Sunday, July 20, 2014

Gospel for Today: 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time


In today's gospel reading (Mt 13:24-43), Jesus gives us the parable of the wheat and the tares.  The sower (Jesus), sows good seed, but the enemy comes behind him and sows weeds.  When the two begin to grow together, the servants come to the master and ask if they should pull up the weeds.  The master tells them "No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them.  Let them grow together until harvest."  Only at harvest time would the weeds be gathered up and burned, while the wheat would be collected into the master's barn.

The metaphor here is easy to see.  Jesus even explains it to the disciples toward the end of today's reading.  This is a metaphor for the Kingdom of Heaven.  The good seeds are the children of the kingdom, while the weeds are the children of the evil one, sown by the devil.  The harvest is the end of the age when evildoers will be thrown "into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth," while "the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father."

Plain enough.  All the same, there is a tendency to misunderstand this metaphor.  You see, we all think we are the wheat.  The weeds, of course, are all those other people in the Church that we might not like so much, or who are not as good as we think they should be.  If you do a Google search for "wheat and tares" you will come across all kinds of information warning us of the agents of Satan hidden within the Church, wolves in sheep's clothing, who will be discovered and cast out at the end of time.  We should watch out for those evil weeds.  It is so easy to divide the Church into "us" and "them."  It is so easy to judge others.  But the point of this parable is just the opposite.  The point of the parable is that it is impossible for us to make that judgement.  

Anyone who has spent any time in the garden may scratch their heads when the master instructs the servant not to pull the weeds until harvest time.  If you are a gardener, you know that planting the seed is only the beginning of the work.  The ongoing, constant work of the gardener is pulling the weeds to ensure that the good plants grow well.  So why would the master  want the weeds to remain until harvest?  More than likely, the weed Jesus was speaking of was something called darnel. This is a mildly poisonous plant that is almost indistinguishable from wheat until it is fully mature. Its similarity to wheat means that it would be very difficult to pull up the darnel growing in the field without pulling up a lot of wheat at the same time by mistake.  You can't tell one from the other until the very end.  Jesus is telling us that the evil and the righteous, too, can only be distinguished at the end.

It is wrong then, to assume that you are the good wheat and others you might not approve of are the weeds.  So far from being an encouragement to condemn others, look how the Church surrounds this gospel reading with calls for personal repentance.  The first reading praises God for permitting repentance (Wis 12: 13, 16-19).  The psalm today calls God "good and forgiving" (Ps 86).  In the second reading, St. Paul proclaims, "we do not know how to pray as we ought" (Rom 8:26-27).  Far from smug assurance of our being wheat, these other readings suggest that we should have serious concern about possibly being weeds!

Rather than judging our neighbors who should be judging our actions. This is the whole point of the moral teachings of the Church -- teaching us to make judgments about actions, chiefly our own.  All of our scripture readings today remind us that we are all very capable of falling short of the goodness God intends for us.  We are all very capable of being weeds, which means -- if we persist in our weediness -- eventually burning in the fire with the other useless weeds.  

But the gospel, as always, is good news.  Unlike weeds, which are weeds when they are planted, weeds as they grow, and weeds at the end, we do not need to remain weeds.  We can become wheat at any time.  Wisdom tells us that God's children have "good ground for hope" because God permits repentance.  This is why the wheat and the weeds cannot be distinguished until the harvest.  Because until the end, there is always hope that the sinner will repent.

A wise priest told me once that how we live is very important, but not as important as how we die.  Do we die in God's friendship (wheat), or as God's enemy (weed)?  Either possibility remains an option until the moment of our death.  Someone can live a holy life for decades, and earn a reputation for being a righteous person.  That reputation can then lead to pride, and that pride to a lack of repentance for sin.  The person begins to believe that they do not need saving and so fails to rely on God in the end.  Likewise a person can spend a life in sin and find themselves so deep in the evil mire that they see no way of getting out of it.  Such a person may, at the end, finally call on God's help because they come to realize that they cannot save themselves. 

Does this mean we are free to live a life of hedonism so long as we make sure to make a good confession before we die?  No, for this would be insincere and a huge risk, for none of us knows when we might meet our end.  But it does mean that repentance and forgiveness is always a possibility, until the last moment.  And falling away from God is always a possibility, until the last moment.  We must recognize both of these truths.

This means two things.  Number one, we should never give up on others.  Sometimes, it is tempting to throw up our hands and say, "that person is hopeless!"  We can foster anger and hatred for our enemies, forgetting that these are people who need God's mercy.  We should always strive to love them and pray for their good.  We should also never give up on ourselves.  We should never feel that we are beyond saving.  There is no sin we can commit that is stronger than God's mercy. 

Second, we should never rest on our own laurels.  The moment we start to presume that we will make it to heaven because of how good we are is the moment we forget that we need a savior.  Pride and presumption have lost many a soul. Pride prevents the sinner from recognizing his own sin.  When we think we are too good for repentance, we cut off the channel of God's mercy.  When we convince ourselves that we are wheat, we allow weeds to take root in our heart. 

The key is humility.  Recognize that you cannot judge whether others are wheat or weeds, because you yourself have the capacity to be either.  The way to insure that you turn out wheat in the end is to always live in the light of Christ.  For the light of Christ shows us both our own sinfulness and God's abundant mercy.  Let us praise God our Creator who gives us good ground for hope and permits repentance for our sins (Wis 12:19).  Let us never fail to give thanks for His love and forgiveness.

WCU Catholic Campus Ministry
Matthew Newsome, MTh, campus minister
(828)293-9374  |   POB 2766, Cullowhee NC 28723

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Gospel For Today: 15th Sunday of Ordinary Time


G. K. Chesterton is perhaps one of the most quoted Catholic writers of the twentieth century. He seems to have an applicable quote for every occasion.  In his collection of essays, Tremendous Trifles, he writes, "The object of my school is to show how many extraordinary things even a lazy and ordinary man may see if he can spur himself to the single activity of seeing."

Chesterton was not speaking about the physical act of seeing, but the inward act of understanding and appreciating what one sees.  Very few of us are truly blind in the physical sense.  But most of us walk by amazing, even miraculous sights every day without comprehending what it is our eyes are telling us.  When we finally see the things we have been looking at all along, we might be inclined to pause, take a breath, and say, "Oh, I see..."

I used to work in a small museum, and we had signs directing where our visitors needed to go.  The first thing you saw when you walked through the door was a large sign with bright red lettering saying "Welcome!  Museum entrance to the left."  There was even a bright red arrow pointing the way.  It never ceased to amaze (and annoy) the staff how many people would walk right past that large sign to the back of the room where there was a door with another sign that said, "Employees Only."  They would walk through that door looking for the entrance.  They all saw the signs. But many people were not looking, so they failed to comprehend what they were seeing.

Today in our gospel we hear the Parable of the Sower.  Some of the sower's seed falls on the bare path where it is eaten by birds, some falls on rocky soil and cannot establish roots, and some falls among thorns which choke out their growth.  But some of the seed falls on fertile ground and grows well.  The seed is the same in all cases, only the ground is different.

After He preaches this parable to the large crowd, Jesus speaks just to His disciples and explains the meaning of His words.  His parable describes different responses to hearing the "word of the kingdom" (Mt 13:19).  Even though we all may hear the word of God, there are various distractions that can prevent us from allowing the word to take root in our hearts and bear fruit.  These are the world, the flesh, and the devil, represented here by the path, the rocky soil, and the thorns.  

Jesus does not always take the time to explain the meaning of His words.  Think of the Bread of Life discourse in the sixth chapter of John, when the majority of His followers leave after being told they must eat His flesh and drink His blood.  Or think of Jesus' somewhat quizzical replies to the questions of Pilate during His trial.  But here He explains to the disciples plainly the meaning of His words.  It is almost as if Christ is saying, "Look, everyone heard me; they will either understand what I am saying or they won't.  It doesn't matter how plainly I explain it; if they are not really listening, they won't get it."

He says, quoting the prophet Isaiah, "They look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand."  But to the faithful disciples, He says, "But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear."

Jesus spoke His words in public, for all to hear, but only some were willing to listen.  Just like the sower cast his seed upon all terrains, but only in some was it able to take root.  The same seed was cast over all.  The difference was in the condition of the soil.  This is a metaphor for our faith.  When we begin to learn the Catechism, which is a study of our creed, the first thing we learn about is faith.  The first thing we say in our creed is "I believe," which in Latin is credo.  That's where our English word "creed" comes from.  So our study of the creed begins with faith, and faith is kind of a mysterious thing.  

Our Catechism defines faith as, "Both a gift of God and a human act by which the believer gives personal adherence to God... and freely assents to the whole truth that God has revealed."  How can faith be a free gift from God but also something we humans have to do?  If faith is a gift, does God give faith only to some people and not others? If I am struggling with my faith does that mean God has't given me as much as He gives others?  These are honest questions.  It can be a bit confusing to be told that faith is a gift from God and at the same time our response to God.

This is where the parable of the sower helps.  Just as the sower casts the same seed on all grounds, God gives the same gift of faith to all of us.  But the purpose of the seed is to take root, grow, and bear fruit.  To do that, it must have fertile soil.  That is our part.  The fertile soil is our act of faith, allowing God's word to take root.   There are many things that can keep us from doing that.  We could not be open to hearing the word at all.  We could hear it, but be anxious or fearful to fully open our lives to it.  Or we could allow the many distractions of this world to crowd it out.  

Everyone in the crowd heard Jesus preach His parable.  But only a few understood because only a few were truly open to listening to the Word of God.  Some were made deaf by cynicism, or concern for things of this world, or attachment to sin.  Others were willing to hear the word of God and follow through, even if it meant a radical change in their lives.  This is a necessary condition of faith -- to be open to seeing what God is showing you, and hearing His word, and then following where He leads.  Open your eyes to see His beauty.  Open your hears to hear His wisdom.  And prepare your heart to be rich and fruitful soil, where His gift of faith can take root and prosper.  For "the seed sown on rich soil is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold" (Mt 13:23).

G. K. Chesterton said it is amazing what ordinary people can see if they decide to start seeing.  We can also say it is amazing what ordinary people can hear if they decide to start listening.  Let us set ourselves to this task; the wonderful task of seeing and hearing the spirit of God active in our lives.

WCU Catholic Campus Ministry
Matthew Newsome, MTh, campus minister
(828)293-9374  |   POB 2766, Cullowhee NC 28723

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Gospel For Today: 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time


Everyone reading this today has a father.  This is an indisputable fact of nature.  There are certain things which all of humanity holds in common, and the nuts and bolts of our generation is one of those things.  We all come from somewhere.  And though modern science is able to supplant the natural process of conception in some cases, the need for the raw material remains.  It takes 46 chromosomes to make a human; half from our mother and half given from our father. 

Some of us will have very good, close relationships with our fathers.  Others not so much.  Some may have had abusive fathers, or absent fathers, or distracted  fathers.  Many of us thankfully have excellent fathers.  Whether you just hugged your father this morning, or you haven't spoken to him in years, the fact remains that you have a father.

Neither the failings of our earthly fathers due to sin, nor the attempt by modern society to marginalize the role of the father diminish the ideal of fatherhood.  Whether we look into our father's eyes and see a man who strove nobly to meet that ideal, or if we consider our father as one who fell short of the mark, we hold the ideal of fatherhood in our hearts.  That ideal has its origin somewhere.  It has a fulfillment.  That ideal is realized in God.

The fourth commandment teaches us to honor our fathers and mothers.  Note there is no clause attached.  Nowhere does it say, "if they deserve it," or "if they behave as parents ought to."  Our earthly parents are human beings, struggling against sin and temptation and striving for salvation just as we their children are.  They are sinners in need of forgiveness, just as we are.  So we do not honor them because deserve it.  We honor them because the role of parent has a dignity which our human failings cannot diminish.  We honor them because in their parenthood they reflect to a degree the parenthood of God.

It is right to honor our fathers and mothers because without them we would not be here.  Half your genetic material from Dad, and half from Mom, and you were made.  If they did nothing else, your parents gave you life, the fundamental fact of your existence.  But they did not do it alone.  Human beings are more than self-replicating strands of DNA.  We have a soul, as well.  The soul is the spiritual component of humanity, and as an immaterial thing it is not made up of composite parts.  A soul cannot be "made" from DNA or anything else.  It must be created.  Just as your mother and father contributed the material components of who you are, your heavenly Father gave you your soul.  We call the act of human parenthood procreation but what God does is creation itself.  

In truth, if we were to go back to the roots of all of this, we see that God is ultimately responsible for the physical aspect of our being, as well.  Your parents may have given you their DNA, but where did the DNA come from?  Where did your parents come from?  Your grandparents?  We all come from somewhere, and logic dictates that there has to be a first.  Modern genetic science tells us of a woman from whom all human beings alive today are descended.  Scientists call her "mitochondrial Eve" and suggest she lived about 150,000 years ago.  Similarly, there is a male ancestor they call "Y-chromosome Adam" that also lived about 150,000 years ago (give or take a few millennia). The fact that we descend from a common ancestor comes of no surprise to those who read and believe the book of Genesis.

But we could go back even further and ask, "Where did it all come from?"  Not humanity and DNA, but the basic building blocks -- the elements, the molecules and atoms.  Science tells us that all the elements we know of were forged in the furnace of stars and spat out into the universe over billions of years.  And if you rewind the cosmic clock far enough backward you come to the origin of it all, when the universe itself was compacted into an infinitely small singularity which exploded outward into what we see today -- the Big Bang, a theory first proposed by astronomer and Jesuit Father George Lemaitre in the 1920s.   And before the Big Bang?  The best that our human reason can indicate, time itself started at that moment.  Which means that before that moment there was, quite literally, nothing.

Creation ex nihilo is the expression theologians and philosophers use to describe God's act of creation out of nothing.   It is an act of infinite power and majesty.  Human beings create only metaphorically.  We can make a thing only given the proper materials.  We do not truly create; we manipulate, transforming raw material into a new form.  The gap between nothing and something is infinite, and so only an omnipotent God could bridge that gap.  And so we have God to thank for everything that has existence.  This includes the universe and all the stars and galaxies in it.  It also includes you and I.  Our God is a wonderful Father, indeed.

At Mass, the priest invites us, "Let us give thanks to the Lord our God," to which we reply, "It is right and just."  Dignum et justum est.  Just as it is right and just to honor your earthly parents for their role in your creation, even more is it right and just to honor God the Father who made not only you, but all of heaven and earth as well, and who continues to sustain you in your existence.

Jesus exclaims in today's gospel (Mt 11:25-30), "I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth."  Jesus shows us that praise is the proper response to God's act of Fatherhood.  Our catechism teaches, "Jesus revealed that God is Father in an unheard-of sense: He is Father not only in being Creator; He is eternally Father in relation to His only Son, who is eternally Son only in relation to His Father" (CCC 240).  

In the Old Testament, Israel knew God the Father as Creator of the world, and giver of the covenant and law to His people.  With the New Covenant, Jesus teaches us not only to recognize God as Father, but as Abba, which is best translated as the familiar term, "Daddy."  

Again, the catechism teaches: "By calling God 'Father,' the language of faith indicates two main things: that God is the first origin of everything and transcendent authority; and that He is at the same time goodness and loving care for all His children... The language of faith thus draws on the human experience of parents, who are in a way the first representatives of God for man.  But this experience also tells us that human parents are fallible and can disfigure the face of fatherhood and motherhood... [God] transcends human fatherhood and motherhood, although He is their origin and standard.  No one is father as God is Father" (CCC 239).

By recognizing God as Father, we also recognize ourselves as His children.  It is right to praise God for His act of creation, for the gift of our existence.  It is also right to praise God for His act of love, His gift of our redemption.  The love of the Father is manifested chiefly in the gift of His Son, Jesus Christ.  "No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal Him" (Mt 11:27).  

When we recognize God as Father, and ourselves as His children, the only proper response is praise and thanksgiving.  This we do at Mass, by participating fully and prayerfully in our worship.  But this we also must do at all times in our lives.  In times of joy, in times of sorrow; in times of contemplation and times of frustration.  At all times and every moment it is right and just to have an attitude of praise and gratitude for the Father who loves us into existence. Start the practice today.  Dedicate this day as an offering of praise to your heavenly Father.  Let us today sing with the psalmist: "I will extol you, O my God and King, and I will bless your name forever and ever.  Every day will I bless you, and I will praise your name forever and ever" (Ps 145:1-2).

WCU Catholic Campus Ministry
Matthew Newsome, MTh, campus minister
(828)293-9374  |   POB 2766, Cullowhee NC 28723

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Facts to know about Hobby Lobby

With the recent 5-4 decision of the US Supreme Court in the Hobby Lobby case, Facebook and the blogosphere are abuzz once more with argument and debate from either side.  In your own discussions over this issue, here are some pertinent facts to keep in mind.

1.  Hobby Lobby's owners are not Catholic.
Not that this fact matters to the issue at hand, but it should be kept in mind.  Many Catholics (rightly) have supported Hobby Lobby's struggle against the Federal government's HHS mandate, and I have found that because of this some people have assumed Hobby Lobby to be a Catholic-owned business.  The Green family that owns Hobby Lobby are evangelical Protestants.  David Green, the founder, is the son of an Assemblies of God preacher.

2. Hobby Lobby is not against contraception.
Since the owners of Hobby Lobby are not Catholic, no one should be scandalized that they offer coverage for contraceptives and sterilizations as part of their employee health care insurance.  I have heard some people claim that the Hobby Lobby owners are hypocritical for claiming to be against contraception while at the same time covering it in their employee insurance.  Hobby Lobby has never stated they are against contraception.  What they object to are certain specific drugs, sold as "contraception," which in fact cause early abortions.  This is about abortion, not contraception.  (However, the two are closely related, and the increased debate this has created about contraception in this country has been a good thing).

3. An abortion is an abortion is an abortion.
Some news sources say the drugs in question cause abortion and others say this is not true.  So who is correct?  And why the discrepancy?  It has to do with how you define the start of pregnancy.  Some do not consider a woman to be pregnant until the embryo has implanted in the uterus, which can take place as much as a week after conception.  By defining pregnancy as beginning at implantation, pharmaceutical companies can make the claim that drugs which kill a healthy embryo after conception but before implantation do not cause abortion.  However, the end result is the same -- a dead unborn human.  Some have called these early medically induced abortions "mini abortions," but you can no more have a "mini abortion" than you can be "a little bit pregnant."

4.  It's not really about religion.
Some are calling this a victory for Religious Freedom, and I suppose that is true.  But this case does not have anything to do with whether people may practice a given religion or not, or if people of faith deserve special exemptions to the rules.  Hobby Lobby's owners are against abortion, but there are pro-life people who are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, agnostics and atheists.  I even know a few pro-life pagans!  You can be pro-life without being religious, and religious or not, no one should be forced into violating their conscience.  This ruling is about Religious Freedom inasmuch as it allows people of faith to follow their conscience the world; but it also affords that same right to people with no faith, and that's important.  (More on freedom of conscience later).

5. Hobby Lobby's treatment of its employees.
I've never worked for Hobby Lobby.  I doubt many of the naysayers I'm reading online complaining about Hobby Lobby have either.  To hear them, though, Hobby Lobby is an evil corporation who is denying basic human rights to its wage-slave employees.  So just to recap, Hobby Lobby does offer health insurance to employees; and that insurance covers a wide array of contraception -- just not abortion-inducing ones.  And Hobby Lobby is not saying their employees can't purchase those drugs; they would simply have to pay for them on their own.  Which they probably could, given the fact that Hobby Lobby's minimum pay for part-time employees is $9.50 hour, while it's minimum pay for full time workers is $14.00 per hour, nearly twice the national minimum wage of $7.50.

6. Hobby Lobby is not anti-woman.
This is a canard.  Refusing to pay for abortion-causing drugs does not make you anti-woman.  For the record, most people involved in the pro-life movement are women.  (It is also worth noting that most babies killed by abortion world-wide are female).

7. Corporations are people.  Sort of.
Some have complained that a corporation cannot have "religious freedom" because corporations are not religious.  However, we must remember the basic fact that corporations are made up of human beings who own and operate them.  We do not leave our humanity behind when we enter the workplace.  Plus, corporations are considered "persons" under US law for many different purposes, so this is hardly a new concept.

8. Hobby Lobby's investments.
Some are calling Hobby Lobby hypocritical because it apparently invests some of its money in companies which make the same drugs it is objecting to.  From what I have been able to tell, as part of its 401(k) retirement investments, Hobby Lobby (like most businesses) invests in a diversified portfolio which includes some pharmaceutical companies which make many different drugs, including some of the ones Hobby Lobby objects to.  Is this hypocritical?  Maybe.  In the world of moral philosophy, this is something called remote material cooperation.  Without getting to pedantic about it, by investing their money in a portfolio that includes some companies that make some products which are morally objectionable, Hobby Lobby is cooperating in that moral evil, but in a rather removed sort of way.  Whether they are morally culpable for this depends on a variety of factors, but it is not the same as directly and intentionally funding those morally objectionable things.  But that's something that the Hobby Lobby owners need to work out (and probably are).  And it has no bearing at all on the matter at hand, which is whether the federal government can compel individuals or businesses to pay for something they hold to be morally evil and thus violate their conscience.

(It is also worth noting that Hobby Lobby gives half of its pre-tax income annually to charities, and founder David Green has also personally pledged to give half of his wealth to charity before he dies).

9. Conscience Rights
The principle really at stake here is the freedom of individuals to live according to their conscience; a freedom which should apply whether you are at home, at school, at church, or in the workplace, whether you are the founder of a business, CEO of a corporation, or a lowly wage-earner.  Some are making the ridiculous claim that by refusing to cover abortion-inducing drugs, Hobby Lobby is somehow "forcing its beliefs" upon its workers, thereby violating their workers' rights.  But having your employer pay for your contraceptives (abortion causing or not) is not a right.  Being able to live according to your conscience is.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, "in all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right" (CCC 1778). Our Church further teaches:

Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions.  "He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience.  Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience..."  (CCC 1781, quoting the Second Vatican Council document Dignitatis Humanae 3, 2).

 This teaching of the Catholic Church is true not only for Catholics but for all of humanity.  The Supreme Court ruling on Hobby Lobby is a victory for conscience rights, and for that reason is a victory for us all.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Gospel For Today (Early Edition) - St. Peter & St. Paul

NOTE:  As I will be away on retreat all weekend and without internet access, I am sending this week's Sunday reflection out early.  Please enjoy!

click here for readings

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of being invited to speak to a group of young adults at a Theology on Tap session.  The topic of the series they were currently running was "Why Catholic?" and I was invited to give my response to that topic.  There are certainly many answers to the question, "Why Catholic?"  G. K. Chesterton famously answered, "To have my sins forgiven."   St. Peter, as I mentioned last week, said, "To whom would we go?  We have come to know and believe that you have the words of eternal life."  Though he gave his answer in a different context, I think it's a good and honest reply to the "Why Catholic" question, as well.

While Chesterton often has his short, quippy remarks quoted (as I just did above), he also wrote more extensively on the question, "Why I Am a Catholic," in an essay which you can read online.  He begins that essay by saying there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.

I answered my question in a similar manner.  In my talk I addressed the fact that Catholicism is real.  What do I mean by "real"?  You can take that to mean any number of things, all of which are true when it comes to the Catholic Church.  In my talk I focused on the moral teachings of the Catholic Church and how they are based on our human nature.  This means that the code of conduct which the Church expects us to live by is ontologically based on who we are as human beings, rather than being an arbitrary code of rules enforced from the outside which have nothing to do with who we are as persons.  In other words, in her moral teachings, the Catholic Church looks at reality as it truly is, looks at us as we truly are.  It's "real" in that way.

But there are many other ways in which the Catholic Church can be said to be "real."  You could take that to mean that her teachings are true, as Chesteron did.  You could take that as applying to the sacraments, that they are really and truly efficacious.  The Eucharist is the Real Presence of Christ.  Baptism really does wash away our sins.  Confession & Penance really does convey God's forgiveness.  They are real.

But the other way to speak of the reality of the Catholic Church is her historical reality.  This is a vitally important point.  Rather than being a devised body of teachings, an invented philosophy, or a made-up moral code, the Catholic religion is founded upon a real historic person.  I speak, of course, of Jesus Christ.  

Jesus of Nazareth was a real man, born in a specific place at a specific time.  He did specific things.  He walked the roads of Palestine, he spoke with people, ate with people, and at the end of His earthly life He was arrested, tried, executed, buried, and rose again from the dead.  These are real historic events we speak of, not fairy tales.  The historical events of our faith are supported not only in the New Testament writings but by the entire historic record, including Jewish and Roman accounts from the time.  

Jesus is not a made up figure.  If He were, our faith would be based on nothing.  But we know He is a real Person because of the testimony of other real people.  I speak of the saints.  The people that Jesus Christ encountered, taught, healed, ate with, and loved are real people, too.  We celebrate two of them today.  

St. Peter was a fisherman from Galilee.  He was at one point married (the scriptures speak of his mother-in-law).  So he had a family, and a trade.  By all accounts he was not an exceptional man, but he was a real man.  St. Paul was a Pharisee and a zealot.  He was a Roman citizen, born in Tarsus and descended from the tribe of Benjamin.  He was a major persecutor of the Christian faith until a powerful and personal encounter with the Risen Christ led to a radical conversion, after which he became the Apostles to the Gentiles and author of most of the New Testament.  

Both of these figures we celebrate today were real flesh and blood human beings.  They had failings, like you and I.  Peter denied Christ three times on the night of the crucifixion.  Paul stood by as St. Stephen, the first martyr, was stoned to death.  Both of them came to faith in Christ but through very different experiences, just like we today each come to faith in different ways.  You can read about their actions in the gospels and in the book of Acts.  You can read them express themselves in their own words in the letters they wrote and which are preserved for us in the New Testament.   And you can even go and venerate their tombs in Rome, where they both are buried.  

The Catholic practice of venerating relics may seem a bit morbid to some, but relics are reminders that our faith is a real historic faith.  The saints that we revere, the heroes of our past that helped to build the Church, are real historic figures.  They are more like George Washington and John Adams than Hercules and Perseus.  Our faith is not based on mythology, but on history.  And venerating the physical remains of the saints reminds us of this important fact.

These two real men were also martyrs for the faith, each joyfully meeting death for their belief in another real man, Jesus Christ.  We read some of their persecution in our first reading from Acts this morning.  We hear St. Paul speak of his impending death in his own words in the second reading.  Paul says that even though the time of his departure is at hand, that he "has competed well," and now "the crown of righteousness awaits" him.  He is confident of these things because of his faith in Christ.  No sane person is willing to die for a myth.  But people are willing to die for a friend.  These men were true friends of Christ.  

Our gospel reading today recounts the scene at Cesarea Philipi when Christ asks the Apostles who they say He is.  Cesarea Philipi is a real geographical location.  There is a giant stone cliff there with a temple to the pagan god Pan built atop it.  You can go visit this place today.  It was to this location that Christ brought the Apostles.  It was with this in the background that Christ said, "You are Peter (Rock) and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it."  

Imagine the scene, with Jesus, Peter and the other Apostles gathered in the shadow of this giant stone outcropping.  Here is a giant rock with a false church to a false god built upon it.  By contrast, Jesus, the true God, will build His true Church upon the Rock of Peter.  And the gates of hell still have not prevailed against it.  It's still here.  It is the Catholic Church.  And it's for real.

WCU Catholic Campus Ministry
Matthew Newsome, MTh, campus minister
(828)293-9374  |   POB 2766, Cullowhee NC 28723

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Gospel For Today - Corpus Christi


"Whoever eats my flash and drinks my blood
has eternal life,
and I will raise him on the last day.
For my flesh is true food,
and my blood is true drink.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
remains in me and I in him" (Jn 6:54-56)

Who would believe such a thing?  It sounds absurd, and more than a little grotesque.  Everyone can nod in agreement when Jesus instructs us to "love thy neighbor" and "consider the lilies," but eating His flesh and drinking His blood?  This sounds more like a horror film than the gospel.  It is no wonder the Jews were quarreling about this.  It is no wonder so many of them stopped following Jesus at this point in the gospel narrative.  
After so many left Jesus that day, because they either could not comprehend or could not stomach His command to eat His flesh and drink His blood, our Lord looked upon the Apostles and asked if they, too, would leave Him.  Peter simply said, "To whom would we go?  You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God" (Jn 6:68-69).  I love Peter in this moment, because by his answer he admits his own lack of understanding; but his faith in Christ allowed him to trust that the understanding would one day come.  

"Faith seeking understanding" was the motto of the great St. Anselm and it certainly applies to our approach to the Eucharist.  For there is only one reason to believe the Catholic Church's teaching about the Eucharist, and that is trust in Jesus Christ.  For when Christ says, "My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink" we believe He meant it, and has the power to make it so.  When Christ said at His last supper, "This is my body," and "This is my blood," we believe He meant it, and has the power to make it so.  We do not understand how this happens, any more than Peter did.  But like Peter, we have come to know Jesus is God Incarnate.  And so we believe.  And we stand in awe at the God who not only would put on flesh and dwell among us, but would make that flesh into a form we could consume.  For this God is not content to dwell among us.  He desires to dwell within us.  What a gift our God gives in the Eucharist.  It is no wonder the word eucharist means "to give thanks."  What other response would be appropriate?

It is no surprise then that Catholics throughout the ages have had a great devotion to the Eucharist.  St. Paul said that, "The bread we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?" (1 Cor. 10:16).  St. Ignatius of Antioch called the Eucharist, "the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, in His goodness, raised up again" (Letter to the Smyrneans, c. 110 AD).   St. Justin Martyr, writing in the year 155 AD, says, "This food we call the Eucharist... we do not receive these as common bread and drink.  For Jesus Christ our Savior, made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation.  Likewise we have been taught that the food blessed by the prayer of His word -- and from which our own blood and flesh are nourished and changed -- is the flesh and blood of Jesus who was made flesh" (First Apology, c. 155 AD).

St. Augustine, in the fourth century, preached, "You ought to know what you have received, what you are going to receive, and what you ought to receive daily.  That Bread which you see on the altar, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the Body of Christ.  The chalice, or rather, what is in that chalice, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the Blood of Christ" (Sermons 227, 21).  

These holy Fathers of the Church had such faith in the Eucharist because they had faith in the Christ who said, "This is my body."  St. Juliana also had a great devotion to the Eucharist.  She lived during the first half of the thirteenth century and was superioress of the convent at Mont Cornilln in Belgium.  She longed for the Church to have a feast dedicated to the Body and Blood of Christ.   The Church has always commemorated the institution of the Eucharist on Holy Thursday, but as a part of Holy Week, anticipating as it does the death of Jesus on Good Friday, it is a season of sadness for the faithful.  St. Juliana desired a feast to celebrate joyfully the gift of the Eucharist.  She is said to have had a vision of the Church under a full moon.  In her vision, there was a single dark spot on the moon, signifying the absence of a solemnity to commemorate the Eucharist.  She mentioned the idea to several prominent figures in the Church, including Bishop Robert de Thorete of Liege and Pope Urban IV.

At that time bishops had the privilege of ordering feasts celebrated in their diocese of their own authority, and so Bishop Robert ordered such a celebration to be held.  Pope Urban IV admired the feast and on September 8, 1264, issued a papal bull called "Transiturus" that extended the celebration to the entire world.  St. Thomas Aquinas, known as the Angelic Doctor, was asked to compose the Mass and Office for the new solemnity.  His prayers written for this occasion are still to this day some of the most beautiful ever written.

The celebration of Corpus Christi quickly spread and many local customs grew up around this great feast. One that has stayed with us to today is the Corpus Christi procession.  Very early in the fourteenth century, not long after the feast was instituted, the custom developed of carrying the Eucharist in a procession through the town after the Corpus Christi day Mass.  Bishops and Popes encouraged this devotional practice, some even granting special indulgences to those who participated.  In the sixteenth century, the Council of Trent recommend Corpus Christi processions as way of publicly professing Catholic faith in the Real Presence of the Eucharist, which was being challenged by many Protestant sects, including the followers of Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin, who believed the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence to be "derogatory to the heavenly glory of Christ" (Institutes book IV, ch xvii, 10 sqq). 

Just as in John 6, there continue to be those scandalized by the Eucharist.  How can the infinite God of heaven become bread?  But one just as well may ask how that infinite and eternal God could become man?  Man or bread, both are finite and so equally distant from the infinite.  For God all things are possible.  The wonder is that God would love us to much that He would desire to so humble Himself for the sake of His creatures.  Thus are the Incarnation and the Eucharist intimately linked.  Both are essential to the Christian faith.  In our own age, the Second Vatican Council has called the Eucharist, "the source and summit of the Christian life" (Lumen Gentium 11).  Our Catechism teaches that "in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ Himself" (CCC 1324).  

The Eucharist is the starting point of our faith, humbly receiving Jesus.  And it is the greatest height our faith can reach, union with our Creator.  It is the beginning and the end for it is Jesus Christ, who is Alpha and Omega.  It can be a cause for division, as history has shown.  But it can also be, and should be for us, the cause of great unity.  For it is through the Eucharist that we are united with Christ.  And when you and I are united with Christ we are also united with one another in Christ.  "Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many,are one body, for we all partake in the one loaf" (1 Cor. 10:17).

I will leave you with the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, writing of the wonder of the Eucharist.

Desirous that we be made partakers of His divinity, the only-begotten Son of God has taken to Himself our nature so that having become man, He would be enabled to make men gods.  Whatever He assumed of our nature He wrought unto our salvation.  For on the altar of the Cross He immolated to the Father His own Body as victim for our reconciliation and shed His blood both for our ransom and for our regeneration.  Moreover, in order that a resemblance of so great benefits may always be with us, He has left us His Body as food and His Blood as drink under appearances of bread and wine.

O banquet most precious!  O banquet most admirable!  O banquet overflowing with every spiritual delicacy!  Can anything be more excellent than this repast, in which not the flesh of goats and heifers, as of old, but Christ the true God is given us for nourishment?  What more wondrous than this holy sacrament!  In it bread and wine are changed substantially, and under the appearance of a little bread and wine is had Christ Jesus, God and perfect Man.  In this sacrament sins are purged away, virtues are increased, the soul is satiated with an abundance of every spiritual gift.  No other sacrament is so beneficial.  Since it was instituted unto the salvation of all, it is offered by Holy Church for the living and the dead, that all may share in its treasures.  

WCU Catholic Campus Ministry
Matthew Newsome, MTh, campus minister
(828)293-9374  |   POB 2766, Cullowhee NC 28723

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Gospel For Today: Holy Trinity


I was not raised Christian.  I was first introduced to the Catholic faith my senior year in college.  Growing up, no one in my family ever went to church.  Sunday was just the last day of the weekend, and I certainly never read the Bible.  But I had the great fortune of growing up in the south, in what many would call the "Bible belt," and so there is one Bible verse that I was certainly familiar with: John 3:16.  You couldn't escape it.  You'd see it painted on homemade signs nailed to telephone poles.  You'd see it on decals on the backs of pick up trucks.  You'd see it scrawled across the bare chests of sports fans at football games.  John 3:16 was (and is) ubiquitous.  

"God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life."  For perhaps most Christians today, if you only have one scripture verse memorized, this is the one.  And it is an awesome verse.  God does love the world that much, which is an amazing fact of our faith.  But it's not the only fact of our faith.  

I was having a conversation with a student recently and we were discussing how most Christian heresies start by taking a truth and emphasizing it to the point where it becomes isolated from other truths.  At that point the truth becomes distorted, and that leads to heretical ideas.  It's easy to see that dynamic plaid out in the "John 3:16" phenomenon.  If you just look at this single verse in isolation, it all seems so clear and simple.  Believe in Jesus, and you'll have eternal life.  That's all you have to do.  No need for a Church.  No need for pesky Commandments to follow.  Just believe in Jesus.  Sign me up!  It all sounds so easy.  And so we have the rather wide-spread belief among many Christians today that if one recites "the sinner's prayer" accepting Jesus as Lord and savior, you are from that moment on forever "saved."  Nothing else is required of you, really.  You've made it!

Now, in practice, it's not expected that you pray one little prayer and go about your merry way.  It is expected that a sinner who really is sincere about accepting Christ's forgiveness will amend his ways, repent of his sinful past, attend church services, try to live a better life, and all of that.  But those things are not generally stipulated as requirements for salvation.  Rather, they are expected to happen as fruits of salvation and signs of the sincerity of your conversion.  As a matter of theological doctrine, many of these evangelical or fundamentalist Christian groups will assert that "belief in Christ" is by itself sufficient.  Ever since Martin Luther, sola fide has been the motto of the Reformation.  That Latin phrase means "faith alone" and expresses Luther's teaching that we are saved only and sufficiently by our faith in Christ.  Another common phrase among Luther's theological descendants is "once saved always saved," which expresses the belief that once we have made that profession of faith in Christ, no action on our part can ever jeopardize our salvation.  

John 3:16, read on its own, seems to support all of this.  But this view of salvation is repudiated by the Catholic Church.  What's the problem?  The problem is that John 3:16, as true as it is, is not the only verse in the Bible.  The Bible also speaks of faith without works as being dead (James 2:17), of St. Paul working out his salvation "with fear and trembling" (Phil 2:12), and of Christ judging us according to our deeds of service -- or lack thereof (Mt 25).  The teachings of the scriptures, taken as a whole, paint a somewhat different picture than the zealous fan with "3:16" painted on his chest.

Our other readings from today's Mass also indicate that how we live is as important as what we believe.  In our second reading, St. Paul speaks of the importance of mending our ways and living in peace with our neighbors (2 Cor 13:11-13).  Our first reading has Moses climbing Mt. Sinai with two stone tablets (Ex 34:4b-6).  One does not have to be a Charlton Heston fan to know what those tablets were for.  Mt. Sinai is where Moses received the Ten Commandments.

Jesus, as He Himself states, did not come to do away with the old law (Mt 5:17).  In fact, if you have been following along with the gospel readings from the daily Masses this week, the Church has been working her way through Matthew chapter 5, where Christ basically is saying, "I have not come to abolish the commandments, but to make them more strict!"  He points out that divorce and remarriage was allowed under Moses, but no more.  Now, anyone who divorces and remarries commits adultery. Not only that, if anyone even looks at another with lust, they commit adultery.  Murder is likewise forbidden under the old law, but now Jesus says not to even hate another person.  Many of the old religious observances of the Jewish people are no longer binding on Christians because the purpose they served has come to a completion in Christ.  But when it comes to the moral law, if anything Christians are now held to a higher standard.

So where does John 3:16 fit into all of this?  Well, when John says everyone who believes in Christ might have eternal life, we believe that is 100% true.  But we also believe that when James says "even the demons believe -- and shudder" (Jas 2:19), that is also 100% true.  It all comes down to different levels of belief.  The demons James speaks of believe in Jesus.  That is, they understand that He exists, and who He is.  They have an intellectual belief.  But they lack faith.

We can also have an intellectual belief, yet lack faith in Christ.  The belief that John speaks of is a deeper belief, one that leads to the supernatural gift of faith.  For when one believes in Christ and has faith that He is the Son of God, the divine Second Person of the Holy Trinity, and that He has redeemed mankind out of generous and perfect love, well then that belief demands action.  One does not stand in the face of that belief and not do something about it.

That belief dictates that one pay attention to this Jesus and what He did and said.  Things like establishing a Church (Mt 16:18), and giving that Church the authority to administer certain sacraments, for our spiritual benefit.  That belief ought to spur one to want to be united with that Church, which is the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27).  That belief ought to make one seek out the Apostolic faith given by Christ and the Holy Spirit to the Church.  That belief ought to make one strive to grow closer to Christ by being obedient to His word; after all, that same Christ said, "he who loves keeps my commandments" (Jn 14:15).  And Christ commanded us, among other things, to love God with all our hearts, and love our neighbors as ourselves (Mk 12:30), and to "be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5:48).  

God did not send His only begotten Son into the world to tell us, "I know you are all abject sinners but I've decided to let you into heaven anyway if you just believe in me."  God sent His Son into the world for our good, because He loves us and wants what is best for us -- and that means becoming holy men and women.  A tall order?  Perhaps?  But striving for holiness, challenging as it is, becomes a joy for one who is in love with Christ.  That's the kind of belief John 3:16 references.  That's the way to eternal life.

WCU Catholic Campus Ministry
Matthew Newsome, MTh, campus minister
(828)293-9374  |   POB 2766, Cullowhee NC 28723