’t think that a father’s relationship with his son should be the same as a father’s relationship with an employee. We think something should be really different about it. So if you imagine that relationship, of a family, extending out into larger concentric circles, involving more and more people. So you have a nuclear family, then an extended family, then a village, a tribe, a clan—but the difference in relationships is what you have in 13th century France. What that means is that relationships between people are personal.

The first thing is, stop being fooled by modernity’s linguistic games. So, Christianity is not a religion, in the modern sense. It’s a vision of all of reality, all of the cosmos. It’s a worldview that includes everything. So there’s no area of our lives that isn’t governed by what Christianity tells us to be true about the universe. All human interaction is necessarily about charity. It’s all ethical, it all has moral implications. There’s no such thing as an amoral interaction two people.

So what that is, is denying the existence of the secular. It doesn’t exist. If Christians internalize that, then it changes the way we do politics, profoundly. So what that means is that the division is not between the secular and the religious. The division is between the truth and untruth, between virtue and vice, between charity and hatred. Those are the divisions of the world. And so when you view the political scenario, that’s what you’re looking for. Not that there’s some realm of politics or economics that we can engage in in a sort of neutral way. So the first step is we stop thinking that way.

And part of that is acknowledging that other people in society that are not Christians are not themselves neutral. If you really adopt a Christian world view, you’re going to see, you’re really going to start to understand, that the opponents of Christianity are rival theologies, rival churches, rival doctrines. In religion, everything involves these questions of truth and justice.

The second thing to recognize that human beings, that the only way you get out of violence and conflict is through transforming yourself into virtue, and the Church, moving into virtue as a community, who loves God and loves neighbor. To the extent that we don’t do that, to the extent that we are selfish and greedy, and grasping, then the moderns are right, and what  we need is a totalitarian state that treats us as numbers, gives us our little battery of rights, and consigns us to our little place where we can not kill each other. But to the extent that we do move out of sin and into virtue, and to the extent that we do improve ourselves and become faithful and charitable people, that’s not true, and that’s not true of society, either. Because we become sons, and not slaves, as we move toward God.

The point, then, is that politics is not the answer. We can’t look at society and say, oh there’s this big sea of individuals out here and they’re just the way we are, and we need better policies. But Christianity teaches us that the big sea of individuals out there ought to be better people, not just better governed. So, converting society is the only path to peace. Not politics. In fact, politics, by which we mean the use of force to achieve some set of objectives, is precisely the area in the social life where sin reigns, because we’re using violence against people. So, politics is–the goal of our social action ought to be—to make politics as unnecessary as possible. To achieve social virtue to the point that the police functions of society, the coercive aspects, can recede. So, if you want liberty, if you want less state, the only way that works is through virtue. From a Christian perspective, we would like to have less people coerced, because our relationships are based on truth and love and charitable relationships, so that the need for an all-encompassing force just altogether disintegrates (or rather recedes). That’s the eschaton, in heaven. We have no problem imagining an individual getting better spiritually, but we have difficulty imagining society getting better spiritually. But human beings are by nature social, so the pursuit of sanctity is a social thing, it’s an ecclesial thing. And so for a society to pursue sanctity is inevitable if individuals are doing so. It’s two parts of the same movement.

So what does that look like? That’s the thing about a Catholic political theology. It doesn’t view humanity as this great sea of inert desires and movements like the way modern economics or modern political theory does. It views humanity as a large family of individual persons who are to love each other and have relationships with each other. And that that family’s dysfunctional. But correcting that dysfunction is the objective of the Church. And that correction is real. It actually changes. And the way people need to be instructed changes as they grow in sanctity.

If we believe that, we don’t say that there’s some sort of laws of society that are fixed. And if we figure them out properly, and design the correct mechanism, it will construct the perfect society and engineer the way people interact because we have these laws of human behavior. No, actually. The laws of human behavior change as human beings ascend toward God. So those principles of sociology, of economics, of politics, those modern principles, all assume sort of fixed nature of man. And that fixed thing is total depravity.

So you look at economics, and what’s the assumption? The underlying assumption is that man is self-interested, irrational, he makes decisions in his own self-interest, and that there’s a scarcity of resources. By which they mean that everyone would rather have more of everything at every moment if they could. So there’s always a scarcity because you would always take one more if you could. And then all of modern economics is based on that. So, I as a Christian say that’s just not true. That’s not the way human beings are. It’s the way human beings can be, and it’s maybe the way that a lot of are, and maybe the way a lot of society is.  But we don’t have to be that way. And to the extent that we are that way, ok, modern economic theory may be very good at predicting the way we’re going to behave. But it’s not going to be good at predicting the way a convent of cloistered nuns are going to behave. Why? Because they’re not that way.

So we can move away from that starting point and ascend to a higher point. And then our way of understanding human society, politics, has to change with it. What I hope you take away from this discussion is that a lot of the things we take for granted as the narrative is not right, and it’s not the Catholic worldview. This other worldview that has been foisted upon us, a lot of us have just bought this without realizing this isn’t the way that it has to be. The objective of the book is to show a time and a place where things were different, and to allow us therefore to imagine that there is a more Catholic way to approach society than what we find in modernity. We wonder why it is we’re constantly running up against these walls, and butting our heads into the rest of society? It’s because there used to be an integration that does not exist anymore. Catholicism contains the answer, because it’s given to us, the Church has been given to us, by God, so that we can ascend the divine ladder toward Christ and toward our end goal, which is the complete and full integration, that grafting into the family of God for which every one of us was made. That grafting can take place now. This worldview is what everyone one of us is called to, and the only way we’re going to get through is through a life of grace and a life of prayer. It always come back to personal sanctity.

My Favorite Christian Movies

In a recent homily, I rattled off a short list of Catholic movies as a way to introduce my discussion of “A Man for All Seasons.” I got a lot of positive feedback (for which I am very humbled and grateful), and a number of requests for that list. So I decided to assemble my particular list of movies I think Catholics who are into movies would enjoy, or at least would benefit from watching. Some of them are fun; some are more serious dialogue than action; some are difficult to watch and deal with more difficult themes, or have some violent content that parents might want to preview before watching with children. There are movies I intentionally left out, either because I didn’t particularly care for the movie, or haven’t seen the movie, or don’t remember enough of it to include. I’m sure there will be comments of recommendations, and you can take them as you will. There’s a moderate chance that I will also update this list as I watch more movies that feel they would improve my list! God bless, and Enjoy!

So…first, the Catholic movies… (in no particular order)

  • Going My Way (1944) Bing Crosby, Frank McHugh, Risë Stevens
    Bing Crosby plays Fr. O’Malley, a young, joyful priest who replaces a faithful old pastor, and raises up a boy’s choir to help raise funds for the parish
  • The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945) Ingrid Bergman, Bing Crosby
    Bing Crosby reprises his role as Fr. O’Malley, this time to help a Catholic parochial school, run by Mother Superior, played by Ingrid Bergman
  • Nunsense (1993) Rue McClanahan
    A wonderfully funny and moving stage musical presented by a small cast of sisters to raise funds for their convent, and convey the beauty of religious life
  • Sister Act (1992) & Sister Act 2 (1993) Woopie Goldberg, Maggie Smith
    Lounge singer gets in trouble with the mob, Witness Protection hides her in a convent, and she can’t resist but to “help” the sisters’ struggling choir
  • Pope John Paul II (2005) Cary Elwes, John Voight, Christopher Lee
    Cary Elwes plays the young JP2, and John Voight takes over in the second half. A beautiful tribute to a beautifully holy pope.
  • Passion of the Christ (2004) Jim Caviezel, Monica Bellucci (dir. Mel Gibson)
    A powerfully graphic presentation of the the Passion of Christ, creatively presented in the original language of Aramaic with subtitles
  • Doubt (2008) Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams
    Adapted from the stage play, it explores the distrust borne of the clergy abuse crisis. Very well acted, of course, with such a phenomenal cast.
  • I Confess (1953) Montgomery Clift, Anne Baxter (dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
    A murderer confesses his criminal sin to a priest, who then becomes suspected for the murder, and is unable to defend himself.
  • The Scarlet and the Black (1983) Gregory Peck, Christopher Plummer
    A Jesuit monsignor conspires to protect the people of Rome in a dangerous battle of wits with the Nazis
  • Becket (1964) Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole
    The story of Saint Thomas Becket, 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury, appointed by his friend King Henry II, expecting an easy alliance
  • A Man for All Seasons (1966) Paul Scofield, Robert Shaw, Orson Welles
    The story of St. Thomas More, the 16th century martyr who refused to acquiesce to Henry VIII. Very clever dialogue!
  • For Greater Glory (2012) Andy Garcia, Ruben Blades, Peter O’Toole
    Movie sponsored by the Knights of Columbus, explores the Cristero movement resisting the anti-Catholic politics of early 20th c. Mexico
  • Romero (1989) Raul Julia
    The story of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who worked for peace in El Salvador’s violent mid-20th century. He was assassinated while celebrating Mass.
  • Calvary (2014) Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly
    A priest is told in confession he will be killed for the sins of the priesthood. The priest continues his ministry, trying to identify his would-be attacker.
  • Babette’s Feast (1987) Stéphane Audran
    In 19th century Denmark, two religious elderly women take in a French refugee, Babette. Pope Francis’ favorite movie.
  • The Mission (1986) Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons, Liam Neeson
    Eighteenth-century Spanish Jesuits try to protect a remote South American tribe in danger of falling under the rule of pro-slavery Portugal.
  • The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) Maria Falconetti
    French silent film; regarded as a landmark of cinema, especially for Falconetti’s performance, which is listed as one of the finest in cinema history.
  • There Be Dragons (2011) Charlie Cox, Wes Bentley, Dougray Scott
    A journalist investigating the life of JoseMaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, discovers that his father was a long-time intimate friend of the saintly priest.

Christian movies (inspiring, not specifically Catholic)

  • The Chosen (2017)
    New series available online, only season one so far, presenting Jesus from the perspective of the Apostles. Beautifully done!
  • The Robe (1953)
    The Roman centurion who wins Jesus’ cloak at the foot of the cross is haunted by his cooperation in the crucifixion, and seeks the Christians.
  • Risen (2016) Joseph Fiennes, Tom Felton, Peter Firth
    A Roman Tribune in Judea is tasked to find the missing body of Jesus Christ to quash the rising tensions in the wake of the crucifixion.
  • The Nativity Story (2006) Keisha Castle-Hughes
    A beautiful presentation of Joseph and Mary as they grapple with the angel’s message and the events leading up to the birth of Jesus.
  • Son of God (2014) Diogo Morgado, Roma Downey
    Continuing from Roma Downey’s miniseries “The Bible,” which covers the Old Testament, this is one of my favorite movies of the life of Jesus.
  • The Gospel of John (2003) Christopher Plummer
    The ENTIRE Gospel of John, in 3 hours. It helps to experience this rich Gospel book in complete continuity.
  • Godspell (1973) Victor Garber, Lynne Thigpen (music by Stephen Schwartz)
    A classic “passion play” with a hippie visual representation. Beautiful, silly, and poignant, with very memorable presentations of the parables!
  • Ben Hur (1959) Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd
    Epic classic movie of a 1st century Roman Jew whose adventurous life periodically encounters Jesus. The chariot race scene!
  • The Ten Commandments (1956) Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter
    The classic epic movie of Moses. The parting of the Red Sea!
  • The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)
    The latest version of this C. S. Lewis classic fantasy-Christian allegory.
  • The Shack (2017) Sam Worthington, Octavia Spencer, Tim McGraw
    A powerful and unusual encounter with God, bringing healing from grief and unforgiveness after a child’s abduction and death
  • Favorite Evangelical Christian movies (mostly the same people involved):
    • Courageous (2011)
      Four police officers struggle with their faith and their roles as husbands and fathers; together they make a new commitment.
    • Mom’s Night Out (2014)
      The moms’ version of Courageous, builds up Christian motherhood and women trying to make it as faithful Christians in the modern world
    • War Room (2015)
      Made by the same troupe as the previous two, but better, the focus is on the family, and the spiritual battle of prayer
    • God’s Not Dead (2014) Kevin Sorbo
      This had a lot of the same feel as the above movies, perhaps a bit preachy as well, but feel-good contemporary Christian movie
    • Heaven is for Real (2014) Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly
      Based on the book of the near-death experience of 4-year-old Colton Burpo, and his childlike revelation of what he experienced
    • Unplanned (2019) Ashley Bratcher
      About Abby Johnson, who left her prestigious job as a Planned Parenthood director after witnessing an abortion on an ultrasound

In looking at different lists from different sources to remind me what movies I didn’t want to to forget, I ran across this personal list on IMDB (Internet Movie Database) that has a lot of the same movies and a whole lot more! Truly Catholic Films

Homily: Unto God what is God’s

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)
Isaiah 45:4-6
Psalm 96:1, 3, 4-5, 7-8, 9-10
1st Thessalonians 1:1-5b
Matthew 22:15-21

I have made it a habit, in the weeks leading up to a presidential election, to make reference to the US Bishops’ document on forming consciences for faithful citizenship, which I gave to you in the homily two weeks ago. I decided to do it early this year, to give you more time to consider its wisdom, and to give you more time to read the document for yourself, and so that you would experience more of the political rhetoric leading up to the election through the lens of the gospel. It might have been an inspired choice, because I’m glad that through the lens of that wisdom, we can also reflect on today’s readings.

In our first reading, from the old testament prophet Isaiah, we have an oracle from God to the Persian king Cyrus. The Persians had defeated the Babylonians while Israel was enduring their Babylonian Exile. So it was the Persians who freed Israel to return back to their homeland. Cyrus was obviously not an Israelite, not one of God’s holy people. But God tells Cyrus that he is God’s anointed, that it was God who lifted him up to his lofty position, so that God might direct him for the sake of God’s people, Israel, and so that through Cyrus, even though Cyrus did not know God, that God would be glorified through him. Now that is not to suggest any candidate as a modern parallel to Cyrus, so please don’t infer that. But it is to affirm that God can work through people, even those who are not faithful to him, even national leaders, to accomplish his own divine purposes. But he can accomplish more through those who are open to his guidance, and less through those who reject his guidance. So regardless of who is elected, we need to pray for them to seek and obey divine wisdom, that even with their personal vices, our nation might be blessed through their leadership.

Our psalm for today brings out a different aspect of our first reading: Israel’s development of God’s absolute divinity. In the beginning, Israel believed in God as their own national and cultic God, one among many gods. That gave way to understanding God as the greatest of all gods, the supreme god. Today we see the final revelation that God is in truth unique in his divinity. God the only God, the creator, and there are no other gods. He makes that clear in our first reading, and again in the psalm. When we pray in the creed, we believe in One God, we echo this faith, and then we begin the Eucharist by our offering of the gifts of blessing to the Lord God of all creation.

Our gospel reading is, as always, the highpoint of the liturgy of the word. “‘Show me the coin that pays the census tax.’ Then they handed him the Roman coin. He said to them, ‘Whose image is this and whose inscription?’ They replied, ‘Caesar’s.’ At that he said to them, ‘Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar…’” The Roman emperor owned all the coins. They bore his image, his likeness. They had his inscription: “Tiberius Caesar, Son of The Divine Augustus, Great High Priest.” Jesus didn’t allow himself to be dragged down into the “us vs. them” squabble of whether or not to pay the Roman tax. He tossed off his divinely clever escape from that trap: “then give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.” Then in an even greater move, he elevates their focus above the question of secular obligation, to divine obligation: “But render unto God what is God’s.

The inscription on the coin, again, said, “Tiberius Caesar, Son of The Divine Augustus, Great High Priest.” Son of the Divine. Great High Priest. They were more concerned about the authority of the one who sat enthroned in the Roman capital, than they were about the authority of the one who was supposed to be sitting enthroned over their hearts, the true Son of the Divine, the true Great High Priest. They were more concerned about the inscription of the words of Caesar on the coin, than they were about the inscription of the law of God on their hearts. They were more concerned with the one whose image the coin was made in, than they were about the one whose image they themselves were made in.

In many languages, there is no possessive “apostrophe s” like in English. In those other languages they would say “God’s” as “of God.” The Spanish, for example, for “Give to God what is God’s” would be closer to “Give it to God, that which is of God.” (Dale a dios lo que es de dios). We are “of God,” made by him, in his own image and likeness. As it says in Psalm 100, “He made us, we belong to him.”

Our lesson is perhaps best summed up in Jesus’ words earlier in the Gospel of Matthew: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you besides.” In other words, we tend to be more mindful of taking care of our secular obligations first, and then we let that dictate how we take care of our spiritual obligations. We define ourselves by our pleasures, preferences, opinions, and secular ideologies, and then judge Christ and the Church in relation to all that—rather than the other way around. To seek first the kingdom of God, to render unto God what belongs to God, is to begin with Christ and the Church, and then to discipline our pleasures, preferences, opinions, and secular ideologies, based on that. And not only that, but as Jesus said, when we seek first the kingdom of God, all these other things will be given to you besides. When we render unto God what belongs to God, it gives us greater clarity in where our obligation lies in rendering unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar. When we seek first the kingdom of God, we become in truth better citizens of the kingdom of Caesar. Not always in the way that Caesar would like, when Caesar would like to act sinfully, but in the way that helps us to understand and advocate for divine truth, goodness, and authentic love, against human ignorance, error, and intrinsic evil.

One of the great classic movies of contemporary Catholic Tradition, up there with “The Bells of Saint Mary’s,” “The Scarlet and the Black,” “Becket,” and Alfred Hitchcock’s “I Confess,” is the movie, “A Man for All Seasons.” It’s the story of Saint Thomas More, who was the High Chancellor of England in the 16th century, under King Henry VIII. When Henry was unable to get an annulment for his marriage to his wife, Catherine, so that he could divorce her and marry Ann Boleyn, Henry confiscated Catholic-held properties in England and established the Church of England (or “Anglican” Church), with the monarch, Henry himself, as the head of the Church. For those who were faithfully Catholic, like Thomas More, this became a profound problem.

As part of this scheme, he required all those in political posts to sign the “Oath of Supremacy,” which declared, first, Henry as head of the Church in England, and second, that his marriage to Catherine was void. Thomas More refused to sign. There is a wonderful line in the movie, in which Henry implores Thomas to support him, as Henry says, not just because Thomas is honest, but because he’s known to be honest. Henry needs a man of Thomas’ intellect, character, integrity, and reputation to lend validity to his claim, and Thomas, because of his intellect, character, and integrity, which has earned him his reputation, will not do so. So Thomas was stripped of his title, imprisoned, tried and convicted with a corrupt key witness, and executed for treason.

Snark Amendment: Justice Scalia's Inauguration Hat

It might be interesting to mention that St. Thomas More was the favorite saint of the faithfully Catholic Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who wore a replica of St. Thomas More’s iconic hat to the 2nd inauguration of President Obama—Scalia, then, being the mentor to the faithfully Catholic Supreme Court Justice nominee Amy Coney Barrett, who has shown herself to be similar to Thomas More in intellect, character, integrity, and reputation. Thomas More never said he rejected the king’s political authority. He simply refused to call true what was not true. At his execution, Thomas More announced, “I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first.” In the beautiful homily for the funeral of Justice Scalia, his son, Fr. Paul Scalia, made reference to his father’s affection for St. Thomas More, by saying “Dad understood that the deeper he went in his Catholic faith, the better a citizen and public servant he became. God blessed him with the desire to be the country’s good servant because he was God’s first.”

We cannot restrict our religious fidelity based on our political views. Rather our religious fidelity raises up and purifies our political views. We render well what is Caesar’s unto Caesar, because we render first what is God’s unto God. We are able, then, to be our country’s good servants, when we are God’s first.

Homily: Faithful Citizenship

In just over a month, we will be voting for the next president of the United States (and of course, other elected offices as well). As I did in 2016, I would like to provide some insight from a document from the United States Bishops Conference called, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” It presents the key points of the Church’s teaching of faith and morals as they relate to current social and political issues. I am not going to tell you who to vote for. Your homework is to learn more about each of these issues, and then to learn more about each candidate, and then to use your vote in accord with Church Teaching and a well-formed conscience. I put a link to the document on the parish website, and I highly encourage everyone to read it.

I want to start with this unfortunately long quote: “Catholics often face difficult choices about how to vote. This is why it is so important to vote according to a well-formed conscience that perceives the proper relationship among moral goods. A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an intrinsically evil act, such as abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, deliberately subjecting workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions, redefining marriage in ways that violate its essential meaning, or racist behavior, if the voter’s intent is to support that [intrinsically evil policy]. In such cases, a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil. At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity. There may be times when a Catholic who rejects a candidate’s unacceptable position—even on policies promoting an intrinsically evil act—may reasonably decide to vote for that candidate for other morally grave reasons. Voting in this way would be permissible only for truly grave moral reasons, not to advance narrow interests or partisan preferences or to ignore a fundamental moral evil. When all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act, the conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods… This is not to bring a ‘Catholic interest’ to the political sphere, it is to insist that the truth of the dignity of the human person, as discovered by reason and confirmed by revelation, be at the forefront of all political considerations.

I want to elaborate on that quote, because it sets up the Catholic struggle of voting in modern American politics. First, it says it is morally acceptable to vote for a candidate whose position includes a morally grave and intrinsic evil. But there are two required essential conditions. The first is that someone voting for that candidate has to be voting for them despite that morally grave evil, not because of it. You can’t promote a position that is incompatible with Catholic teaching on any grave moral issue, and you can’t vote for a candidate in order to promote a morally grave evil. The second condition is that you can vote for a candidate who promotes a morally grave evil only for truly grave moral reasons, and not just because of other issues of less moral gravity.

Next thing about this quote is when all candidates’ positions embrace morally grave evils, then what? Then there are three options. First, you choose not to vote and cooperate with grave moral evil. Second, you find a third-party candidate whose position is more morally acceptable. Or third, you vote for the candidate who is less likely to actually promote the morally grave evil aspect of their policy, and more likely to accomplish more positive aspects of their platform.

And lastly, concerning this quote, is that it is not a matter of “well, this is what I believe, but I can’t make that choice for others.” If something is good or bad, true or not true, it applies to all humanity. It isn’t that the Church teaches that some moral truths only apply to Catholics. It’s that the Church teaches it’s evil and harmful for all humanity. Others may not be culpable for the evil of their sin, out of ignorance, but they are still wounded by the effect of the sin. The truth sets you free, and lies ensnare you, whether you believe them or not.

The paramount issue is the dignity of human life. And the primary issue regarding the dignity of human life is abortion, “the deliberate killing of a human being before birth, which is never morally acceptable and must always be opposed.” This is distinct from delicate surgical procedures when a pregnancy becomes life-threatening. In that case, morally, the lives of both the child and mother must be preserved as much as resources and technology allow, and may even involve the near-certainty of the tragic death of the child. But this is not the same as the act whose intentional purpose is to bring about the death of the unborn child. Sometimes euphemistically branded as “women’s healthcare” or “women’s right to choose,” no one has the legitimate moral choice, under any circumstance, to choose what abortion intends to do, either through surgical procedure or a pill. This is not a religious or faith argument, and not exclusively a women’s issue. It’s a human rights issue, and its foundation is in science, biology, and reason. So, any candidate or party that promotes this intrinsic grave evil is morally unacceptable to vote for… unless, in the conditions mentioned above. First, that one chooses such a candidate despite their promotion of abortion, and to do so based on a greater moral issue. However, there is no graver moral issue than abortion that legitimizes voting for such a candidate. Second, that when all reasonable candidates promote an intrinsic grave moral evil, it is acceptable to vote for the candidate less likely to effectively promote the evil, and more likely to promote other issues of grave moral concern.

Other moral issues concerning Catholic Social Teaching are opposition to the death penalty, euthanasia, torture, racism and other unjust discrimination, human cloning, in vitro fertilization (IVF), embryonic stem cell research, and redefining marriage, sexuality, and gender in such a way that distorts their essential nature; and the promotion of the humane treatment of immigrants, prisoners, employees, and the mentally ill; reasonable access to healthcare, food, housing, education and employment; and the protection of the environment, and of religious liberty: to freely and faithfully live out one’s religious convictions in public and professional life.

These are many of the issues, and the document goes into much more necessary detail in explaining these and other issues. I’m assigning it as required homework reading. It’s either that, or I spend the next 10 homilies reading it to you. I thought you’d prefer it this way.

When I finished giving this type of homily leading up to the 2016 election, someone told me that the person behind them had muttered, “Well, that didn’t tell me anything.” I understand. It’s messy and confusing. No candidate is in line with the Catholic Teaching even on grave moral issues, much less all issues. And even if a candidate or party is on the right side of the issue, it doesn’t mean they have a successful strategy to address the issue.

And there’s also a lot going on that’s not strictly political policy, but related to our political and social situation: protests and riots, racial tension, economic uncertainty, COVID-19, corruption, human trafficking, gun control, international tensions, judicial appointments, media bias, pineapple on pizza, and so on.

If I accomplish nothing else in this, I at least want to have laid the groundwork for two things: First, that as the watchman I am appointed to be, I have instructed you in right and wrong, life and death, and it is up you to choose life. And second, that when the dust settles after election day, that we don’t look toward any of our brothers and sisters in the pews with us with any lack charity over who should and shouldn’t have been voted for. And whatever happens, we got this, we stick together, with Christ the King, our true leader, to guide us into his everlasting kingdom. God bless you.

POSTSCRIPT: I know some people have difficulty with some things in here, because they have difficulty with some things the Church teaches, because they struggle or disagree with what the Church teaches, or they have committed an act of sin that gives them a profound sense of shame. Please do not leave the Church. God loves you infinitely, and embraces you with his infinite mercy. If anything discussed here, or anything the Church teaches, is such a difficulty for you that it endangers your relationship with God or His Church, please contact me however is best for you.

POST-POSTSCRIPT: This homily, delivered at the pulpit of a Catholic Church, is the magisterial teaching of the Church (well, maybe not the part about pineapple on pizza). I know there are many resources online from strongly right and left leaning writers and speakers that put things in much starker (or for some, more ambiguous) terms. In my opinion some things are being said from the pulpit are more opinionated than magisterial. I don’t necessarily disagree with what is said, but might disagree that it should be preached. I gave here the teaching as presented by the Bishops of the Church. If you want to know my opinions, in a setting where I am more free to express opinions in terms or interpretations that are not magisterial, I would be more than happy to have that conversation individually.

“The aim of this instruction is love from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith. Some people have deviated from these and turned to meaningless talk, wanting to be teachers of the law, but without understanding either what they are saying or what they assert with such assurance” (1 Tim 1:5-7).

Reflection: Evening Prayer before Diaconate Ordination

This evening our parish celebrated Evening Prayer as a community, gathered on the occasion of offering prayers and Eucharistic Adoration for Henry Reese, who is set to be ordained as a permanent deacon in Harrisburg tomorrow morning by Bishop Gainer. Below is the reflection I offered after the ordinary psalmody for the day, and the reading from Acts 6 describing the 7 men chosen and ordained as deacons for the distribution for the needy of the Church.

Praise him, servants of the Lord, who stand in the house of the Lord, in the courts of the house of our God. Praise the Lord for the Lord is good. Sing a psalm to his name for he is loving.”

These words from the psalms beautiful describe what we’re doing here this evening. It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give Him thanks, our holy Father, almighty and eternal God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. We praise God for the grace he gives us to fruitfully and faithfully live out the call he gives us: our vocation: our beautiful part to play in his perfect plan of love; for our salvation, and the salvation of others, and for the glorious majesty of God. As Henry will later witness to us of God’s presence with us, in his intercession for us, and in his compassionate, loving service to us, in God’s love poured out to us through him, so this evening, we witness to Henry God’s presence with him, our prayers of intercession for him, in God’s love poured out to him through us.

The word “vocation” comes from the Latin, “voco, vocare, vocatio” – to call. God creates us in our mother’s womb with a job to do, a unique and irreplaceable function in God’s perfect plan of love. Of course, God wouldn’t be much of a loving and wise God if he created us for a function, and then didn’t give us the capacity to fulfill that function. So we each have our own unique assortment of gifts, talents, and natural abilities, which help us not only to discern our vocation, but to enable us to fulfill our vocation.

Unfortunately, the more we fulfill, or even prepare to fulfill, our part in God’s beautiful plan, the more the diabolical enemy is going to attack us with doubts and fear and other tools of his trade. We need to acknowledge our doubts, fears, and struggles, and entrust them to God, and ask for his protection, even asking the Saints for their prayers as well.

So now that we are aware of why we are here—to praise God as the assembly of his church, and to lift Henry up in the prayers of the Church—let’s talk for a moment about what it is that Henry’s getting himself into.

Of the seven holy sacraments of the Church, Holy Orders is one of the three that imprint an eternal mark on the soul. Like Baptism and Confirmation, once the sacrament is received, the person who received the sacrament is forever different, forever more configured to Christ according to the character of the particular sacrament. However, Holy Orders is unique among the sacraments in that it can be conferred and received in three different degrees. It is also the only sacrament that can only be conferred by a bishop, a direct successor to the apostles. The three degrees of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, to remind you, are the order of the diaconate, for deacons, the order of the presbyterate, for priests, and the order of the episcopacy, for bishops. All those fancy words are from the Greek, the Church’s first language, and the language of the New Testament. “Episcopacy,” from “episcopos,” literally means “overseer,” one who is responsible for that particular community of the Church, which is a diocese. “Presbyterate” from “presbyteros” literally means an “elder,” those who manage, temporally and spiritually, a smaller grouping, a parish, within the Christian community, representing the authority and ministry of the bishop, the overseer. And then “Diaconate,” from “diakonos,” means a “servant,” those who, like in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, are ordained to work closely with the priests in their pastoral care of the Church. Of course many people can and do assist the pastor in his pastoral care, as appointed pastoral assistants, such as those of religious orders who humbly and beautifully carry out this role with great love. So without downplaying their invaluable ministry in any way, the deacon has a particular sacramental grace, which orders his personal faculties in a way that is unique to diaconal ministry.

The deacon’s role in the order of the Church’s community is reflected in the deacon’s role in the celebration of the Church’s liturgy. The deacon has an invaluable insight, being both clergy, on the one hand, and sharing in the secular, marital, and family concerns of the laity, on the other hand. The deacon represents the Church’s care for the particular temporal and spiritual needs of the members of the Body of Christ. The deacon calls the people to repentance and conversion, in offering the Penitential Act at the beginning of the Mass, and offers the intercessions in the Mass, bringing the needs of the Church into her liturgical prayer. As the deacon proclaims the gospel in his ministry to the Church in the world, the deacon also proclaims the gospel reading to the Church in the liturgy of the Mass. He is also ordained to preach, bringing the gospel into relationship with the context and needs of the faithful living in the current times, informed by the particular experience of the faithful, and inspired by the Holy Spirit to both console—and challenge—the faithful in their own call to holiness.

The deacon, of course, also assists at the altar. As the priest is the fulfillment of the Old Testament priesthood, offering the sacrifice of the Lamb on the altar of God for the atonement and thanksgiving of the people of God, so the deacon is the fulfillment of the Old Testament Levite, the Temple attendants, assisting the priests in their liturgical sacrifice. The deacon is most especially associated with the chalice, the blood of Christ sacrificed and poured out for the salvation of the world. As Christ is the union between the life of the divine and the human, the deacon, in a way, is the union of the life of the clergy and the faithful.

For a short description of the experience of a deacon, wanting to faithfully live out his living ministry to the Church, I defer to Deacon James Keating, whose intellectual insight, dry sense of humor, and desire for holy ministry, I greatly appreciate. To paraphrase Deacon Keating:

“…[T]he vocation of the deacon is complex. The complexity arises from the net of relationships in which the deacon finds himself upon ordination, a net that is not to be escaped but embraced. Unfortunately, the intricacy of the relationships of the diaconate can tempt a man to despair, as he makes efforts to please all of his constituencies: wife, children, bishop, pastor, employer, parishioners… fellow deacons, and more. …[T]he deacon also feels pressed to “perform” well in his ministries, which can be various and often emotionally consuming; however, looking at the vocation of deacon from the perspective of what Christ is sharing with him, the deacon can receive clarity on a vital truth: it is not the quantity of acts of service that matter to Christ, but simply one’s fidelity to the character of ordination. Excessive activity and neurotic hand-wringing about whether “I am doing enough to help others” gives birth only to stress, not holiness…

The key to living the diaconate in a simple yet effective way is found within one’s fidelity to the character received at ordination. … As one meditates upon the meaning of diaconal character, one realizes that Holy Orders mediates a gift to be received and not simply tasks to accomplish. [As a deacon embraces his ordained vocation…], the various and complex relationships that make up his life will become a support to him in his ministry and will no longer be rivals for his time and emotional capital.”

We’re gathered here this evening to praise God, and to thank him for his merciful love. We’re gathered here to pray for Henry, and to assure him of our love and support, as he becomes, and learns and embraces what it means to be… a holy deacon of the Church.

Saint Stephen, the Deacon… Pray for us.
St. Philip, the Deacon… Pray for us.
St. Lawrence the deacon, and patron saint of deacons… Pray for us.

Homily: “Offer it up”

Finding Meaning in Suffering - For Your Marriage

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) (see readings)
Jeremiah 20:7-9
Psalm 63:2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9
Romans 12:1-2
Matthew 16:21-27

In our readings for this weekend, we see Peter initially reject Jesus’ revelation that the divine plan is for Jesus to suffer and be killed and raised again. Jesus then uses Peter’s rebuke as an opportunity to teach discipleship, which is our share in the mystery of Jesus’ cross: not only will He suffer, but to be His true disciple, we must also deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus. As St. Paul says in our second reading, our role is not to conform ourselves to the ways of this world, but to offer ourselves as a sacrifice, an oblation, to unite our cross to the self-offering of Jesus. We get a hint of that in the Mass, when we lift up our hearts, we lift them up to the Lord, for it is right and just. We unite our offering of ourselves and our prayers to the sacrifice on the altar, and the priest invites us to pray that God might accept his sacrifice and ours. The Mass isn’t a spectator sport, or a theater show: we’re not an audience, we’ve got work to do! We “offer it up”—we participate in Christ’s redemptive suffering. We can even offer up our suffering through annoying guidelines and rules we have to follow that we might not agree with.

We’ve often heard these terms used: “offering it up”… “redemptive suffering.” So I thought since the readings suggest this theme, we might explore more about what that means. I thought it would work best if I try to illustrate it through a story.

The main character of our story is Rodney. Rodney is a basically good person, who, in our story, gets sick, and needs a kidney donor. So Rodney’s friends decide they’re going to begin a campaign of sacrificial offering, or redemptive suffering, for Rodney in his illness. Every time they endure any suffering, they “offer it up” for Rodney. So how does this work?

So, a few things we need to establish right out of the gate. First: nothing that Rodney’s friends do can earn the forgiveness of Rodney’s sins. Only the grace of the cross and resurrection of Jesus can forgive sins. Second: God loves Rodney more than Rodney’s friends do. So, Rodney’s friends aren’t going to convince God to decide to be nice to Rodney. God is already generously providing for Rodney’s salvation. Third: God knew, from the beginning of time, what Rodney’s friends were going to do on Rodney’s behalf. Rodney’s friends will make their choices by their own free will, but God, who is outside of time, knows what they will do, and includes their choices (all of our choices) in his divine plan. And Fourth: Sin has both eternal and temporal consequences. While only God’s grace can forgive Rodney’s sins and save him from hell (which is the eternal consequence of sin), there are a lot of temporal consequences of sin: attachment to sin, bad habits, wounded relationships; and some of those things can have their own indirect consequences—disease, regret, despair, anger, unforgiveness, etc.

So, Rodney’s friends start offering sacrifices and sufferings for the special intention of Rodney’s healing. Every red light they have to wait through, every stubbed toe, every sleepless night, every ache and pain, every rosary prayed, is offered up for the intention of Rodney’s healing and recovery. I hope we all have friends like that! But what are they accomplishing?

First, let’s look at what Jesus accomplished. As the union of humanity and divinity, Jesus, in the Paschal mystery of his suffering, death, and resurrection, earned for humanity infinitely more grace than humanity could ever possibly need. Jesus didn’t end suffering, as you may have noticed. Instead, he gave suffering meaningfulness and usefulness. He gave it hope, when experienced in love and faith. Pope Saint John Paul II wrote: “In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus, each man, in his sufferings, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ” (Salvifici Doloris).

Saint Paul said, in his letter to the Colossians, “I find joy in the sufferings I endure for you. In my own flesh I fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of His Body, the Church” (Col. 1:24). The sacrifice that Jesus offered on the cross was perfect and infinitely sufficient. But by grace, there’s more to Jesus’ body than what was nailed to the cross, resurrected, and ascended. We, also, are parts of the body of Christ. So as the physical body of Christ endured suffering for the healing of the world, so we as the mystical body of Christ also unite ourselves and our sufferings to him and his suffering on the cross… which not only accomplishes for ourselves a greater unity of ourselves with Jesus, but also makes us part of God’s healing of the world. In one sense, that was accomplished in the past, on Calvary. But in another sense, it continues to unfold until the end of time, through the mystery of Christ’s mystical body, the Church.

God loves his work, and he always invites us to help him in his work, like a Father who invites his children to help him in the garage. The children are sometimes more of an obstacle than a help, but he loves them, loves spending time with them, loves seeing their joy they experience in getting to help with whatever project the Father is doing. He invites us to help in his divine act of Creation (in our work, and in our procreation of children); and he invites us to help in his divine act of Re-creation, in joining our suffering to his, in our loving compassion and service to others. He doesn’t have to work through us. But he has chosen to include us as instruments in His work, in his love for us. He formed us in body and spirit after his image, but it’s in the time we spend with him, and learn from him, and follow his example, that we are conformed to his likeness.

So now that we’ve said all that, we can say a lot more about what Rodney’s friends might accomplish. First, God might really have spared Rodney’s earthly life because of the prayers he knew his friends would freely offer for him. Prayers truly are effective and important. God himself tells us to pray, and how to pray, and that it’s important. We don’t know what our prayers accomplish, but we know by faith that they do work. And perhaps in heaven we will see all the good that was the fruit of our prayers.

In all their prayers for Rodney, his friends spent all those times thinking about him, and not about themselves. They grew in selflessness because of their love. Like Simon of Cyrene, they helped Rodney carry his cross, and in turn, they were blessed for their generosity. Their sufferings became moments of grace. They didn’t see the red lights or achy joints or sleepless nights just as pointless burdens, but as opportunities to put to good use, to fill these parts of their lives with meaningfulness. With all the rosaries they said for Rodney, they grew in their love of the Blessed Mother, and of the mysteries of the Life of Christ.

Their concern for Rodney made its way into their conversations with friends, family, and co-workers. One of these co-workers, going through his own experiences in God’s plan, heard Rodney’s story, got himself tested, was a match for Rodney, and offered to donate his kidney. This of course lifted Rodney from his growing despair, and filled him and his friends with gratitude and hope. The medical staff saw his growing joyfulness, and enjoyed spending more time with him and his needs, and it brightened up their day, especially one who was about to give up on her nursing career because she felt it was all too negative and emotionally draining.

Especially aware of the sacrifices of his friends, Rodney started reading the scriptures more, and growing in faith. He became more open to receive God’s grace and the work of the Holy Spirit in his life.

The young man who was donating his kidney reminded Rodney of his son-in-law, the husband of his estranged daughter, and he decided to call her, and they reconciled.

Before his surgery, he made a powerful confession of his sins to a priest, for the first time in years, and received the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, and the Eucharist.

In the midst of Rodney’s surgery, the surgeon happened “by chance” to notice a different medical problem that had up then been undetected, and an expert in that field “by chance” was visiting the hospital for another patient, and came in to successfully correct Rodney’s issue. In the weeks of recovery, the doctor said Rodney’s body was healing surprisingly, miraculously, well. He was following the instructions and looking forward to the future.

Having been so moved by all that had happened, Rodney was opened to discerning his vocation as a permanent deacon. In the rest of his fruitful and happy life, his ministry affected and inspired countless numbers of the faithful, particularly in his visits to the hospital, and his own story, and his frequent reminders about offering up suffering for others. Because of the faith of his friends, and the sufferings they offered up for his sake, his sins were forgiven, and he was healed, and made new. And God’s plan of love unfolded superabundantly.

The beautiful Catholic tradition of the morning offering is an expression of what we’ve been talking about. You can find more about the morning offering by clicking here. I might recommend memorizing one of the prayers, or putting it some place you’ll see everyday, like next to the bathroom mirror, or the coffee maker, and make it a part of your morning routine!

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Homily: Sicut erat in principio


19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)
1 Kings 19:9a, 11-13a
Psalm 85:9-14
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14:22-33

I’ve wanted to talk about the things going on in our society, to help us to digest everything and, ultimately, to frame everything in the context of our primary lens, which is our faith. Every weekend, I do my homily research, and then I look up to the image on the wall in front of me of Christ on the cross, and say, “Ok, tell me what you want to say to your people,” and then I go take the dog for a walk and contemplate. And every week, what comes to me has been about teaching the truth in the readings, such as last week’s focus on the mystery of the Eucharist, and the week before that on being patient, relying on our trust in God that he knows there’s weeds in with the wheat, and he’ll sort it all out in his time. So finally, this week, he said, “This is the week. These are the readings. This is the right framework. Now let’s talk about it.” I’m probably not going to give you all that you want to hear. God doesn’t usually work that way, as you may have noticed.

I’ve never been good at keeping up with the news, and so the news articles shared through social media have been a great help to me. But it’s both a blessing and a curse to have friends across the entire political and social spectrum. I see the news articles that my friends share, because they find them informative and helpful, as the right way to understand the events unfolding, and where events are likely to lead. And they are all over the map.

The difference between right and left news sources isn’t just about the interpretations, they report different realities. And without fail, when I actually take the time to go behind the reporting of an event, I find that both sides have cherry-picked the facts that support the “truth” that they want to report. And so, if you’re following only one side, then there’s a strong temptation (based on what you have read) to uncharitably judge people on the other side as evil, or stupid, or both. The divisive bias of reporting on the issues is its own part of the issues. And the disparity in the reporting has led to irreconcilable differences in believing what our society was, is, and should be, and how we should respond to that. And that’s aside from the more important irreconcilable difference, between those who follow Christ, those who oppose Christ… and then, there are those who think they can do the former in their heart and the latter in their actions.

Once in a great while, I’m tempted to jump in (for one side or the other) and add my two cents. And every time, I get busted down. Both sides have their rhetoric, their facts, and their memes to shut down any opposing posts. And every time I get busted down, I get an unmistakable message that it wasn’t just my friend calling me out, but Jesus reminding me, “I told you not to get into it. You’re not to get down into fighting for one side or the other. You’re to transcend above it, to minister to the people on both sides, and bring the attention of those on both sides to what transcends the sides, which is the shared human reality of needing love, needing hope, and meaning, and encouragement, and joy; and you’re to pull people toward me, toward personal holiness.”

So my focus, my response, to all that is going on, is that we’ve lost our focus. Our eyes are focusing on the storm, and not on Christ, and that’s when we get that sinking, drowning feeling of fear. That’s Peter in the Gospel. Whenever and wherever in our life that we get all panicked, we need to reach up, for Jesus to embrace us, and pull us up out of our sinking, and out of our panic, and we return our gaze to him. And at least in our hearts, he calms the storm. He says to us, “Oh my dear little one, why did you doubt?” And we respond, “Truly you are the Son of God.” And when I do that, he grounds me back on the steady rock that is himself, and my storm is calmed.

Jesus was constantly being tempted to take sides. Most particularly, perhaps, you may recall a question that was posed to Jesus regarding whether to agree to pay the Roman tax or not. Jesus, with divine insight, transcended the question of sides, and brought the focus of the people of God back to God, “and all were amazed at him.” 

Yes, we unequivocally reject and oppose racism, and all unjust prejudice, and any abuse of trust and authority by police, or clergy; we oppose the willful taking of innocent human life, the willful destruction of public property or the private property of another, for example, the destruction of stores, or homes, or churches, cemeteries, and images of saints. Yes, we also reject laws that infringe upon the inalienable right to liveprivately, and professionally, and in managing our businessesaccording to the truth of human nature as revealed by our faith, and not be forced to choose between acting against our conscience, or sacrificing our professional position or career.

At the same time, we shouldn’t be surprised that the Church and her children have her rights offended. The Church and the world have always been in conflict. But up until recently, we have been used to Western society coming from Christian Europe, and its foundation in “Christendom,” with the Church having a privileged position and respected voice of authority in society. But that’s no longer the case. Christianity is essentially being slowly pushed back into the catacombs, as it was when it flourished in its beginning.

In 1969, in the tension of all that was going on in the world at the time, Cardinal Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI, gave an interview in which made a prophetic prediction. He said, “The future of the Church can and will issue from those whose roots are deep and who live from the pure fullness of their faith. From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge — a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so it will lose many of her social privileges… As a small society, it will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members… The Church will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right. It will be hard going for the Church… It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek… But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church… And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times… But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. It may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but it will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.” 1969 (51 yrs ago) he said that.

So in our society, and in our life, the Church won’t be the strong imposing establishment that it once was. Older Catholics already lament the loss of the “parish culture” they remember from their youth, providing a scaffolding of support to bolster faith and morality, providing a social context that helped some more timid souls get to heaven, by protecting them from spiritual danger. The dominant flow now goes in a different direction, and souls that are not strong enoughor not taught well enoughto resist the current, are in greater peril. It will be harder to be Christian, which will bring more difficulty and suffering, and more falling away.

But what was elucidated for me in all this was that this is how Christianity started: with a network of Christian communities, with emissaries like Paul and Barnabas connecting them together with common texts and practices; sharing stories of troubles and successes; exchanging resources; building each other up; ministering to those searching for more (meaningfulness) than what society seems to offer; ministering to those imprisoned, lonely, depressed, and sick, and of course coming together to pray, worship, and grow in love for God and each other. Certainly, the early Christians gave to the Church for its expenses and needs, but this was not a substitute for personal ministry, but a deeper personal investment in what it means to live the Christian life.

The description of a church like this may seem to us to be uncomfortably new, a shadow of the church’s former glory. But for the Church, it will be familiar: a new springtime, as Pope Saint John Paul II called it (though perhaps not in the way he envisioned it). A renewed and deeper conversion of the members of the mystical body of Christ. I’ll close with this quote, originally attributed to St. Barnabas, which was part of last Sunday’s Liturgy of the Hours: “When evil days are upon us and the worker of malice gains power, we must attend to our own souls and seek to know the ways of the Lord. In those times, reverential fear and perseverance will sustain our faith, and we will find need of forbearance and self-restraint as well. Provided that we hold fast to these virtues and look to the Lord, then wisdom, understanding, knowledge and insight will make joyous company with them.

We will have our rights violated, and our faith mocked. That’s already happening. We should not be surprised if the secular courts favor the secular world. But we will keep pushing for justice, for the rights of human dignity, for ourselves and for the needy and vulnerable.

But I think we should individually hold on to and keep coming back to today’s readings. I think these readings for today are a constant reminder for our consolation and humble confidence; our reminder of God’s calming presence in the stormy world we’re passing through. Jesus, God, is calling us out of our comfortable safety, for us to push aside the distractions, the fear, and the storm; to faithfully, obediently, and humbly walk toward him, neither to the right, nor to the left; to trust the calm whispering voice that says in the quiet depths of our heart, “Take courage. Do not be afraid. Come. Follow me.”


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Homily: Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord - Church of Santa Maria ...

Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion (Year A)
Matthew 21:1-11 (Gospel for Procession with Palms) 
Isaiah 50:4-7
Psalm 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24
Philippians 2:6-11
Matthew 26:14-27:66

Welcome to Holy Week!

Holy Week opens with “Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord.” Since Easter begins its own liturgical season (starting with the Easter Vigil), today’s celebration contains the entirety of Holy Week, the finale week of Lent: beginning with the Triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the passion, crucifixion, and death, and ending with the silence of the body of Jesus laying in the sealed tomb, all in today’s readings.

Before getting into the main part of our reflection, I just want to share two precursory thoughts.

The first thought is about our “processional gospel reading” of Palm Sunday. It says that the people spread their cloaks on the road, and waved palm branches, as Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on an ass. The first part of this is the fulfillment of Psalm 118 Blessed be he who enters in the name of the LORD! We bless you from the house of the LORD… The LORD is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar!” So it’s a royal celebration of welcoming the procession of Jerusalem’s king, who will then proceed to the temple and offer sacrifice to God. And certainly that fits with what Jesus is going to do in this final week. And ordinarily, the faithful of the church joins across time with the people in ancient Jerusalem, as we hold our palm branches, sharing in the glorious entry of Jesus up to the house (sanctuary) of the Lord. 

And the second thought is that, of course, we’re not celebrating Palm Sunday, or any of these celebrations, as we ordinarily do. And I share in the deprivation that our current situation brings to these central celebrations at the heart of our faith. But here we are. As we have been doing since this situation began, let us even more fervently bring into this week our growing desire for, and spiritual communion with, the celebrations of the mysteries of Lent and Easter. Let us intercede on behalf of those who continue their preparation to enter into full communion with the Church, and those who have entered into situations that wound their full communion with the Church, and those who are merely slothful and apathetic about their communion with the Church. Of course, it’s perhaps a mixed blessing that with the current situation, the focus hasn’t been on the abuse scandal and the bankruptcies of Catholic dioceses. But there many who have been so wounded by the abuse and scandal that their love for the Church has become a source of pain, shame, and suffering. So let us intercede for all these people, offering our own sacrifice–of not being able to be physically together with the church and receive her sacraments–as an offering to God for them, and for our own growth in faith also.

Following the example of Dr. Brant Pitre’s reflection on our gospel reading, I want to touch on seven points, particularly as they are uniquely presented in St. Matthew’s gospel.

First point…

Matthew emphasizes over and over again that the Last Supper was a Passover meal. He goes on to recount the words of institution and the Last Supper. The Passover meal was the annual memorial of the deliverance of the 12 tribes of Israel from slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt. So, on the Passover night, the lamb was sacrificed, unleavened bread was eaten, and Israel embraced their redemption. They were delivered. And they began their journey to the promised land. Each generation united themselves to that original generation that left Egypt: a perpetual memorial which also makes present the reality of what it celebrates. So when Jesus institutes the Eucharist at the Last Supper, in the context of the Passover meal, he is inaugurating the New Passover (or the Passover of the New Covenant). It involves the sacrifice of the Lamb with the 12 Apostles, as they enter into the event that will free them from slavery to Satan (and sin and death), and set them on their journey to the new promised land, and will give them the heavenly bread of life for the journey. It will be a perpetual memorial, with each celebration of the Last Supper making present the whole Paschal Mystery of Christ for all generations. So the Last Supper is a New Passover, in which the sacrificial lamb is eaten, beginning a New Exodus to the Promised Land of God’s presence in heaven.

Second point…

Matthew emphasizes the beginning of Jesus’ Passion with his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the Mount of Olives. This one is a bit more speculative. Jewish tradition had that in the Garden of Eden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was a fig tree, and that the tree of life was an olive tree. Gethsemane, in Hebrew, refers to an olive press. So Jesus is on the Mount of Olives, in a grove of olive trees, preparing himself for the cross, which by his passion and blood will become the tree of life, the source of eternal life for all who embrace it. There’s also a Jewish tradition, a bit more ambiguous, that Jerusalem is where the Garden of Eden was. We mentioned last week about the Gihon river, which feeds the pool Jesus told the blind man to wash in, was named for one of the four rivers of Eden, and that this washing was Jesus re-creating the blind man’s sight. It was thought that Adam and Eve were buried somewhere (way down) in Jerusalem (perhaps specifically Golgotha). Sometimes you will see icons of Adam and Eve underground beneath the cross, so Jesus is the New Adam, in perfect obedience to the Father, providing the Tree of Life, superseding the old Adam, who in disobedience to the Father, led humanity into the slavery of disorder and death.

Third point…

Matthew emphasizes the cruel treatment of Jesus, beginning with the Sanhedrin at his trial. They spit at him and beat him, and he does not recoil or reply. Jesus is personifying the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, which is a mysterious figure described in four excerpts in the last section of the book of Isaiah. The third excerpt is our first reading today.  “I have not rebelled, have not turned back. I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting. The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.” We often hear excerpts about the Suffering Servant, that he is a man of sorrow, pierced for our offenses, led like a lamb to the slaughter, as a lamb before the shearers is silent, he opened not his mouth, that on him was laid the guilt of us all, that by his stripes we are healed, etc. At the altercation in the Garden, Jesus tells his disciples, “Put your sword back into its sheath, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot call upon my Father and he will not provide me at this moment with more than twelve legions of angels? But then how would the Scriptures be fulfilled which say that it must come to pass in this way?” Jesus is intentional in following the plan of the Father. Jesus is the Suffering Servant.

Fourth point…

Matthew talks about the betrayal of Judas, and is the only one to mention the thirty pieces of silver being paid. This might call to mind a much earlier parallel, of Joseph, of the technicolor dreamcoat fame. Joseph was righteous, the favorite of his father (the father of the twelve tribes of Israel), but betrayed by his brother Judah (Judah and Judas are the same in Hebrew), and sold for twenty pieces of silver. Joseph was sent down into a pit, and considered dead. But then, he’s found to be alive! By his righteousness, he was vindicated, favored, honored, given great power, and led to the feeding of the multitude, which led to reconciliation and reunion with his father and brothers. So Jesus is a new Joseph. 

Fifth point.

Jesus vs. Barabbas. Most people get the contrast between Jesus, the prince of peace who by grace will redeem the world, vs. the violent revolutionary in Barabbas. But Matthew takes it deeper than that. It becomes even more poignant when we know that “Barabbas” is “Bar Abbas” – “Son of the Father.” And even more so, looking some manuscripts of Matthew, in which Barabbas’ first name is given… as Jesus. So given the choice between the true Jesus, Son of the Father, who comes in peace, meekness, and healing signs, but challenges the corrupted ways of Israel, vs. Jesus, son of the father, who comes in violence and rebellion, who wants to liberate Israel from the Romans, the people, egged on by their leaders, shout their choice of the second one. Pontius Pilate, seeing no crime in Jesus, washes his hands of the guilt of innocent blood, and the Jews infamously accept the consequences: “his blood be upon us and upon our children.” This line was used for centuries of deeply ingrained anti-Jewish prejudice and persecution, even into the 20th century. The Jews, it was said, accepted the guilt of crucifying Christ, a diabolical act, of infinite scale, and so rebelled against their covenant with God, who has cut them off as forsaken. The Catholic Church, in the wake of the Jewish holocaust, has accepted the guilt of contributing to this anti-semitism, and taken measures, including in the text of the liturgy, to clarify that we definitively do not hold Jews of any time and place guilty for Christ’s death, or deserving of prejudice. The crowd in the gospel is representative of everyone of all time and place who sins, and thus participates in the need for Jesus to be crucified for the sake of their redemption. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, says beautifully, in paragraph 598: “All sinners are the authors of Christ’s passion.” As Dr. Pitre says in his commentary:

In other words, there’s a real sense that at a mystical level every single person who has ever been born, every single sinner, is responsible for the death of Jesus, because when we sin we, in a sense, crucify Jesus once again. We participate in the evil that led him to the cross. So I just want to stress that. Christians today need to make very clear that the statement of this particular Jewish crowd at the trial and death of Jesus is not something that makes all Jews of all time in all places collectively responsible for Jesus’s death. However, as Pope Benedict points out in his book Jesus of Nazareth, by saying “his blood be upon us and our children,” the irony is that at a deeper spiritual level they are in a sense praying for precisely what all of us need, which is for the powerful redeeming blood of Jesus to “be upon us and upon our children,” so that it might cleanse us from sin and set us free from sin and death. So there’s an irony in their words here.

Sixth point…

Is about the “Cry of Dereliction,” or Jesus’ words from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” A lot of people have a lot of wrong ideas about this. A lot of modern commentary expresses the opinion that God the Father, who is all good, turned away from Christ, who was covered in the imperfection of our sin, and that Jesus was truly abandoned by the Father, until his death, when the sin was also put to death, and Jesus was cleansed of all our sin, and we along with him. While it is true that Jesus was indeed experiencing the human anguish of the crucifixion, and perhaps a feeling of the separation from God we experience because of our sin, Jesus is God the Son, in perfect union with God the Father, and truly was not forsaken by the Father. What Jesus is really doing here is calling to everyone’s mind Psalm 22, which begin with that cry of dereliction, written by King David. The psalms didn’t have a numbering system at the time of Jesus. They were known by their opening words (as the church still does with many prayers and church documents). The important thing about Psalm 22 is not only that it very much describes the experiences of Jesus in his passion, but also that the psalm ends with hope, vindication, and all the nations coming together in worship of God. Psalm 22 doesn’t just describe Jesus’ crucifixion; it describes his whole messianic mission. After the next point, which is the seventh and last, I give you Psalm 22 in its entirety, along with some notes and commentary in green, to deepen the experience and meditation on this psalm, which is perfect for contemplating during this final week of Lent.

Finally, the seventh point…

The burial of Jesus in the tomb. Joseph of Arimathea was part of the Jewish upper class, and part of the Sanhedrin, and one who came to Jesus at night. He asked Pilate for the body of Jesus, that he might be given a proper burial. Of course, this would be highly unusual for crucified Roman criminals, so evidence of a buried man with both Jewish burial rites and crucifixion wounds would be pretty unique (a compelling point regarding the Shroud of Turin). Also, Mary Magdalene “and the other Mary” remained sitting and facing the tomb. So some people say that when they returned on Sunday and found the tomb opened, they mistakenly had the wrong tomb. Nope, they knew exactly which tomb it was. And finally, in another irony, the Pharisees were so paranoid about the possibility of Jesus’ followers taking the body from the tomb and claiming that he had risen on the third day as he had said, that they requested Pilate to seal the tomb and provide soldiers to guard it. And so by that, the Pharisees made it absolutely certain that if the tomb were to end up opened and empty, it was not carried out by a conspiracy of Jesus’ followers.

And that is where we leave things on this last Sunday of Lent… with the tension of the sealed tomb, holding the dead body of the crucified Christ, and the unresolved question of whether he was indeed the Messiah, the one was coming into the world, who would be raised from the dead on the third day, as he had said.

And so, as promised… Psalm 22 in its entirety. God bless you!

For the leader; according to “The deer of the dawn.” A psalm of David.

“The deer of the dawn” seems to be the tune for singing the psalm.

My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
Why so far from my call for help,
from my cries of anguish?

My God, I call by day, but you do not answer;
by night, but I have no relief.

Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the glory of Israel.
In you our fathers trusted;
they trusted and you rescued them.
To you they cried out and they escaped;
in you they trusted and were not disappointed.

But I am a worm, not a man,
scorned by men, despised by the people.

The psalmist’s sense of isolation and dehumanization, an important motif of the psalm is vividly portrayed here.

All who see me mock me;
they curl their lips and jeer;
they shake their heads at me:

“He relied on the LORD—let him deliver him;
if he loves him, let him rescue him.”

These words are echoed in the mockery shouted at Jesus on the cross.

For you drew me forth from the womb,
made me safe at my mother’s breasts.
Upon you I was thrust from the womb;
since my mother bore me you are my God.

Not really part of our reflection, but “I was thrust from the womb” means that *I* was there in the womb and then thrust out when my mother bore me, for those Christians who think that the bible permits abortion… just saying…

Do not stay far from me,
for trouble is near,
and there is no one to help.

Many bulls surround me;
fierce bulls of Bashan encircle me.
They open their mouths against me,
lions that rend and roar.

The enemies of the psalmist are also portrayed in less-than-human form, as wild animals. Bashan was a region of a grazing land northeast of the Sea of Galilee, famed for its cattle.

Like water my life drains away;
all my bones are disjointed.
My heart has become like wax,
it melts away within me.

As dry as a potsherd is my throat;
my tongue cleaves to my palate;
you lay me in the dust of death.

The dust of death is the netherworld, the domain of the dead.

Dogs surround me;
a pack of evildoers closes in on me.
They have pierced my hands and my feet
I can count all my bones.

While it is a mystery what David might have meant in speaking of his hands and feet being pierced, this was experienced literally in Jesus’ crucifixion.

They stare at me and gloat;
they divide my garments among them;
for my clothing they cast lots.

The Roman soldiers cast lots for the seamless garment Jesus had been wearing. Those who are crucified, are crucified naked, adding to the shame and humiliation.

But you, LORD, do not stay far off;
my strength, come quickly to help me.
Deliver my soul from the sword,
my life from the grip of the dog.
Save me from the lion’s mouth,
my poor life from the horns of wild bulls.

Then I will proclaim your name to my brethren;
in the assembly I will praise you:

Here begins the praise of God given by someone offering a Todah sacrifice, giving his testimony, to all assembled in the Temple, of his experience of God saving and delivering him in answer to his prayer…which thereby becomes an exhortation to praise and trust in the LORD. 

“You who fear the LORD, give praise!
All descendants of Jacob, give honor;
show reverence, all descendants of Israel!

For he has not spurned or disdained
the misery of this poor wretch,
Did not turn away from me,
but heard me when I cried out.

“Turn away”: lit., “hides his face from me,” an important metaphor for God withdrawing his favor/protection/delight from someone. Notice that in referencing this psalm by its opening words, Jesus is affirming that the Father did not turn His face from His Son, as many modern commentators have asserted in their interpretation of his very use of those opening words. 

I will offer praise in the great assembly;
my vows I will fulfill before those who fear him.

The poor will eat their fill;
those who seek the LORD will offer praise.
May your hearts enjoy life forever!”

Not only could this be a reference to the Todah sacrifice being shared with the poor who come to the Temple looking for assistance, but also a reference to the poor being tended to with Christian care (“whatsoever you do for the least…”). Also, it could refer to the pious and devout having their deepest needs met in the New Covenant in Christ, namely grace, and communion, and everlasting life. 

All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the LORD;
All the families of nations
will bow low before him.
For kingship belongs to the LORD,
the ruler over the nations.

The Scriptures (bold Old and New) abound with prophecies of all the nations uniting  in a single faith and praise of the one true God, in a new covenant. Isaiah (42:6) foretold, “I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the nations.” How can a person be a covenant? By being the covenant sacrifice whose blood is spilled for the forgiveness of sins. Kingship belongs to God, the transcendental standard of truth, justice, and righteousness, and earthly rulers are subject to their stewardship of their office: the Cathedral outranks the Capitol.  

All who sleep in the earth
will bow low before God;
All who have gone down into the dust
will kneel in homage.

This could be a reference to Jesus, in the three days after his death, going into Sheol, the underworld, and bringing the just ones who died and were in the Bosom of Abraham, through the gates of heaven to the glorious reward for which they have waited. This connects directly with our second reading, the Philippians hymn:

“He humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

And I will live for the LORD;
my descendants will serve you.
The generation to come will be told of the Lord,
that they may proclaim to a people yet unborn
the deliverance you have brought.

The generation to come is the Church, the New Israel in the New Covenant. We have received the Good News of the Lord, the Gospel… that we may proclaim it to those who have not yet turned to the Lord, “a people yet unborn” in water and spirit to new life, and deliverance from sin and death, through the blood of Christ.

Psalm 22 is the psalm of Christ’s passion, but also of His deliverance by God, and the fulfillment of the plan of salvation. Of course, immediately following Psalm 22 is Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” Not only does this express a restful, personal trust in God, this psalm was used in the ancient Church to teach about the sacraments (restorative waters, the anointing with oil, the overflowing cup…). The sacramental life of the Church, and the covenantal relationship with God, flow directly from passing through the cross, through our feeling of abandonment and darkness and suffering, to the glory of the life of the resurrection, the life of grace, and eternal life.

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Homily: The Raising of Lazarus

The Raising of Lazarus - YouTube

5th Sunday in Lent (Year A)
Ezekiel 37:12-14
Psalm 130:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8
Romans 8:8-11
John 11:1-45

The readings today all revolve around the theme of death and resurrection, quite fitting given that next Sunday we have Palm Sunday of the Passion of our Lord. Additionally, there’s been a trajectory of our readings over this Lenten season.

The first Sunday of Lent we had the temptations in the desert, as Jesus purified his humanity to rely on God alone for his mission. He would accomplish what he came to, by the will and power of the Father, despite all temptations. Likewise, he gave us the model for resisting temptations: to apply the wisdom of the holy scriptures, and disciplining ourselves against the three-fold concupiscence of lust of the eyes, lust of the flesh, and pride.

The second Sunday of Lent we had the Transfiguration, the revelation of Jesus’ divinity and his fulfillment of the Old Testament law and prophets, and assuring his followers that despite appearances, we are to listen to him and trust that everything is happening according to God’s plan, including the betrayal and passion.

The third Sunday of Lent we had the Samaritan woman at the well, and the desire of Jesus to unite himself intimately with his people, both Jews and gentiles, into a new covenant of living water and spirit and life.

Then last week, the fourth Sunday of Lent, we had the healing of the man born blind, the reading that began with the question of whose sin caused the man to be born blind, and Jesus’ answer that it was not any personal sin that caused it, but that through it, God may be glorified, and Jesus may reveal his glory.

Today, the fifth Sunday of Lent, our gospel reading is Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. The raising of Lazarus leads directly to the pharisees plotting to kill Jesus, then the anointing of Jesus by Lazarus’ sister, Mary, and then the Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem, which is our reading for next Sunday.

The first reading for today is from of the Old Testament story of the valley of dry bones. Israel is in their Babylonian exile, and God shows the prophet Ezekiel this valley of lifeless bones, and God instructs Ezekiel: “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them: Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD!” so the bones start rattling and coming together, and forming skeletons, then sinews and flesh form on the bones, yet without life. So then God tells Ezekiel, “Say to the breath: ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: From the four winds come, O breath, and breathe into these slain that they may come to life.’ I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath entered them; they came to life and stood on their feet; [then] He said to me: ‘…these bones are the whole house of Israel! They are saying, “Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, and we are cut off.” Then our first reading is God’s response: “O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them and bring you back to the land of Israel… O my people! I will put my spirit in you that you may live… thus you shall know that I am the LORD.” If that sounds a bit familiar, we use it in the thirteenth station of the cross. Israel is dead in their sin, convicted of their corruption, and sentenced with exile from their land and separation from God’s presence in his holy temple. In this prophecy, God is promising that Israel will be brought to life again, and more gloriously than before, and when it happens, they will respond in joyful faith. While they were joyful when they were freed from Babylon to return to and rebuild Jerusalem, the prophecy is fulfilled in Christ, who gives the people of God the Holy Spirit, the wellspring of living water within them.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus gives the last of his signs before his passion: he performs the divine action of raising the dead to life. Of course, this event isn’t the fullness of the resurrection in Christ. Whatever might be different in the new life Lazarus has received, he again will still die another mortal death. But the point is that only God can raise from the dead. This sign that Jesus is God will bring many to believe in him, and follow him to Jerusalem, to witness his death, and believe in his resurrection, which is foreshadowed by his raising of Lazarus.

There’s something relevant to today’s situation at the beginning of our gospel. Jesus knows Lazarus is about to die, and he chooses to delay his return, as it says, out of love for Lazarus. That’s super interesting. Why does Jesus do that? Well, it’s one thing for Jesus to heal a sick person. But it’s a much greater thing for Jesus to raise a dead person. He’s going to give Lazarus the honor of being the beneficiary of his greatest sign, which is going to lead to a great increase of faith. I know many of us are getting a bit weary of being separated from Jesus in the sacraments and the church. But perhaps this is a parallel—that Jesus is delaying our reunion with him as an instrument of a great increase of faith, and he will bring the dead back to life! So we trust in Jesus, and we wait for him with hearts expanded in faith.

Jesus wept - WikipediaThe second thing to point out in this delay, is that he knew Lazarus was very ill and going to die. He knew it would cause great anguish and suffering to Mary and Martha. They both lamented that if Jesus had been there, Lazarus wouldn’t have died. But Jesus chose to allow all that to happen. Jesus didn’t kill Lazarus, nor was Mary and Martha’s suffering assigned to them as punishment for something they did. In fact, Jesus shared in their suffering. In English, it’s the shortest verse in the bible: “Jesus wept.” There’s a lot going on in those two words. He is close to the brokenhearted. He is God who is compassion, love, and mercy. He is God who grieves our separation from him more than we do.

But what if Martha and Mary found out at that moment that Jesus deliberately delayed returning until after Lazarus’ death? I think they might be a bit confused, a bit angry maybe. But at that moment, they didn’t know the plan. We struggle when we’re stuck part-way through the plan, and we don’t know where God is leading. But if we persevere in faith, the road of suffering leads to resurrection. The promised land is worth the wilderness.

Martha, ever the more active of the two sisters, rushed out to meet Jesus, and in their dialogue, she makes a confession of faith rivaling the greatness of Peter and Thomas. “She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.’” Then we have one of the “I AM” statements of Jesus, where he uses that divine name, I AM, and reveals part of the mystery of his identity, his mission, and his power. “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” As Saint John wrote his gospel to his community suffering persecution and martyrdom, no doubt this was a message of great consolation and confidence, allowing them to bravely profess their faith during their suffering.  

Ending with this, this assurance of death leading to eternal life is the message of our second reading, from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. “Brothers and sisters: Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.” There’s that fulfillment of the prophecy from first reading. The Spirit of God dwells in us. We put our old selves to death in the sacrament of baptism, and rise to the life of the Spirit dwelling within us. So we do not live to serve our fallen desires, we are redeemed from our slavery to mammon, and now belong to Jesus, our redeemer. We are not of the flesh, we are of the spirit. “If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit dwelling in you.” And this is the point of all our readings: that Lazarus is our assurance, our sign, we have the promise that if we deny ourselves, pick up our crosses, and follow him, we will share in the resurrection of Christ, and live forever in the pure light of his divine glory.

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